“Enduring something no one thought possible can be transformative. Perhaps, in feeling less like you were, you are more like who you were meant to become.”
A red burst like the ones that the USS Discovery has been investigating this season has appeared over the planet Kaminar—the home planet of Commander Saru (Doug Jones). That’s the starting point for “The Sound of Thunder,” arguably the best episode of Star Trek: Discovery to date. Saru has survived a biological process—called Vahar’ai—that signals the next step in Kelpien development but to his people signals only death at the hands of their oppressors, the Ba’ul. Saru’s whole outlook on life has been altered not only by this biological change but also by the realization that the fundamental tenets of his people are in fact a lie fed to them by their slaughterers. How does the red burst play into that? It seems to have led Discovery to Kaminar, but why?
Seeing Saru transformed by his experience is quite disturbing. No longer is he the imposing but timid being he once was. Now, he’s forceful, confident, and confrontational. It’s a whole new Saru. What’s nice is that the changes really aren’t that dramatic; the new traits are factored into his personality in a pretty natural way, giving us a more believable and realistic transition than you’d typically see in this kind of episode. Seeing him challenge Captain Pike’s (Anson Mount) command is quite intimidating. It’s when he disobeys a direct order and angrily intercedes in a negotiation with the Ba’ul, making a tense situation dangerous, that we really see the full implications of his change. He confronts the Ba’ul with accusations of murder and suppression, which cause the Ba’ul to retaliate by attacking Saru’s village. He surrenders himself to the Ba’ul to save the villagers, including his sister, and discovers another change, this one physical, brought on by his Vahar’ai—the loss of his ganglia (seen two episodes ago) made way for the ingrowth of a new needle-like weapon that launches from his head. Saru has become a badass.
The truth of Vahar’ai is not at all what Saru thinks it is. It is essentially a protective measure, making the Ba’ul not actually “bad guys” but a species doing what it needs to do to survive—occupying that moral grey area that makes this and other Trek episodes like it so powerful. Fighting against something or someone that’s evil is easy. How do you justify your fight if your opponent is in actuality the subjugated one? How do you condemn the actions of an oppressor that turns out to have been the oppressed and that takes actions to keep a balance in which both sides can survive? And what does it mean when the original oppressor reawakes and rediscovers the traits and abilities that made them strong? Once the truth is realized, Saru is dedicated to the Kelpiens demonstrating the ability to create a new balance, living in harmony with—but no longer in fear of—the Ba’ul. But he won’t be around to set the example of this. How will this play out on Kaminar? How will the Kelpiens react to suddenly no longer being fearful, of suddenly discovering their own power? We were told in the first season that Kelpiens have greatly heightened senses, that they’re incredibly fast, that they’re physically and mentally very strong. Saru explained it away as a reaction to being oppressed, to constantly being on the run from danger. But now we know the truth: the oppressed were once the oppressors.
What does this mean for Discovery? Their first officer is now a changed person who comes from a race we now know once wiped out another species and has the potential to do so again. Will they see him differently? Will they trust him? And how will his insubordinate actions in this episode be dealt with? Regardless of whether the red burst led Discovery to Kaminar or not, there had better be some disciplinary action against Saru for seriously disrupting and derailing a precarious negotiation. Picard never let Worf get away with that kind of foolishness, even when things turned out OK, and even when Worf’s motivations were understandable. At the very least, Picard would give him a dressing down and note the incident in his permanent record. I wonder if the same thing will happen with Saru.
Elsewhere, we deal momentarily with the return of Dr. Culber from last episode, and as I (and I’m sure everyone else) suspected, he is a changed man. He’s not right. What’s interesting is that no one around him seems to be able to see it for themselves; they’re all so happy to have him back. I’m anxious to see how this is going to play out, but I doubt that we’ve seen the last of May, the form that the entity from the mycelial network took.
On the production side of things, our first glimpse of the Ba’ul is rather chilling. They’re a very non-Star Trek-like alien, kind of an oily bog monster kind of thing with red glowing eyes, like something out of a Japanese horror movie. The chamber in which Saru and his sister Siranna encounter the Ba’ul is a redress of the Discovery transporter room, which was a little bit disappointing (though understandable). And the lens flare in camera shots was out of control this week. It’s a cheesy and unnecessary touch that becomes bothersome the more you notice it.
“A Sound of Thunder” was a powerful episode that turned a seemingly clear-cut moral issue on its head and put the brilliant talents of Doug Jones front and center. I’m perfectly happy to have an episode that focuses on Saru and Pike instead of Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) even though she’s still prominent. I know she’s the star of the show and all, but I’m OK having a Michael-light episode now and then. I really do find her to be the least interesting character. That may change, though, as the trailer for next week’s episode, “Light and Shadows,” implies a return to Vulcan and our first real encounter with Spock (unless of course it’s yet another red herring). We’ll find out on February 28 on CBS All Access.