Star Trek’s Lt. Cmdr. Worf and his Journey of Ontological
Maurice Broaddus’s work has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Weird Tales, Apex Magazine, Asimov’s, Cemetery Dance, Black Static, and many other publications; some of his stories were collected in The Voices of Martyrs. He wrote the trilogy The Knights of Breton Court and the novella Buffalo Soldier.
Identity politics has reared its head in a variety of ways in the last few years, fomenting this idea of “us” vs. “them”. Designed not only to shape and define a people, but also to demand a certain kind of conformity from them, such identity politics force its members to swear allegiance to a side. Implicitly tied to identity politics is the yoke of community. A necessary and wanted yoke, but a yoke nonetheless, one that revolves around a sense of shared culture. This culture encompasses a system of shared practices that constitute a society; interconnected spheres of activity — this web of social interactions — including economics, politics, morals, religion, art, language, history, creative expression, and worldview. In short, culture, in its truest form, is our sense of identity, who we are. To be stripped of it results in a kind of trauma.
The idea of struggling with (self-) identity is a universal one. There is an anecdotal phenomenon described as the “Negro-to-Black Conversion Experience” (sometimes called Nigrescence) developed in the work of Dr. William E. Cross, Jr., author of Shades of Black, one of the most frequently referenced texts on Black identity. Admittedly it’s difficult to have discussions about race (doubly so if you’re prone to using words like Nigrescence or ontological blackness). However, such discussions are relatively safe when viewed through the prism of science fiction. The stages of Nigrescence can be applied metaphorically to the journey of self-exploration undergone by Lieutenant Commander Worf.
Worf appears in more Star Trek episodes than any other character, first on The Next Generation, then on Deep Space Nine. In the episodes which center on him, especially in TNG, he journeys towards what could be called ontological Klingon-ness (or Klingescence) which mirrors any search for racial/cultural identity. A case could be made for Worf being a “tragic Mulatto” type, trapped between cultures, often kept in his place by Star Fleet, if not outright neutered. Half the time he comes across as a mascot for the Federation. The journey of Klingescence follows several steps.
“As I watched Worf, it was like looking at a man I had never known.” —Captain Picard (TNG: “Heart of Glory”)
Born Worf, Son of Mogh, Worf lost his parents when they became casualties of the Romulan attack on the Khitomer outpost before he had reached age of inclusion (when a Klingon is formally accepted by his people). Adopted by a human couple, Sergey and Helena Rozhenko, he was raised as one of them, learning their ways, and eventually joined the Starfleet Academy. He spent hardly any time among his own kind, and the distance between him and his people grew to a point where he no longer understood them, or even felt connected to them. To fit in with the culture of Star Fleet, he was asked to change the one thing about himself he couldn’t change: his Klingon nature. Too Klingon for humans, too human for Klingons, he was often shunned by both sides. Converted into a“Klingon in Name Only,” Worf perfectly assimilated into the Federation, who didn’t see his race except when they could count him as a Klingon statistic. Even Captain Picard exhibited a degree of tone deaf cultural superiority when he remarked that “I think it is best to remain ignorant of certain elements of the Klingon psyche” (TNG: “Where Silence Has Lease”). Worf existed in essentially a state of nonbeing, a perpetual outsider.
“Worf is feeling culturally and socially isolated.” —Wesley (TNG: “Icarus Factor”)
Typically in this stage of their journey, individuals downplay the importance of race in their lives and focus more on their membership in other groups. Worf’s engagement with his culture moves from a place of safety. There were a few clear examples of how this could played out in people’s lives:
Cut off from going to school with his people, cut off from working with his people, cut off from engaging with his people on any level, all Worf is left with are his desperate attempts to bond where he can. For example, he made Jeremy Astor his brother through the R’uustai ceremony (TNG: “The Bonding”). What this points to was that Worf wants a connection to his people and is trying out their culture and rituals on his terms, even though he isn’t ready to engage actual Klingons.
Not ready to engage what some might call “authentic Klingons,” in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Emissary,” Worf rekindles a relationship with Federation Ambassador K’Ehleyr, a mixed heritage (half-Klingon/half-human) woman. He feels an obvious connection with someone who is similarly trapped between, or outside, two cultures. Unlike Worf, who initially appears culturally adrift, she had long sunk into a spiral of self-hate. During an encounter with her “kindred spirit,” the half human/half Betazoid Deanna Troi, the two have diametrically opposed views of themselves. While they each have experienced the richness and diversity of two worlds, Deanna saw herself as getting the best of each, while K’Ehleyr saw herself as receiving the worst of each. Her Klingon side terrified her.
Part of K’Ehleyr’s self-hate gets passed along to her and Worf’s son, Alexander Rozhenko. After K’Ehleyr’s death, Worf takes custody of Alexander and sends him to live with Worf’s own foster parents (TNG: “Reunion”) beginning a cycle of abandonment and estrangement as each grapples with their own evolving concepts of what it means to be Klingon.
