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Star Trek: Phase II (1978) – Kitumba, Parts I & II (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the episodes with some additional materials – mainly novels and comics and films. This is one such entry.

Sins of the Father represented Star Trek‘s first venture to the Klingon home world, and the franchise’s first truly in-depth exploration of Klingon culture and values. Of course, there was precedent for this. John Ford’s rather wonderful novel, The Final Reflection, offered a glimpse into Klingon heritage and tradition in 1984. However, it’s interesting to think that we may have been offered an on-screen exploration of the Klingon Empire much earlier, had the planned Star Trek: Phase II ever gone to air.

Written by John Meredyth Lucas, a veteran of the classic Star Trek show, Kitumba would have aired as a two-part adventure in the first season of the aborted Star Trek: Phase II series. Not only were thirteen episodes plotted and outlined, most were also scripted – allowing a glimpse at what might have been. An early look at the workings of Klingon culture, Kitumba is obviously radically different from the version of Klingon society that developed and evolved on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

However, it remains a fascinating look at what might have been.

kitumba

On the classic Star Trek, it seemed like universe-building was hardly a priority. Although aliens like the Klingons and the Romulans would recur across the show’s run, there was never a conscious effort to explore those alien societies. They merely provided convenient stand-ins for communist regimes, a perpetual existential threat to Federation expansion and galactic peace. This is entirely understandable. Star Trek was an artifact from the height of the Cold War, at a point where the Russians were really little more than a sinister “them” lurking, waiting.

However, written a decade after the original show, Kitumba is a product of a very different era. The Vietnam War ended in April 1975, and the Cuban Missile Crisis had receded into memory – no longer such a dark shadow looming over the popular consciousness. While the portrayal of the Klingons in Kitumba is distinct from the detente era portrayals present in early episodes of The Next Generation or even the post-Cold War stylings of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the script is still interested in Klingons beyond treating them as conventional baddies.

In an interview with Starlog, writer John Meredyth Lucas suggested that the story was driven by a deep-seated curiosity and a desire to push the franchise forward:

“I wanted something that we had never seen before on the series,” he says, “and that’s a  penetration deep into enemy space. I then started  to think of how the Klingons lived. Obviously, for  the Romulans, we had Romans, and we’ve had  different cultures modeled on those of ancient Earth, but I tried to think of what the Klingon  society would be like. The Japanese came to  mind, so, basically, that’s what it was, with the  Sacred Emperor, the Warlord and so on.”

The result is certainly distinct from anything Star Trek had done before. While the eighties would see Diane Duane and John Ford developing Romulan and Klingon culture, respectively, Star Trek would not attempt anything like this on-screen until Sins of the Father.

And it’s worth noting just how similar Lucas’ thoughts on the Klingons are to those eventually developed by Ronald D. Moore. Moore himself has described the Klingons as “a cross between 15th Century samurai and Vikings.” While Lucas steers clear of those overt comparisons in the text, there’s an obvious synergy between the two portrayals – even if the finer details are disparate enough to frustrate those obsessed with continuity.

It’s telling that one of the primary reasons that the fan production Phase II felt the need to re-write their adaptation of Kitumba was because “it now conflicted with Trek canon.” Then again, that opens up a whole can of worms about the attitude that fans occasionally adopt towards the franchise – a franchise that often has difficulty settling on its own internal continuity. Of course Lucas’ script conflicts heavily with what was subsequently developed. It is still an intriguing look at a potential Klingon culture.

Still, there are quite a few beats that seem to echo into later portrayals of the Klingons. Kitumba has a genuinely epic scope – involving the politics of the Klingons, the Romulans and the Federation. Although the Romulans are very much tertiary players here, there’s a sense that Lucas is trying to fashion the same sort of larger inter-connected Star Trek universe that began to develop with Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

So we get a potential war between the Klingons and the Federation, where the Romulans are quite happy to sit on the sidelines. Similarly, there’s the potential of a civil war within the Empire. There are internal politics at work, power struggles playing out. Conspiracies and schemes and plans and intrigues. Honour and tradition create conflict with basic decency. Of the eponymous ruler of the Klingon Empire, we are informed, “All he has to do is say ‘stop.’ But the weight of custom is against you.”

