Anatomy of a Kelpian: Dissecting Characterisation in ‘Star Trek: Discovery’

‘It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’ is a phenomenon. It has managed to stay funny through twelve seasons – a feat rarely matched on a show which has seen very few changes to its cast. One of ‘Always Sunny’s key assets is the character of Frank Reynolds, played by Danny DeVito.

Frank is inherently malleable. While the other characters remain reasonably consistent, Frank’s core motivations change episode by episode, purely in service of the storyline. In essence, what is funny is prioritised over what is narratively coherent.

This works for the kind of dark, bizarre comedy that ‘Always Sunny’ has mastered. The show is about a group of terrible individuals entering into usually pedestrian exploits, and twisting the situation into horrible, troubling scenarios, usually due entirely to their own narcissism and self-centredness.

A great example is ‘The Gang Gives Frank An Intervention’. The episode starts with Frank explaining that his “motivation of the week” is that he wants to be as disgusting and depraved as possible, so he goes to his brother-in-law’s funeral so that he can attempt to have sex with his ex-(now dead)-wife’s sister. The episode ends with the gang drinking red wine out of coke cans, berating a group therapist and shooing away a disgusting cousin by dousing her in salt. All of the stuff in between makes perfect sense as you watch it, even though, from an external perspective, it’s utterly absurd.

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Frank, displaying the monster condom he uses for his magnum dong.

After just a few episodes, nothing that Frank does should be shocking – it may occasionally be unexpected, but the fact that Frank can carry on in such a frightful manner isn’t going to surprise anyone.

Now, why am I beginning my analysis of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ with a discussion about ‘It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’?

Well, it’s because that character malleability is a great asset on a peculiar show like ‘Always Sunny’, and a key weakness in a show like ‘Discovery’.


Let’s bring it back to Trek for a moment and talk about Geordi LaForge. Geordi is a peculiar element of ‘The Next Generation’. Whilst he certainly gets his own storylines, if you asked me to describe his character, that description would revolve around his relationships with other crew members. He’s Data’s best friend, he’s Wesley’s tutor, he’s loyal to Picard, and so on. You could probably describe him as being determined to the point of obsessiveness, but that could describe just about any character on the show.

Geordi doesn’t really get an arc over the course of Next Gen, certainly not the way Picard, Data, Riker, Worf, Wesley or even Troi get arcs. The Geordi LaForge we see in ‘Insurrection’ and ‘Nemesis’ is pretty much the same Geordi LaForge who takes over Main Engineering in Season 2 (although yes, he was in Season 1 as a helm officer and no, I have no idea how that qualifies him for Chief Engineer).

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The best picture I could find of Geordi sporting that fucking gorgeous beard. Unf.

All of this isn’t to say that Geordi lacks personality. He’s certainly likeable, and courageous, and so on and so on, and he’s played well by LeVar Burton.

But he doesn’t get his own development – rather, he serves the development of others, particularly Data, but also Riker, Troi and Wesley. We never particularly learn anything new about Geordi, compared to what we learn about those other characters.

(As a side-note, you could count his interactions with Dr Brahms as a mote of development for Geordi, but this was more like a one-off story that happened to get a sequel, rather than any in-depth development of the character.)

Having Geordi utilised in this capacity actually works fine for a series like TNG. There are lots of players, lots of storylines, and sometimes you just need a competent, charismatic support character who can adapt to fit what’s needed for someone else’s tale. Particularly in an episodic show like TNG, where each installment is a self-contained narrative with its own beginning and end.


For a serial like ‘Discovery’, with far fewer characters and a season-long narrative, meaningful characterisation becomes a lot more important. Motivations matter; arcs matter. A malleable character like Frank Reynolds has no more a place in ‘Discovery’ than he would in ‘The Walking Dead’ or ‘Downton Abbey’. And a static character like Geordi LaForge might work if he was restricted to expositing – but if he’s going to be a “viewpoint” character then he has to to actually develop, with an arc of his own.

Where does this all get us?

Saru. Fucking Saru. That’s where it gets us.

sarucloseup
Yes, you, you bleeding pissant.