The recurring problem they both face is the constant attempt at the negation of their cultural identity: their Klingon-ness is part of who they are. To reject, dismiss, ignore it is to do the same to part of themselves.
“Listen to the voice of your blood. You are not of these people.” —Konmel (TNG: “Heart of Glory”)
The second stage in this journey of Klingescence is when an individual encounters an experience that causes them to challenge their current feelings about themselves and their interpretation of the condition of themselves and their people against/within the mainstream of society. The Encounter experience is one that is so foreign to individuals’ previous worldviews regarding their cultural identity that it forces them to rethink their attitudes about their culture. The inherent danger of this is that few things can potentially shatter a person like having their worldview collapse.
Probably the most important encounter for Lt. Worf came during the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the episode “Heart of Glory,” he encounters some injured Klingons aboard a freighter in the Neutral Zone on a mission to seek glorious battles. One of them, Korris, asks Worf to explain his reason for joining Star Fleet. Worf describes how after the Romulans attacked the Khitomer outpost he was left for dead in the rubble until a Star Fleet officer found him and took him to Gault to raise him as a son. Taking in his trimmed hair and “civilized” look, the Klingons realize Worf hasn’t spent much time among his own kind. Worf doesn’t know his culture, his rituals, and doesn’t know what it means to be a true Klingon. The words “Have they tamed you?” cut like a bat’leth through his soul. Though this won’t be the last time he hears from the “More Klingon than Thou” crowd, they prod him onto a path of self-exploration.
Their words fire his soul. Now he has a taste of his own people, a place he’s meant to belong. And thus he goes on a pursuit of ontological Klingon-ness. Worf’s journey of his allegorical blackness sets the stage for most of the Star Trek: The Next Generation storylines which focus on him.
“I have studied and know everything about my heritage.” —Worf (TNG: “A Matter of Honor”)
In this stage, individuals immerse themselves in all aspects of their culture. Diving into Klingon-ness, especially now that he’s liberated from his Star Fleet ideals, hasn’t necessarily made Worf committed to his Klingon identity. Worf has had an intellectual understanding of his people, though his was a perspective of the outsider even among his own.
At this point, however, he embraces all things Klingon. He romantically engages with only Klingon women (K’Ehleryr). He exclusively studies Klingon culture, history, rituals, religion, poetry, and songs: all the things he was stripped of or kept from. As a part of his Star Fleet training, he was indeed stripped of his religion, his culture, and his identity. Though benign and unintentional, his Star Fleet enculturation left him with only his zealousness to his duties as his avenue to prove himself. However, there was still a loss of self, culturally.
(Both Commander Riker and Captain Picard choose to explore his culture, often alongside him, in order to understand and know him better. An essential step in navigating cross-cultural relationships.)
Such over-compensating Klingon-ness still doesn’t nullify his internal insecurity. He lives either for positive judgments such as pronouncements on him acting “as a true Klingon” (TNG: “Mind’s Eye”) or in fear of the negative assessments such as having his name not being mentioned on his home world due to the dishonor of his Discommendation (a Klingon ceremony where an individual and their family are shunned, stripped of honor, and severely reduced in social status, left with few rights within Klingon society). “It is as though you never existed. Terrible burden for a warrior to bear. To be nothing. To be without honor. Without the chance for glory.” (TNG: “The Drumhead”).
It’s only at this stage that the idea/his personal definition of Klingon-ness starts to be defined, starts to become a part of him. It’s the psychological change wherein he learns to balance his personal cultural identity against his greater cultural identity. It’s a two-pronged internal battle that he constantly faces: his Starfleet training vs. his Klingon nature; and what it means to be a Klingon among Klingons.
“Is there nothing in your heart but duty?” —Kern (TNG: “Redemption II”)
Early in the series Worf presents as a Sidney Poitier/Jackie Robinson type. All dignity and honor, he is Star Fleet’s perfect Klingon representative: Klingon, but not so Klingon as to be overly-intimidating. He was the uber-Klingon required to break through: smart, handsome, and with a knowledge of how to navigate the “mainstream.” From Star Fleet’s perspective, his token acceptance — after all, he was the only Klingon serving in all of Star Fleet — gave him a singular distinction, allowing Star Fleet to essentially proclaim “Look at us! We got our one. WE ARE DIVERSE!!!”
Integrating human ways into his Klingon code proves a bumpy ride at best, as he lets a Romulan die rather than donate his blood (TNG: “The Enemy”), not to mention his other struggles balancing Klingon vs. Federation responsibilities (TNG: “Ethics”). He masters code-switching, behaving in a more Klingon fashion among Klingons, then acting more “human” among his fellow Federation members.
