Creating an alien race in Star Trek has never been a difficult process. In stark contrast to George Lucas’ use of puppetry and CGI to portray non-human races, the vast majority of aliens in Star Trek have simply been humans with a bit of body paint and a bumpy forehead – and that’s only if they really wanted to splash out on the make-up.
Despite this, Star Trek’s alien races have transcended their low-budget origins to become entrenched in popular culture. The reason for this is simply how well-developed their personality and cultures, even their languages, have become as a result of their appearances in the series.
However, it wasn’t always an easy road from conception to realisation. Star Trek: The Original series had 3 main alien races that recurred within the series – the Vulcans, the Klingons, and the Romulans – but they weren’t necessarily recognisable when they started out…
Vulcans are one of the few Star Trek races that transcend the programme entirely, and have become as synonymous with Star Trek as “The Force” is with Star Wars. Three of the five live-action series have featured a Vulcan as a regular crew member – Spock in The Original Series, Tuvok in Voyager and T’Pol in Enterprise.
The first Vulcan to appear in Star Trek was, of course, Spock. And, since it’s been written into continuity, we can count the first episode he appeared in as actually being the original Star Trek pilot, “The Cage”, which was produced in 1965. Indeed, Spock is the character who has the first line in Star Trek: “Check the circuits!”
Although Vulcans have long since been established as cold, logical people with vast capacity for wisdom, the Spock seen in The Cage displays a youthful enthusiasm for his work and the wonders he finds on Talos IV, even reacting to such things with a wide, decidedly un-Vulcan smile.
There could be explanations for this behaviour, of course – the telepathic influence of the Talosians, Spock’s half-human side being less suppressed during the events of The Cage (which, in continuity, happen 13 years prior to the rest of The Original Series) but the simple fact is that at this point, Vulcans simply hadn’t been nailed down yet. A year later, in 1966, Roddenberry would produce the second pilot episode Where no man has gone before, featuring a far more familiar type of Vulcan – the sardonic, logical, emotionless kind that would go on to be widely recognised and well-loved by Trek fans everywhere.
If the Vulcans are the aliens most closely associated with Star Trek, then the Klingons are, at the very least, a close second. They’re also the race that has undergone the most visible transformation since their first appearance in 1967’s Errand of Mercy.
Originally, Klingons were presented as direct adversaries to humanity – recognisable from their swarthy complexion and scheming nature, they appeared to have a similar culture to our own and were intended, as with many Star Trek concepts, to reflect the concerns of the time – in this case, allegorising the cold war tensions between the US and Russia.
It wasn’t until the first Star Trek movie that the race assumed the iconic visage recognisable as Klingons today. Previously, they had been dark- or olive-skinned and often bearded, but otherwise human-like in appearance. In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, they gained the ridged foreheads, spiked teeth and long hair that people now associate with the characters. Similarly, the Klingon obsession with honour and glory wasn’t added until even later, when the TNG writers came up with it as part of their drive to flesh out Star Trek’s alien races.
Even more astonishingly, the Klingon language, currently the most popularly spoken fictional language in the world, didn’t itself exist until the movies, when James “Scotty” Doohan devised its initial phrases. Considering that it’s now a universal touchstone with which to mock any fandom that’s gone too far, it’s surprising to think that it wasn’t conceived of until 10 years after Star Trek ended!
Indeed, so important are the Klingons to Star Trek that future series would actually attempt to acknowledge the vast differences in the Klingons of The Original Series and those of the movies onwards.
Deep Space Nine opened the door a crack when a time-travelling crew expressed surprise at encountering the human-like Klingons of The Original Series, only to be told by Worf that “[Klingons] do not discuss it with outsiders” but it wasn’t until much-derided prequel series, Enterprise, that anyone went as far as to explain it as a genetic condition caused by Klingon attempts to copy the augmented humans (such as Kahn Noonien Singh) of the Eugenics Wars.
The experiments resulted in a plague that spread, removing Klingon traits from the populace for up to several generations, although by the time of The Motion Picture this had, evidently, become a reversible condition.
The third and final member of Star Trek’s “Alien Trinity” are the Romulans. Despite never quite hitting the popularity of Vulcans or Klingons, the race still represents a rich vein that can be mined by Trek writers everywhere. They featured most prominently in TNG, and have been tapped as the primary antagonists in the last two Star Trek movies.
It’s widely known that the Romulans are themselves an offshoot of the Vulcan race who left their home planet after rejecting the logic that would come to rule the hearts and minds of ancient Vulcans. This fact was hinted at, if not outright established, when Romulans first appeared in Star Trek, and remains an integral part of their identity today – re-unification of the Romulan and Vulcan cultures is a plot thread often pursued by characters within the Star Trek universe.
Although the personality characteristics of Romulans have remained fairly consistent since their original appearance, their appearance has altered slightly. When first introduced in the TOS episode Balance of Terror, Romulans wore their Roman influences on their sleeve – or rather, their togas, and even the race’s name was taken, inexplicably, from Roman legends. It’s not entirely unusual – at the time, Star Trek would frequently introduce races that were thinly derived from Earth culture, and the Romulans are the most successful of that bunch.
As the writers of TNG sought to flesh out the aliens of Star Trek more convincingly, the Roman comparisons were downplayed, although the race retained the qualities of their antecedents, portrayed as power-hungry, scheming and vindictive. As well as junking the explicit Roman references, TNG also gave Romulans distinctive raised ridges above their eyes. Since Spock has often been able to move unchallenged through Romulan society, it is often theorised by fans that these ridges are not universal throughout the population, although unlike Klingons, no in-canon story has addressed their altered appearance nor the abandonment of their Roman stylings.
Of course, the changes don’t end here. The new Star Trek movie, due out shortly features Romulans who again look different to any of those previously seen in Star Trek’s existing canon. Whether or not we’ll see the explanation for this is unknown, but if anything can be counted on, it’s that it won’t be the first time in Star Trek history that an alien race has had a few changes forced upon it.