This gangly-lookin’ motherfucker is possibly the greatest loss of potential in ‘Discovery’, short of The Entire Series Itself. And that’s shocking, given the extent to which the writers crow about how much effort went into creating the character.

If you’re wondering what I’m specifically talking about, I’ll explain it as coherently as I can.

In the two pilot episodes of ‘Discovery’, we’re introduced to Saru as a mildly snarky contrast to the nature of most Starfleet characters with which we’re familiar. Whenever you see someone in the red, gold or blue of a Starfleet uniform, they’re invariably bold, courageous, daring, inquisitive, blah blah blaaaaah. Seeing a Starfleet officer, even an alien one, who actively avoids trouble is a rare and interesting thing (most of the time).

We next see him in the third episode, ‘Context is for Kings’, where he has jumped in rank from Science Officer to First Officer, now the second-in-command aboard Lorca’s ship. Here he is much more at ease, casually strolling the corridors with Burnham, eating blueberries and being detached from things. We don’t see him interact with his captain in any meaningful way, so we don’t get to establish that relationship, except that Saru seems to respect Lorca.

In the next episode, ‘The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not For The Lamb’s Cry’, Saru seems much more anxious and snippy, especially when he gets manipulated by Burnham, at which point he begins berating her and claims that Burnham “will fit in perfectly with Captain Lorca”, suggesting that he doesn’t actually respect Lorca all that much at all.

This is closely followed by ‘CHOOSE YOUR PAIN’ (fighting ingloriously for the hotly-contested label of “Most Offensive Episode Of The Series”). Here, Saru finds himself in command of Discovery, coming across as utterly clueless as he asks the computer to tell him the qualities of a good captain (including “intelligence” and “bravery”, who would’ve guessed?). Saru is intent on rescuing Lorca, the captain he either hates or worships, it’s difficult to tell.

In any case, his inherent aversion to danger seems completely forgotten as he sends the ship deep into enemy territory without a second thought. He seems motivated by his desire not to lose another captain, as he did with Giorgiou, which is reasonable enough. He also outlines his jealousy at Burnham for taking Giorgiou away from him, and his chance to be mentored by her. Which is an interesting path to explore, I’ll grant.

In ‘Lethe’, we don’t really encounter Saru beyond a bit of exposition and some unrestrained subservience to Lorca at the very end. He is surprised to hear Lorca say that they’re going to “play it by the book” and not rescue Admiral Cornwell, but Saru is happy to go right along with it. Which means that, between ‘Lethe’ and ‘CHOOSE YOUR PAIN’, we learn that he is actually one of those people who will kowtow to any authority figure in his presence, and immediately turn into a hard-line authoritarian once given any power of his own. Y’know, a total arsehole, basically.

We don’t see too much of Saru in ‘Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad’ either, but we do see him standing up to Lorca on the subject of space wales, whose preservation is mandated by Starfleet regulations. Which means he’s unwilling to privately challenge Lorca, whom he both loves and hates, but he is willing to publicly challenge him in front of a load of bridge officers.

To outline what we’ve seen so far:

  • In the Pilot episodes, Saru is a scaredy-cat who is averse to any risky action.
  • In ‘Conscience is for Kings’, he is laid back and respects Lorca.
  • In ‘Butcher’s Knife’, he seems to think Lorca is an unethical arsehole.
  • In ‘CHOOSE YOUR PAIN’ he jumps into enemy territory without hesitation to save Lorca.
  • In ‘Lethe’ he is happy to abandon an admiral to torture because Lorca says to.
  • In ‘Magic to Make’ he insists that Lorca adhere to his responsibilities to a space whale.

Now, maybe Saru cares about the space whale because he feels guilty about how he treated the large-igrade. Maybe he prefers to remain entirely within the constraints of rules and orders – hence he’ll follow regulations on rescuing space whales, but he will also follow orders in regards to rescuing admirals.

saruprofile
The lighting is more dynamic than the character.

None of these character traits are especially contradictory – certainly, single a character could exist who would behave in the above different manners. But these behaviours are pretty inconsistent – they’re indicative of a fickle personality, which isn’t how Saru is presented.