“I know, but it is not my way.” —Worf (TNG: “Redemption II”)
The responsibilities of being Klingon come to weigh heavily upon Worf. Though he realizes he has a child from his relationship with K’Ehleyr (TNG: “Reunion”) and he feels comfortable enough to choose Captain Picard to be his Cha’Dich, his “second,” during his trial, his rival, Baytor, remarks that “He’s still unsure of himself” (TNG: “Sins of the Father”). By the TNG episode “Redemption,” he seems to have learned an appreciation for what it means to be a Klingon. And for its cost. Being Klingon means he has to transcend his own individuality in the name of communal survival. As Worf is developing his sense of ontological Klingon-ness, he clings to an ideal vision of his people, who they are and who they ought to be. So to show that he truly possesses a Klingon heart he accepts Discommendation, a willing sacrifice for the sake of this ideal. Once again he finds himself isolated from his people. The difference, however, is that his isolation is due now to his choice. And it is undeniably a testament to his commitment.
At this stage, the idea of one’s cultural identity involves commitment to a plan of action, and individuals reaching this stage begin to live in accordance with the new self-image that they have developed for themselves. Worf’s Klingon-ness takes on the dimension of praxis — theory accompanied by social action — but it springs from a place of reclaiming his internal pride. Being Klingon means being true to who he is. All of him. His self-defined Klingon-ness allows him to be who he is no matter his context. Worf possesses a new mindset and is in a better position to guide his son, Alexander through his own journey of self-discovery (TNG: “New Ground”), impressing on the boy the idea that his sense of honor is what makes him Klingon.
“We have forgotten ourselves. I do not know why. Our stories are not told. Our songs are not sung.” —Toq (TNG: “Birthright: Part 2”)
By the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Birthright: Part 2,” Worf abandoned the paradigm of what was culturally acceptable as a Klingon value by not abandoning his father to dishonor. Thus he finds himself at a camp of Klingon survivors, with a whole new generation of Klingons in search of their own Klingon identity. Not bound by any preconceived traditions, these emergent Klingons were drawn to Worf. He walks around the camp — big pimpin’, a Malcolm X to the young people. His voice helps restore their pride. He teaches them their stories, and the stories define them.
As successful as Worf is with the lost tribe of Klingons, the events of “Birthright” leave him feeling empty. There is one part of his cultural heritage which he still hasn’t explored. Again due to benign neglect more than anything intentional, he has lost his religion, his God. So in TNG: “Rightful Heir,” Captain Picard responds to Worf’s crisis of faith by suggesting he again immerse himself in Klingon beliefs to see if they hold any truths for him. Worf makes a pilgrimage to the Temple of Boreth, core of Klingon beliefs concerning Kahless and Sto-Vo-Kor.
A secure sense of his Klingon-ness allows Worf to pursue Deanna Troi of TNG and marry Jadzia Dax of DS9, though both exist outside of his race. The relationships aren’t defined by a Star Fleet indoctrination on the nature of relationships. The women aren’t some sort of prize of human/Klingon integration. He is able to follow his heart from a place of internal security and definition of self. This same mentality allowed him to make peace with his brother (TNG: “Homeward”). This also, however, opens the door to the struggle of passing along a complex, nuanced worldview to his son.
“I will teach you what you need to be a warrior and you will teach me what I need to be a father.” —Worf (DS9: “Sons and Daughters”)
In the TNG episode “First Born,” Worf wants to take the time to involve his son in cultural rituals, not just to prevent him from being assimilated, but also to allow Alexander the room to find his own destiny. To not be trapped by his people’s or even his father’s idea of who he should be. Worf and Alexander share a complicated relationship. For benign reasons, Worf keeps handing him off to others to raise. Alexander avoids Klingon culture for years until diving headlong into it. He joins the Klingon Defense Forces in part to learn those ways and get his father’s attention. Part of him recognizes that as he reaches Klingon maturity, he must navigate the intricacies of this stage of his life among his people. By this point though, unskilled as a warrior, he’s unequipped to serve with other Klingons. Worf re-enters his life in order to smooth the way for him, the father passing down his lessons to his son.
Every people has a story to tell. When all is said and done, any racial identity is about shared story. A story that has defined the members’ identities and continues to form them. Getting to the heart of that culture, to being true to who they are. Self-consciousness, experience, that culture in its totality of life and ideology transcends individuality in the name of communal survival. Throughout his transformation, Worf’s major battle is one of fighting against the passive integration which has under-girded much of his life in Star Fleet. Though he initially struggles with the insecurity of not knowing who he is, he’s given room to explore his culture, difficult as that journey and the conversations involved with it may be. There are times when he has stern words with his friends and allies and has to make difficult decisions. He carries the burden of his culture, but the thing is, he begins to relate to others, both within his culture and without, on his terms. His is a journey of self-discovery and cultural exploration, one which never truly ends.