The USS Enterprise takes on a Klingon commander, Kurn, who has been temporarily assigned to the Enterprise as acting first officer as part of the Federation-Klingon Officer Exchange Program, in return for Riker serving in a similar role aboard the IKS Pagh back in "A Matter of Honor." Kurn immediately begins to impose "Klingon-style" discipline aboard the Starfleet vessel, with Captain Picard's approval. The surprised crew find Kurn's methods excessively harsh — except for Worf, whom Kurn treats like a child, giving him easy assignments and exaggeratedly praising his efficiency during a minor course correction. Worf slowly begins to bristle at this babying treatment.
After a dinner for the senior officers gives Kurn another opportunity to insult Worf for liking human-style food, Worf goes to Kurn's quarters to demand an explanation. Kurn goads Worf into angrily declaring his Klingon heritage, and Kurn's demeanor abruptly shifts. He's been testing Worf to see just how Klingon he is, revealing that he is really Worf's younger brother.
Kurn explains that he had been left behind with family friends as an infant when Worf and his parents went to the Khitomer colony for what was supposed to be a brief visit. They adopted and raised him after the massacre, while both the Federation and the Klingons believed that he had been killed with his parents. Kurn has sought Worf out because their father, Mogh, is accused of treason by the Klingon High Council. Supposedly, he had lowered the shields of the Khitomer outpost just before the Romulan attack. Kurn engineered the assignment aboard the Enterprise to find Worf and ask him to challenge the judgment as Mogh's elder son.
Worf explains this to the captain, asking for leave to pursue the manner. Picard is puzzled; why is all of this happening now, about twenty years after the massacre took place? Worf doesn't know, but the man behind the accusation is Duras, whose family has been the greatest rivals of Worf's family for generations. Worf further explains that being labeled a traitor is a serious allegation in Klingon society, which blemishes not just the name of the accused, but also marks his descendants for seven generations. Worf, of course, feels strongly obligated to challenge this claim, hoping to either clear his father's name or answer for his crimes, as the family of a Klingon warrior is responsible for his actions and he is responsible for theirs: if Worf can not successfully refute the accusation, he will be executed in his father's place. Picard says that since Worf is accused of a capital crime, it would be better if he were standing at Worf's side as he made his challenge, and commands Kurn to set course for the Klingon homeworld.
In Ten Forward, Kurn asks Worf if he can be his Cha'DIch, or ritual second. While Worf is accused, he will not be allowed to participate in any duels or fights. Worf accepts, although he tells Kurn that he must not reveal his true bloodline. Kurn, not happy about this, correctly guess that Worf is trying to protect him from being executed alongside him in the event he should fail. Kurn points out that a Klingon's honor means more than his life, but he reluctantly agrees when Worf answers that, as his Cha'DIch, he has no right to refuse this order. Once they arrive at Qo'noS, Worf and Kurn beam down with Picard and Riker accompanying them. Worf pronounces his challenge before the Council and faces the allegations of Duras. Duras accuses Worf of forsaking his heritage for the Federation, but Picard tells the council that Worf has served under his command with distinction, earning Picard's admiration and respect.
Duras states his allegations and accuses both Mogh and Worf of being traitors, backhanding Worf in the traditions of their people. Duras then rips Worf's baldric off of him, telling Worf he is unworthy to wear the emblems of their people. Worf replies, "It is a good day to die, Duras, but the day is not yet over."
During a recess of the council, Chancellor K'mpec, who knew Mogh personally, privately meets with Worf and asks him why he decided to challenge the accusation, which would not have affected his life in the Federation. When Worf simply answers that he is Klingon and therefore must defend his family's honor, K'mpec asks him to return to the Enterprise and leave the planet before the final judgement, telling him that the challenge will be quietly forgotten and no shame will come to him. Worf reacts with shock and dismay at this seemingly un-Klingon request. Picard, meanwhile, uses the recess to ask the Enterprise crew to find all the available information on the Khitomer massacre, as well as the most important lore on the Klingon justice system and its associated customs.
Meanwhile, Duras confronts Kurn and reveals that he knows his true bloodline, attempting to blackmail him into turning against Worf. When Kurn vehemently refuses, Duras signals a pair of assassins in his employ who attack Kurn and seriously wound him. With Kurn recovering in the Enterprise's sickbay, Worf asks Picard to be his new Cha'DIch. After some hesitation, Picard replies, "jIlajneS. ghIj qet jaghmeyjaj." ("I accept with honor. May your enemies tremble before you.")
The Enterprise crew continue their investigation and discover that the Klingons recently captured a Romulan ship with information about Khitomer in the ship's logs, which is how they found out about the treachery. By comparing the information in the Klingon archives with the logs of the first Federation ship on the scene, La Forge and Data discover that there is a discrepancy in the transmissions — the evidence that supported Mogh's guilt was faked. It's also discovered that Worf's nurse, a woman named Kahlest, was the only other survivor of the massacre. She was also rescued by the Federation and returned to Qo'noS.
