“The Brightest Star”
Star Trek: Short Treks Episode 3 – Debuted Thursday, December 6th
Written by Bo Yeon Kim and Erika Lippoldt
Directed by Doug Aarniokoski
The third installment of Short Treks explores a Star Trek: Discovery character, this time giving us insight into Saru. In an all-too-brief outing, we finally learn more about why he is the first and only Kelpien in Starfleet. Given the stage to himself, actor Doug Jones carries the mini with the intense quiet dignity that has become his trademark on Trek and beyond. With a story that finally took place off the ship, “The Brightest Star” is the most visually interesting of the Short Treks so far. The fan-friendly writing team of Bo Yeon Kim and Erkia Lippoldt try to cram as much lore into the format that it can take, answering some questions while raising many others.
In a welcome change of scenery, “The Brightest Star” opens on an alien planet, specifically Kaminar, home of Saru and the Kelpien species. We arrive in the episode in a lovely tropical environment with happy aliens doing a bit of coastal horticulture, collecting kelp, which may be a bit too on the nose. But we quickly get the sense that the Kelpiens are not a high-tech society, giving us our first hint as to why Saru was the first one known in Star Trek.
Another new thing for this episode is a voiceover by Saru himself, telling his story. While narrated logs are common in Star Trek, this voiceover seems to indicate that Saru is telling some unknown listener a personal story of his past.
In the pilot of Star Trek: Discovery, Saru was introduced as someone motivated by fear, telling Michael Burnham how on his homeworld you were “either predator or prey.” Through scenes early on and via Saru’s narration, this new mini-episode shows us how his people willingly sacrifice themselves to the (sadly unseen) predators, to preserve what is called the “Great Balance” of the planet. In what seems on the surface like an idyllic ceremony full of light and religious tradition, we see Kelpiens “called” to this “harvest,” and whisked away to unknown – but almost certainly unsavory – fates.
Saru sums things up, lamenting “this is the life of a Kelpien.” Bottom line: life sucks for the Kelpiens, but it seems Saru is the only one who isn’t cool with it. In just a couple of minutes, we have learned a lot about Saru’s species, and while voiceovers are a bit of a shortcut to convey exposition in the limited time allotted, Jones does an excellent job of making his story compelling and drawing in the audience to understand how he was no ordinary Kelpien.
We soon learn more about Saru’s family, meeting his sister Siranna and his father. As the priest of the village, Saru’s dad has bought into mythology built around these harvests in a big way. He teaches others to accept and even welcome the sacrifices to the predators, known as the Ba’ul. The horrific regular culling of this sentient race is hidden under layers of mythology.
Like any good adolescent, Saru is questioning everything, including their place in the universal pecking order. We can already see the hints of how Saru is a born explorer, foreshadowing his destiny in Starfleet. Of course, priest dad is having none of this, assuring that if the Great Balance had meant for Kelpiens to fly, they would have been given wings.
The Kelpiens are wrapped up in this notion of “balance” and apparently the only way to maintain it is to assure that the Ba’ul are “sustained.” Saru’s father has no issues with what appears to be the systematic slaughter of his people and even seems to relish it, telling his son he should be “honored” if chosen for sacrifice. One could almost imagine him meeting these overlords and offering up his own braised threat ganglia as a delicious appetizer, reminiscent of the sentient “Dish of the Day” the Ameglian Major Cow from Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe— and his father’s acceptance of the idea that his son could be next to go seems to be what ultimately pushes Saru to consider other options.
But these Ba’ul are not gods, or at least not perfect, as a piece of tech fell off their ship, which seems to be a regular thing. Ignoring Papa Buzzkill’s rules to destroy the forbidden tech, Saru – apparently without any actual training – uses Kaminar’s equivalent of stone knives and bearskins to get the device working and even sends out a message.
Saru begins his wait for a reply to his plea to the skies, with the tension of his situation punctuated by an evocatively alien score by Jeff Russo, who continues to impress by giving each of these Short Treks its own appropriate theme. We see now Saru’s pivot, as he fights all of these instincts and tradition. Showing how he sees himself as apart, he asks “How could this life be enough for them, to simply wait to be taken?”
As this is Short Treks, we don’t have to wait too long for Saru to get a “hello” reply to his hail and he plans his removal from the menu. While leaving his father behind seems to be no big deal, we feel the heartbreak as Saru says goodbye to his sister, who seems unaware that there is far more to his late-night hike than stargazing. Once again Doug Jones shows how he is unmatched in conveying emotion even under layers of prosthetic makeup. His final words to her are “stay safe,” which seems to be the Kelpien equivalent to “Aloha.”
Seemingly far enough away from the village for privacy, Saru awaits a Starfleet shuttle from the USS Shenzhou. After getting his threat ganglia under control, Saru greets his future captain — Michelle Yeoh in a welcome cameo as a younger Lieutenant Phillipa Georgiou. She has convinced Starfleet to bend the rules of the prime directive and first contact due to what she says are the extraordinary circumstances Saru has introduced by reaching out with his stolen tech.
But Starfleet’s General Order One can only be bent so far, and so Saru is faced with a terrible choice. Go with this woman from the skies to get answers to all those burning questions and avoid the fate of the harvest, but with the price of never returning to help the rest of his people. Breaking through the last of his instincts to flee, Saru says goodbye to Kaminar noting “my place is no longer here,” and steps into his future, accompanied by the appropriate Star Trek musical sting.
