Only in Star Trek can horned apes deliver a poisonous bite.
And if other horned apes carrying venom in their fangs do exist elsewhere in science fiction, they’re not nearly as famous as the Mugato from Star Trek: The Original Series. First appearing in 1968, this deadly creature has not since appeared in Star Trek canon. That is, until now.
The latest Lower Decks episode “Mugato, Gumato” finally brings the Mugato back into the fold. In doing so, the episode basically reboots everything we thought we knew about these furry, hilarious monsters.
Here’s the scoop on Mugatos and their pop-culture footprint, as well as our take on how Lower Decks just settled a very old debate. Spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 2, Episode 4, “Mugato, Gumato.”
What is a Mugato?
In the episode “A Private Little War,” we’re told the Mugato is native to the planet Neural. While trying to help “the Tree People” on Neural, Spock gets shot in the back by a flintlock rifle. Kirk also later gets mauled and bitten by a “non-sentient,” a local animal called a Mugato. Kirk can only be cured by a special potion called a “mahko root,” which is exclusively available from the local witch doctors. It’s quite an episode!
And if you think all this sounds fairly outrageous, you’re not wrong. But as Tawny Newsome’s Mariner joked in Lower Decks Season 1, Kirk and the gang getting mixed up with spears and gnarly wild animals was essentially par for the course in the 2260s of The Original Series.
At the time, “A Private Little War” was famous not only for its aforementioned absurd plotlines, but also because the basic premise of the episode dealt with the Enterprise wading into an unusually political conflict. On Neural, Klingons were arming some indigenous groups on the planet, with the intent on wiping out the planet’s other population (the Tree People), which was loyal to Starfleet. Kirk and Bones have a very on-the-nose discussion at one point in the episode that makes it very clear this episode is about the Vietnam War, which was unfolding far beyond the screen when “A Private Little War” aired.
In spite of the episode’s fame (or perhaps because of it), the Mugato never really resurfaced in Trek canon. Lower Decks just changed that.
How Lower Decks changes Mugato canon
In two ways, Lower Decks hilariously futzes with the original canon of these zany TOS monsters. The first is pretty simple: In “A Private Little War,” the Mugato was only found on the planet Neural. But, as Shaxs points out, Mugatos have since reached other planets, though they’re not indigenous to these spots. Later, their distribution across the galaxy is revealed to be connected to a Ferengi poaching operation.
But the second way Lower Decks changes Trek canon is by specifically addressing the confusion surrounding the way you pronounce “Mugato.” As Boimler points out, the Mugato has several different acceptable pronunciations, which he cheerfully describes as “inconsistent.”
In the episode, people say “Gumato” as well as “Mugatu.” Canonically, Lower Decks is now stating that all these names for the creature are simultaneously correct. But why are there several different pronunciations of “Mugato,” and where did the confusion start?
The history and legacy of the Mugato
The reason Lower Decks made various pronunciations of Mugato canon is this: in the classic episode, both William Shatner and DeForest Kelley had a hard time with the word “Gumato” which was the original name for the creature as written in the script.
In essence, the name was changed on set, given various mispronunciations by the classic Star Trek actors. This led to confusion across Star Trek books in the ‘70s and ‘80s, throughout which Mugato was misspelled as “Mugatu.”
This last variant — Mugatu — is also, not coincidentally, the name of Will Ferrell’s villain in the Zoolander films. This name was chosen by Ben Stiller as a direct homage to Star Trek: The Original Series. In fact, Stiller is a huge fan of the classic Trek.
As he revealed on the official Star Trek Podcast (The Pod Directive) in 2020, Stiller’s production company The Red Hour is named after a time of chaos in the episode “Return of the Archons,” and Stiller himself owns the original Gorn head from the episode “Arena.”
So, there you have it. The Mugato is also the Mugatu... and also a Gumato. All of these spellings are now canonically correct, and any Trekkie (or Trekker) debate about the matter has been settled.
If you don’t agree, then Mugatu from Zoolander might send a Mugato to bite you. Fair warning.
Star Trek: Lower Decks streams on Paramount+.