In television — as in sports — some records are simply unbreakable. No one will ever pitch more complete games than Cy Young, no one will ever hold pro wrestling’s highest title longer than Bruno Sammartino, and no one will ever make more appearances on Star Trek than Michael Dorn.
Between 1987 and 2002, Dorn portrayed Starfleet’s mighty and stoic Klingon expatriate Worf in 174 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, 98 episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and four feature films. Add in his cameo as Worf’s grandfather in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and that adds up to 277. Even after the revival of the franchise in 2017, this still accounts for nearly a third of the entire Star Trek canon. Now, Dorn has swapped his mek’leth for a kur’leth and glued on his bumpy prosthetic forehead once more to reprise the role of Worf in the final season of Star Trek: Picard, which reunites the Next Gen cast for one last adventure. It’s the chance to give one of sci-fi’s most beloved supporting characters something that’s usually reserved only for Captains and Admirals: a glorious third act.
Though he’s now one of the franchise’s most recognizable figures, Lt. Worf was a last-minute addition to the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation
“They really didn’t have a bible for Worf at all,” says Dorn of those early episodes. “In fact, one of the first things I did was, I asked the producers, ‘What do you want from this guy? You’ve just handed me a piece of paper that says Worf on it.’” With Roddenberry’s blessing, Dorn set out making the character his own, giving Worf the kind of personal investment and attachment that only an actor can provide. “I decided to make the guy the opposite of everybody else on the show. You know, everyone else, their attitudes were great, and they’re out there in space, relationships are forming. And after every mission they were like, Wasn’t that fantastic? I didn’t say anything to anybody, I just made him this gruff and surly character on the bridge. No smiles, no joking around.”
It didn’t take the show’s producers long to realize that Dorn’s gruff, joyless performance could effectively turn any bit of throwaway dialogue into a laugh line. Dorn recalls an incident while shooting the early episode “Justice,” in which Worf is welcomed to an idyllic alien world by an embrace from a beautiful, scantily clad woman, and retorts, simply, “Nice planet.” He hadn’t thought much of it, until he learned that the producers had been watching the take on repeat during dailies, laughing their asses off. From here on out, writers would attempt to insert deadpan “Worfisms” into scripts, producing some of the character’s most memorable moments, but also forcing Dorn to occasionally lay down the law about his character.
“That’s been one of the big issues about Worf’s character that I’ve tried to keep consistent,” says Dorn regarding writers’ tendency to play him for laughs. “Worf does not think he’s funny. He doesn’t say funny things. It’s the people’s reaction around him that’s funny.”
Alongside his role as the show’s unlikely comic relief, however, Worf developed into one of Star Trek’s most complicated protagonists. Roddenberry mandated that the show’s human characters had evolved beyond the sorts of interpersonal conflicts that typically drive television dramas, but Worf, an alien, was permitted to be contrarian, hot-tempered, and even malicious. Dorn recalls being taken aback after reading the script to the season 3 episode “The Enemy,” in which Worf refuses to offer a lifesaving blood transfusion to a gravely wounded Romulan soldier. The Romulan tells him that he’d rather die than “pollute his blood with Klingon filth,” and Worf obliges him, without remorse. Worf believes that saving the life of a Romulan would dishonor the memory of his parents, who were killed in a Romulan sneak attack when he was a child. This runs contrary to the ideals of Starfleet and puts him at odds with the entire crew, but it sets him apart as a character. He strictly adheres to a code of honor that does not totally overlap with that of his peers.
That is, if he can be said to have peers at all. From the beginning, Worf stands apart as the only Klingon in Starfleet, rescued by a human officer after his family is massacred. Raised on Earth by a pair of adoring, demonstrative Russian Jews, young Worf is encouraged to explore and embrace his Klingon heritage despite being isolated from his culture. His image of what it is to be Klingon is based mostly on their mythology, on tales of honorable battle and the noble wisdom of the Klingon Christ figure, Kahless. But it’s also a self-portrait, processing that which makes him different from his human family and classmates into a cultural identity. “Klingons do not laugh,” Worf tells Whoopi Goldberg’s worldly bartender Guinan in the episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” a claim that Guinan has the experience to debunk. Worf believes that Klingons don’t laugh because he himself doesn’t. In actuality, no one parties harder than a band of Klingons after a glorious battle; Worf has simply never been invited.
