Lt. Saru is one of Star Trek: Discovery's most fascinating characters — not just as a previously unseen species within the canon, but because he brings with him the question of how a member of his seemingly ever-fearful race ever got into boldly going. The latest Short Treks episode masterfully delivers on exploring both of those fascinations.
Star Trek: Discovery has spent so little time fleshing out characters beyond its main hub of Burnham, Lorca, and Georgiou (in both mirror and prime forms) that if "The Brightest Star" had simply been a basic origin story for Saru, played by the impeccable Doug Jones, it would've been more than enough opportunity to understand and appreciate his character more.
But instead, it mixes an examination of Kelpian society with classically Trek themes while also strongly reframing everything we assumed about Saru as a character.
Saru, as we meet him in Discovery, is kind of a paradox. We're constantly told that his race are fearful prey, biologically evolved to sense "the coming of death" and treat every threat as a potentially do or die situation.
Saru is uneasy around conflict, both in Discovery's wartime setting and in terms of interpersonal relationships, and any moment of defiance is usually presented as him being a stalwart upholder of rules and protocol more so than it is standing up for himself. It makes the idea that he's the only of his kind in Starfleet understandable because, in a way, it almost seems like even Saru shouldn't be there.
If he is perpetually so terrified of impending doom, biologically evolved to so keenly sense it, how is he not constantly overwhelmed — not just by Starfleet being at war, but the necessary fear faced with exploring the unknowns of space?
Although Discovery tells us subtly that simply being there (and eventually helping take command in dire circumstances) should be a testament to Saru's mettle — that just by existing in that scenario he's overcoming everything the show reminds us about when it comes to his species — "The Brightest Star" really lays bare how Saru combats that ever-present fear: by making him a paragon of the franchise's ideals of curiosity and wanderlust.
It retroactively adds so much more nuance and understanding to the Saru we see in Discovery that it's almost shocking, in a positive way, that this Short Treks story isn't something fundamentally crucial to the larger text of Discovery itself.
It's here that I will hastily remind you that people outside of the US and Canada still cannot legally watch these shorts, so they must be considered primarily as ancillary material of less importance than the main show (and that as one of those foreign viewers, a copy of this episode was provided by CBS for review).
To reduce it to the basest of levels, the story of "The Brightest Star" is a simple one. Saru, tired of a life of predictable safety, longs for the stars, and successfully manages to communicate with Starfleet (specifically, none other than a young Phillipa Georgiou, with a surprise guest appearance by Michelle Yeoh) and find a way off his homeworld.
But what this episode weaves around this basic premise — the age-old Trek favourite, a conflict between religion and science through Saru's curiosity and the Kelpian's sacrificial, self-destructive devotion to an unseen species called the Ba'ul — reframes Saru as less of a perpetually terrified stick in the mud and instead as a curious romantic, brave enough to defy the established way of things to satiate his intellectual longings.
His decision to leave his planet isn't one driven by fear, but his own bravery, his own desire to see what's out there in the universe for himself. If Starfleet is ultimately a group about boldly going, the Saru of "Brightest Star" emphasises the "boldly" part in ways we might never have assumed the Starfleet Lieutenant we see in Discovery could do.
But aside from re-invigorating our perception of Saru, the other shining context the minisode adds to its parent show comes in its use of Phillipa Georgiou as the point of contact Saru makes with Starfleet, after pilfering a "forbidden" piece of Ba'ul tech to reverse-engineer a communique with the outside world.
At first it might seem like making Discovery's world a little smaller than it should be — of course it's a young Lt. Georgiou that finds the first Kelpian seen by Starfleet, her future science officer aboard the Shenzhou (which Gerogiou was serving on even as a Lieutenant) at that.
But it's a hugely important step in actually displaying the bond between Georgiou and Saru on a personal level, something alluded to in season one, but not really shown.
Critically, it retroactively makes the grief and anger he felt towards Burnham early on in Discovery's first season in the wake of Georgiou's death not only make more sense — beyond his disappointment that her actions got his commander killed — but infinitely more tragic.
His initial cold attitude to Burnham as she re-integrates aboard the Discovery isn't out of some high and mighty adherence to protocol — protocol that his friend defied at the Battle of the Binary Stars. It turns out, it's because her actions cost the life of the woman who nurtured Saru's curiosity and gave him his gateway to exploring the universe he dreamed of.
He didn't just lose a friend, but the most important figure in giving him the life he now has.
It's a fascinating piece of retroactive context that speaks to the depth Discovery's still mostly-unexplored cast is capable of. Saru, albeit painted in broad strokes, was already an intriguing character, but "The Brightest Star" adds so much nuance to the context we already had about him that it almost makes you want to go back and re-watch moments from Discovery's first season to experience them in this new light.
It's fundamental, excellently told character work, and it bears repeating: It's crazy that this isn't actually happening within the confines of the main show itself. But at least it is happening.
Between fun spotlights on the old sort of B-plots past Trek shows had, to presenting beautiful vignettes with characters old and new, Short Treks is becoming one of the most pleasant TV surprises of the year.
If Discovery could find the time among its bigger themes to devote to side stories like this within its usual format, the show would be even stronger than it has been at its very best (and it would certainly shore up the moments where it fell off the wagon).