In TNG "First Contact" (the episode, not the film), Picard claims:

...there is no starship mission more dangerous than that of first contact. We never know what we will face when we open the door on a new world, how we will be greeted, what exactly the dangers will be. Centuries ago, a disastrous contact with the Klingon Empire led to decades of war. It was decided then we would do surveillance before making contact. It was a controversial decision. I believe it prevented more problems than it created.

In the first episode of Enterprise, "Broken Bow", we witness first contact between humans and the Klingons — but it doesn't seem that disastrous. A Klingon scout ship pursued by the Suliban had crashed on Earth. The pilot was shot by a human farmer, but he was restored to health and great effort was expended by Archer to return him to Qo'noS, thereby allowing the pilot to complete his mission (which was to return information about the Suliban to the Klingon High Command).

In "Broken Bow", it is also made clear that the Vulcans were already aware of the Klingons and had diplomatic ties with Qo'noS. These relations, while terse, did not seem overtly hostile.

So what exactly was Picard referring to? Why and how did first contact with the Klingons lead to war?

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    This is a very good question that I have often pondered. I always thought that perhaps it was to do with the human's attempts to deliver Klaang to Qo'nos whilst putting his honour at risk Nov 15, 2015 at 8:12
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    After watching Enterprise, I've assumed that it was more of a long term thing. They got off on the wrong foot during first contact and things got progressively worse until war broke out. But I think the writing of Enterprise probably changed what Picard's statement. It was probably intended to be literal at the time it was written. Nov 15, 2015 at 9:23
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    i always think that the movie first contact resulted in a new timeline, and enterprise is happening in that new timeline since they find left over borg. (but thats just a fan theory) but picard made that statement prior to the movie first contact.
    – Himarm
    Nov 15, 2015 at 18:09
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    Remember the whole "Temporal Cold War" arc. The Suliban in "Enterprise" were being manipulated by people from the future. Klaang's crashing on Earth might not have been the "first" first contact. Nov 15, 2015 at 19:06
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    Maybe Picard was not referring to Humanity's first contact with Klingons. If Vulcans knew Klingons before Humans, maybe there was a conflict between Vulcans and Klingons, which Humans learned from when establishing their own rules of first contact? Nov 16, 2015 at 7:24

6 Answers 6


Rather than a single incident, it may have been several:

Strike 1: The first contact

The first contact was depicted in ENT 'Broken Bow' and is described by Memory Alpha as follows:

After arriving on Qo'noS, Archer, Klaang, Sato and T'Pol enter the Klingon High Council Chamber. As Klaang addresses the High Council in Klingonese, Sato tries her best to interpret his words. According to the linguist, Klaang says something about disgracing the Klingon Empire and mentions that he's ready to die. The Klingon Chancellor approaches Klaang and makes a small cut in his hand with a jagged dagger. The Klingons then pour some of Klaang's blood into a vial which they examine with a large scientific device. The extracted DNA from his blood contains a wealth of Suliban information. The Klingons shout in gruff approval, but soon quiet again. The Chancellor approaches Captain Archer and, holding the dagger against the captain's throat, says something in Klingonese that Archer interprets as a thanks. Once the Chancellor leaves, Sato comments that the captain's interpretation was incorrect, and claims that Archer wouldn't want to know what the Klingon actually said.

It would seem that Klaang admitted he had disgraced the Empire. As we know well, the Klingon culture is based on honour. That Klaang was saved from death (what would have been an honourable death, working for the sake of the Empire) may have brought dishonour upon him.

Although we could interpret this scenario as being a generally reasonable first contact, for Klaang it didn't go down well. The Klingons probably weren't terribly impressed that they had to have Humans return their officer; it doesn't make the Empire look good.

Strike 2: An Unexpected Encounter

In ENT 'Unexpected', the Enterprise has a less than pleasant encounter with a group of Klingons. The encounter doesn't help to strengthen their relationships.

Strike 3: The Straw That Broke The Camel's... er Klingon's Back

In ENT 'Judgement', Archer is found guilty of assisting a group who were considered 'rebels' in the eyes of the Empire. He is then sentenced for life on Rura Penthe. Archer then breaks out of this and has a price put on his head.

Now, when we consider that Archer is essentially the Klingon's only experience with humans and that he is a representative of humans, I think it's fair to say that these actions didn't help the Human-Klingon relationship.

Whether it's fair to say this is down purely to the first contact is another matter. I would argue that the first contact wasn't the reason why Humans and Klingons went to war, but I do think it was at the least a contributing factor and, at most, a catalyst. This first contact in 'Broken Bow' did not portray the Empire as the strong force the Klingons would have wanted it to be.

It also depends on how you interpret it; I think @paxdiablo makes a good point; we could interpret Picard's statements as referring just to the first contact, or, as I have done, to the first contacts. I think the latter is more in the spirit of what Picard was trying to communicate.


