The past few weeks of Star Trek: Discovery have established a pretty comfortable halfway house between episodic and serialised storytelling. Each episode tells a somewhat self-contained Star Trek story, but all of those stories feed into a larger narrative. This week, we visit Saru’s homeworld of Kamanar, in one of the most focused episodes of the show yet, with barely time to catch up on any other storyline. As usual, we get a lot of pretty pictures, some interesting ideas, and pacing that occasionally speeds past the drama a little too quickly.
A fearless Saru is an odd proposition. Having lost his ganglia in a sort of adult puberty process last week, Discovery’s first officer admits that he’s lost “the very thing that defines [him]”. It’s true: Saru’s fear, and his attunement to danger and death, was his defining characteristic, as with any any alien Star Trek character (since Star Trek aliens tend to represent a single emotional or ideological trait). It made him a unique addition to the cast. Replacing that fear with purpose and rage is an interesting arc, for sure - kind of like Spock’s pon farr episodes - but we’ll have to see where the character lands. It’s like Data getting his emotion chip: a positive step forward for the character, but one that could utterly backfire if treated incorrectly.
Saru takes centre stage this week, as Discovery follows another Red Angel signal to Kamanar, where the Kelpiens are kept as sentient livestock by the technologically-advanced Ba’ul. This is an interesting dynamic for the two species, especially since the Ba’ul hide behind and create a religion out of their technology, but it’s both a colossally unfair situation and one that Captain Pike is hesitant to overturn, for General Order One reasons. Fair, if a little callous.
After a confrontation with Captain Pike over who’s best for the job, Saru and Michael beam down to the surface together, seeking a Kelpien priest to chat with. Who should they find, but Saru’s sister, Sarana - whose joy at seeing her brother after eighteen years’ absence is tempered by hurt at his having left in the first place - and at his returning for business, not pleasure. It feels like there’s more to this relationship in concept, but we don’t really get to see it onscreen, because the Ba’ul quickly show up in orbit, prompting Saru and Michael to beam back to the ship.
As expected, the Ba’ul sound pretty nasty from the outset, with a Creepy Alien Voice verging on cliche. They’re defined by the religious ideas they created - the Watchful Eye, the Great Balance - but the crucial part of their conversation with the Discovery crew is when they tell Saru, a little unwisely, that he doesn’t even know what he is. It’s at this point that every viewer’s mind likely started racing. Mine jumped to “oh, the Kelpiens turn into the Ba’ul if they survive vahar’ai,” but it ends up being more interesting than that.
Once Saru impulsively surrenders himself to the Ba’ul, Michael, Tilly (in her one proper scene), and Lt Airiam (getting some rare dialogue) set about figuring out what the hell is going on between these two species. Turns out last week’s giant space sphere serves as a pretty thorough database about a large slice of the galaxy, right down to historical demographic statistics on Kamanar. This is where the most interesting idea in the episode arrives: two thousand years ago, the Ba’ul were the prey species, with the “evolved” (i.e. ganglia-less) Kelpiens acting as predators, hunting them to near extinction. But then, I guess, the Ba’ul got technology and fought back, exterminating their predators and enforcing a strict order upon the world, with themselves at the top. This is all so goddamn human it hurts - a species consciously reorganising an ecosystem for its own benefit, using technology and violence. Oof.
Inside the Ba’ul stronghold, Saru and Sarana are incapacitated and confronted by one of the Ba’ul themselves. Emerging from a pool of inky Armus-like goo, the Ba’ul is all slime and angles, photographed like a fucking xenomorph, and it’s some of the best lighting and photography the show’s ever done. Like the xenomorph through most of Alien, it’s intentionally framed so as to never give us a real sense of its form. It’s cool, but no match for Saru, who suddenly discovers he not only possesses super strength, but biological dart launchers that have replaced his ganglia. He breaks free, contacts Discovery, and sets about forcibly starting the vahar’ai process in all his people, with a synthesis of The Very Big Sphere’s particular radiation.
Aside from causing literally his entire species borderline insufferable pain, Saru’s gambit also forces the Ba’ul to react to protect their rule. Ignoring Pike’s offer to negotiate a peace settlement between the two species, the Ba’ul begin attacking the Kelpiens via a planetwide network of laser beams, their kilometres-wide stronghold rising from the ocean to face their enemies. What’s more, the whole planet is protected by a force field Discovery’s weapons can’t penetrate. What are our heroes to do?
Nothing, as it turns out. A thread runs through the entire episode about the “signals” and the Red Angel, in which Burnham postulates that the Angel is benevolent somehow. Her evidence isn’t bad - every time it’s been seen, it’s rescued someone - but it seems a huge leap to jump to that conclusion. Its appearance on Kamanar, nullifying the Ba’ul’s weapons and saving the Kelpiens from genocide, admittedly strengthens her theory. But I’m wary: the Angel clearly has intentions of its own, as it hops around in its time-travelling techno-suit violating every Prime Directive in the universe, and I’m suspicious that those intentions only align with Discovery’s for now. In this sense, I’m somewhat disturbingly agreed with Section 31, which of course holds the position that the Red Angel could become their enemy someday. The episode’s theme, stated in the end, is “fear vs hope” - it seems both attitudes are in plentiful supply when it comes to the Red Angel.
Next week: Michael goes home to Vulcan; the crew encounters a spatial anomaly; Spock may finally make an appearance; and based on the preview, the Sentinels from the Matrix escape their own franchise and attack a shuttlecraft.
Saru and Sarana speak their own language, and it’s only when Michael flips open her communicator that she - and we - hear their speech translated.
Are “Saru” and “Sarana” the Kelpien equivalent of, like, “Alexander” and “Alexandra”?
I really love a good “alien discovering humans and thinking they’re weird-looking” moment, and Sarana’s was pretty good. Tea, on the other hand, seems as universal as math.
Saru plays on Michael’s sibling guilt when commandeering the transporter. That rat bastard.
In classic Trek style, everything the Ba’ul build is designed around a single basic form.
The direction’s really strong this week, but there’s a split-diopter shot in there that literally made me shout “what was THAT” at my screen.
Saru says the Kelpiens will “move past” their rage and live peacefully with the race that has literally harvested them for thousands of years. That seems...optimistic.
Poor Shazad Latif: Ash Tyler is suddenly a Section 31 company man, without any real development towards that. What happened to this guy?
The one subplot of the week: the returned Hugh doesn’t feel like himself in his brand-new body, and Stamets misses his “sexy” scar. Barely even counts as a subplot.
It occurs to me that this whole thing might end up an origin story for the concept of angels. Let's not, Discovery, okay?
Once you realise “Ba’ul” sounds like “bowel,” it’s all over.