“Sins of the Father”
(Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 3, Episode 17)
As I mentioned in my review of “A Matter of Honor,” The Next Generation did a lot of great foundational work in building up the culture and mythos of the Klingon people. TNG was not a serialized show, but it did have a handful of long-running plot lines, the most notable of which is the Klingon Saga that officially begins in this episode.
What I love about this particular entry is the bait-and-switch it pulls with viewer expectations. At first, it seems like a spiritual sequel to “A Matter of Honor,” in that the Enterprise gets a Klingon first officer as part of the same exchange program that put Will Riker on a Bird of Prey. This would have been a totally fine story, although somewhat unnecessary; watching Kurn learn about and adapt to human ways sounds OK, but not spellbinding.
Instead, the story takes a hard left turn and veers into some very ambitious and captivating territory that accomplishes both important world building and great character work. It’s such a perfect balance of what Star Trek has to offer, and belongs in a 101 textbook as a prime example of competent, episodic fiction. It functions superbly as the first part of a long-running storyline, but also as a self-contained, satisfying standalone story.
The misdirection works well because the episode fully commits to what we think is the story before the reveal. Commander Kurn boards the Enterprise, and instantly puts everyone on edge with his very Klingon way of doing things (he even barks at Wesley, which is worth an instant A+). As noted by Riker when he served aboard the Pagh, when it comes to work Klingons are all business. They attack their duty like they would an opponent – head on, with brutality and relentlessness until the job is done.
This obviously rankles everyone, although Picard seems game to see the status quo shaken up and for his crew to feel a little discomfort. Tony Todd is an exemplary actor and this will be the first of many welcome appearances in Star Trek. He exudes an imperious, commanding attitude as well as a wild-eyed zeal which makes him fun to watch. When Riker politely tries to guide his command style, Kurn’s indignation is priceless. Not to mention how he casually mentions restraining himself from killing Riker in the next scene. Klassic Kurn!
As we also saw in “A Matter of Honor,” Klingons show affection and solidarity through razzing each other and friendly insults. So it’s conversely a sign of great disrespect for Riker to politely offer Kurn suggestions, and Kurn later insults Worf with excessive, condescending niceness as a means of testing his Klingon-ocity. Worf visits Kurn in his quarters to confront him about his attitude, and Todd does some great scenery-chewing as he relishes in the confrontation. It’s inspired casting, and he was a great choice as Worf’s brother – someone able to match the intensity and strength of Michael Dorn.
The broad strokes of Worf’s backstory had been covered back in the first season (when the Enterprise encountered some Klingon renegades), but Kurn’s appearance and the Stunning Revelations he brings with him inject a lot of welcome intrigue. There’s something a little soap opera-ish about Long Lost Brothers Separated at Birth, but the episode immediately focuses on much larger issues without much personal angst between the two. Mogh, Worf and Kurn’s dead father has been posthumously accused of colluding with the Romulans who attacked the Khitomer colony decades ago. Klingon justice decrees that the son must pay for his father’s crimes, and Worf has thus been accused by the highest authority of the Klingon Empire, the High Council.
It’s a ton of plot work to lay out, but the episode handles it seamlessly, and before we know it, our heroes are standing in the High Council’s Great Hall. It’s remarkable set design, and the cavernous interior of the Klingon capital feels like a real, lived-in alien place. There’s a regalness to the throne and high ceilings, as well as danger and corruption suggested along its shadowy edges. The overall template of Klingon society is instantly created in this episode – it is a culture of high ideals and storied lore that covers the stench of dishonor and ruthless treachery beneath its surface. The Next Generation will get a lot of mileage not only from the set this episode features, but the ideas about Klingon society it puts forth.
Duras, the son of Mogh’s greatest rival is the one accusing Worf of treason, and the actor drips with brazen shitheadedness. He’s a great villain you love to hate, especially when he rips off Worf’s sash and backhands him in front of everyone. To his great credit, Worf takes it with trademark stoicism and dishes out the classic Klingon proverb “Today is a good day to die. But the day is not yet over, Duras.”
It’s immediately clear something is afoot when the Klingon Chancellor K’mpec asks Worf to drop his challenge, and Kurn is conveniently jumped by Duras’ men and laid out for the remainder of the proceedings. It’s a little disappointing Kurn is dispatched for the rest of the episode, but it gives us more Picard in return, which is always the way to go. With his ceremonial cha’dich (bodyguard) taken out, Worf asks Picard to step in for Kurn, and we get an awesome moment that solidifies the relationship between the two. Picard reflexively turns Worf down at first, modestly noting that there are younger and stronger men who could serve as his protector, but Worf is adamant that there’s no one he’d rather have at his side. Understandably moved by Worf’s faith and respect, Picard accepts (in Klingon!). The over-arching plot of the episode is concerned with the epic, high echelons of the Klingon Empire, political alliances, and family legacies, but it’s ultimately a personal story about characters, as it should be.
