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‘Star Trek: Discovery’ — The Ba’ul Belong in Another Fantasy

Saru has perhaps the most fascinating backstory of any first officer in Starfleet, arriving as a refugee after escaping from his destiny as essentially a farm animal, raised to feed a species known as the Ba’ul.

One of the more interesting story arcs in the Star Trek universe has been marinading in the background of season one and two in Star Trek: Discovery. Saru has perhaps the most fascinating backstory of any first officer in Starfleet, arriving as a refugee after escaping from his destiny as essentially a farm animal raised to feed a species known as the Ba’ul. In the episode “The Sounds of Thunder,” this particular arc met its conclusion, but it’s hard not to have bittersweet feelings towards its execution.

The Kelpiens as a ‘prey species’ has been quietly developing in the background, hidden by Spock’s disappearance and the drama in the Mycelium Network, but has frustratingly amounted to basically two seasons of build up for a mild pop of horror cinematics. It’s an episode of popcorn-munching drama without the story writing to execute the promise — style over substance.

Ba'ul Star Trek: Discovery

The Ba’ul are straight out of the B-side horror movie.

“The Sounds of Thunder” meets its disappointing conclusion when the appearance of the Ba’ul is unveiled. An aquatic humanoid species seemingly covered in sludge, they also sport glowing red eyes, with hair hanging over their face like they’d just crawled out of a TV set. A species that had apparently reached warp capability twenty years prior looks as if Jar Jar Binks had been thrown into 18th-century London sewers — or at the very least, had just chased Frodo out of the Shire.

The diplomatic grey that previous Star Trek villains inhabited would now be festering in the good vs evil narrative that tarnishes so many other franchises of its kind.

With such a long wait for the USS Discovery to finally reach Kaminar, the Ba’ul had the opportunity to become an interesting part of the Star Trek lore. Unfortunately, the reality is quite different. As it would happen, the Kelpiens after Vahar’ai become the predators, and they nearly wiped out the Ba’ul in the first century. To protect themselves, the Ba’ul used their superior technology to wipe out post-Vahar’ai Kelpiens, and then created a religion that persuaded the Kelpiens to sacrifice themselves when they hit Vahar’ai. This predator-prey relationship that changes depending on the species development — not dissimilar to aquatic species on Earth — is an engaging turn of fate that was executed poorly.

Saru Star Trek: Discovery

Saru found his sister on Kaminar.

The result is an episode that becomes Star Wars meets Marvel, with a strengthened Saru unbuckling himself from the chains of tyranny, crushing all Ba’ul technology with his bare hands. All it needed was the Ba’ul to whip out a red lightsaber, and the transition from science fiction to galactic fantasy would have been complete. The diplomatic grey that previous Star Trek villains have inhabited is now festering in the ‘good vs evil’ narrative that tarnishes so many other franchises of its kind.

“The Sound of Thunder” has become a blemish on what had been an enjoyable season two so far for Star Trek: Discovery.

In reality, there’s a great reason to sympathize with the Ba’ul, who had every reason to protect the balance after they were almost sent to extinction by the Kelpiens. The problem lies in how the design of a character can create unfair bias; here, the writers have deliberately created the Ba’ul to look sinister in order to disturb the atmosphere. Rather than designing the Ba’ul to be a realistic space-faring species, they’ve become a hybrid of horrors, conceived for impact rather than narrative.

“The Sound of Thunder” has become a blemish on what had been an enjoyable season two so far for Star Trek: Discovery. The second episode, “New Eden,” remains the highligh; it’s an episode that truly delivers on the ideals that Star Trek was founded upon. “The Sound of Thunder” suffers from the same problems that the end of season one had: attempting to push too many ideas into too few episodes. Saru’s backstory with the Ba’ul should have been over two episodes to flesh out much of the questions that had been asked over the two seasons. A cameo appearance of a single Ba’ul is bewildering, to put it lightly.

Kaminar in the sound of thunder

Kaminar is considered a paradise.

Now that the fate of the Kelpiens has been brushed under the carpet, there’s a wonder how many other story arcs will be tied up hastily. There are still a lot of reasons to watch Star Trek: Discovery, and many of the episodes have been fantastic television, but the worry is that the ghosts of season one return to haunt the series once more. Another rushed conclusion, and the Ba’ul will be the least of Star Trek: Discovery’s problems.

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  1. Tastentier

    February 26, 2019 at 12:48 pm

    I often read about these noble ideals that underlie Star Trek, and I always catch myself thinking “yeah, there’s another one who grew up with TNG instead of watching Kirk chasing women in mini dresses whenever he wasn’t busy karate-chopping lizardmen”. Have you ever watched the original series? I did back in the day, and this episode would have fit right in. Only that the Ba’ul would have been regular people in cheap rubber masks, and the entire cast would have chewed the scenery to hilarious effect. Even back then, it was some of the trashiest pulp I’d ever seen on a TV screen. This show reminds me a lot of it.

    • James Baker

      February 27, 2019 at 5:42 am

      Thanks for you reply. I did indeed watch The Original Series and still think the Ba’ul are somewhat off. I think there’s a danger of the series neglecting its SciFi ambitions and sliding into the Horror category. I can admit my Good vs Evil jibe has many examples against it, particularly with the Borg. But when you think of the traditional ‘bad guys’ such as the Klingons and the Romulans, there have always been moments when the Federation fought with them. This shows Star Trek has often stayed in the grey area rather than becoming black and white. The problem with the Ba’ul is they were set up to be the bad guys when there was reason to sympathise with them, and this set up is entirely aesthetics and voice-acting. I think it’s a bad route to take when designing new alien species, especially those that aren’t going to be the major antagonists. Just a few of my thoughts.

  2. Chad

    February 27, 2019 at 4:12 pm

    I might be being blindly hopeful, but I am not sold on the idea that was a Ba’ul.

    Was that black sludge their environment? How do you see in black sludge? Oh yeah, red light emitting eyes, my bad. How do you develop fire if you live in black sludgy water? How do you harness electricity? How do you manipulate the precision instruments and tools needed to develop advanced tech with chopsticks for fingers and awkward, hurky-jerky movements? How does such a species, under the pressure of being on the brink of getting wiped off the planet by fully developed Kelpiens, develop the advanced tech needed to suddenly turn the tables on them? This is either one of the shallowest story arch wraps I have ever seen or there is more yet to be told.

    When I first saw that pool and the rippling on the surface I thought of a ferrofluid. That scene is consistent with a fluid that can be manipulated to present different shapes. In fact, the creature was dripping at a much higher rate that anything coming out of a liquid would be, as if the liquid was flowing up and then dripping out of the shape. This could also just have been for the creepy effect.

    Let’s talk about that room. If the Ba’ul live in black sludge, then having a room where they can interact with a Kelpien would make sense. That room having a hallway that leads to a humanoid sized door that opens into what looks like a corridor does not. Why does a species that lives in black sludge have air filled halls in their secret city-ship? Why does that ship have large windows?

    My hope is that love-child between an English water hag and a Japanese horror franchise that rose up out of the fluid is merely what the Ba’ul wanted the Kelpiens to see, to keep them cowed before processing. I am imaging a dusty old manual that instructs to use Red-Eyed Demon #3 in case of post vahar’ia Kelpien.

    The man behind the curtain is a tried and true trope and fingers crossed they are using it.

    • James Baker

      February 28, 2019 at 8:00 am

      I never thought about that. It would make sense as the Ba’ul are now known to be the actual prey. It’s plausible, but as each episode usually has a different writer, I’m not sure as to whether they would go towards that much depth. I hope you’re right though!

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