Scribbler’s Saga #116 – Let the Singing Chef Expand the Archetype

Posted: October 14, 2021 in Uncategorized

© 2021 G.N. Jacobs

So, you’re trying to write an epic SF story and you’re stuck on what sort of people to stick on the ship just over there loading photon torpedoes, what now? If you’ve been hired to write in an established franchise, stop reading now there’s a list of possibilities that already exist…use them. And for the rest of us that don’t have the Rolodex to get hired to further the ongoing mission to…there’s no one way and I’m not even sure what follows is mine. Anyway…

Many times, an alien race will get constructed based on the function they serve in the script. Early on the Klingons were intended to stand in for the Soviet Union in the Cold War, so you need folks likely to roll up to the neutral space station as part of an externally enforced “peaceful” settlement and cause trouble. Shooting the Enterprise violates the Organian Cease Fire (it wasn’t a peace treaty, watch The Undiscovered Country set afterwards to see my point) imposed the year earlier, but placing a spy aboard with instructions to poison the Federation’s special wheat supplies so that the nearby colony world would have to turn to the Klingon Empire to get through the next calendar year isn’t quite so well enforced by the Organians.

The writers of The Trouble with Tribbles also needed the Klingons to be good for picking the kind of bar fight that seemingly by union mandate must occur in what is essentially a Port Call/Shore Leave episode. The Klingon First Officer insults Captain Kirk, the Federation and…finally, the Enterprise. Scotty throws a haymaker probably learned from doing various pub crawls in Scotland.

So, if we are to build a race based on the handful of times the Klingons show up, we get deceitful, arrogant, warlike etc. etc. However, the folks that kept watching the show will tell you that the Klingons suddenly shifted slightly with the advent of STNG. Deceitful at all times became “only in service of defeating one’s enemies and at no other times.” What happened?

Gene Roddenberry decided to put a Klingon character, LT. Worf, on the bridge of the new Enterprise to go with “it’s eighty years later, you think maybe the war ended by now?” And given that STNG Season 1 predated Undiscovered Country by a year and a half, you see where the people doing the movie got their marching orders to dramatize the difficult change from Klingons Bad to Klingons Not So Bad. One faction of Klingons when faced with a thinly disguised metaphor for the Chernobyl Disaster sought peace and the other decided to pick a fight aided by rogue Starfleet Officers frightened of a galaxy without the Cold War.

Anyway, back to Worf. He was raised on Earth after being orphaned during a battle between the Klingons and Romulans for which the Federation rendered humanitarian aid. According to Worf, the animus of a warrior race thinking the human led Federation to be weak cowards for espousing cooperation faded over time in favor of – “wow, we can at least trust those Earthlings to keep their word.”

Worf fairly continuously mentioned his understanding of Klingon ethics, gained on Earth because no one kept him from his library card, as being about honor, duty and die serving the society. Ideals that from the outside during times when few Federation citizens had made any Klingon friends, sure look like invade and subjugate everyone around you. People I watched the show with would initially grouse – “Really? They turned the Klingons into a pastiche of Vikings mixed with a lot of Samurai.”

A backhanded way into a common reductionist method for developing a people: take characteristics supposed to have existed in the various cultures and put that on the page. Klingons may feel like the pop culture rehash of what we believe about the Vikings or the Samurai based on having these people in our collective past. But it also sort of explains how the audience suddenly decides they like Klingons, Vulcans, Andorians or whomever to populate their favorite morality play…they’re people so very much like somebody living down the street.

As a shorthand to quickly putting somebody interesting on the other ship across the video link blustering and posturing – “Ah, I can see how lawyers in the future may find flaw in my logic in this case, but you, Captain Kirk, will not be alive to benefit from their deliberations.” – I can support this method with caveats to be discussed below. Pretty much the same caveats built into my shorthand techniques for every other aspect of characters and writing fiction in general…jettison the tricks with increasing experience.

When the Klingons were first conceived, people who pick fights and conquer are going to be thought of as deceitful to go with warlike, aggressive and arrogant, like a pack of freshly trained Marines in a bar. Suddenly, with Worf taking some kind of unspecified red uniform job on the bridge before later getting the yellow shirt job of Security, the deceitful part of the previous show’s depiction has to go.