Picard journeys into the Old City and finds Kahlest's home, where he tries to persuade Kahlest to accompany him back to the High Council chamber, telling her that the family that she once served proudly needs her again. Kahlest has fallen into despair, and refuses — until Duras's assassins attack again, and Kahlest saves Picard's life as they fight them off.
Just as K'mpec is about to pronounce judgment on Worf, Picard enters with Kahlest, who swears before the council that Mogh was innocent. In response K'mpec quickly calls for a recess. In a private session, Picard demands that Kahlest is to be allowed to testify in open council in accordance with Klingon law. Duras is almost hysterically against it. K'mpec silences him by asking him if he would really kill an old woman to cover his dishonor, making it clear that it was Duras's father Ja'rod, not Mogh, who betrayed the colony to the Romulans.
K'mpec, clearly weary and demoralized, tells Worf that he should just have left quietly when he personally requested it of him, before he explains the truth. When Klingons captured the Romulan ship with the records, they learned of the treachery behind the Khitomer Massacre; this soon became common knowledge, and someone had to answer for that treachery. The Duras family has become too politically powerful, and to expose Ja'rod would likely split the Empire and cause a civil war, so Mogh was blamed instead, since Worf, off in Starfleet, would not be likely to challenge the judgment. No one realized that Kurn was Mogh's second child—but now both of them must die in order to complete the frame-up. Declaring Worf's challenge successful, Picard refuses to hand Worf and Kurn over for execution, over K'mpec's threats to end the alliance with the Federation.
Worf, however, volunteers to die for the sake of the Klingon Empire, over Picard's objections in return for Kurn's life. Duras rejects this, as Kurn's honor would then demand revenge. Worf then offers to accept discommendation if Kurn will be allowed to live, in effect admitting his father's guilt and being exiled from the Empire. Before they proceed, Worf calls Duras the son of a traitor and backhands him as tradition demands.
Kurn is heartbroken by Worf's decision, telling Picard that he was ready to die for Worf, but Picard tells Kurn that there will be another day to fight, and he must live in order to restore the honor of Mogh's family.
Picard and Kurn join Worf in the middle of the council chambers and the council members gather in a circle around Worf. Worf says the ritual words, "tlhIH ghIj jIHyoj" ("I fear your judgment"); K'mpec replies, "biHnuch!" ("Coward!"), and one by one, the Council members cross their arms and turn their backs on him in ritual ostracism. Worf softly tells Kurn that he must do the same. Almost on the verge of tears, Kurn complies. The whole assembly having turned their backs, Worf and Picard leave the Council Chamber and return to the Enterprise.
Tropes featured in this episode include:
- A Father to His Men: Picard is not going to simply stand by when his officer is facing a charge of Treason.
- Alien Lunch: Inverted — Kurn isn't too fond of the "burnt replicated bird meat" served on the Enterprise. Like any good Klingon, he Prefers Raw Meat. He also grabs a handful of decorative flowers from the table and drops them onto his plate, believing them to be part of the buffet. The fact that Worf is used to replicated human food gives Kurn one more reason to aggravate him.
- Anti-Villain: Though he's the leader of the conspiracy and ultimately responsible for getting Worf blacklisted, it's clear that K'mpec is doing what he feels is right for the Empire and deeply admires Worf's altruism in willingly forsaking his own honor, telling him "Your heart is Klingon." Not to mention the little nod of approval he gives when Worf backhands Duras across the face.
- Badass Boast: When Duras mocks Picard's fighting prowess, Picard simply tells him, "You may test that assumption at your convenience."
- Badass Longcoat: The first appearance of the Klingon Chancellor's Coat, with its Chest of Medals and Coat Cape.
- The Bad Guy Wins: Duras gets Worf and his family dishonored like he'd wanted.
- Batman Gambit: It was Duras's father who aided the Romulans, but by the time it was discovered he was too politically powerful to dishonor without plunging the Empire into civil war. K'mpec believed that with the only known son of Mogh serving in Starfleet, Mogh could be blamed without any fallout.
- Berserk Button: Kurn pushes Worf's to get a properly Klingon response, to find out if he is suitable to bring the challenge against the Council.
- Deceased Fall-Guy Gambit: Duras and K'mpec choose Mogh to take the fall for the Khitomer Massacre not only because he is dead, but because his only (or so they thought) son is an expatriate who wouldn't be likely to hear the news.
- Department of Redundancy Department: Picard orders Kurn to set course for the First City of the Klingon Imperial Empire. Being an "empire" already makes it "imperial."
- Didn't See That Coming: The Council had no way of knowing Mogh had a second son who would draw attention to their conspiracy. Nor did they figure on Worf and the Enterprise coming to Qo'noS to deal with the situation. They also didn't know that there was one more Khitomer survivor connected to Mogh (not that she actually knows anything, but her mere presence is enough to rattle K'mpec).
- Downer Ending: The politics of the situation force Worf to be publicly dishonored even though everyone knows what really happened, and he has to satisfy himself with slapping Duras. For the moment, anyway, as Ron Moore had always planned to continue the story later.