Let the Kaminar games begin
Saru has been a standout character on Star Trek: Discovery, carrying on the tradition of “the other” as embodied by past Trek characters such as Mr. Spock, Data and Odo. Explorations of these characters and their histories are always welcome, making it a bit surprising the first visit to Kaminar was done in Short Treks. Due to the shorter format, it would be unfair to hold this episode to other character backstory-revealing episodes such as TOS “Amok Time” or TNG “Datalore.” However, “The Brightest Star” was still able to deliver quite a bit in terms of laying out the lore of the Kelpiens.
We already knew that they were prey to a predator species. We have seen Saru’s flight instinct and ability to sense the coming of death exhibited during the first season of Discovery. Saru had talked about how the Kelpiens were hunted and one could have imagined something that evoked the alien hunters featured in The Predator franchise, or their Star Trek: Voyager knock-offs, the Hirogen. However, the writing team of Bo Yeon Kim and Erika Lipplodt instead leaned in to how in the pilot, Saru also talks about how Kelpiens were bred and farmed and like the “livestock of old.” The relationship with the Ba’ul seem to be less gazelle and lion and more cattle and human.
Of course, this raises new questions, with perhaps the biggest: are the Ba’ul native to Kaminar? Is this relationship something that evolved over time, or are the Ba’ul alien interlopers who took advantage of the Kelpiens? For now, it is unclear why the Ba’ul would want a domesticated herd to have flight instincts, threat ganglia, and defense mechanisms such as the “donkey kick” Saru demonstrated in “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum,” but maybe there is a story behind that as well.
By presenting Kaminar in this way we can avoid hunter/prey cliches and dive into a more interesting story about oppression, with the Kelpiens under the most brutal of occupations. We also got a nice Star Trek allegory about how the power of myth and propaganda can be used for the most sinister of purposes.
The biggest issue here is the limited time on hand. Unlike the previous two Short Treks outings, this episode is more tied into to Star Trek: Discovery and leaves you hanging. The good news is that we will be visiting Kaminar and learning the fate of Saru’s sister in Discovery’s second season, and so in a way, this mini-episode is a prequel to that forthcoming full episode.
The Prime Suggestion
Another major issue “The Brightest Star” explores is Star Trek’s famed prime directive. While never cited by name, it hangs over every aspect of this episode. Dealing with pre-warp and primitive species is a recurring theme in Star Trek, and something dealt with in every iteration of Trek, so it is welcome to see it in a Discovery context.
One of the great things about the Prime Directive is the drama that arises from the moral dilemma it forces on Starfleet officers. How many times have we seen Star Trek characters wrestling with this policy of non-intervention in the face of witnessing hardship and tragedy? And what could be more tragic than the fate of Kelpiens and the Ba’ul harvest?
It is debatable that Georgiou and Starfleet broke their own rules by making contact with Saru. Star Trek: Discovery actually kicked off with a rather dubious interpretation of General Order One. In “The Vulcan Hello” Georgiou and Burham were concerned merely with getting caught interfering with the pre-warp Crepusculan homeworld, and seemed to have no qualms with the interference itself. So, one could try to make the case for a pattern of a loose interpretation of the Prime Directive, although in context Georgiou was actually quite restrained.
While she could have hidden her approach and departure from Kaminar more deftly, it was Saru who made first contact when he reached out. He showed understanding of technology and also seemed to understand that others lived among the stars. We saw Picard take a much stricter view of the Prime Directive in the 24th century, such as in “Pen Pals,” an episode with some parallels to “The Brightest Star,” but things played a bit faster and looser during the cowboy diplomacy days of the 23rd century. In fact, one could easily imagine Kirk kicking the Ba’ul out of their little Kelpien buffet with phaser banks blasting or at least giving the Kelpiens a hand, such as in “A Private Little War.”
Without knowing if the Ba’ul are alien interlopers or native to Kaminar it also makes it hard to fully understand how this all fits into the Prime Directive, but it seems clear that the writers have put a lot of thought into this. And it is a good bet we will see Saru struggle with this perennial dilemma in the upcoming season, again with this episode just being a taste of what is to come.
A taste of what is to come
“The Brightest Star” was another enjoyable little morsel while we wait for the second season of Star Trek: Discovery. Less experimental than the previous two Short Treks outings, it felt more like a truncated episode from the main series. The writing team of Kim and Lippoldt, who wrote the tight “Into the Forest I Go” which wrapped up the first chapter of the first season, continue to impress with their character development and respect for Star Trek lore.
It was very welcome to finally get off the ship, coming up with new reasons why the USS Discovery was mostly or entirely empty was running thin. The production design and world-building of Kaminar was top notch, especially for this shorter format series, likely leveraging what was made for the full Kelpien/Saru episode we can expect in 2019.
Even though this short episode was long on character development and exposition, “The Brightest Star” doesn’t entirely feel as complete as the previous, more standalone, Short Treks outings, perhaps due to this being somewhat of a teaser for what we know is coming in season two. While those last two Short Treks were enjoyable, they are probably not essential viewing for those who want to fully prep for season two, so if you are waiting to binge Short Treks you may want to catch this one before that Saru episode rolls around.
- In the US, the release of this episode was delayed almost an hour, with apologies from CBS and hopefully, this was a one-time thing.
- Kelpiens write from right to left
- Lt. Georgiou’s shuttle is SHN 03, in Season 1 of Discovery, the mirror universe SHN 03 was used to transport Lorca and Burnham to the ISS Charon.
Star Trek: Discovery is available in the USA on CBS All Access. It airs in Canada on Space and streams on CraveTV. It is available on Netflix everywhere else.
Star Trek: Short Treks will be available in the USA on CBS All Access. It will air in Canada on Space and stream on CraveTV.