Star Trek Discovery delivers a Saru centric episode with “The Sound of Thunder”

For the second time in season 2, Star Trek Discovery focusses on fan favourite character Saru. But while the last Saru centric episode was a triumph, this one was much less so. For my comments on previous episodes of Star Trek Discovery, go here.

But before we return to our regularly scheduled Star Trek Discovery review, I’d first like to point out that there is a big 99 cent/pence sale of romance and/or crime noir e-books going on at Double-Cross Lit. Lots of books and even box sets in two different genres on offer, including two of mine.

Warning: Spoilers behind the cut!

To catch up, two episodes ago, Saru appeared to be dying, but then abruptly got better (this happens quite often in Star Trek in general and Discovery in particular), when his threat ganglia suddenly shrivelled and fell off (and were replaced by some very cool shooters, as revealed in this episode). Even more amazingly, Saru was finally free of the constant fear which had dominated his life so far. The miraculous recovery Saru experienced was largely ignored during the last episode in favour of focussing on the miraculous recovery of Dr. Culber who’s very much not dead anymore.

“The Sound of Thunder” picks up that thread again, when by some miraculous coincidence, another Red Angel signal appears directly on top of Saru’s home planet Kaminar, last seen in the Short Treks mini-episode “The Brightest Star”. Saru is understandably eager to return to his people and share what he has learned about himself and the physiology of the Kelpians, but Pike puts a damper on his enthusiasm and declares that investigating the Red Angel takes precedence over Saru’s wish to share his newfound insight with his people. The newly fearless Saru isn’t at all happy about this, but in the end Michael manages to persuade Pike to allow Saru to accompany her to the planet. Actuallly, sending Saru to Kaminar makes a lot more sense than sending Michael, because let’s not forget that the Kelpians are a pre-warp civilisation and so sending visibly alien Starfleet personnel to the surface without any disguises or precautions should be a huge no-no due to the Prime Directive/General Order No. 1. Not that anybody cares, because the Prime Directive has been suspended for the duration of this episode. At least, that’s what it feels like, because everybody seems to have completely forgotten that there even is such a thing as the Prime Directive and violates it at every turn. That said, Pike briefly brings up the Prime Directive, but his objections are quickly forgotten by everybody, including Pike himself.

Now I’m not a huge fan of the Prime Directive or more exactly its overly strict application by Starfleet (must I really bring up “Homeward” again?). I also suspect that the Second Doctor’s speech to the Time Lords at the end of The War Games, in which he calls their non-interference policy cowardly, is a response to Star Trek and the Prime Directive/General Order No. 1. So for me to watch a Star Trek show and yell at the screen, “Uhm, what about the Prime Directive?” really is something. Yet I did yell “Hey, have you forgotten the fucking Prime Directive?” at the screen a lot while watching “The Sound of Thunder”. Not that the plight of the Kelpians wouldn’t be an excellent reason to bend the Prime Directive a little, especially since the Ba’ul, the species that preys on them, because Kelpians are delicious, are real arseholes. But the way, Saru, Michael, Pike and everybody else try to help the Kelpians really isn’t the way to do it.

But first, Saru and Michael beam down to Kaminar and Saru promptly goes in search of his sister Siranna in one of many violations of the Prime Directive in this episode. Not that I cannot understand Saru’s desire to see his sister again and if paying a visit to Siranna would have been all the Prime Directive violation “The Sound of Thunder” engages in, I wouldn’t have minded. Besides, I liked Saru’s reunion with his sister (who up to now thought he was dead and doesn’t even recognise him at first) and the whole “bringing your girl/boyfriend home to meet the family” vibe of Saru showing up with the very obviously alien Michael in tow was cute. Even Siranna’s anger, once she realises that Saru only came home to ask about the Red Angel, is fully understandable. And of course, Saru can’t resist telling Siranna everything he’s learned about his physiology and that the supposedly final stage of their lives isn’t actually final, which once again is understandable.

However, the family reunion is cut short when the Ba’ul show up, furious that Saru is back and has blown their secret. Siranna tells Saru and Michael to leave, which they do by beaming back aboard the Discovery, leaving the Kelpian village defenceless and Siranna to be taken prisoner. The Ba’ul, still furious that they did not get their hands on Saru, comm the Discovery and demand that they hand Saru over or the Ba’ul will destroy his home village. Pike, unsuprisingly, tells the (still unseen) Ba’ul to fuck off, because he’s not handing over any crewmembers to hostile alien species. Saru, however, decides to go against Pike and ignore direct orders once again, which – if you remember season 1 (not that the writers do) – is a very bad thing indeed, which will get you locked up in a Federation prison mine for life, at least, if you’re Michael Burnham. If you’re Saru, however, nothing at all happens to you. And so Saru gives himself up to the Ba’ul and finds himself imrpisoned aboard a Ba’ul ship along with his sister.

