In the movie, a shapeshifter changes her appearance to look like Captain Kirk while Kirk and McCoy are trying to escape the Klingon prison, Rura Penthe.

Kirk fights the shapeshifter while the Klingon prison guards track them down. The prison commander then kills the shapeshifter while she looks exactly like Kirk. It's clear the Klingons wanted to kill the shapeshifter anyway so there would be no witnesses.

How did the prison commander know which person to kill since the shapeshifter and Kirk looked identical?

Is there something in the novelization of the show that says how the prison commander knew?

  • 5
    The Klingon sense of smell is acute (Birthright, Part 2). Imitation of body odor might have been beyond the shapeshifter's capabilities.
    – Gaultheria
    Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 1:53
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    I think what's really going on is the Klingons didn't care which was the real Kirk. They just needed a pretext to kill him, and were planning to kill both McCoy and the shapeshifter also. Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 17:01
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    I always thought he shot the wrong one! He was trying to shoot the real Kirk (killed while trying to escape) but shot Martia instead.
    – komodosp
    Commented Dec 8, 2021 at 12:23
  • He wasn't trying to kill the real McCoy? ba-da-boom!
    – FreeMan
    Commented Feb 15, 2022 at 18:42

4 Answers 4


It should be noted that the real Kirk was still wearing his ankle restraints. Martia took hers off just before they breached the wall for the escape.

  • 1
    Is there visual proof that Kirk didn't get his restraints removed at some point between escaping the mines and the duplicate fight? I don't recall this detail. Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 20:31
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    There's also zero indication that the Klingon Commandant would have any knowledge of this snippet of information
    – Valorum
    Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 21:00
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    @ApproachingDarknessFish If you play the video snippet above, you will see Kirk and Bones are still wearing ankle restraints, but the false Kirk has none.
    – RichS
    Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 23:51
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    @RichS - I'm not disputing that. I'm saying that this method of detection only works if you know that the Kirk without a chain is the fake Kirk.
    – Valorum
    Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 7:13
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    @Valorum Wouldn't he able to deduce it by knowing a shapeshifter could change form and remove the chains while a human could not?
    – RichS
    Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 7:14

The implication, according to the film script and official novelisation is that the Commandant didn't know. Having two Kirks was annoying him so he killed one of them. By mere coincidence, it happened to be the shapeshifter.

KIRK: Not me, idiot - HIM!

[The Commandant appears briefly confused, then VFXA: ZAPS the FALSE Kirk, who dies horribly, as Bones watches. Kirk sighs.]

COMMANDANT: (smiles) No witnesses -

[He aims at Kirk and Bones]

BONES: (conversational) Damned clever if you ask me...


The commandant turned to favor Kirk and McCoy with an ironic gap-toothed grin. "No witnesses..."
As Jim had suspected, the commandant had never meant to keep his bargain with Martia. He lifted his weapon and aimed it at Jim and Bones. "Damned clever if you ask me," McCoy said conversationally,

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    I don't understand how that implication follows from the quotes you've provided. Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 0:50
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    @ApproachingDarknessFish - There's no indication offered that he knew which was the shapeshifter. It therefore follows that he didn't know.
    – Valorum
    Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 0:51
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    In that case, maybe a shapeshifter was impersonating Kirk for the next 20 years after that.
    – RichS
    Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 1:14
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    The point is that he was going to kill them both anyways, so he really didn't care which was real. In universe, it was blind luck. Out of universe, it would have ruined the story to kill Kirk.
    – pojo-guy
    Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 3:54
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    @RichS The script snippet quoted explicitly says that the FALSE Kirk was shot, so there's no possibility that a shapeshifter was impersonating Kirk for the rest of his life. The only point in question is whether or not the Klingon knew which one he was shooting at before he did so.
    – Steve-O
    Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 20:58

It's subtle, but I think the difference is actually visible on screen.

Fake Kirk:

  • Comically points into the air before he even begins speaking.
  • Gives us the laughably awkward dialog, "Kill him! He's the one!"
  • Keeps their face flat and frozen while speaking.
  • Altogether looks like a goofy alien impersonator.

Real Kirk:

  • Gestures as he speaks, and actually points at his doppelganger.
  • Acts realistically frustrated and emphatic.
  • Speaks with emotion and facial expression.
  • Altogether acts like a believable human.

INB4 obligatory joke about William Shatner's acting style/abilities.

  • 1
    Valorum is probably right in that the Klingon was going to kill them both anyway. Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 23:57
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    @Mark Undoubtedly. But the question asks how the Klingon told the difference, and I think that he could indeed tell the difference, regardless of how he intended to act upon it, if at all. Commented Sep 25, 2017 at 0:01

Commandant didn’t think the real Kirk would be so willing to kill another person. To commit murder is very un-Starfleet like. Of course, Kirk has a history of bucking the system…

  • 2
    Hi, welcome to SF&F. I'm not sure I understand; can you clarify your answer? Kirk didn't kill anyone, so I don't know how that relates to the question.
    – DavidW
    Commented Feb 11, 2022 at 18:08

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