Saru’s Death-Obsessed Star Trek: Discovery Species Revealed

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Lt. Saru and and First Officer Michael Burnham in Star Trek: Discovery.
Lt. Saru and and First Officer Michael Burnham in Star Trek: Discovery. CBS All Access

Getting along with other people is tough, even in a socialist utopia. When it comes to poor social skills likely to make you an outsider, it’s hard to top “talking about death constantly.” The problem is compounded when you’re a rare species, joining a United Federation of Planets’ Starfleet dominated by Humans, Vulcans, Andorians and Tellarites, like Star Trek: Discovery’s Saru, who makes this ominous proclamation in the first DSC trailer: “My people were biologically determined for one purpose alone: to sense the coming of death. I sense it coming now.”

Entertainment Weekly has new details about Saru and his mysterious new species. Showrunner Aaron Harberts explained Saru’s line in the trailer, telling EW, “He comes from a planet where he’s a prey species. He’s the first of his kind to make it to Starfleet.”

Saru’s species, the Kelpiens, have heightened survival instincts since they are hunted by the dominant predators on their planet. Unfortunately, Saru will deal with scorn from fellow members of Starfleet (so much for enlightened ideals), thanks to cowardice stereotypes applied to his species.

Doug Jones (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, Crimson Peak), who plays Lieutenant Saru, compared his character to non-human bridge officers from other Star Trek shows. “Saru is the Spock of the series, he’s the Data of the series,” he said. “On Falling Skies, I played an alien species who came to Earth to help the humans fight back the bad aliens who’d taken over, and I was intelligent, well-spoken, had a lot of answers and science-y smarts. Saru is all of those things and then some.”

Star Trek species embodying specific human characteristics isn’t exactly rare — one of science fiction’s great powers is reflecting on ourselves — but Saru’s is certainly unique. Many other alien species embody human characteristics that, if not wholly positive, at least feel pulled from the institutions of human society: the Vulcans are rationality, the Klingons honor culture, the Cardassians ruthless bureaucracy. But the Kelpiens are death-obsessed, their personalities radiating characteristics, like cowardice, we often find repulsive. It’s a fascinating choice, which could lead to interesting stories. As much as we like Data, his eagerness to please, to be more human, doesn’t leave much room for his values to conflict with ours (with notable exceptions like The Next Generation episode “The Quality of Life,” in which Data argues for the rights of robotic tools, endangering the Enterprise crew).

As unique as Saru’s species sounds, there are several precedents in science fiction, including in Star Trek . Mary Doria Russell’s 1996 novel The Sparrow describes Jesuits heeding radio signals from space and travelling to the planet Rakhat, only to learn that the species who made contact with them are essentially cattle. Their well-intentioned presence on Rakhat only makes things worse. Prey species also pop up in Deep Space Nine, in the Season One episode “ Captive Pursuit,” when a Gamma Quadrant species known as a Tosk argues for his right to be hunted to death.

While Data’s presence on the Enterprise mostly inspired people to lecture him about humans, Saru’s commission aboard the USS Discovery NCC-1031 could lead to some interesting existential questions about the Federation’s mission, particularly if his constitutional morbidity butts up against the crueler prohibitions of the Prime Directive, like allowing species to suffer without interference. But we still have a lot of questions. While EW describes the Kelpiens as having “evolved” their death sense, Saru’s own description of his talent as “determined for one purpose alone” implies a certain amount of design, or at least intentionality. Saru makes his power sound almost like a priestly augur. There seems to be much more going on here than just some heightened survival instincts.

Which is why we hope for the best when Star Trek: Discovery premieres Sept. 24. Saru sounds like a genuinely fascinating character and new Trek species. As Data and Odo attest, great character depth can be achieved with a multi-season investment that slowly reveals all the different facets of a fascinating and unexpected lifeform.

Star Trek: Discovery
Star Trek: Discovery Counters Powerful Klingons With Starfleet Tedium
The two-part premiere of Star Trek: Discovery has powerful components, especially the Klingons, but is overwhelmed by poor storytelling choices.
  • Richly redesigned Klingons
  • Complex and explicable motives
  • Great new Starfleet characters
  • Incredible production design
  • Generic space combat and action
  • Too many flashbacks
  • Eschews subtext, doesn't put enough faith in the audience
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