“I’m half human. On my mother’s side.”: The Emissary
Yeah, I could have made a really cheeky joke about Benjamin Sisko and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine here, but I didn’t feel like it.
Although she only makes four actual appearances across the franchise, Suzie Plakson is one of Star Trek’s most beloved and memorable guest stars. She’s an incredibly talented performer who can work wonders with parts of any size and wields the broad-strokes brush incredibly deftly. We’ve already seen her once this season as Doctor Selar in “The Schizoid Man”, the specialist who studies Ira Graves and who Captain Picard calls in to help discern what’s happened to Data. Her most memorable Star Trek role, however, is unquestionably K’Ehleyr, who is introduced in “The Emissary”.
K’Ehleyr’s existence is something of a messy subject in the history of Star Trek: The Next Generation. There’s a massively problematic aspect of her character arc (really, the entire arc itself), but that doesn’t come into play until the fourth season, so I’ll save complaining about it until then. At this point, K’Ehleyr is just a one-off guest character: Merely one more example of the second season production team tossing things at the wall in a desperate attempt to make something stick. She’s something like the sixth new character introduced and teased as a potential regular or reoccurring character *this season alone*, which is so embarrassing it frankly speaks for itself. However, K’Ehleyr stands among her wannabe peers as interesting, not only for the fact she actually does come back (albeit only once), but because she overtly replaced one of them. The team were looking to explore romance themes with Worf, and K’Ehleyr was straightforwardly brought in to facilitate that. But she wasn’t the first choice: Indeed, it was Suzie Plakson’s previous character, Doctor Selar, who was meant to be Worf’s paramour.
This is actually fascinating, because Worf stands apart even among his Star Trek: The Next Generation shipmates for having a royally screwed up love life. He’s a character whose canon romances and fan-preferred ships tend to be dreadfully boring and uninspired, but with whom the potential always existed to say something really clever and imaginative about culture clashes and cultural diffusion through them. In this regard Selar is an incredible choice, especially had she become a reoccurring fixture of the Enterprise sickbay. Klingons aren’t supposed to like healers because of their obvious privileging of honourable death in glorious battle, and Selar isn’t just a healer, she’s a Vulcan: If there was one person on the ship who reads on paper like the complete polar opposite of Worf, it’s her. But Worf, at least Worf as we’ve seen him so far, isn’t exactly a full-blooded Klingon traditionalist. He grew up completely disconnected from his people, and while he has an academic understanding of their culture and certainly is no less Klingon than the next proud warrior guy, this does mean his heritage and experience is tempered by his life outside of them.
This has been pretty clear in the big Worf episodes and scenes that have been made to date: There’s the Tea Ceremony from “Up The Long Ladder” that explicitly acknowledges Worf’s respect for healers in general and Doctor Pulaski in particular and that would have served nicely as a lead-in to a story arc with Selar. But we ought to have expected this, as earlier, in the first season, the entire point of “Heart of Glory” was that Worf was a *different kind* of Klingon thanks to his living aboard the Enterprise. This is what happens when you become a traveller: Your sense of spatial and cultural identity that’s tied to one specific location or one specific group of people starts to fade as you pick up and internalize different little things from the people and places you visit. And it helps you grow as a person: Worf can take the best parts of his Klingon heritage and combine it with what he learns about human culture to create his own unique sense of personhood. He’s not fully Klingon and he’s not fully human, but *none* of the characters who live on the Enterprise are fully human either-That’s the whole idea.
So with that in mind, my big problem with K’Ehleyr and “The Emissary” is that they both represent a rather massive step backwards in terms of Worf’s character development. The central message is that K’Ehleyr is more human than Klingon and more Klingon than she’d like to admit, which is supposed to both contrast with Worf and highlight different aspects of his own personality. But in practice it comes across as Worf being a die-hard Klingon fundamentalist: His whole attitude in regards to the bonding oath as being a sacred “point of honour” paints him as a fussy traditionalist who K’Ehleyr’s spunky, independent modern career she-Klingon swoops in to shake up. While it is possible to read Worf as in essence a “convert” to Klingon culture given the fact he grew up isolated from it and it has been said that converts can be the worst fundamentalists of all, that’s not really who Worf is. He’s already been established as being atypical for a Klingon of even the 24th century, and his relationship with K’Ehleyr is really difficult for me to read as bring something other than the season 2 team once again seeing their regulars as “square” and looking to “liven up” the status quo because they’re incapable of seeing the wonderful potential they already have.
In a year that’s already given us things like Sonya Gomez, and even Doctor Pulaski, Miles O’Brien and Guinan if I was inclined to be particularly uncharitable (which I’m not, don’t worry), it’s very hard for me not to be rubbed the wrong way by K’Ehleyr, in spite of how lovely Suzie Plakson might be in the part. Especially considering what a gold mine Doctor Selar sounds like she could have been: That relationship could have been such a terrific example of how travel broadens one’s horizons and how we naturally becomes closer to fellow travellers than the people we leave back home. As Tracy Tormé, who had introduced Selar, said, the Worf/K’Ehleyr pairing is sadly “obvious”. Of *course* K’Ehleyr represents Worf’s dual heritage with the contrast dialed up and of *course* their relationship is meant to be complimentary and of *course* they’re both too stubborn to see it. I mean the fact that “The Emissary” can be called mediocre speaks volumes about Star Trek: The Next Generation even here, but there really, really isn’t a lot else for me to say about either it, K’Ehleyr or the relationship itself: I can see why it works and I can see why people like it, but I can’t see how it’s preferable to the alternative.
