Star Trek: Discovery 2.06 – “The Sound of Thunder”

Saru goes home again.

I went into “The Sound of Thunder” with certain expectations about how Saru’s plotline would play out — and what we got is so different that I’ve had trouble formulating my thoughts about the episode.

But, with a few days and a podcast recording behind me, I’ve reached a conclusion: I liked most of “The Sound of Thunder”, but I find the ending disquieting — not least because I’m not sure that I’m meant to feel that way.

What I expected

I thought this was going to start with Saru arguing to be allowed to return to Kaminar and reveal the truth about the Great Balance in violation of the Prime Directive. Pike would take the side of General Order One, Michael would see both sides, and Saru would eventually prevail, only to discover that the Ba’ul are evolved post-Vahar’ai Kelpiens.

What we got

A convenient red burst appears over Kaminar, which has been left alone since the USS Archimedes made first contact with the Ba’ul eighteen years ago, picking up Saru along the way. Saru argues very strongly against Pike’s plan to ask the Ba’ul if they saw it; the Ba’ul are only interested in communicating with weapons; Saru asks — quite reasonably — why Pike would even trust the Ba’ul, given everything they know about the status quo on Kaminar.

Saru is — eventually — allowed to return home, accompanied by Michael, but his reunion with his sister, Siranna, is cut short when the Ba’ul signal the beginning of the cull. They’ve noticed Saru’s arrival, and they are not happy about it.

In fact, they demand the return of “their” Kelpien, which is a sickening turn of phrase. Saru loses his temper, and it’s both magnificent and terrifying, but Pike orders him off the bridge.

Saru tries to hold off the cull by beaming himself down to Kaminar, although he sets the transporter timer to 60 seconds — long enough for Michael to pop by and have a conversation about his plans, and also long enough for her to actually stop him, although she doesn’t … try. (I assume because on some level she thinks he’s doing the right thing, but I’d be a bit displeased if I were Pike.)

Saru is taken by the Ba’ul, and beyond the reach of sensors or transporters, so Michael, Airiam and Tilly start going through the piles of information they got from the sphere a couple of weeks back. It has millennia of raw data, after all, including sensor readings from Kaminar.

They look at the population numbers and realise that the evolved Kelpiens were once the predators of Kaminar, and almost drove the Ba’ul into extinction, until the few remaining Ba’ul figured out how to cull the Kelpiens before they completed their vahar’ai, and dedicated a couple of millennia to creating a new status quo.

Saru, joined by Siranna, is confronted by the Ba’ul, who confirm what Michael has already realised: the Kelpiens were terrifying. As is the Ba’ul, who appears to be an amphibious black semi-humanoid oil slick.

The Ba’ul’s point is maybe made when we find out that Saru’s threat ganglia have been replaced by flying spikes. And then Saru busts free, which was when I remembered that the reason I don’t see Guillermo del Toro movies these days is that I had nightmares about Doug Jones as the Pale Man for weeks after I saw Pan’s Labyrinth.

Saru hails Discovery, and they decide to demonstrate the lie of the Great Balance to the Kelpiens by, um, triggering vahar’ai in the entire population.

Me: “Oh yeah, this is — wait, what?”

And while every single Kelpien on the planet, including Siranna, is collapsing in pain, beginning a process which all but one of them believe can only end in death or madness, the Ba’ul respond by raising their SECRET UNDERWATER LAIR (sorry, some phrases require capslock) and preparing to launch Operation: Kill All Kelpiens.

Cue the Red Angel, which accelerates the process of Vahar’ai and destroys or disables the Ba’ul’s technology.

The Kelpiens survive, clutching their detached threat ganglia in their hands, and somewhere in space, Emperor Georgiou is all of a sudden hungry and angry, and she doesn’t know why.

The people of Kaminar are left to create a new balance, while the crew of Discovery — who now know, thanks to Saru’s superior eyesight, that the Red Angel is a person in a mecha suit (and I don’t wanna make ciscentric assumptions about gender, but whoever the Angel is, they have broad hips and slim shoulders exactly like Sonequa Martin-Green) are left to wonder who the Angel is, and what it wants, and what would happen if its power was turned against the Federation.

So … that happened

I don’t usually spend 600 words recapping the episode we all just watched. I mean, I call these posts “reactions” not “reviews” because they’re generally just my subjective flailing.

But I needed to get the sequence of events straight in my head, because … well, I still cannot believe that Team Discovery went from zero to “hey, let’s trigger the process that Saru sincerely believed would kill him, the traditional solutions to which include ritual suicide”. At one point, I had it in my head that the Ba’ul started the genocide, then the vahar’ai was begun, because I just … can’t.

Let’s talk about imperialism, paternalism and other complicated concepts

I’ve said before that one of the things I find interesting about Saru is how he pushes back against the tendency of anthropology as a field to objectify and other its subjects.

Anthropology is a field that relies very heavily on the value of the outside observer, and the idea that such an observer is “neutral”. Historically, that has led to Some Bullshit; the field is more self-aware and self-critical these days, but addressing these problems is an ongoing concern. Or so I understand from my, um, one semester of Intro to Anthropology  nearly twenty years ago, and general reading and listening since.

