The Re-Watch: Worf on Star Trek: The Next Generation
My daughter recently finished a binge-watch of Deep Space Nine, which she found really impressive. When she was a bit younger, she binge-watched Voyager, which she liked but had to admit was badly flawed. Now, in a kind of Curious Case of Benjamin Button fashion, she’s decided to watch The Next Generation.
We planned out what episodes to skip in the first and second season (and a few in the third) given how many of them are really not very good. (At least some of the early weaknesses seem more than ever to be the result of Gene Roddenberry and his famously-loathed attorney’s interventions.) But one thing I was adamant about is that she needed to see every Worf-centered episode except maybe the late season one with Alexander in the holodeck with Data as a Western-themed villain.
Worf is a great example of how writers and showrunners on a long-running episodic television show can accidentally stumble into a compelling character arc that they plainly didn’t have in mind when they started out. The other two TNG characters who get real development over time are Picard and Data. In the case of Picard, that’s mostly about Patrick Stewart’s skills as an actor nurturing some complexity and growth out of his initial characterization in the first three seasons, after which the writers began to write more strategically to further advance what Stewart was doing. Data, on the other hand, is all about his basic character concept (though Spiner was very skilled in how he played the character). Everything that happens to Data over time flows from the show’s initial vision of him.
Worf, on the other hand, benefitted a bit from the conceptual and visual redesign of the Klingons that began in earnest in the third Star Trek film, The Search for Spock, only a few years before the premiere of Next Generation. The Klingons had been generic Cold War-allegory “Orientals” in the original series; now they were made over as a “warrior race” (a trope with its own racialized history in the Western imagination) but not too much more than that. If more was going to come out of that remake, it was going to have to come through Worf and Next Generation, and it did, eventually.
Early on, Worf seemed mostly to be a “token exotic”, a sign that we were in Starfleet’s future, relative to the original series. Look, a Klingon on the bridge! Times are a-changing! Worf did play an important narrative role in the first and second season (one that he would still play later on), which was to regularly advise the captain to take aggressive action only to be dismissively and paternalistically overriden by the other officers or the captain himself. (Even though many episodes ended up validating his counsel, which was rarely acknowledged by those characters.) Also, he was frequently physically overpowered, usually to demonstrate the threat level of some adversary. (Later on, Worf was finally allowed to be as actually formidable as he was said to be, especially on Deep Space Nine.)
I’m sure Michael Dorn deserves some of the credit for how his character began to develop some roundedness and complexity, but I think some of what happened was just the accidental implications and undertones of some of his earlier episodes eventually accumulating into something really nuanced and evocative.
In the second-season episode “The Emissary”, which introduces Worf’s past (and then continuing) love-interest, the half-Klingon K’Ehleyr, the writers began to recognize that Worf’s recitations about Klingon culture, ethics, and traditions were just that: recitations. He was a student of Klingon culture and history who had almost no memory of living with Klingons. So he took everything he read about Klingons completely seriously, as literal fact.
I don’t think the writers fully grasped the implications of that premise for some time—it only becomes fully clear in the contrast between Worf’s adopted family as seen early in the fourth season and the narrative line of Worf’s strained relationship to the Klingon ruling structure that begins in “Sins of the Father”. Worf is rather like the kind of second or third-generation immigrant who struggles to manage their feelings of being unwelcome or ill at ease in their current situation by idealizing their society of origin—a kind of energy that often runs through identity-based activism. Worf’s idealization runs up hard against the reality of Klingon political life, where treachery, corruption and military malfeasance are the common coin of the realm.
Worf’s character arc in TNG is wonderfully uncompressed—a further sign, I think, that the series writers only recognized the storyline as an emergent result over time. The Klingons that come to know Worf end up both admiring and pitying him. He takes them far more seriously than they take themselves—and it takes a long time for him to begin to be disillusioned and feel like he belongs more with the Federation than the Klingon Empire. (Worf’s arc ends up reminding me somewhat of the history of African-American returnees in Ghana in the civil rights era as recounted by the historian Kevin Gaines.) Even so, he stays strongly attached to his core interpretation of Klingon virtue and tradition.
On the other side of his disillusioning experience with Klingon society, however, one thing shakes loose, which is that the character feels free to show romantic interest in non-Klingons. Here the ‘emergent’ nature of Worf’s arc, continued into Deep Space Nine, is considerably messier in emotional and narrative terms. Trek’s writers, across both shows, chose to match up Worf with unlikely partners (Troi and Dax) in relationships that never felt quite right. They also make him into something of a deadbeat father, which is sometimes uncomfortable. (I think this accounts for why fans have tended to really dislike the Alexander character on the rare occasions where he shows up.) I like the disorderly and contradictory nature of Worf’s later character development, though: it feels plausible and adds to the roundedness of his portrayal.
Attempts to build arcs for all the other TNG characters never really stuck—they felt like successive attempts to pile on details that never had meaning or built to anything. We meet Riker’s father and then forget him. Riker has love affairs, but that is just a way to make him Kirk-like. (Except for his on-again, off-again connection to Troi.) Riker is going for command, only he’s content. Troi’s mother guarantees a painfully bad episode but doesn’t really do much for Troi herself. Troi’s powers have no consistently because they’d ruin half the plots if they functioned, and her characterization remains equally fluid. LaForge and Crusher get almost no development that sticks, despite a few episodes that focus on them.
But Worf really stands out, at least to me. He might be a good example of what can happen in episodic television where there is no strongly plotted series arc—that a decent actor combined with an open-ended character premise can eventually grow into a role that holds up to sustained attention. It’s one of the most frustrating things about the strange creative directions that Trek has taken since Voyager went off the air. First Discovery thoroughly mangled the fantastic work of the earlier shows in their development of the Klingons for reasons that remain completely opaque to me, then Picard didn’t bring Worf back into view (until the upcoming final season, apparently).