On Star Trek: Discovery, L’Rell paves the way for female Klingons in the franchise

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Jan 29, 2018

Amidst significant fan debate and online discourse, one thing's for certain: Star Trek: Discovery has written a ton of thrilling storylines into its first season—and the twists and turns are far from over yet. From a deep dive into the dynamics between the Federation and the Klingon Empire to an unplanned trip to the Mirror Universe to the reveal that at least Open eye Close eye Show Spoiler one of the show’s major characters is actually from said Mirror Universe, Discovery has been juggling a lot of narrative balls. So far, the show has managed to keep from dropping any of them too significantly, but amidst all the discussion about the Mirror Universe and the twist that Lieutenant Ash Tyler is, in fact, the Klingon Voq in disguise, there’s one character in particular who has been quietly emerging as a standout within Discovery’s freshman run—and she’s lurking in plain sight in the USS Discovery’s brig.

As a fictional species, the Klingons have undergone a lot of makeovers. Some of these evolutions have been fairly significant—the first appearance of the Klingons in the original Star Trek television series was less distinctive, and lacked the singular physiology such as forehead ridges and sharpened teeth that came to define the species in later installments, like the early batch of Star Trek films as well as Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The Klingons of Discovery, however, are a precursor to all of these—and while they have some distinguishing features of their own (like being completely bald instead of having any hair on their heads), there are some traits that can be identified as the prototype for what’s technically to come within the Star Trek universe.

In the case of female Klingon L'Rell (played by Mary Chieffo), her careful machinations could easily pave the way for the strong female Klingon (and half-Klingon) leaders within shows like TNG and DS9—from K'Ehleyr, the half-Klingon ambassador and mother of Worf's son to Grilka, who ends up officially leading her own House within the Klingon Empire (a role that had, up until then, usually gone to the male of each ruling family). Coincidentally, Chieffo has cited Grilka as one of her favorite characters as inspiration for crafting the role of L'Rell, but the reason L'Rell stands apart from her chronological successors is that she has to operate more subtly within the patriarchal system of the Klingon Empire that future women of the species eventually overcome.

We get a peek into the Klingon societal structure in the show’s first episode, “The Vulcan Hello”—just a peek, because the show is careful to remind us that up until recently, the Klingons have not made any direct contact with the United Federation of Planets in about a century. Their ultimate goal is eventually revealed—though it’s not the unified aim of the Klingons yet, but rather the aim of one Klingon, T'Kuvma, who plans to unite them all through a declaration of war against the Federation. That’s easier said than done when the 24 noble houses that make up the Klingon High Council forge and break alliances with one another, consistently at odds and rarely in accordance (but that may also have something to do with who's in charge).

Right from the start, L'Rell manages to position herself as T'Kuvma’s right hand, albeit a largely silent one. She carries out the strategies that best suit T'Kuvma’s message of Klingon unification, making her sphere of influence that much deadlier in terms of who she’s chosen to align herself with. This makes things a little tricky for her when T'Kuvma is killed by Federation officer Michael Burnham, leaving the crew on his ship Sarcophagus open to the influence of a rival Klingon, Kol. He orders L'Rell to kill the albino Klingon Voq, who had been accepted by T'Kuvma and named the successor of his house in spite of being labeled an outcast by the majority of Klingon society. However, in a move very indicative of how she handles her business, L'Rell chooses to play both sides of the conflict and use them to her advantage. She convinces Kol to exile Voq instead and visits the rejected Klingon secretly, pledging her fealty to the House of T'Kuvma’s heir even as she feigns the same in public with Kol as his chief interrogator.

Together, L'Rell and Voq craft the plan that makes up one of the most surprising reveals in Star Trek history—the first canonical instance of a Klingon sleeper agent operating inside Starfleet, both to gather intel on the Federation and to have the opportunity to seek out Burnham, T'Kuvma’s killer. In essence, they decide to play the long game—and that is what L'Rell continues to do, and pull off, even after Voq is firmly ensconced behind enemy lines under the guise of Lieutenant Ash Tyler, his Klingon body genetically altered in an attempt to fool Starfleet’s medical officers.

Later, a significant number of Klingons are killed and the Sarcophagus is destroyed as a result of a Starfleet mission—including Kol—and L'Rell is taken prisoner aboard the Discovery, where she has remained since “Vaulting Ambition.” Within the brig, L'Rell continues to strike an imposing figure even out of her Klingon armor and forced into a restrictive jumpsuit. Chieffo’s strong performance against characters like Doug Jones’ First Officer Saru or Sonequa Martin-Green’s Burnham evokes shades of a predatory animal confined to a cage—momentarily trapped, but in no way tamed. Her scenes with Shazad Latif, who pulls off double duty as both Ash Tyler and Voq, have more of an underlying sensuality, both before and after Voq’s drastic transformation. Nowhere is that more apparent than in episode 10, “Despite Yourself,” where L'Rell tries to appeal to the Klingon within by reciting a prayer designed to trigger Voq-Tyler’s subconscious to respond. In the scene, directed by Star Trek alum Jonathan Frakes, Chieffo and Latif play the whole thing out like a clever dance. He’s drawn to her, even if he doesn’t understand why, in spite of both the literal and mental barriers between them, and her affection for him, as teased in this particular episode and subsequent ones, is what may actually be her one weak point.

Initial writing for certain female Klingon characters in older shows like TNG, such as the Duras sisters Lursa and B'Etor, tended to reduce them to one-note examples of extreme aggression or untempered lust - though these qualities were eventually fleshed out into more complex portrayals of female ambition and drive in later episodes of the series, as well as its spinoff. Until the previously mentioned example of Grilka in DS9, though, female Klingons had a very limited role in society. They were largely respected and typically managed their own household, but they were not given the means or the opportunity to participate on the level of their male counterparts in politics or hold major government positions within the Klingon Empire.

As the antecedent of it all, L'Rell illustrates the capability that the women of the species have to evolve into chief manipulators on par with the current crop of male leaders, and represents the beginnings of the path that will culminate in female Klingons becoming significantly more respected within their society. She’s accomplishing it all in her own subtle way, via subterfuge and manipulation rather than all-out war and bloody battle. But her modus operandi is a masterful prelude for all of the women who will later rise up to become significant names within the Klingon Empire. L'Rell is more than just a “strong female character”; she’s the strong, diabolical female character to keep an eye on, both in the scope of Discovery and as a part of the larger Star Trek franchise.