What we’re left with is a character whose personality morphs to fit the narrative of each episode. He’s malleable, like Frank Reynolds in ‘Always Sunny’ – his characterisation is secondary to the demands of the plot.

And, a bit like Geordi, his own motivations are largely irrelevant. He claims to be jealous of Burnham, to be angry at her, but these feelings never particularly manifest in his actual behaviour or decision-making. They affect his tone of voice, but not his actions. It would be interesting to see him disagreeing with Burnham just because he hates her – to see him refuting an argument he knows to be valid just because of his feelings towards the person making it.

We also get no clear view on his relationship with Lorca, and this is critical. For one, the relationship between a captain and their first officer is typically the most significant of any Trek show, or indeed any cast of characters with a hierarchy. For reference, see Kirk/Spock, Picard/Riker(/Data), Janeway/Chakotay, Adama/Tigh, Bartlet/McGarry. It might not be the most important relationship within a work of fiction, but it is vital for determining the tone of a story that’s fixed in one place and with one crew.

‘Battlestar Galactica’s two most senior officers, William ‘Hard Six’ Adama and Saul ‘Salty’ Tigh have possibly the least dynamic relationship across the four seasons of the show: they start out as friends and broadly remain friends. Yet from their very first scene together we see Adama calling Tigh out on his problematic behaviour while offering him support and friendship. That frames one of the strongest themes of the show – of flawed, occasionally terrible enduring together through a horrible ordeal.

When you look at Kirk and Spock through the same lens, you see an entirely different dynamic. It’s co-operative, and it’s jovial, a little jokey (usually at Spock’s expense). This, again, informs on the rest of the show – one of general optimism through a series of generally light-hearted adventures.

But as of the seventh episode of ‘Discovery’, we hadn’t seen its captain and its first officer exchange more than one or two sentences. There had never been a meaningful scene between them that wasn’t entirely functional. As such, we’re left lacking a vital bit of context for the entire series.

narrowsaru

We’re left to infer that Lorca keeps Saru at arm’s length, out of the loop, but we never really see Saru’s take on this – is he aware of the fact he’s just decoration? Is he annoyed with the lack of agency, or is he grateful for the reduced responsibility and the chance to spend more time eating blueberries?

We see plenty of scenes between Lorca and other crew members – particularly Burnham and Ash the Human and Stamets. But the vital connection with his first officer is ignored. Indeed, if it weren’t for maybe a small handful of exceptions, Saru’s only interactions on the ship would be with Burnham – we don’t even see him interact with any other members of the crew beyond functional exchanges.

In ‘CHOOSE YOUR PAIN’, Saru actually takes command of the ship, and yet we get very little insight into his command ability. We see him shouting at Burnham, Culber and Stamets, but each of these exchanges revolves around a single issue, that of the Large-igrade. We see him verbalising his thoughts on a tactical situation, but never him displaying anything approaching leadership.

At the end of the episode, he seems to acknowledge that he made a mess of things – and yet this doesn’t manifest into any follow-up action on his part in subsequent episodes. By way of example, we could have had a later scene where we see him replaying video logs of his time in command, or studying in greater depth some of those exemplary captains the computer listed for him. During the party in ‘Magic to Make’, maybe Saru wasn’t on the bridge with Lorca but was on a fake bridge in that holographic training room, playing through the Kobayashi Maru (Kobayashi Saru?) scenario over and over again.

Or – and this is a terrifying prospect, I know – we could have had a short scene where he just sits down with Lorca and asks to be mentored, asks to be included more in decision-making, or even asks to be given even less responsibility, to be frozen out of matters to a greater extent than he already is.

Once again, I’m left questioning the serialised format of the show, given how little they utilise it. If ‘Discovery’ were episodic, Saru’s lack of development following ‘CHOOOOOSE YOOOUUURRR PAAAAAIIIIIN’ would be forgivable, but the show’s creators have gone to great lengths to make clear that this is a long-running narrative.


saruconcerned.png
AND WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOUR NOSTRILS, DWEEB?

So far, I’ve only been talking about the first seven episodes of ‘Star Trek: Bag of Hammers’, because in the eighth episode, titled… ah… It’s some stupid latin name, but the episode itself is basically a rip-off of ‘Errand of Mercy’ so I’m going to call it… hmm… ‘Errand of Derpy’.

