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Saru is Star Trek: Discovery’s unsung hero

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And the show’s casually dismissive treatment of him is wasting some terrific story opportunities

Photo courtesy of CBS All Access

With all the betrayals, torture, time-looping, and universe-hopping crammed into the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, fans can be forgiven for missing subtler story points aboard the Federation vessel Discovery. From the personalities of the ship’s bridge crew to the finer physiological points of “species reassignment,” many of the show’s smaller details traveled painlessly under the radar, though season 2 — tentatively scheduled for 2019 — might expand on them. But one downplayed element of this season’s grand, multidimensional adventure can’t go unmentioned. For the sake of the show’s larger narrative and emotional impact, and the sake of justice in the Star Trek universe, the show needs to spend more time with Saru, the alien played by frequent Guillermo del Toro collaborator Doug Jones.

Discovery’s only senior officer who isn’t a human or cyborg had a remarkable character arc in season 1, rivaling that of the show’s star, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green). Saru’s leadership was quietly responsible for the crew’s ultimate salvation — and yet he wasn’t awarded the promotion to captain he so readily earned over the course of the season, and his character has been woefully underappreciated by viewers and other characters alike.

To understand how far the Kelpien leader has come, and the odds he’s beaten to succeed, consider Discovery’s premiere episode. Lieutenant Commander Saru is introduced as a slightly uptight, risk-averse science officer on the U.S.S. Shenzhou. He gets little respect from first officer Burnham or, it seems, Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). Saru is hesitant about commanding the ship in his superiors’ absence, pausing nervously when an ensign requests orders, but his doubt clearly isn’t all in his head. Burnham, technically his boss, agrees with his assertion that she feels “the constant need to dismiss [his] ideas,” in front of their subordinates no less, which undermines his leadership.

Photo courtesy of CBS All Access

Dubbed “the Spock or Data of the series” early on by the show’s producers, Saru is also the only member of his race in Starfleet or the Federation, which has made him a token akin to Odo, Deep Space Nine’s pessimistic changeling security chief. Starfleet and the show itself are both proud to tout Saru as a demonstration of their continuing commitment to diversity, but his crewmates seem to know little about his species, beyond the flat stereotype of the paranoid worrywart who sees the sky falling when he faces the slightest risk. He seems uninclined to challenge that ignorance, either because he’s the sole Kelpien aboard and doesn’t want to give his people an even worse name, or because the show simply hasn’t gotten around to fleshing out the cautious Kelpien culture the way past series have with the Vulcans’ logic-bound society, or the Klingons’ honor-bound one, or the Ferengis’ profit-bound one.

Regardless, the crew pays the price for their casual ignorance. “Saru is Kelpien. He thinks everything is malicious,” Georgiou jokes to Burnham in her ready room, after he suggests they back away from an unknown object “lurking” in space. Then the object turns out to be a Klingon sculpture, and disturbing it launches a brutal, year-long war that slaughters countless innocents, and almost obliterates the Federation, Starfleet, and Earth itself. Don’t mind the Kelpien’s concerns, his entire race was only hunted and bred like livestock on their home planet for centuries, eventually becoming “biologically determined… to sense the coming of death.” Ha ha ha, those flailing external threat ganglia are so weird, though, amiright?

When Saru winds up on the USS Discovery, promoted to first officer under Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs), he’s disturbed by Burnham’s presence on the ship. Whether it’s a Kelpien trait or just a Saru one, he’s still fair with her, describing her to their superiors as a “valuable asset” and being respectful yet firm when he tells her she’s a threat to the safety of his, or any, crew. His decency is repaid with disrespect, as Lorca recruits Burnham to serve on the Discovery indefinitely, without even mentioning it to his first officer. Still, Saru sucks it up and keeps working without raising his concerns.

Photo courtesy CBS All Access

By the time the Klingons take Lorca prisoner, Saru has grown significantly as a leader. His earlier hesitation is gone as he vows to bring the captain back, and gives swift, decisive orders to the bridge crew without a hint of emerging threat ganglia. But he also doubts his instincts so deeply that he sets up the ship’s computer to monitor his performance as acting captain, and cross-reference his choices with Starfleet’s most successful captains, to make certain his fears don’t hinder his leadership. What human would go to these lengths? (If this program and its findings don’t factor into season 2, it will be a massive missed opportunity.)

And then there’s the mirror universe. As we’ve discussed, the decision to confront the Discovery crew with their darkest, worst selves in an alternate dimension gave the series a much-needed jolt, raising the stakes and forcing the characters to actively declare their values rather than taking them for granted. But Saru never gets that choice. He’s built to navigate a world where everything really is malicious, yet he’s barely afforded the chance to react to the place at all. Under the Terran Empire’s rule, Kelpiens are still kept as nameless, groveling slaves — and as a culinary delicacy. But when Saru is finally made aware of this grim reality, his alleged Kelpien tendency to panic and flee is virtually nonexistent, apart from the shock and hurt of being kept in the dark.

Then the ruthless Terran Emperor Georgiou waltzes onto the Discovery, back into the prime universe, and into the captain’s chair — the same chair from which Saru spend half the season leading as a decisive, compassionate acting captain. He’s taken personal responsibility for the safety and survival of every individual crew member, including ones who turn out to be Klingon sleeper agents, without so much as a sliver of recognition. Yet Saru takes his superiors’ horrific decision — to replace him with someone who’d prefer him in a soup, rather than on the bridge — in positively superhuman stride. He doesn’t seem to harbor any resentment when, in the finale, Burnham is reinstated, Tilly is promoted, yet he’s deemed unfit to be named Discovery’s permanent captain. His apparent lack of ego deserves a deeper examination, not just of his character, but of the stereotypes surrounding Kelpiens.

Photo courtesy of CBS All Access

Saru’s subpar treatment by his colleagues isn’t a new indignity in the Star Trek universe. Odo’s biological novelty drew similar ridicule in Deep Space Nine, and the android Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation was not only the butt of many early jokes, but subject to several interrogations where he had to defend his very right to exist. The number of times Lieutenant Worf, TNG’s Klingon security chief, had his professional opinion shut down or ignored by his bosses was so ludicrous, it’s become its own meme.

It’s a reminder of how poorly non-humans are treated in Starfleet, and on Star Trek. We’ve seen no major Starfleet ships captained by non-humans so far. Even when Star Trek aliens are culturally and even biologically inclined toward the duties of their rank, humans dismiss and ignore them as regularly as they wave off the Prime Directive. Does Saru’s cautiousness and unwillingness to unnecessarily endanger his crew make him unfit for the captain’s chair, any more than a human’s reckless impulsivity?

But that’s where Discovery comes in. This newest show has already broken ranks by becoming the first Trek series not to anchor its story with the ship’s captain. Why shouldn’t the trailblazing continue by giving the franchise its first non-human in that role? The Discovery is now a science vessel in a politically fragile era, which lends itself to vastly more careful, considered leadership than that of exploration ships like the Enterprise. Solid groundwork has already been laid, both in character development and plot breadcrumbs, for Saru’s rise to permanent leadership, and to a more in-depth look both at the Kelpien world and Saru’s inner life.

There’s also copious precedent for the latter, with Odo meeting his changeling family by DS9’s third season, and numerous episodes of TNG dedicated to Worf and Data’s origins. This series could even pull off an episode like Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “The Zeppo,” with the protagonist’s story told entirely from a sidekick’s perspective. What would a Star Trek series be like with a captain who thinks twice before jumping into the fray? After all Saru has withstood and sacrificed for Starfleet, it would be a betrayal of the Federation’s ideals not to find out.