Worf’s reverence for other Klingons is challenged nearly every time he encounters another of his kind. Time and again, he sees Klingon warriors and political figures like the opportunistic Chancellor Gowron lie and cheat in the pursuit of power and glory. He is formally excommunicated from the Klingon Empire twice, and though both times he is eventually able to win back his citizenship, it takes a heavy toll on him. Yet, however many times “real” Klingon conduct clashes with his values, Worf never allows this to pollute his own sense of honor. He remains unfailingly truthful, loyal, and brave. And, over the years, other Klingons take notice of this and grow to admire and emulate him. His identity and self-image are based in fantasy, but his presence in the universe helps to make that fantasy seem more attainable to everyone else.
Worf’s journey runs parallel to the experience of growing up a Star Trek fan. The crew of the Enterprise (or Voyager, Discovery, etc.) represents a humanity that is more compassionate, curious, honorable, and self-sacrificing than anyone you’re likely to meet. This is a wonderful example for a young viewer to follow, but if you go out into the world expecting to find these idols, especially in positions of power and authority, you’re in for a very rude awakening. By and large, people are not like this. If they were, we’d be living in the Star Trek future right now. However, if in spite of all this, if you can hold fast to that vision of a kinder, wiser humanity and embody it as best as you can, you can make it that much more real for the people around you.
Dorn fully endorses this interpretation of the character, and also sees him as an example of someone who learns to grow beyond his initial need to define himself through the lens of “Klingon” or “Starfleet.”
“He’s always thought that humans were this way and Klingons were that way,” says Dorn, “until he realized that Klingons and humans and everybody were very flawed individuals. And in order to grow, he’s taken the best out of each culture and made it its own. He’s on his own path. He has an ego, so I think he thinks he’s better than a lot of people, but he’s also learning that you can’t judge those things. That once you start judging you’re in trouble. You have to accept them for what they are, not only accept them but admire them, and all the negative stuff you leave behind.”
After The Next Generation closed out its seven-season run and made the leap to the big screen, Worf’s path led him to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, where producers hoped that his presence would boost fan interest in the beleaguered spinoff. His arrival turned out to be beneficial for both the show and the character, as DS9’s darker tone and more serialized format afforded Worf more growth and development in four seasons than TNG had offered in seven. The series also dove deeper into the lore and culture of the Klingon Empire, which Dorn says offered writers (particularly Ronald D. Moore, who would go on to run Battlestar Galactica, Outlander, and For All Mankind) the opportunity to step away from the prim and proper world of Starfleet and do some swashbuckling.
Deep Space Nine’s finale offered Worf’s story a worthy ending when he is appointed the new ambassador between the Klingons and the Federation. It’s arguably the perfect place for his character’s journey to end, but the franchise marched on, dragging Worf along with it into the underwhelming feature film Star Trek: Nemesis in 2002, which one again reduced him to a comic foil. Despite his efforts to get a “Captain Worf” spinoff off the ground in the subsequent decade, it appeared that Michael Dorn’s service to Star Trek had finally concluded.
Twenty years later, Dorn — along with the rest of the Next Gen ensemble — has once again been called upon to revitalize a Star Trek spinoff. The third season of Star Trek: Picard reintroduces us to Worf as a wise old master, so confident in his ability to defeat his foes in combat that he rarely needs to unsheathe this weapon. Dorn has imagined the past 20 years of his character’s life in detail, taking inspiration from a source not entirely disconnected from Star Trek: the films of Quentin Tarantino. Appropriately, Dorn has patterned this version of Worf after a character from a film that opens with an old Klingon proverb: Kill Bill.
“One of the characters was Pai Mei, this martial arts killer,” says Dorn. “He’s gone so far in the martial arts, the next step is — he can defend himself and kill with a sword, but he can also do it with his bare hands. And with that comes calm, and the ability to know that sometimes you don’t have to kill. That’s how he’s grown in the past 20 years. Now he can dodge ray guns.”
Though his castmates won’t rule out further adventures for their characters, Dorn says that Picard season 3 absolutely works as a satisfying conclusion to Worf’s 35-year voyage.
“The storytellers know his journey, and everyone can see what his journey is; there’s no ambiguity about that.”
One way or another, the actor looks back at his untouchable tenure as Starfleet’s greatest warrior with warmth and appreciation.
“It’s one of those things that validates the idea that you chose the right profession,” Dorn says. “My mother would be proud of me that I had a profession that I’ve been at for the majority of my life. That’s an accomplishment, I think.”