Anyway, in ‘Errand of Derpy’, we get another Saru-centric storyline which should, again, be pivotal to the character’s development. In it, Saru is – well, he’s not exactly brainwashed, nor is he psychically compelled – but in any case, he turns traitor against Burnham and Ash the Human and attempts to sabotage the potentially war-winning mission that the three of them are on.

It’s worth noting that Saru is in command of this mission – he’s the ranking officer and is directly responsible not only for the mission’s success, but also the safety of the two crew members with him. It’s also worth noting, as previously covered, that this is somehow Starfleet’s only potential answer to the Klingon Cloaking Devices, because they haven’t yet tried plain old science, apparently.

On this planet of the Not-Organians (distinguishable from actual Organians by being blue instead of yellow), Saru is overcome with the feeling of peace and serenity that he experiences. For a creature motivated entirely by fear, suddenly being immersed in the safest possible environment imaginable is a bit like me finding myself on a planet full of nymphomaniac clones of Emily Blunt: my ability to critically analyse the situation in a rational manner is likely to be… compromised.

Now, this makes sense for Saru, based on what we know about him. He totally would lose his shit when faced with perfect serenity. Sure. What’s frustrating from a narrative perspective is that at no point does he become self-aware of his own failure – at least, not until after the story has already been resolved and he’s back on the ship. Because Burnham manages to stop Saru from completely destroying their comms device, we don’t actually learn anything new about Saru from this experience – instead, he’s just acting as the antagonist for the episode.

Compare that to Next Gen’s ‘The Most Toys’, where we not only see Data dealing with being a captive but we also see him actually full-on murder a guy in cold blood and then lie about it. This is a huge development for the otherwise temperate android, and he suddenly becomes much, much more complex as a character (and quite a bit more terrifying).

The thing is, when Saru loses it on Not-Organia, that’s only a surface-level development of his personality. Really, we could have extrapolated what we saw based on what we already knew – that an extremely fear-based species would react extremely to a fear-free environment.

What we really needed to see was Saru dealing with this himself. The story doesn’t need to change much – it can still be Burnham who knocks him down and completes the mission – but there has to be some hefty introspective from Saru, beyond him just sat on a bio bed in sickbay feeling a bit guilty about what happened.

What we definitely don’t need is to immediately see him resuming his duties as first officer as though nothing had happened. At the beginning of ‘Into The Forest I Go’, between twenty minutes to an hour in-universe after the events of ‘Errand of Derpy’, Saru’s just on the bridge, carrying on like it’s an entirely new episode. Which, of course, it is – but it’s a new episode in a serialised show, with an unbroken narrative.

If you’re a Trek veteran, you may remember it being weird when Harry Kim was still an ensign after seven years, never having increased in rank since the beginning of ‘Voyager’. Indeed, as one of my friends recently pointed out, Nog the Ferenghi served Harry Kim drinks aboard Deep Space Nine in Voyager’s first episode, but over the next five years Nog would enroll in Starfleet Academy, graduate, and reach the rank of Lieutenant, such that Harry would have endured seven years of torment in the Delta Quadrant only to return home and be saluting his waiter.

This occurred because ‘Deep Space Nine’ was semi-serialised, with its last two seasons forming a fairly well-structured narrative. ‘Voyager’, on the other hand, remained episodic, like ‘The Next Generation’, with each episode remaining largely standalone. Harry Kim could never gain rank for the same reason that Geordi LaForge could never really progress – his role as a support character in other stories was vastly more important to the show than his actual development as a character in his own right. Geordi always needed to be there for Data – Harry always needed to be there for Tom Paris and to give status reports.

Nog was broadly a support character, too, usually there to fill a role in stories about the Siskos or Quark and Rom. But because of the continuous narrative, as these other characters developed, Nog had to develop, too. You couldn’t write connected episode threads about Jake growing up if his best friend of the same age never grows up either – because part of growing up is dealing with the people around you developing and changing themselves. Likewise, Quark couldn’t broaden his character without Rom, and Rom couldn’t develop without Nog, and so you end up with a character you probably forgot was in the show being the star of one of its most beautiful episodes.

