In the sixth episode of the second season of Star Trek: Discovery, I cannot believe how consistently this show punches me in the heart. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For extensive talk of genocide, oppression.
I wanted this episode, too, just like the last one, and I got it, and I wasn’t ready for one second of it, and I NEED HELP.
Dr. Culber only plays a small part in an early scene in “The Sound of Thunder,” but there’s a satisfying synchronicity between his story and what the others are going through in this episode. I fully understand why his return is nothing but joy for Stamets; it’s all Stamets has wanted for a long, long time! But this is much, much more complicated for Dr. Culber, who is now the only living human who has been reconstituted from their DNA by the jahSepp. There’s a moment where Dr. Pollard describes him as “pristine,” which isn’t necessarily meant as a compliment (EVEN THOUGH HE IS), but more as a commentary on his literal body. All of it is new.
So what does that make him? What becomes Dr. Culber’s new normal when he is anything but normal? It’s obviously a uniquely bizarre situation, but no one seems to want to engage him specifically in that context… except Saru. Because of COURSE Saru would understand Dr. Culber! Like him, Saru just went through a profound physical transformation that was unprecedented for him and his kind. (Well… technically. Much more on that later!) Is Dr. Culber given an answer to his existential dread from Saru? No, and I expect that we’re going to see more of this later. Instead, Saru offers him empathy and a possible light at the end of the tunnel. Because maybe now, Dr. Culber gets to choose his path forward. Who can he become?
I’m excited to witness that. ALSO, HE’S BACK, I’M SO HAPPY.
Section 31 / Ash Tyler
So, this episode doesn’t give us a “reunion” between Tyler and Culber, but you know what? There was so much else going on here that I understand why it wasn’t the focus. Still, Tyler represents a third character who is living with the ramifications of his own profound physical transformation. It’s explored different than the other characters, though. Tyler’s decision to work with Section 31 is making more and more sense with each episode and here, in an utterly disturbing scene between him and Captain Pike, Tyler pushes back on Pike’s claims that Section 31 is making him more paranoid than he needs to be. Instead, I see Tyler’s decision to work with that division as a means of him grasping for control in his own life. After the hellish experience he went through, it’s perfectly understandable that he would want to anticipate threats long before they actually became threats. Note how often he perceives the Red Angel in negative or threatening terms. I don’t think it’s solely because of Section 31, and it was important to acknowledge that they were trying to assign meaning to the Red Angel where no evidence existed of one. (Even Burnham had to admit that at one point.) Still, I found this to be an interesting character trait spun out into a bigger story.
The Kelpiens and the Ba’ul
Y’all. This show managed to take an incredibly complex issue and give it a satisfying end in less than an hour, and I’m still sitting here in shock from the experience. I had said before when I watched “The Brightest Star” that I desperately wanted to know more about who the Ba’ul were and why this whole system was set in place to cull the Kelpiens. THIS ANSWERED THAT QUESTION AND MORE, and it did so in a way that allowed Saru to be angry, to initiate change, and to find a better sense of his own self in the process.
All of this is wrapped up in repeated appearances from the Red Angel, this season’s mystery. Which continues to perplex me, y’all! So, they’re a time traveler, most likely, but… why? Why do all this? Are they trying to correct things that happened in their timeline? Why Spock? Why Discovery? Why has the Red Angel chosen to appear to the people they’ve appeared to??? That has to be a conscious choice, not an accident, because I think we’re way past the point of coincidence.
Anyway, the Red Angel arc might provide the framing for this story, but thankfully, the script for “The Sound of Thunder” is almost entirely focused on Saru’s monumental return to Kaminar. With that comes a a tense balancing act: Saru knows that Ba’ul are lying to the Kelpiens, since he is living evidence that the vahar’ai does not mean the death of a Kelpien. Yet General Order 1 restricts Starfleet officers from interference in pre-warp cultures, and this whole situation toes a VERY thin line for Saru. It’s not just that either. Take Saru’s confrontation with Captain Pike, for example! I think it’s easy to read that scene as Saru’s passionate desire to free his people, but did the loss of his threat ganglia alter his personality? Did he stand up to Captain Pike because he had no fear? There’s a part of that thinks he might have done so anyway, but this episode introduces that doubt into the story, and it only makes this a thousand times more stressful.
