As a fan and a writer in the sci-fi genre, I find it useful to evaluate alien species – which ones work, which ones are memorable, and how do you create a useful an alien species (in case you want to create a sweeping space opera)?
Most alien species are not that memorable. They are either monsters or some thinly-skinned plot device to reflect, challenge, resemble or stomp out humanity. They are also usually entirely forgettable. The Klingons though have become so famous and popular that they transcended Star Trek, the entire science fiction genre, and headbutted their way right into the popular culture. So here’s why Klingons stand out as an alien species.
1. They are iconic.
Klingons are war-mongering dogs. They represent anger, violence, authoritarianism and the worst kinds of realpolitik and might makes right. They are Andrew Jackson with a ridged forehead. They represent an ugly set of emotions. And they have a manner of dress, hair and speaking which is unique and instantly recognizable. The Borg come a close second.
2. They have depth.
Individual Klingons stand out, they have personalities. In the movies and the TV shows (beginning with Star Trek III), the Klingons were a 3-dimensional race. Romulans always seemed like knock-off Vulcans.
3. They have a culture.
They have a religion, a code of honor, traditions, a language and a government. Heck, during the later seasons of Next Generation, viewers learn more about Klingon government and society than they do about the Federation.
4. They are divided against each other
They argue, they fight, there are long-running feuds and battling dynastic clans. When are the Klingons not trying to overthrow the Chancellor? Or settle long-standing grudges? This gives their civilization texture, drama and makes it more realistic. Someone once said that to make another culture more realistic, find the outcasts or dissidents in that culture and show how they fit or don’t fit in.
5. They remind you of people you know
You know them. The ones who want to bomb another country until the rubble bounces. The jock bullies, the tough guys, the ones who say it’s their way or the highway. The ones who usually have big mouths who can back it up. They are all of us, at some point in our lives. The Ewoks, Ferengi, Gungans and Cardassians never quite do.
6. They forced Kirk to be more Vulcan
Like the Joker is to Batman, so are the Klingons to Kirk. Their animalistic nature forces Kirk to reject his own cowboy routine and become calmer, more strategic, more like Spock. And when he acts like them (“let them die”) he screws everything up. When he puts himself up against the worst of the Klingons, it makes him a deeper character and usually some personal growth results. Fighting a Gorn, or the Romulans for that matter, never had the same effect.
7. They are scary.
Scary in a grotesque, monster sense, sure. But I mean, their nature, their actions, are not that far off from humans. Is humanity better than the Klingons? They sound an awful lot like us at times. They are an ugly mirror into us, which makes them the perfect kind of villain and ally.