Star Trek has never been short of cowardice. Picard’s assimilation by the Borg in Next Generation is one example of how fear can influence your subsequent decisions, notably, when trying to maintain a reputation of bravery. Saru, a Kelpien that is a new species to the Star Trek universe, has also been noted for his pusillanimity in Star Trek: Discovery. Whilst the story follows Sonequa Martin’s portrayal of Michael Burnham, the mutineer blamed for being the cause of the war with the Klingons, it is perhaps the tragedy of Saru and the Kelpiens where the focal of the series lies.
Only five episodes into Discovery, little is still known about the Kelpiens other than their evolution as a ‘prey species’. It is this small piece of information that lays the foundations of what Saru is, and likely what he will become. The Kelpien homeworld does not have food chains but is binary between predator and prey. Kelpiens were the livestock, evolving an acute sense of danger, prudently avoiding risk and threatening situations, giving them the reputation of cowardice.
The introduction of the Klingons as the antagonists was no coincidence. Their culture as a warrior species with honor ethos would put them as a typical ‘predator’. Indeed, Klingons are known to respond better to an act of aggression rather than the delectable acts of diplomacy. Indeed, in the episode ‘The Vulcan Hello’, Michael Burnham suggested a preemptive strike on the Klingon vessel, as a previous encounter by the Vulcans had had promising results. The conflict of fight or flee, one which would usually have a Kelpien to flee. The impending battle certainly had Saru’s threat ganglia extend from the back of his head, sensing a predator was approaching.
Interestingly, the idea that the Kelpien homeworld was binary from the outset would be illogical. Undoubtedly more answers will be revealed as the series progresses, however, it wouldn’t be too far-flung to imagine the predator on their homeworld wasn’t from their homeworld at all, but a predatory alien species taking advantage of an ‘inferior’ species. A livestock species wouldn’t likely develop the intellect that Saru possesses, at least, not in the abundance needed to join Starfleet. The Kelpiens are a highly developed species, one that would have likely outcompeted competition it had evolved with, much like modern humans today. The mystery of the predators is one of curious whimsy, one that will change as the series develops, although, the Klingons shouldn’t be dismissed and it would bring the series into a delightful full-circle.
Saru’s evolution is a prey species is what puts him as the focal point of the series. The comparisons with Spock are weak at best, with the only similarity bearing from their original assignment as First Officer. Indeed, it is Burnham who has most in common with Spock, notably the conflict between human nature and Vulcan logic. Saru is much more at the mercy of his emotions than he would like to believe. In the episode ‘Choose Your Path’, Saru admits his jealousy of the opportunities given to Burnham, likely the cause of some of the fear he had towards her. In the same episode, when he takes command of the USS Discovery to rescue Captain Lorca from the Klingons, there was clearly a sense of fear of being undermined, resulting in a much more aggressive tone than we had seen previously. The threat ganglia doesn’t just respond to physical dangers but also a perceived threat of status.
Saru represents a hesitancy amongst the assertive forces. The Klingons are a predatory race seeking to rebuild their empire. Captain Lorca appears to want as much war as possible for unknown reasons as of yet, and Burnham has all the credentials to be captain of her own ship. This leaves Saru as a mouse surrounded a group of cats, all wanting the biggest bite. This sets out a journey that will undoubtedly result in conflict between Lorca and Saru, becoming a choice between fight or flee. The biology of this struggle has already been seen with the tardigrade arc, a species nicknamed ‘the Ripper’ for its ability to eliminate anything it saw as a threat. The truth of the tardigrade was one of a sentient beast that was merely becoming weaponized by Starfleet, resorting in its aggressive defense mechanism.
And here’s the awkward truth about Star Trek: Discovery, Starfleet aren’t the saints they’ve been regarded as previously. The use of the tardigrade amounts to biological weaponry and the full picture of the cause of the Klingon war hasn’t been painted yet. Saru is at the center of a game of risk and his natural instincts will send him into some unfortunate situations. The only hope is they don’t take the cloy route and make him perform an act of bravery that results in his loss of life, there are too many underdog stories these days and it would be too obvious for a series that has already shown much creativity.
Saru is perhaps the most unique element of Star Trek: Discovery, introducing a species that could have one of the most complex pasts yet. With an aggressive start to the series, it is likely that the climax will involve the Kelpiens to a large degree. The tale of the Kelpiens is an element in the series that shouldn’t be avoided, and if avoided, would diminish Discovery to a far more linear saga than it deserves to be. Saru, as First Officer, is in a position to go from prey to predator, how his character develops will influence the direction of the series as a whole.