“The Sound of Thunder” was co-written by Bo Yeon Kim, who has a whole anthropology degree, so I don’t think it’s coincidental that these issues come up again here. There are small moments, like Dr Pollard apologising for referring to Saru as a “specimen”, and there are bigger ones, like Pike’s belief that Saru is too close to the situation, and too emotionally compromised, to deal rationally with Kaminar. There’s that idea of the “rational”, “neutral” outsider again.

Now, Pike has a point, but the obvious, balanced (heh) solution — to me — was to have Michael collaborate with Saru on Operation: Maybe Talk To Some Kelpiens. Which is exactly how it goes down, and that’s great, but Pike’s continual disregard for Saru is … troubling? Problematic? It makes me uncomfortable, in the same way that a lot of Prime Directive stories make me uncomfortable.

Now, in general, I think the Prime Directive is a good idea. It came out of the ’60s, and the Vietnam War, and the rather radical suggestion that maybe the US should not use less wealthy nations as hosts for their proxy wars against Communism. “Don’t interfere in foreign politics, don’t use your technology to manipulate less advanced societies” is a good rule of thumb.

The problem, for me, is that by the era of TNG/DS9/Voyager, it had become … nebulous. Does “don’t interfere” extend to letting people — even whole species — die? That’s an interesting question — the first few times it comes up. And sometimes the answer is, “Yes, but the main characters will feel bad about it”, which, way to make the extinction of a whole species all about the feelings of the most privileged people in the galaxy.

Pike’s attempt to sideline and silence Saru felt similarly paternalistic and wrongheaded. Well-intentioned, but not a good choice.

But that’s the Prime Directive for you. And sometimes, you have to choose between two bad options.

Okay, Liz, but “forcibly evolving an entire species” is one hell of an option

I wish they had tried other things first — like using the sphere’s information to hack Ba’ul technology to allow Saru and Siranna to communicate with the Kelpiens. “Impose Vahar’ai on the whole planet without warning” should be a last resort, you know?

It reminded me a lot of the Synthesis option at the end of the Mass Effect trilogy. At the end of Mass Effect 3, you’re given three options: to destroy all synthetic life in the galaxy, to control all synthetic life, or to end the eternal conflict between synthetic and organic life by merging the two.

Synthesis is the option the game wants you to choose, but … well, I hate it. I won’t inflict my inarticulate dislike of transhumanism on unsuspecting Trekkies; it’s enough that Synthesis imposes a profound physical and psychological change on the entire galaxy, and no one consents, and then it’s treated as a good thing.

The solution here is smaller in scale, but still makes me uncomfortable.

Is this really a happy ending?

Not necessarily — and I don’t know that it was meant to be, since this is Bo Yeon Kim’s take:

Saru and Siranna are happy, sure. And the Kelpiens are now free to evolve naturally, without being controlled and ultimately murdered by the Ba’ul.

On the other hand, now we have a planet full of scared and traumatised people, who are about to develop the ability to shoot spikes out of their heads. Will they turn on the Ba’ul? On each other? Does Siranna have the strength of personality to help her people overcome their new violent instincts and balance rage with empathy? Or is Kaminar headed towards an inevitable war?

Who knows? Well, I assume the writers have some ideas, and I am quite certain we’ll revisit Kaminar in the future. (I said on my podcast that it would probably be in season three, but the way Discovery does pacing, it could be a fortnight from now.)

We return to the Prime Directive side of the story: having interfered, is the Federation now obligated to stick around? And how do you strike a balance between supporting an emerging civilisation and building a new peace, versus more paternalism? Kim and Lippoldt said in this interview that if the people of Kaminar request Federation assistance, it will be granted, and I guess that’s the key difference: being invited, rather than imposing your presence.

None of this is to endorse the Ba’ul

About the kindest thing you can say about them is that they didn’t literally commit genocide. They just manipulated the Kelpien’s culture (to the point where Saru notes you cannot tell what is Kelpien and what has been imposed by the Ba’ul), drastically shortened their lives and reduced the scale of their experiences. And, worst of all, made the Kelpiens like it.

The behind the scenes guide even notes that the Kelpien written language has been lost, and replaced by that of the Ba’ul.

There’s no doubt that the predatory Kelpiens were vicious, and, of course, season one pointed out that people on the edge of extinction will resort to shocking measures to preserve their lives. But the sheer scale of the deception and manipulation, and the length of time for which it has been perpetuated, is shocking. Maybe the evolved Kelpiens could have overcome their predatory nature — humans did. But they never got a chance.

On the other hand, I strongly doubt that all the Ba’ul actively participated in the deception, or were even aware of it. They’re all responsible, to a degree, because there is no ethical consumption under the Great Balance, but I assume there’s a whole population of Ba’ul just … chilling, while their scary military dudes take care of enforcing the status quo. Maybe, out there, under the lake, is a civilian leader who can find common ground with a planet full of angry and spiky Kelpiens.

Meanwhile, Hugh Culber is not okay

We only briefly checked in with the newly-not-dead Hugh, but apparently he’s not a fungus. Which I’m sure is disappointing to Paul, but he’s coping.