Kitumba is utterly unlike anything that Star Trek had attempted before, and completely unlike anything televised Star Trek would attempt until Sins of the Father. To be fair, Lucas’ script is obviously an early draft. There are quite a few problems with it. There’s a lot of awkward exposition and scenes where characters just dump information at each other. The first episode suffers from a bit of a weak cliffhanger, where the villain orders the assassination of Kirk. (There’s a sense the episode would work better structured toward the reveal of Malkthon, rather than ending on a reminder of the fact that he’s the bad guy.)

There are also some rather strange character choices here. Xon effectively uses his Vulcan techniques to torture a Klingon into cooperating. When he’s finished, he conveniently wiping his memory to avoid a moral dilemma about what to do with a witness. At the second part’s climax, Kirk orders, “If we fail, have Mister Sulu revive the Kamikazi spirit of his ancestors and destroy the planet!” There are some very strange moments in the script.

Then again, this was only a rough draft. Many of these elements would undoubtedly have been smoothed out had the script been pushed forward into production. What matters is the big ideas, and Lucas has any number of clever insights and ideas about how Klingon culture might work. Given that all he really has to work on is Errand of Mercy and The Day of the Dove, the script manages to create a rather interesting glimpse sideways.

“Klingon is not the name of a people, it’s the name of the ruling class, the warriors, male and female,” Admiral Li tells Kirk. Ksia explains, “Below us are the Technos, the scientists and technicians who keep our empire together. Below them are the Subjects.” Indeed, Lucas seems to have cleverly answered a popular criticism of Klingon culture, the oft-asked question of how a culture so devoted to warfare finds time for science and engineering.

It’s a complaint that would haunt the franchise through to Star Trek: Enterprise, but Lucas cuts the ideas off at the knees here, rather wonderfully. In fact, he even has Ilia give voice to that criticism, asking the ship’s guest, “Surely, Ksia, Klingons must do something besides fight or the race would die out.” It’s a very shrewd way of taking what has been established about Klingon culture (they are a “warrior race”) and explaining how the logical problems with that don’t apply.

Kitumba sees Kirk working to prevent a coming war with the Klingons. Unlike Errand of Mercy, the Federation isn’t fighting to win. Instead, they are hoping to preserve the peace. Although it lacks the cynicism of Gene L. Coon’s commentaries on the Cold War, Kitumba has a decidedly pacifist message, firmly uncomfortable with the inevitable outcome of perpetual cold warfare.

When Kirk discovers that a Klingon “Peace Party” exists, Ksia quickly clarifies, “They are not a party that hates war. They simply oppose this insane suicidal war we cannot win.” However, it’s suggested that not all of the Klingons cooperating with Kirk are trying to stop the Empire from committing to a conflict that will see the Federation victorious. Some are motivated by more existential concerns. Kali seems certain that the Klingons could win a war with the Federation, but is uncomfortable with the price of that victory. “I am confident we could destroy you. But I think should ourselves be destroyed.”

Indeed, you can get a sense of how the Cold War has thawed in the years since the original Star Trek went off the air. In Kitumba, both humans and Klingons come to a deeper understanding of one another, accepting that many of their preconceived notions were simply propaganda. “I have fought Federation ships and found many of their captains brilliant and courageous,” Kali confesses to Kirk. “But we are taught that you conquer by treachery and deceit. You have given me many things to rethink, Captain.”

In fact, Kitumba seems to flirt with the idea of cultural relativism – the idea that would come to the fore in The Next Generation, of accepting alien cultures may differ radically from human norms. The human characters are frequently perturbed by the Klingon practise of ritual suicide. Observing Ksia’s lack of concern about the destruction of a Klingon scout ship, McCoy remarks, “But it’s inhuman.” Xon replies, matter-of-factly, “Inhuman? They could hardly be otherwise, Doctor.”

(Of course, this is slightly undermined by the way that Xon is constantly making comparisons between the Klingons and various human cultures. He explicitly compares Klingon culture to that the Spartans, their class structure to “the ancient caste system of India”, and even the lack of defences around the Klingon home world to Rome’s own military history. There’s a sense that Lucas is trying to walk a line here, trying to argue that the Klingons are both a fundamentally alien culture and not too dissimilar to historical human societies.)

Kitumba remains an interesting look at what might have been, and a piece of unproduced Star Trek more than a decade ahead of its time.

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Many thanks to the wonderful people at Orion Press Fanzines for passing it on. They have a wealth of wonderful behind the scenes materials and insights available via their website. The place is a treasure trove for anybody interested in the history of the Star Trek franchise.

Read our reviews of the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

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