I was comforted, though, by the presence of Michael Burnham, and “The Sound of Thunder” EVEN FURTHER develops her friendship with Saru. The entire sequence in which the two of them land on Kaminar and experience that reunion… y’all, this shit was MAGICAL. I mean, also uncomfortable??? This isn’t all rosy and idealistic. While Siranna is overjoyed to be reunited with her brother, his return signals the beginning of a crisis, one that is both personal and systemic. On a personal level, Siranna and many of the other Kelpiens suffered due to Saru’s disappearance, worried that he had been taken by the Watchful Eye and that they were next. But there’s a deeper pain here that is eventually explored: Siranna always knew, deep down, that Saru had escaped, that he’d not been taken by the Watchful Eye. That meant that he had found freedom outside of the regime on Kaminar. And god, what a haunting idea, knowing someone you love and care for is gone, but they found their freedom along the way. A freedom that Siranna clearly wanted, too!
The price of that freedom was this very separation, though, and once Saru returns, this episode does a fantastic job of demonstrating to us how much his perspective on everything has drastically changed. He’s angry, justifiably so, and he’s also desperate to dismantle what the Ba’ul have done to his people. Also justifiable and understandable! But one element that makes this so frustrating is a lack of information. I now understand why much of this story was laid out as it was, from “The Brightest Star” through the vahar’ai sickness to this. The Ba’ul were always kept from us because they were kept from the Kelpiens, and it made their eventual reveal a billion times more effective. We had to wonder about the truth the whole time, and I really do adore stories that put the audience/reader in the same state of knowledge as the protagonist. In this case, as the Ba’ul escalated their threats against Discovery, I began to worry about what would eventually be revealed. How had the Ba’ul perfectly orchestrated such a heinous system, and why? Why was the Ba’ul spokesperson so certain that Saru did not know what he was turning into?
We’ve certainly had Trek episodes that explored the nature of prey versus predator, or other ones where significant passage of time affected how the current-day characters perceived something that had happened over a long, long period of time. “The Sound of Thunder” manages to combine them both into a jaw-dropping story about these ideas and so much more. It’s about self-determination and repression as much as it’s about betrayal and self-preservation.
But I gotta take time to acknowledge the horrifying, shocking reveal of the Ba’ul. The design of them is… holy shit, y’all. I don’t know if they were an all-digital creation, but however this show pulled it off? BRAVO. Because that was one of the most frightening and expected moments in Discovery thus far. I loved that they lived in water, that they were designed to be so visceral, and yet there were still echoes of the Kelpiens in them. We could see a distant relation, which made the information gained from the sphere all the more real to us. It was a brilliant piece of visual storytelling on top of everything else.
And like I said earlier, it’s absolutely impressive that the show found a way to resolve this central conflict without smoothing out all the rough edges. This remains a delicate situation for the Kelpiens and the Ba’ul. As Saru learns himself, his post-vahar’ai self reacts to threats much differently, and he can absolutely harm someone in a way he couldn’t before. On a greater level, the mass-evolution of the Kelpiens has forced the hand of the Ba’ul. The Great Balance has to shift now! They cannot subjugate the Kelpiens through lying and genocide anymore. Does it solve the problem at hand? Oh, not even close, and that’s why Siranna remains behind rather than travel with her brother.
Like Burnham states (at least I recall it was Burnham who said it, so excuse me for the possible error), it’s going to take a long time to un-do the level of dogma that was operating on Kaminar. Thousands of years of thought, thousands of years of ritual, thousands of years of fear… that doesn’t disappear overnight.
Siranna seems perfect for that job, though. PERFECT. I’m so glad that this episode also delved more into her characterization, especially her complicated feelings toward her brother and his freedom. Again: I’m also so thrilled I watched Short Treks when I did THANK YOU FRIENDS FOR MAKING SURE I SAW IT.
I’m just over the moon with this episode, y’all. I mean, this whole run in season two has been spectacular. There hasn’t been a single miss. But holy shit, I feel so fulfilled after “The Sound of Thunder.” I felt they gave Saru a meaningful, complicated, and respectful story about the oppression of his people, and all of it was also tied into the Red Angel storyline, too! I truly, truly am having the time of my life watching this, and I’m so happy? I’M SO HAPPY.
The video for “The Sound of Thunder” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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