Now we also finally get to see a Ba’ul and they’re not fearless evolved Kelpians, as many had assumed, but a completely different species, a creepy tentacles dripping black thing, which is reminiscent of Venom and the alien symbiote and also bears a striking resemblance (given 30 years of special effects development) to the black tar-like creature that killed Tasha Yar in the Next Generation episode “Skin of Evil”. There is a tense exchange between the Ba’ul and the newly defiant Saru (“I am Commander Saru”, he tells them), during which the truth about the situation on Kaminar is finally revealed, just as Michael, Tilly and Airiam (who finally gets something to do) comb through the data delivered by the alien infodump sphere two episodes ago to come to the same conclusion, because a reveal is always better, when it is revealed twice.

Basically, many millennia ago, the Kelpians were the dominant predator species on Kaminar and the Ba’ul were the prey. But somehow, the Ba’ul managed to turn the table on the Kelpians and stunted their development, so they remain in their docile state. Furthermore, the Ba’ul persuaded the Kelpians that they’re dying, when they start to show signs of evolving, and convinced them to subject themselves to a ritual culling before they can evolve. And besides, Kelpians are really, really tasty apparently. Personally, I would have preferred it if it had turned out that the Ba’ul were evolved Kelpians and that Kelpians become kind of arseholes, once they evolve (which they do, at least if Saru is any indication). But this whole plotline about dominant predator and subservient prey species that can switch places makes little biological sense (but then nothing about the Kelpians makes any biological sense – sorry, Saru) and is also a really old science fiction chestnut that goes back all the way to the Eloi and Morlock from H.G. Wells’ Time Machine and was also done better by Planet of the Apes, when the original Star Trek was still on the air.

Never mind that I find it strange that a show as focussed on peaceful coexistence and cooperation between very different species as Star Trek nonetheless cannot imagine two species coexisting on the same planet in any other way than one species dominating the other. Also see the Enterprise episode “Dear Doctor”, another “Sorry, your species is dying, but the Prime Directive commands us to behave like arseholes” episode, of which “The Sound of Thunder” is a little reminiscent. The Bajoran/Cardassian conflict seems to be another variation of this, though the Cardassians were an invader species that subjugated the native Bajorans. Though this is a trend going back all the way to the Original Series with what has to be one of the worst well-intentioned, but dreadfully executed Star Trek episodes of all time, namely “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield” a.k.a. the one with the half white, half black people. Honestly, this one is so bad that even The Orville, which seems to have made it its mission to take Star Trek plots gone dreadfully wrong and try to improve them, hasn’t touched it yet. Okay, so it’s never made clear whether Bele and Lokai are different species or more likely different races of the same species. But the point is that Star Trek has real problems imagining more than one advanced species living in peace on the same planet. Even Star Wars manages to be more enlightened than this, since many planets in the Star Wars universe (Tattooine and Naboo are the most obvious ones) have more than one sentient native species plus human colonies, which seem to get along with each other much better than species living in equivalent situations in Star Trek.

But even though I would have preferred a different explanation for the Kelpian/Ba’ul conflict, the one we got nonetheless has potential. After all, the Discovery crew has to juggle the plight of the Kelpians with the (sort of understandable) worries of the Ba’ul what the Kelpians might do to them, if they’re allowed to evolve. It’s an interesting ethical dilemma of the sort in which Star Trek specialises or at least used to specialise in, before Discovery threw much of that out. And there are several potential solutions I can see such as Pike and Saru persuading the Ba’ul to let the Kelpians evolve naturally and convincing them that no matter what happened millennia ago, the Kelpians no longer pose a threat. Or, if the Ba’ul insist on being arseholes about it, Siranna could have returned to her people to spread the message that what they believe is the end really isn’t. Since she already is the village priestess, she would be ideally positioned to serve as a leader/liberator for her people and it would give this promising character a lot more to do.

So what does the Discovery crew do? None of that. Aboard the Ba’ul ship, Saru breaks free from his bonds and displays his newfound badassitude by swatting some Ba’ul drones around. Meanwhile, Pike, Michael, Saru and the rest of the Discovery crew have the brilliant idea to use the signal from the infodump sphere which triggered Saru’s transformation in the first place and transmit it to the entire planet to trigger the transformation of every single Kelpian. Without asking for permission or even informing the Kelpians (who will naturally believe they are dying) what is happening to them. And this is the moment where I yelled at the screen, “Prime Directive? Ever heard of it? Cause you’re just violating it in a really big way.”

The Ba’ul are not at all pleased that Saru and the Discovery have triggered the Kelpians’ transformation and plan to use their monitoring stations in every Kelpian village to wipe the Kelpians out to the shocked reactions of Pike, Michael and the rest of the Discovery crew. Honestly, what did they think would happen? Did they think the Ba’ul would just let the Kelpians evolve after they’ve spent millennia trying to prevent just that? And for a moment, I thought, “Okay, that’s it. The Ba’ul will wipe out the Kelpians, which not only explains why we’ve never seen them before, but will also give Saru, Michael, Pike and everybody else aboard the Discovery finally a real reason to feel guilty.

