Wednesday, August 26, 2015

TNG Flashback: Rightful Heir

As Klingon culture was fleshed out more fully by the writers over the life of Star Trek: The Next Generation, it became a vehicle to examine a topic that Star Trek rarely tackled -- religion. Never did the series examine religion more directly than in "Rightful Heir."

Worf has been in spiritual crisis since the events at the Romulan/Klingon colony, and it has begun to affect his duties on the Enterprise. He takes leave to meditate at the Boreth monastery, a place where the epic Klingon hero Kahless promised one day to return from death. "One day" unexpectedly becomes today, when Kahless appears before a stunned Worf. The return of Kahless may alter the course of all Klingon society, and Chancellor Gowron isn't going to sit idly by for that. Plus, through all the politics and religion, remains the possibility that this Kahless is not what he appears to be.

Outside writer James E. Brooks pitched the staff an idea he jokingly called "Jurassic Worf," a tale of a Klingon religious sect who used cloning to resurrect one of their revered figures. His idea focused heavily on intrigue and brinksmanship among the clerics. Staff writer Ronald D. Moore felt there was more potential in presenting a look at faith and religion in the context of Star Trek. It was a subject the franchise had rarely tackled -- largely due to Gene Roddenberry's secular humanist ideals -- and Worf seemed to be the only main character offering a way into such a story.

Brooks' original pitch also did not include Kahless. Here again, Moore saw a chance to try something unusual -- to take a character from the original series who had been vilified as a murderous baddie (like all Klingons at the time) and give him a more fair portrayal in a time of peace. Moore also incorporated a great deal of Klingon history that had been developed and filmed for "Birthright, Part II," but which had been cut from that episode for time.

Ronald Moore may have had a clear vision for the episode, but executive producer Rick Berman didn't fully support it. He felt that the first draft of the script was far too on the nose in presenting Kahless as the Klingon equivalent of Jesus Christ. Berman demanded rewrites to tone this aspect down, and while the Christ metaphor is still crystal clear in the finished episode, it's possible these tweaks introduced an aspect that may not have been intended: Kahless also comes off like the leader of a cult.

So much of Kahless' dialogue and behavior suggests he's a fraud, a charlatan. In the scene where he fights Worf, he seems to sense that he's losing, and suddenly twists the moment into a big motivational speech. (A trick he tries again later, on Gowron.) He tells implausible stories from Klingon myth that sound no less ridiculous for being told in the first person. He has no good explanation for the reasonable, skeptical questions put to him. Even the casting of actor Kevin Conway seems to suggest a trick being played; Conway gives a fine performance, but is nonetheless quite short in stature, compared to how Klingons have historically been presented. The idea that he could be the greatest Klingon warrior ever seems off somehow.

It's interesting that the character who gives the greatest argument for faith in this episode is Data. Two scenes between him and Worf probe the subject, but faith definitely comes out the loser in the first scene: Data tries to ask rational questions, and Worf tries to avoid them before finally just spouting canned responses. It's in the second scene that Data makes a case for the value of faith: it's for moments where the absence of belief is simply untenable. (In his case, the aspirational choice to believe that he can be more than a simple, emotionless android.)

But while Worf might not be the episode's strongest mouthpiece for faith in this episode, he's nevertheless a strong character in the story. Though it actually almost strains credibility to see the amount of political power that he, an outsider, wields. He forces both the current Klingon leader and the greatest Klingon warrior of all time to capitulate to a deal of his envisioning -- a deal which seemingly involves the creation of a Pope-like office. But this is a necessary and acceptable contrivance to keep one of the series' main characters vitally involved in the plot.

Other observations:
  • Worf is late to work one time and people are sent to barge into his quarters? Seems a bit of an overreaction. Then again, I suppose this is the military.
  • The Klingon who first claims to see a vision of Kahless, Divok, is played by Charles (Chip) Esten, who you might have seen improvising on various incarnations of Whose Line Is It Anyway? I love the reaction he gives here when Kahless really appears, which tells you how completely full of crap Divok was in reporting his earlier vision.
  • If Kahless is a fraud (as is ultimately revealed), how exactly does he know about Worf's childhood vision? (A "mentalist" style lucky guess, I suppose.)
  • The cleric Koroth makes a quite reasonable point about the intersection of science and faith: who is to say that cloning isn't the method through which Kahless was meant to return?
  • The Blu-ray version of this episode includes a number of deleted and extended scenes. Nothing removed feels vital, though the material does include understandable skepticism from the rest of the crew about whether Worf is about to welcome the real Kahless aboard the Enterprise. Another scene explains Alexander's absence in this Klingon-centric episode set aboard this ship.
  • This is Gowron's last appearance on The Next Generation. The character would next show up on Deep Space Nine in the more light-hearted "The House of Quark," and would begin to recur more often once Worf made the move to that series.
Though this episode deserves credit for tackling a different subject for Star Trek, I'm not sure it had much profound to say. At the end of the day, I'd say it's entertaining enough, and call it a B.

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