Star Trek: Discovery
One of the best parts of Star Trek has always been its villains. Individual antagonists, certainly; as I mentioned last week, Emperor Georgiou is shaping up to be a strong addition to those ranks. But it’s the complexities of entire belligerent peoples — the Klingons, the Romulans, the Cardassians, the Borg — that really give the shows and films their subtle brilliance. As these races have taught us over the years, “evil” is too flat a term for the realities of war and enmity; most of the time, impasses are reached because of cultural differences and lack of compromise. Understanding a foe contextually, as a whole people, with their own deeply felt values, however flawed, is paramount to achieving any sort of peace — even when you’ve got a time-traveling Doc Oc swooping in to instantly raze that enemy’s advanced weapons capabilities at the eleventh hour.
Since Discovery’s outset, we’ve seen a shiny Klingon revamp, but it wasn’t until this week’s episode that I realized that, in general, Trek hasn’t really given us a formidable, resilient new enemy in a while. Though it’s unclear whether the Ba’ul — the “predator” species to the Kelpiens’ “prey,” now revealed to be more advanced, genocidal oppressor than eco-conscious hunter — will actually stick around for long enough to join the ranks of classic Trek combatants, the events of this week’s episode give them both the terrifying presence and the compelling backstory needed for the role. But I’ve gotten ahead of myself now.
So this week, we headed to Saru’s home planet of Kaminar, over which, in a not-at-all-subtle coincidence, the next signal has suddenly appeared. In a one-two punch of “bodies are terrifying,” Culber learns that his whole body is literally brand-new, reconstructed from DNA coding — which understandably is leading to some serious existential dysphoria — and Saru discovers that his ganglia were essentially noodle-y baby teeth, and have now been replaced by calcified, super-sharp fangs (which, it’s later revealed, shoot out like darts when threatened). Also his body is repressing fear, which is a total game-changer for him personally, but as we see later, makes for quite a formidable adversary on a species level.
We briefly revisit the events of Saru’s Short Treks episode for the slackers who didn’t do the homework, learning how our intrepid first officer originally began questioning the self-sacrificing dogma of the Kelpien religion 20 years ago, then caught the attention of Starfleet by hacking Ba’ul technology to send a distress call after his people silenced him. Starfleet mistook his transmission for a hail from the Ba’ul, who while warp-capable (Kelpiens are not) were, shall we say, aggressively uninterested in making friends. Their tech is astonishingly advanced, enough to both ward off the Federation’s salvos and avoid ever meeting up with Kelpiens IRL, thanks to panopticon-like pylons that surveil Kelpien communities and “cull” (read: exterminate) them when they reach vahar’ai to “maintain the balance” of their “fragile” ecosystem.
For all Pike’s decency, his choice to knock on their front door to ask if they know anything about the signal is the most privileged-white-dude move he’s made yet, and practically everyone on the bridge knows it, from the looks on their faces; anyway, the Ba’ul ignore their friendly hail and immediately start scanning weapons, which prompts plan B, to have Michael approach a Kelpien village about the signals instead. Whether it’s his new lack of fear or long-simmering resentment at Pike’s Discovery takeover (it’s like everyone just forgot about the whole “joint custody” sentiment!) finally reaching a boil, Saru can’t abide Pike’s attempts to sideline him in dealing with his own people, and he pulls a Burnham, going toe-to-toe with the captain (if not face-to-face, given he’s two feet taller).
Now look, I get what Pike’s about here — sure, sure, General Order 1, plus remember that whole thing in the reboot Star Trek film when Spock relieves himself of duty because he’s been emotionally compromised? — but all of this talking around Saru did strike me as pretty dang patronizing, even borderline racist! At what point does “being the sole member of your species in Starfleet and having strong feelings about your employer cooperating with those responsible for centuries of your people’s systematic genocide become “emotional compromise worthy of relief of duty”? Especially when, after months of valorous wartime service in command, that employer has revoked said command and given it to a random, cookie-cutter human man? Burnham, thankfully, has become a superb ally, and convinces Pike to allow Saru to accompany her to his village.