As far back as the first wave of licensed novels before STNG, Klingons got tagged with deceitful and backstabbing for having a promotion system that lands roughly between the seppuku ceremony of the samurai and what I tend to refer to as the Sith Lord Management Change Ceremony a.k.a. a junior officer kills his superior and takes the better job. The Mirror Universe also devised these ethics.

Then Worf is the good guy. The subtle shift in the cultural ethos becomes “we are so dedicated to dying in service to our people that an honorable failure among Klingons welcomes being killed for the betterment of our people.” And there are review procedures to curb the activities of the purely ambitious. We hope…

The exaggerate human traits method of alien design helps a lot with the audience bonding with Worf, Kang, Kor, Koloth and General Martok. Take it too far and the story suddenly takes on weird characteristics that sit just under the surface and can stink up the joint. One is to assume that because the in-narrative version of human culture is as equally as broad as the real culture drawn upon to create Klingons, Centauri, Narn, Romulans that the in-narrative humans will succeed because of having more tricks in their bags. 

Up to a point, this assumption can be fun to pull out explaining why Commander Riker did so well on an exchange tour with the Klingons (that and Starfleet’s SERE training that helps one keep a straight face eating Gahk because he’s already eaten grasshoppers in a desert). But there is a point where assuming that the in-narrative humans always win the inter-species diplomacy because human culture is thousands of cultures still trying to figure out how to share the same planet is just bad writing…usually someone laid it on six meters deep without thought for the exceptions that prove the rule. 

To that end the writers periodically foxed us a little bit with the Klingons on several occasions showing us sides of the species we hadn’t seen before. Canny Klingon captains proudly declare – “We have no need of assistance hating humans, but only a fool fights in a burning house! Begone!” – when they need to drive out an energy being feeding on the built-in animus between the races. When they need to bust out some legal trickery to burn Captain Kirk as part of the greater conspiracy, we see Klingon lawyers played by Christopher Plummer – “Don’t wait for the translation!” And of course, my favorite out-of-archetype Klingon is the Singing Chef…

On Star Trek: DS-9, a small almost kiosk-sized Klingon eatery opened up on the Promenade. As directed by the culturally accepted Klingon cookbooks, the Gahk wiggles and the replicated targ almost convinces the taster of having squealed just a few minutes ago (I did mention the part about nearly kiosk-sized, there really isn’t space for live targ, unless the dude has other spaces on the station we didn’t see). Lastly, this worthy gentleman busts out the highpoints from the Klingon opera canon in what I think was a decent baritone all in the service of flirting with Jadzia Dax.

Other Klingons sang these songs, usually celebrating great victories or even ones made great by exaggeration with tankards of blood wine (a decent off-brand merlot in the ken of the franchise’s relentless marketing) in hand. The Chef just wanted to get laid with a worthy woman whose actions made her almost a Klingon woman. Alas, the lady preferred Worf in later seasons, but the gent kept singing incurring the annoyance of General Martok commenting on the end of Klingon civilization as they knew it.

Of course, the existence of this chef doesn’t have to necessarily represent the end of all things Klingon. If we go back to Obi-Wan’s semi-evasive observation that begins with – “from a certain point of view” – a good chef is essential to the functioning of the army. He who has the knack of the great barbecue sauce and leaving the targ on the grill just long enough to avoid drying it out gives aid and comfort to his fellows who then gird up to slaughter tribbles with great celerity. Thus, he shall live and die advancing his society and be found flipping targ steaks upon his invitation to Stovokor. Or perhaps Martok is right and the shame of – “Gentlemen, now abed on Qo’noS (Kronos) shall hold their manhoods accursed in the presence of one of my brothers…” – has lost its sting for non-warriors and something needs to be done.

Regardless, the Singing Chef exists as a point of debate among fans and as an easy trick for the writer to expand beyond the limitations of the archetypes used to create the people from whom he springs. Here’s hoping your Klingon Singing Chef works as well…       

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