January 4, 2015 @ 11:35 pm
I've always really wished Dr Selar had stuck around as a regular. Not only because, to be a little basic about this, I think Suzi Plakson makes an incredibly sexy Vulcan, but also because I loved the idea of a Vulcan doctor – i.e. someone without overt emotions, without sentimentality of any kind, with a logical and utilitarian attitude emblazoned on their sleeve, being a healer and interacting with human patients who expect sympathy, and with other doctors and nurses trained in a certain way of interacting with the sick and injured. Imagine the interactions between Selar and Pulaski for instance. Actually, now I come to think about it, Pulaski would probably be hard-nosed enough to see the value of Selar's approach (because the best form of compassion is always practicality)… but imagine Selar vs Crusher. The conflict would all be based on an instant snap judgement on both sides, of course, and would gradually deepen into mutual respect… but I'm being counterfactual now. They tried something similar with Picard vs Pulaski and fumbled it.
Regarding Worf… I'm inclined to be a bit more forgiving of what they do with him in this episode. I think the business of Worf oscillating back and forth between being a theoretical die-hard traditionalist and a floppy Federation-influenced liberal is quite well done. He's both, inextricably. That works for me because he takes literally what he has learned second hand, while Klingons steeped in their own social culture have to actually live it 'on the ground' so to speak. His isolation from other Klingons means he can cherish these ideals by himself, whereas actual immersion in an honour-obsessed (or perhaps a better term would be 'propriety-obsessed') culture tends to engender more worry about 'what the neighbours think' than about actual ethical purity. That means he has a more serious attitude to 'honour' than many other Klingons, which means he's more likely to display a moral centre in battle.. but also more likely to get hung up on 'the done thing'. K'Ehleyr could have been a really interesting liminal figure in this respect, fuzzing up Worf's categories. In fact I tend to think that, in this ep at least, they pull it off.
January 5, 2015 @ 12:50 pm
You know I grabbed in the dark with mentioning that Plakson's Selar would be a cooler romance for Worf and didn't realize that it was intended to be just that. I guess it just read as obvious in how Dorn and Plakson played it in that all-too-brief exchange on Gravesworld. Certainly there's no fault to be found in the chemistry between the two actors!
I'm also a firm believer that even as you divorce yourself from The Original Series in philosophy and theme, Worf exists because this show needed a Klingon and it's a neat role to show how enemies can become allies in such an overt and "the face of it" dynamic, and so I'm also a firm believer that this show needed a Vulcan as well. You don't have to retell stories about Vulcan dogma and the trials and tribulations of someone of mixed ancestry (as a Vulcan, anyway). But the Vulcan presence from a world-building standpoint, and the positionality a Vulcan character brings (and magic!) would have served well a supporting character in a "junior officer" role akin to how O'Brien is positioned, and it's never bad to pair Worf with a formidable woman.
The presentation even seems to write itself, with Pulaski in her wisdom being a pretty damn good match-maker and pairing two iconoclastic alien travelers together before she moves on to other travels and Crusher returns. As we know from the odd Selar name-drop in a different episode – unlike ship's sawbones of old, Pulaski has 100% confidence in her Vulcan contemporary.
It'll be funny to revisit these sentiments about missed opportunities and the iconic, and ironically barely explored "world-builder" races of TOS in about 500 essays' time when Plakson returns as an Andorian.
January 6, 2015 @ 1:19 pm
Worf's decade-long character arc of grappling with his Klingon heritage across TNG and DS9 is one of the most complex continuing stories in all of Star Trek, and it begins as a story here. You have a wonderful idea to use the double appearance of Suzie Plakson as K'Hleyr and Selar to wonder what might have been. They're such different characters, but also such clear parallels: a doctor who heals physical wounds and sickness, and an ambassador who makes and maintains peace. That also makes them both such clear breaks from traditional Klingon culture which valorized death and war. Their names even rhyme. It fits your method throughout Vaka Rangi of exploring alternate timelines and ways things could have gone.
You say that TNG coming down on the side of K'Hleyr marks a regress from what Heart of Glory established about Worf. But I think that episode's influence remains on Worf as a character, a prologue to his multi-series narrative. That episode did establish his nature as a different sort of Klingon. But it established his difference only as having turned away from the senseless aggression of warmongering that Korris and Konmel believe is essential to Klingon nature. Even the Klingon captain in that episode, K'Nera, stands against their regressively fundamentalist vision of violence. Worf never rejected Klingon culture as a whole: he never follows through on K'Nera's offer to join the Klingon fleet because his home is the Enterprise, but his ethics never turn away entirely from Klingon culture. He's just not sure what he will craft as his own alternative.
A relationship with Selar would have been fascinating to see, and I hope your post launches a few solid fanfics. But Selar would have set Worf in a direction that saw him turning more cleanly away from his Klingon heritage, which would have been interesting to see, but more reactionary instead of creative.
K'Hleyr is the pivot point on which Worf engages the values of the Enterprise with his Klingon cultural heritage to figure out a way to live that rejects neither and combines both to produce a way of life that is entirely singular and new.