Watching Picard go toe-to-toe with the Klingons is a pleasure to see (especially Duras’ stymied response when he insults the captain during the court proceedings). He even goes on a side quest alone to find Worf’s childhood nanny Khalest, which proves to be ill-advised, but his courage is commendable. Picard is no wimp, and I love the gusto with which he puts himself into potentially hazardous situations to accomplish the mission.
Picard brings Khalest before the council, Stunning Revelations follow, and the dirty truth of the Khitomr massacre is revealed. It is in fact Duras’ dad that betrayed his people to the Romulans, not Worf’s. Mogh was blamed simply because the Council didn’t think Worf was Klingon enough to actually come and challenge it. You guessed wrong there, fuckos.
It’s an enticing (but upsetting) layer of nuance to the story – a society that places such a high value on honor openly choosing injustice for the sake of convenience. Picard remarks as much, and his voice curdles into an almost Shakespearean snarl as he registers his moral disgust to K’mpec. Worf is also understandably enraged by Duras’ ratfuckery, as well as the High Council’s complicity with it. The fact that Duras has been spending the entirety of the episode passionately accusing Worf’s father of everything his own dad is guilty of retroactively makes him even more of an asshole and unscrupulous villain.
Political corruption at the highest levels is all too familiar in our own world/time. Per the franchise rules as set forth by Gene Roddenberry, depicting this type of dishonor within Starfleet or the Federation was strictly prohibited (there’s the occasional corrupt admiral or outside alien force), so the story cleverly gets around it by applying it to the Klingon Empire. The episode essentially boils down to “this asshole is far too popular to accept his rightful blame, so we’re going to convict and execute an innocent man to maintain the status quo.” Again, given current events… it’s very disheartening. Compared to some of the scandals in U.S. politics of the 20th and 21st centuries, it’s actually kind of tame. “Oh, just one innocent guy gets killed? *scoffs* Amateurs.” – U.S. Criminal Justice System (2020, colorized).
Worf, who was raised by humans and has never actually lived among his own people, proves himself to be a far better and noble Klingon by initially accepting execution to save the Empire. As grand a scope as the episode has, it ultimately comes down to great character moments for everyone involved. Worf’s Klingon honor and nobility are pure and unshakable, precisely because they developed in isolation away from the society that spawned them. He grew up studying and following the principles of his people to the letter, only to come face to face with the ugly reality that it’s a lie.
But Worf’s execution is averted when he voluntarily accepts discommendation, showing again his self-sacrificing nobility. Choosing to be shunned by the culture he reveres is a big blow and its effects will reverberate throughout the rest of The Next Generation, as well as Deep Space Nine. Worf is accused of being an outsider by Duras – which he vociferously refuses – but for all intents and purposes, he is. As hard as he tries to fit in with humans and Klingons he is a perpetual outsider, and at the conclusion of this episode he is a literal outcast among Klingons. Because of his heroism, he chooses to accept the fictional crimes of Mogh on the surface, but is in reality accepting the true sins of the corrupt society that fathered him.
- Extra kudos to the set design, as well as lighting. The episode looks grand and fantastic, and it won a deserved Emmy for art direction.
- The “trial” of the episode doesn’t really seem like a trial. Worf basically just stands there being accused and insulted the whole time by Duras. Picard bursts in with Kahlest just as they’re about to sentence Worf to execution! I know it’s all just a show since the council has decided the verdict ahead of time (Cardassian much?), but they’re not even trying to make it look like an actual trial. Star Trek VI will depict an actual Klingon trial (with Michael Dorn as Worf’s grandfather!), which is also a sham, but there’s at least a defense there. Coincidentally, that movie also utilizes Khitomer. It’s all a rich tapestry.
- The story of Mogh and Ja’rod (Duras’ father) sounds really interesting, and I wish it could have been fleshed out more in another episode. Especially since Ja’rod betrays Khitomer to the Romulans but still dies in the attack; there’s definitely some enticing drama there.
- Kurn has a lot of great moments throughout, but I love his confusion and disgust over human foods. The caviar clearly horrifies him, but because his commanding officer is offering, he’s obliged to try it.
- I love Kahlest’s rejection of K’mpec for being too fat, and the way his face drops. This guy is the top Klingon, and she still won’t have him. Sad.