WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for the two-part season premiere of Star Trek: Discovery, which debuted Sunday on CBS and CBS All Access.
Star Trek: Discovery had long promised Klingons that looked radically different from any previously depicted in the franchise's five-decade history, but Sunday's series premiere also offered arguably the most complex portrayal of Starfleet's longtime nemesis. Here, more so even than on The Next Generation, they're imbued with a system of religious and political beliefs that lifts them above the level of one-dimensional "proud warrior race," and offers a satisfying explanation for their conflict with the Federation. But what in Kahless' name is going on with that enormous vessel covered in coffins?
It's a sarcophagus ship, a 200-year-old leviathan about three times larger than any of the Starfleet vessels we see in the premiere. Lying cloaked at the edge of Federation space, it plays a significant role in not only the opening volley of Star Trek: Discovery but in the lives (and, more importantly, deaths) of these new Klingons.
And, yes, it's covered in corpses, some dating back 1,000 years or more.
Star Trek had depicted Klingons as largely unconcerned with their fallen until The Next Generation Season 1 episode "The Heart of Glory," which introduced the concept of Sto-vo-kor, the afterlife for the honored dead, guarded by the mytho-historical figure Kahless the Unforgettable. Both of those come into play in Discovery's premiere, which introduces commander T’Kuvma (played by Chris Obi), ruler of a previously unknown 25th Klingon house who prescribes to the old ways, the ways of Kahless.
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Styling himself as a messianic figure -- he's hailed by his followers at one point as "T'Kuvma the Unforgettable" -- T'Kuvma restored his father's abandoned vessel, and turned it into the sarcophagus ship, just as he envisions restoring the Klingon Empire to glory by uniting its fractured houses against a common enemy: the encroaching United Federation of Planets, whose repeated claim that "We come in peace" is viewed as little more than sheep's clothing to disguise a wolf intent on devouring the empire. "They will coil around us and take all that we are," T'Kuvma warns in the opening moments of the series before proclaiming his mantra of unity (and, simultaneously, galactic isolationism), "Remain Klingon."