SPOILERS AHEAD … AND THE SOUND OF BOOTS STOMPING ALL OVER THE PRIME DIRECTIVE YET AGAIN …
“We all come from somewhere. We carry that place with us wherever we go. That never leaves our hearts. Not entirely. But none of us can predict where our voyage will lead. We may suffer losses along the way, but we can hope to learn and grow from those experiences… and from those who accompany us on our journey.” (Saru)
It’s an eternal question, one mostly faced by people who’ve elected, against all sane and sound judgement, to go to their high school reunion (even though Janice will be there and you just know what she’s like and I bet she’s just as nasty as she ever was and …) — can you ever really go back?
For most of us, it’s nothing more than a highly-fraught piece of existential musing, a wondering where you can ever return to somewhere you’ve left behind but for Saru (Doug Jones) in this week’s episode, “The Sounds of Thunder” (not starring Tom Cruise: that was Days of Thunder okay?) it’s a very real concern that goes to the heart of who he is now and where he came from.
He and the rest of the crew of Discovery, who’ve picked up one of the Red Angel’s pesky disappearing signals near Saru’s home planet of Kaminar, also have to contend with the very real matter of General Order One, which I presume becomes the Prime Directive, which forbids anyone in Starfleet from interfering in a pre-warp culture which Saru’s people, the fear-ruled Kelpians, most certainly are (simple fisher folk all).
However, and this is where it gets more than a little complicated thank you very much – though it gives Captain Pike (Anson Mount) a handy excuse for interfering like crazy and kicking the highly-engaging narrative along – the fellow sentient species on the planet, the Ba’ul, are most certainly zooming into the stars, and busy as they are with oppressing and genocidally-culling the Kelpians, their technology is on full display to the Kelpians.
So while they’re not warp-capable themselves, they’ve seen it kinda sorta and that’s enough for Pike and the crew who play around on the margins of General Order One with such vigour that they pretty much run a great big starship-sized hole through it, hurrah!
Thing is, the justification for all this is that the Kelpians are Good and the Ba’ul, who look like Alien xenomorphs who fell into an oil slick somewhere, with all the charm that implies, are Very Bad, and you just know which side Starfleet is on so no issue really?
As well, the Red Angel seems to be a fairly decent being who summons Discovery on acts of mercy, despite what Ash (Shazad Latif) and the whole of Section 31 seem to believe, and so surely interfering like God on a creative bender can’t be an entirely bad thing can it?
Just how omni-interfering does Discovery get you might ask?
Why very, and thank you for asking.
So much so that when fear-free Saru, who it turns out is the next evolutionary stage for Kelpians (where’s Charles Darwin when you need the man? Forget Galapagoes tortoises – Saru no longer had threat ganglia and is ready to brawl with Pike at the drop of a, well, threat ganglia) and Discovery get to Kaminar and find out the Ba’ul have culled millenia of Kelpians for no reason (they have a reason but it’s a Bad One, just so you know), they artificially set off Vaharai which is essentially puberty with agonising pain and parts of the body falling off.
So, really, just puberty then?
Anyway, their act of mass Vaharai, which only Saru’s sister Siranna (Hannah Speer), a Kelpian priest who’s angry at Saru for fleeing to the stars and leaving them to think he was dead (fair enough too – would the occasional card have been that hard for Saru to send? Turns out, yes) agrees to, is necessary to get the Kelpians to the next stage of evolution and out from under the boot of the Ba’ul, who, again, have a serious oil slick thing going on.
Turns out though, and this is Discovery may have unleashed a Pandora’s box worth of History Coming Back to Bite You With Jaws-sized Teeth, that back when they just let Vaharai happen and had no fear, the Kelpians were fellow-species exterminating nasty and the Ba’ul barely escaped being wiped from the face of Kaminar.
Even knowing all that, the crew of the Discovery, who yet again don’t see Spock because he is not yet narratively-pivotal, except in the occasional bout of Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) pained-face reflection, the Discovery plays God, the Kelpians are set free from subjugation, with the help of the Red Angel, who Saru sees as an alien in a winged metal suit and who it seems is fine with all this taking place.
Missing from all this action, and there is action aplenty, is any real sense that Kelpians deserve this.
Yes, of course, they are oppressed and culled and all that and no sane person would agree this is even a reasonable state of affairs, and taking action to stop it is pretty hard to argue with, but in one of the rare missteps, albeit not a serious one, for Star Trek Discovery this very fine season, in an episode which is supposed to be some sort of grand return home for Saru who gets Closure on an epic scale, there’s no real sense of emotional resonance.
It’s an immersively-engaging episode true, full of humanity, high stakes and some promising, future-changing resolution but as a vehicle for exploring what it’s like to go back, and whether that is even really possible since you’re different and so are the people you left behind, it’s a little inert.
Again, not fatally so, with some very real issues explored in some sort of meaningful fashion, but “The Sounds of Thunder” is curiously emotionally hollow throughout.
It shouldn’t be, of course; not simply because Saru is back home, a place he left at great cost to himself for 18 years, but also because Culber (Wilson Cruz), newly-reconstituted from the mycelial network, as you do, isn’t quite feeling himself.
While there are wise words from temporarily-fellow patient Saru and understandable joy from Stamets (Anthony Rapp) who’s overjoyed to have his man back, Culber feels like there’s something not quite right about who he is now (although Saru’s all inspirational guru gung-ho and proclaims that what happened to Culver is exciting because it’s all about who has and can become).
You just know in your narratively-portentous bones that Culber will have a Moment and an episode where things won’t work out again, and that this means more pain for Stamets, and that as a result all kinds of emotional hell is waiting down the galactic road (unless the Red Angels steps in which, honestly, could happen) and that this should Mean Something.
It’s a minor exploration of the whole can-you-go-back dynamic – not so minor for Culber who is, you know, back from the dead(ish) – but it’s sandwiched in the whole Discovery plays God/god/gods thing, which never satisfactorily asks if they did the right thing on Kaminar.
It’s a great big philosophical and moral hole, remarked upon by no one save Ash Tyler who expresses disquiet about the Red Angels’ intentions who look benign and Mother Theresa-ish on the surface but could be about something malignant if you look a little closer.
It’s dismissed as Section 31 just being paranoid, and maybe it is, but life is rarely that kumbaya-like, even in Roddenberry’s idyllic future, and the truth about the Red Angel, and what it set in motion on Kaminar, is bound to be a whole lot more complicated that it was portrayed in “The Sounds of Thunder” (also not starring Nicole Kidman).
That’s probably the main disappointment here; yes, it’s very good that the Kelpians are free and won’t be genocidally-extinguished from the face of Kaminar but the relationship between them and the Ba’ul is a damn sight more loaded than the episode explored, and the show did itself and the thoughtful franchise of which it is a part, by not examining this with a little more care and insightfulness.
Quite where it will all lead is anyone’s guess – well, for us at least; you want to hope the Discovery writers know what’s coming up – but mark my words, it may not be good (or it might or it might not be or …) and the Red Angel may be a whole lot more dangerous for things that it is beneficial.
Coming up in next week’s episode “Light and Shadows” … Spock! Giant metal squid! Alice in Wonderland quotes?