Ever since Klingons were introduced in The Original Series' episode "Errand of Mercy," our favorite militaristic aliens have been an allegory for the totalitarian enemies of the United States. For most of the storylines following Kirk and his crew, the Klingons stood in for the Soviet Union and the conflict of the Cold War. Yet, if the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise were embroiled in a Cold War with the Klingons in 2267, why does this current conflict in Discovery look so hot? This is not the sly espionage we saw in "The Trouble With Tribbles," nor is it the proxy-arming depicted in "A Private Little War." No, what is shown in the first episodes of Discovery looks like a real war, with a death toll to match.
Let's take a look at the history of the Federation/Klingon conflict in #StarTrek and how Discovery could fit into this cold war timeline.
Warning: This article contains spoilers for Episodes 1 and 2 of Discovery
A Fuzzy Background
We know that tensions have existed between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire since First Contact. This shouldn't be shocking, as the Federation and the Klingon Empire embrace vastly different social and political values. While the Federation promotes multiculturalism, democracy and rights for sentient beings, the Klingons are portrayed as militaristic, totalitarian and insular.
In Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country, we're given a more concrete starting period to this conflict. It's noted that the Federation-Klingon Cold War lasted 70 years until peace was officially declared with the 2293 Khitomer Accords, so that puts the beginning somewhere around 2223. The next major date for reference is the battle at Donau V, fought in 2245. This is referenced in "The Trouble With Tribbles," and is also recently cited in T'Kuvma's plea to the Klingon High Council. Of course, there's also the deadly raid on Doctari Alpha that claimed the lives of Commander Burnham's parents, but the pilot episode did not provide a date. After this the details are fuzzy, and no specific confrontations are mentioned until Kirk encounters the Klingons in the 2260s.
Hardcore Trekkies might be shocked to see this deadly confrontation with the Klingons in Discovery, as it's in sharp contrast to the political tactics shown in TOS, but what actually is a cold war? Most people think exclusively of The Cold War between the US and the USSR, but there is a working definition that can be used to separate a cold war from other types of armed conflicts. Merriam-Webster generally defines it as, "a conflict over ideological differences carried on by methods short of sustained overt military action and usually without breaking off diplomatic relations."
So how can Discovery continue this conflict with the Klingons without venturing away from the Cold War narrative? Here are three options:
1. Keep The Battles Sporadic
A key part of the Merriam-Webster definition is the word "sustained" — sometimes countries fight each other, but it doesn't culminate in open war. If Discovery keeps the battle scenes with the Klingons few and far between, it would be understandable why the war didn't get hotter.
This option is likely for some logistical reasons, namely, T'Kuvma's followers are not in fighting shape. Not only did they lose their leader as quickly as they found him, but they experienced significant damage to their ship and they're a limited force to begin with. The following episodes of Discovery will take place six months after the events in Episode 2, so undoubtably this ultra-nationalist wing of the Klingons will have spent this time licking their wounds from the battle at the Binary Stars.
Even then, it wouldn't be surprising if we don't see these enemies until much later in the season, as Executive Producer Alex Kurtzman has described Episode 3 as a "reset of the show." The episodes to come are expected to have a different feel than the first two, and a lack of combat scenes will likely play into that. If sightings of militant Klingons are minimal as the season progresses, this is an easy avenue for the show to stay true to the cold war canon.
2. Isolate The Violence To Clandestine Activities
Another loophole in this cold war definition is the inclusion of "overt" to describe military activities. Fans of The Original Series are familiar with Starfleet and the Klingons struggling for power, but rarely on a battlefield. They more commonly engaged in types of covert action, including espionage, sabotage and proxy wars. These clandestine campaigns, which are used by governments when they want to maintain plausible deniability for their involvement, are the cornerstones of traditional cold war conflicts. The Federation does not want all-out war with the Klingon Empire, but it would be a tactical oversight to forgive and forget the incident at the Binary Stars. If anything, this battle is likely to inspire Starfleet to keep an edge over its enemy.
If Burnham and the crew of the Discovery continue to fight the Klingons, but out of the arena of a space battle, this is an easy way to maintain the conflict narrative in TOS. Having a small skirmish on a planet or sneaking onto an enemy ship are actions that have been previously showcased by the Federation (and are likely to be seen in the future, if past plots are any model).
3. Withhold Legitimacy For T'Kuvma's House
T'Kuvma represents the deepest concerns in the Klingon Empire about culture and sovereignty — but he's clearly not mainstream. An unsettling number of Klingon houses want to hear what he has to say about the Federation, but the seat of the High Council leaves. In this way, it appears unlikely that the larger Empire will back T'Kuvma's mission.
Whether he's a renegade or a state-sponsored commander, this doesn't mean that T'Kuvma's ship can't play into the larger Cold War narrative. In political science, a state (or government) is an organization that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. If the Klingon Empire allows a faction of Klingon houses to go rogue and commit acts of terror on the Federation without repercussions, the Federation can claim this in a longer list of military tensions. The Klingon Empire as an organization might not be harming Federation citizens, but it would be permitting it to happen, and therefore actively hurting diplomatic relations.
This brings us back to the last portion of the definition: a cold war typically happens "usually without breaking off diplomatic relations." In the case of T'Kuvma's followers splintering off into a quasi-terrorist organization, the Klingon Empire will probably maintain some sort of communication and diplomacy with the Federation. The Federation will undoubtably have questions for the Klingons, and leaving them go unanswered is a quick path to war. Judging by the High Council's response, open war is a topic for another day. Therefore, if the Klingon Empire and the Federation maintain contact throughout the conflict, even if incredibly strained, it will remain a cold war.
Sticking To Canon
Kurtzman has recently mentioned that #StarTrekDiscovery has every intention of maintaining the canon narrative, and this includes the Federation-Klingon Cold War. Even though the series — and the military conflict — is off to a very hot start, there are plenty of avenues for the writers to merge this with the timeline fans love. Furthermore, as there are 10 years separating the events on Discovery from those on the U.S.S. Enterprise, there's an abundance of time to weave a compelling cold war narrative together. This could feature one of these options detailed above, or several. Cold wars are complicated, so it'll be riveting seeing how the writers show this evolution of military tension.
What do you think the involvement with the Klingons looks like in Discovery? Meet me in the comments section to discuss.