Is Hugh? He seems overwhelmed at this point, and why not?

What’s surprising to me is that Dr Pollard doesn’t discuss any sort of mental health plan for Hugh. There are definitely benefits to going back to work, establishing a routine as a guy who is definitely not dead anymore, but…

Okay, Star Trek has always had this problem where its depiction of mental health care was at least a couple of decades behind the actual real world practices of its day. And Discovery is no exception — we know now, for example, that the physical effects of PTSD can be detected by MRI, so Lorca’s deceptions couldn’t simply be a matter of lying on his tests.

And the stigma of mental illness persists. Even in TNG, when the ship’s counsellor was a regular character, it was quite normal for people to avoid seeking her help. Which is partially “I’m a Starfleet officer and I prioritise boldly going into space over boldly going into my own psyche” machismo, but it’s notable. And the stigma is in Discovery, too: consider the way Spock’s time in a psychiatric hospital is being discussed.

Hugh clearly needs the support of a mental health professional. Discovery doesn’t have a ship’s counsellor, because it’s only the 2250s, but right now, in 2019, Skype therapy exists. This should at least be on the table as an option for Hugh — just like it should have been for Ash last year, and I was going to make a joke about Hugh suing Starfleet for getting him killed by not offering adequate mental health care to a former PoW, only to remember that Ash’s doctor was … Hugh.

I realise that drama is served by letting characters hit rock bottom before they seek help, but I firmly believe there are other ways to tell stories, and that depicting a proactive approach to mental healthcare isn’t inherently boring.

On the other hand, Wilson Cruz can really fill out a tank top, so if trauma prevents him from wearing a shirt going forward, I guess I’ll have to find a way to live with that.

I hate to agree with Section 31, but…

The penultimate scene gives us fresh information about the Red Angel: it’s definitely a humanoid person in a super-advanced mechasuit. Which is almost more worrying than an advanced alien, because the thing about advanced aliens is that they’re usually pretty good at seeing the bigger picture.

We still don’t know who the Red Angel is, or what agenda it serves — or if the agenda it thinks it is serving is the same as that of the people who created its technology. (I have this crack theory that the Angel is Michael and/or Spock, but the technology comes from Section 31 From The Future, waging war against Section 31 From The Present Day via people who think they’re serving the greater good.)

(And if you think that’s ridiculous, may I recommend Reddit’s The Red Angel Is Amanda theory? With bonus theories around names? I love this sort of thing!)

Section 31 are concerned that the Angel is lulling the Federation into a false sense of security — and they have no way of defending themselves against the power the Angel has demonstrated so far.

Pike thinks this is paranoia, and makes an ill-judged remark about how Tyler needs to get over the war. Ash calls him out, leaving Pike alone with his mixed emotions, and the nice white ladies of Tumblr got very cross at the bad man of colour being mean to the poor, innocent white man.

I mean. That’s the subtext. Pike is very popular, whereas I’ve seen widespread grumbling about Ash returning to the series for a second season. And Pike’s mistrust of Ash is quite reasonable, given who and what Ash is, and what he’s done.

But … Pike was in the wrong here. He was shockingly insensitive, and Ash was very gentle in calling him out. I was going to get into a big rant here, but actually, Branwyn already covered it for me.

Other observations

  • I liked the Ba’ul’s design, and that of their technology, but the two didn’t seem to quite … match up. Likewise the set design. For example, if you’re a slimy, dripping eldritch horror, are you really going to go for dry, square corridors in your SECRET UNDERWATER LAIR?
  • This leads me to suspect that the Ba’ul we see is actually wearing a disguise, and their true faces are less horrific than the eldritch horror we meet.
  • Another design note: Siranna this week, and L’Rell a few weeks back, both have notably smoother, less detailed faces than the men of their species. In fact, L’Rell’s face has been redesigned to make her prettier. But it leaves them both looking unfinished, almost cartoonish, and I’m quite sorry that Discovery has fallen into this trap.
  • On the other hand, I watched the season 2 premiere of Enterprise recently, and that had a scene where Hoshi falls down and her shirt comes off. (She is not wearing a bra.) So while Discovery has room for improvement, they’re doing better than … that.
  • I know it’s a low bar. I just … can’t believe that actually happened.
  • But it did make it even nicer to have scenes in this episode where three women — Michael, Tilly and Airiam — are just doing science, no men, no big deal.
  • In a season about faith, I think it’s valuable to include a story about how faith can be a tool of manipulation and subjugation. But I also appreciate how, in the context of everything which has come before, this isn’t just yet another SF Story About Why Religion Is In Fact Bad.
  • I really enjoyed Doug Jones’s take on Saru in his initial “I just read The God Delusion/Wake up, sheeple!” phase. IDK, it just made me laugh.
  • I’ve been linking this all over the place, but it’s always worth another round: Aristofranes dug up the Aeschylus quote used at the end, noting that it’s much grimmer in context than in the episode, and considers its implications.

And again with the Ditmars

If you are a natural person in fandom who enjoyed my Star Trek posts in 2018, please consider nominating me for Best Fan Writer, and also the William Atheling Jr. Award for Criticism or Review.

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