But the consequences of the Discovery crew’s meddling with Kelpian biology never come to bear, because the Red Angel just shows up deus-ex-machine like to shut the Ba’ul’s monitors/genocide machines down. Which is a massive cop-out. Not to mention that the fundamental conflict still exists. The Kelpians – those who survived the transformation, since I suspect many will have committed suicide just like Saru planned to, when he thought he was dying – suddenly find themselves thrust into a planetwide conflict with an opponent who is technologically much more advanced and who hates their guts. But that’s not the Discovery‘s problem, since they bugger off at the end of the episode to continue their search for Spock and/or the Red Angel, leaving the Kelpians and Ba’ul to their fate.

As for where they’re going, Michael at least has decided that she must return to Vulcan, because Saru’s homecoming and his reunion with his sister has suddenly reminded her that she has a brother – as if we and Michael were in danger of forgetting, considering that Michael has reminded us every episode so far that she has a brother named Spock who has gone missing. What she hopes to find on Vulcan is anybody’s guess, especially since it’s unlikely that Spock went there, considering that he’s on the run and wanted for murder (a misunderstanding, obviously) and Vulcan is the most obvious place to look for him.

And just so we don’t forget that the mystery of the Red Angel is the overarching plot of this season, there are several conversations between Pike, Michael and the newly assigned Section 31 liaison Ash Tyler about the nature of the Red Angel. Pike in his typical good old-fashioned Star Trek optimism believes that the Red Angel is benevolent, since so far it has always led them to situations where sentient beings need help. Ash Tyler in some typical Section 31 cynism (which doesn’t really fit how the character has been presented in season 1) believes that the Red Angel is hostile, because… well, I guess it’s either his job or his resurgent Klingon nature to assume every unknown phenomenon is automatically hostile. Michael, meanwhile, believes that they need more information.

Talking of Ash Tyler, he’s obviously back and sporting an impressive hairstyle and beard, but unfortunately he seems to have had another personality transplant between seasons 1 and 2 (but then, Ash/Voq tends to have a lot of personality transplants) and is pretty much just the mouthpiece for Secion 31 now – when he’s not standing around in the background glowering, that is (and Ash Tyler stands around in the background a lot. Honestly, he’s in almost every shot of the Discovery bridge, glaring at the scenery). This is a pity, because I liked the vulnerable nice guy pre-Voq reveal Ash Tyler from season 1 a whole lot. Though it seems we won’t get that character back. And while I like Shazad Latif and wish Discovery had done better by him, I don’t particularly like this iteration of Ash Tyler. For all I care, he can fuck off back to Section 31 or back to Qo’noS. As for Section 31, I know that a lot of Star Trek fans love the concept, though I never was a fan, probably because Deep Space 9 was my least favourite Star Trek. Not that I’m surprised that Starfleet would have something like Section 31, it’s long been obvious to me that the Federation is not as utopian as it likes to pretend. But if you must have Section 31, they’re best used sparingly rather than having them show up as a walking talking point in every second scene.

And regarding suddenly personality changes, I’m still not sure how I feel about the new badass Saru either. Now I didn’t particularly like Saru for the first half of season 1, because he behaved very much like a passive aggressive arsehole much of the time (which has nothing to do with Doug Jones’ performance, which has been excellent from his very first scene on). I came to like Saru better as the series progressed and by the end of season 1, Saru had blossomed into a great character. But the newly evolved and fearless Saru has also regressed into something of an arsehole. Though maybe we should be surprised, considering that Saru also turned into an arsehole when he temporarily lost his ever-present fear last season.  Though I really hope Saru comes to terms with himself and returns to his usual self, if a bit more confident.

Finally, Discovery also briefly checks in with the third crewmember who has undergone a massive change recently, namely Dr. Culber who was rescued from the magic mushroom universe and resurrected in a completely new body based on the DNA blueprints of the original. However, the body is brand-new, and it is missing scars and other reminders of Hugh Culber’s life and he clearly isn’t at all sure how he feels about that yet, even though Stamets is just happy to have his partner/husband back and the Discovery‘s other doctor (whose name I can never remember) just shrugs off any of Culber’s concerns and tells him to be happy about having a brand-new, perfectly healthy body.  How will this play out? We’ll have to wait, I guess. Though I hope that Hugh Culber’s death and resurrection trauma isn’t glossed over the way Ash Tyler’s Klingon prison rape trauma was.

I guess I make this episode sound worse than it is (though except for Gavia Baker-Whitelaw at the Daily Dot, no one really liked it). Because the truth is that as with much of Discovery, “The Sound of Thunder” was perfectly enjoyable to watch (and Doug Jones is always excellent, of course), only to promptly fall apart, once you think about it, as Camestros Felapton points out in his review. And neither Kelpian biology nor the Ba’ul nor the whole planet of Kaminar make any real sense and evolution doesn’t work that way either. But then, Star Trek has always had a bad track record on biology.

Next episode, we will be visiting Vulcan and might even actually get to see Spock, unless the powers that be decide to engage in some more Spock-teasing.

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