(As an aside, the character of Morn, one of Quark’s regular bar patrons, is frequently lampshaded as being entirely static, never saying a word or even moving from the same bar stool, and yet still managed to get some character development. I can only assume that Garrett Wang either never watched the show, or was in a healthy state of denial.)

I’ll bring this back to ‘Discovery’ again which, I’ll reiterate, was conceived as a serialised narrative. The whole reason we’ve had to endure so much bullshit is so that the producers could fashion this trendy season-long continuous narrative. Which means we should be getting more Nog, less Harry Kim. Saru’s betrayal on Not-Organia should have come with consequences: it should not have been treated as a “one-off” “fire-and-forget” storyline with no knock-on effects.

And if you’re wondering why I’m so hung up on this, I’ll make it clear:

The consequences of a Starfleet officer turning traitor and endangering their shipmates is the entire premise of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’.

Burnham’s decision to turn on her captain, jeopardise her ship and terminate her career is the very heart of ‘Discovery’s narrative. Saru repeating that mistake, nearly beat-for-beat, should be HUGE. Especially given Saru’s resentment of Burnham for her actions.

Extraordinary events demand an extraordinary response, and that goes double for a show as emotionally charged as ‘Discovery’ tries to be. Although Saru and Burnham share a short, concilliatory scene at the end of ‘Errand of Derpy’, a genuinely satisfying conflict could have developed had Burnham taken Saru to task.

After all, when she behaved in the same way she lost everything of value to her and was accused of instigating a galactic war. Indeed, Saru has just prolonged a galactic war, compromising Starfleet’s potential countermeasure to the cloaking device, but this isn’t even touched upon.


saruburnham
Don’t touch him, you know where he’s been.

The fact is, Saru was initially a fairly well-realised addition to Trek canon. The ideas behind his creation were not ideas that Trek had particularly explored before: the concept of a race of cowards – not pacifists, cowards – with their biological impulses motivated entirely by fear and survival.

But a good initial idea is only as valuable as its ultimate manifestation. When shoddily executed, a good idea is worthless, and Saru has now become a fairly pointless, inconsistent character who lacks any of the qualities that made the likes of Data, Nog, or even Seven of Nine so compelling.

And it’s not as though he’s competing for airtime with a big cast of strong characters, like Data in TNG or Nog in DS9 or Seven of Nine in… well, never mind. But the fact is that ‘Discovery’ only features a handful of other series regulars, especially now that Tilly is barely getting one line per episode.

And as I’ve hopefully demonstrated above, there’s huge amounts of previous Trek that demonstrates what’s possible with a limited runtime – and that also demonstrates how badly things can go when the quality of a story takes a lower priority than commercial concerns.

There was no narrative requirement for Saru to go rogue this early on in the series. Sure, you can have him throw a wobbly in an extreme environment, but nothing in the show’s plot mandated his treachery. He could have been rendered useless by his fear, or left in an ecstatic stupor by the lack of it, and the lack of any follow-up would be a non-issue.

It was only because of the creators’ perceived need for hyper-dramatic conflict that Saru went all Bilbo-y. And it was presumably because of the need for a hyper-dramatic mid-season finale in the following episode that this development was immediately forgotten.

In the future, I intend to cover this cynical approach to storytelling – this assumed need for “tweetable” or “trendable” content that will drive social media engagement, but for now it’s enough to say that it will eventually have the opposite effect.

Whilst in the short term Saru’s behaviour might get people talking for now, in the longer term the variability and malleability of the character is going to leave him incapable of surprising us – just like Frank Reynolds.

sarustanding

One thought on “Anatomy of a Kelpian: Dissecting Characterisation in ‘Star Trek: Discovery’

  1. Could you not say almost the same thing about most of the character outside of Burnham in this episode. I get that they want to do a main character and one who isn’t a captain like Sisko or Archer but they do seem to be leaving most of the crew they do have out in the rain to fit her in. The time travel episode where we don’t focus on the guy going through the time loops or his boyfriend (who he maybe wants to protect) but rando officer Burnham felt weird to me.

    Liked by 1 person

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