From a language lawyer point of view:

Although the context may be about first contact, there is nothing in the phrase indicating the trouble ("centuries ago, a disastrous contact with the Klingon Empire led to decades of war") to indicate it was during first contact.

It may be that it was months or years after first contact that the trouble occurred but, if proper analysis had been done before first contact, they might have had a better understanding of the warlike nature of the Klingon race, and been able to avoid the situation.

Given the history of human conflict (where people who don't understand the long paths that lead to war tend to believe the great war was caused only by the shooting of the Archduke, or that World War II was unrelated to the crippling sanctions from the great war decades beforehand), there's ample precedent to believe the trouble could have been caused by a process that took a long time to come out.

  • I understand, but I’m afraid I’m doubtful. With the one sentence taken alone, then we might submit to what you are saying. However, the surrounding sentences suggest that this is everything to do with first contact: “..there is no starship mission more dangerous than that of first contact. We never know what we will face when we open the door on a new world, how we will be greeted, what exactly the dangers will be. Centuries ago, a disastrous contact with the Klingon Empire led to decades of war. It was decided then we would do surveillance before making contact.
    – Praxis
    Apr 29, 2021 at 14:00

Simple answer is this; Enterprise series wasn't filmed yet. STNG made by Gene Roddenberry, in original vision, Earth discovered the primitive Klingons. The shared technology didn't mix well with the war like and aggressive Klingon Empire. This was the ego driven dogma of the 1960's that mankind went to the moon, thus we were first to explore the stars too.

This bit of lore was repeating in several episodes of STNG and TOS. Eventually new writers had different ideas and Enterprise was written with an advanced Klingon Empire making contact with Earth instead. It is not a "real" history, and with so many cooks in the kitchen you end up picking and choosing what to keep in and throw out. TOS also stated Zefram Cochrane was from Alpha Centari and not a man from Earth at all.

  • I’m looking for an in-universe answer, not an answer about what the writers may or may not have been thinking.
    – Praxis
    Jul 10, 2018 at 12:52
  • Can you point to any dialogue or behind the scenes info that suggests the Klingons were primitive when first contact happened, or that Starfleet shared technology with them?
    – Hypnosifl
    Feb 28 at 13:15

Star Trek Discovery answers this... sorta.

  1. The USS Shenzhou encountered the Klingons at a binary star system
  2. The Klingon "leader" T'Kuvma had disabled a Federation communications array to lure the Federation out so he could summon the fragmented Klingon houses to war
  3. The Vulcans had avoided open war by shooting first at the Klingons (which was interpreted as a sign of power)
  4. While First Officer Burnham had tried to fire an opening shot, she was stopped before she could complete the order.
  5. Captain Georgiou's open attempts at diplomacy and peaceful negotiation are interpreted by the Klingon T'Kuvma as weakness.
  6. The Klingons and Starfleet exchange fire (with the Klingons shooting first), inflicting heavy casualties on both sides

I say "sorta" because the war lasts only about a year (2256-2257), although Picard could have been making a generalization (this wasn't the last war with the Klingons and Picard is more than a century removed from this). It also flies in the face of Starfleet First Contact protocols that Picard was discussing, because the Klingons were somewhat known at this point and were already warp-capable (i.e. observation would not really have been possible).

  • This is incorrect, the events of Enterprise predate those of Discovery, and it's during Enterprise that first contact is made.
    – Josh
    Oct 18, 2019 at 7:08
  • @Josh You'll note Picard never says it was first contact with the Klingons that lead to war. Discovery depicts the first major contact with the Klingons. And ENT does not depict any war with the Klingons.
    – Machavity
    Oct 18, 2019 at 12:27

The real world answer is that in TOS episode “Day of the Dove” Spock said there had been “50 years of conflict” with the Klingons. ”Day of the Dove” was set in 2268, so 50!years earlier would be 2218. Some novels depict this is as the disastrous first contact. However, Spock or anyone else didn’t say when first contact with the Klingons occurred. Then came Enterprise with a less disastrous and dare I say positive first contact in “Broken Bow” followed by a few not so disastrous incidents in “Unexpected” and “Sleeping Dogs” (Archer and crew saved a Klingon Bird of Prey for Godsake). Then we get to “Judgement” where the Klingons put Archer on trial for trying to aid alien “rebels” (Oh those meddling humans!). Archer is sent to the Rita Penthe penal colony and escapes. Perhaps this is the “disastrous” event that Picard refers to.


There is nothing in Picard's statement to indicate that the disastrous contact was contact between HUMANS and Klingons

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    While this could be correct, I doubt that it is the interpretation that most people would have of those words. Do you have something to suggest that Picard was referring to a race other than humans?
    – Blackwood
    Jan 11, 2017 at 4:20

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