In another not-at-all-subtle coincidence, the first Kelpien they come across is Saru’s sister Siranna (Hannah Spear); she’s taken over as priest of their village since their father was culled, not long after Saru left. I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something about this character that I find positively lovely. She’s (rightfully) awash with mixed emotions — joy at her brother’s survival, hurt by his choice to let his people believe he’d been killed for questioning the Ba’ul and endangering them further, anger at his return only for the red angel signals and not to save his people — but she’s nevertheless quick to accept the existence of Starfleet, and space travel, and is delighted by the universal translator. When Discovery finally leaves Kaminar, they essentially leave her in charge of rebuilding the Kelpien-Ba’ul relationship, which seems like it’ll suit her, despite her gentleness. She reminds me of a Bajoran kai, except warmer and completely devoid of all that passive-aggressive condescension we saw in Deep Space Nine.
Anyway, their arrival tips off the Ba’ul, thanks to one of those aforementioned panopticons, which forces them to go back to the ship. The Ba’ul have finally decided to respond, and it’s only to demand the Discovery give back the Kelpien they stole. It’s not just that they have Saru; it’s that he’s post-vahar’ai now and his very survival is a threat to the centuries-old scam they’ve been running on the Kelpiens. To make matters worse, now Saru is actually emotionally compromised after that reunion, and he loses his shit, managing in the same breath to both threaten the Ba’ul and also tell them he has a sister they can kill. Luckily, as the Ba’ul send sentry ships to threaten the Discovery and get ready to blow up Siranna’s village, Pike goes into good ol’-fashioned red-alert mode to defend his wiling-out colleague and does relieve Saru of duty. With Burnham’s deeply conflicted help, Saru immediately surrenders himself to the Ba’ul to save the ship and his sister, who of course has also been abducted, and will join her brother in being the first Kelpiens to actually meet a Ba’ul in the flesh — or whatever counts for flesh in this case, since they appear to be cousins of both Little Nemo’s Nightmare King and Samara from The Ring, made entirely of spindly limbs, goopy black oil, and bright red eyes. I guess we know now why they do all their oppressing from behind their computers!
Meantime, Tilly, Burnham, and Airiam have been consulting the “Dead Sea Scroll” information imparted by the sphere last week. The millennia of bio data it recorded from Kaminar (however positively insane that sounds) shows that 2,300 years ago, the Kelpiens were actually the dominant species on the planet; turns out vahar’ai is basically murder-puberty, transforming Kelpiens into super-strong predators that almost wiped out the Ba’ul. Kinda sounds like human beings on earth could use a Great Balance, amirite?
At this point, Saru has gathered as much from the Ba’ul who showed up to introduce their imminent murder; when it retreats into its swamp to allow its knife drones to kill them both, Saru hulks out and breaks through his restraints, destroys the drones, releases Siranna, and hacks the Ba’ul ship’s comms to contact Discovery. Together, he and the Science Girls figure out how to reverse-engineer the Ba’ul’s technology, from the ships to all 4,056 panopticons, to initiate vahar’ai in all Kelpiens across the planet. Obviously the Ba’ul pick up on this, and de-cloak their “stronghold,” a cloaked headquarters under a lake that they’re now going to use to actually commit genocide, but before they can, a literal deus ex machina appears: A red angel deactivates the Ba’ul’s weapons, pausing to make meaningful eye contact with Saru before disappearing again.
Later, Saru will note that the red angel appeared to be a “humanoid wearing a mechanized suit,” which leads me to believe that a descendant of Dr. Otto Octavius has finally figured out how to use his inventions for good — at least, what passes for “good” right now. As Tyler — who has mercifully put away his man bun for the time being — points out, just because some mysterious, uber-powerful force is working in your favor today doesn’t mean that force ought to be trusted as a net positive. After all, as any time-travel movie or show likes to relentlessly preach, it can be downright deadly to mess with the space-time continuum.
Personal Log, Supplemental
• Gamergate Swamp Thing jokes aside, this Ba’ul reveal was a truly chilling moment, absolutely the furthest thing from what I expected. (Initially my guess was that the Ba’ul were going to end up being post-vahar’ai Kelpiens intent on hoarding resources.) Their whole deal — the mystery of their physical identity, their frighteningly advanced technology, their stubborn insistence upon being left alone, their hideous appearance coupled with an apparently ruthless cowardice — made “The Sound of Thunder,” without a doubt, the best episode we’ve seen yet from this series, including both Jonathan Frakes’ midseason premiere last year and the first vahar’ai episode — and lest we forget, the latter made all of us cry.
• Give! Airiam! Her! Own! Episode! #AndroidJusticeNow