- Early Installment Weirdness: Kahlest says of Mogh that he was "loyal to the Emperor." Later episodes confirm that the Klingon Empire doesn't actually have an Emperor; the Chancellor and the High Council run the government, and the throne's been vacant for centuries (In season 6's "Rightful Heir", the Klingon government "promotes" a clone of Kahless to Emperor so that Chancellor Gowron can remain leader). It's possible "loyal to the Emperor" might be some kind of Klingon idiom, but that's pure speculation.
- Giving Someone the Pointer Finger: Worf angrily points his finger at Duras when he learns that it was Duras' father who betrayed the Khitomer colony.Worf: Then THIS Ha'DIbah should have been fed to the dogs!
- Halfway Plot Switch: The episode begins with Kurn serving as the Enterprise's new Klingon exchange officer, which serves as a follow-up to the previous episode "A Matter of Honor," when Commander Riker was the exchange officer on a Klingon ship. However, this plotline is completely abandoned by the end of the first act in order to move on to the real plot of the episode.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: Ja'rod was killed in the attack he facilitated.
- Honor Before Reason: Both Worf and Kurn could've ignored the charges against their father with no disruption to their lives (and are repeatedly urged to do so). Their persistence shows them to be truer to Klingon honor than the politicians they face. However, they both bow to reason when they willingly accept Worf's discommendation rather than hold to their honor and provoke a violent civil war.
- I Am X, Son of Y:
- Of course Worf would introduce himself this way in the council chambers."I am Worf, son of Mogh! I have come to challenge the lies that have been spoken of my father!"
- But also Played With when Kurn introduces himself as "Son of...Lorgh", as Worf had ordered him to keep his true parentage a secret. The pause is brief, but just noticeable.
- Of course Worf would introduce himself this way in the council chambers.
- Innocuously Important Episode: This episode first shows that the 24th century Klingon government is extremely corrupt, which will have repercussions lasting all the way through Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, getting rectified by Worf, fittingly enough.
- Jabba Table Manners: Like many Klingons, Kurn is extremely uncouth while having dinner with the Enterprise officers, openly spitting bones onto his plate and chewing loudly.
- Kangaroo Court: The trial turns out to be this as the High Council had already decided to blame Worf's father, not knowing his son would come to mount a defense. K'mpec even says so much at the end by saying the trial was over before it had begun.
- Kick the Son of a Bitch: K'mpec looks on in approval when Worf backhands Duras.
- Not Hyperbole: Troi laughs when Kurn says he had to restrain himself from killing Riker earlier, only to fall silent when she sees the serious look on Riker and Worf's faces.
- Obfuscating Insanity: When Picard first meets her, Kahlest pretends to be a senile old woman and constantly proclaims that she is dead and died at Khitomer. Moments later, when assassins set upon Picard outside her home, Kahlest deals with one quite handily and says that Worf chose his cha'Dich well.
- OOC Is Serious Business: Worf is shocked when K'mpec catches him alone and urges him to drop his challenge, due to the implication that Worf should put his own well-being above his family's honor. A subversion in retrospect, as this is the first of many examples to come, both in TNG and DS9, that show how cheap honor really is to most Klingon politicians, and how Worf hews closer to Klingon ideals than many Klingons who were raised in the Empire.
- Permission to Speak Freely: Worf when going to find out why Kurn is patronising him. In a subversion, they only really start speaking freely once Worf forgets Starfleet protocol and threatens him.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Picard tears into K'mpec for using Worf as The Scapegoat when he knows that Duras's father was the traitor.
- Rejection Ritual: The High Council members cross their arms over their chest and turn their backs on Worf, one by one.
- Secret Test of Character: Kurn intentionally tries to provoke Worf to see if there is still enough of a Klingon in him to face the High Council and fight its accusations against their father.
- Sequel Hook: Picard tells Kurn to remember the day's events and wait for an opportunity to restore his family's honor. Ron Moore notes on the DVD Commentary, "That ending cries out for a follow-up," quite unusual for TV at the time and an early sign of how much the whole medium would come to change in the '90s.
- Silent Scapegoat: Worf becomes this to save the Klingon Empire.
- Sins of Our Fathers: It's Exactly What It Says on the Tin, albeit with the small wrinkle that Worf's father is The Scapegoat and not the real traitor, while Duras escapes punishment for his father's treason. For now...
- Starship Luxurious: Not surprisingly, Kurn doesn't approve of the comfortable design of the Enterprise.Kurn: This entire ship seems built for...comfort, relaxation, being at ease. It is not the ship for a warrior... not the ship for a Klingon.
- Surprise Witness: Kahlest — in truth she doesn't know anything, but Picard is able to use her as a bluff to force the Council to reveal the truth.
- Unperson: What discommendation means for a Klingon; Worf is never to be spoken of or acknowledged under Klingon law again.
- Wham Line:
- When Kurn succeeds in getting Worf outwardly enraged:Kurn: That is the response of a Klingon! The response I would expect... from my older brother.
- Even with The Reveal that Kurn is the second-born son of Mogh, it's still a surprise when Duras addresses him as such, meaning that he knows the truth about Kurn and now considers him a threat to be dealt with.
- When Kurn succeeds in getting Worf outwardly enraged:
- World of Ham: Qo'noS. The High Council chambers alone are overflowing with raw ham.