The latest Discovery episode, “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum,” had multiple threads to follow, but was notable for being only the second time that we have seen any focus on Commander Saru, the first Kelpian member of Starfleet. Saru’s journey in this episode not only gives viewers a greater window into his people, but also examines an older Trek tale with a new twist… to a deeply emotional conclusion.
Saru leads a landing party on the planet Pahvo, a world that contains what appears to be a naturally formed crystalline transmitter that the Federation hopes to modify for the purpose of detecting cloaked Klingon ships in the war. Once on the planet, the party encounters a form of life that originates on the planet, making their mission suddenly far more complex; with the Pahvans now engaged in standard First Contact procedures, Saru, Burnham, and Tyler cannot carry out their mission on the transmitter without their express permission.
Saru takes instantly to that Pahvans, despite finding their planet unbearably noisy to his heightened prey instincts. After spending some time initiating First Contact and getting to know the Pahvans one on one, Saru’s behavior changes drastically, and it becomes clear to Burnham and Tyler that he has been compromised by his exposure to the Pahvans. Saru later reveals that these beings seek only to promote harmony throughout the universe, and that being in their presence has been so elating, the Kelpian has no intention of leaving. His feelings on the matter are so extreme that he crushes the communicators of his fellow officers and later gets into the brawl with Michael to prevent her from sending a signal to Discovery.
It has been noted by many fans that Saru’s story in this episode closely resembles Spock’s journey in the TOS episode “This Side of Paradise.” There, Spock is exposed to plant spores on Omicron Seti III, causing him to enter a euphoric state that allows him to express emotions. This state is deliberately induced by one of the colonists on the planet—a botanist named Leila Kalomi, who had met Spock before and maintained a one-sided affection for him even years later. Spock spends his time on Omicron Seti III climbing trees, introducing others to the spores, and ignoring Captain Kirk orders. Eventually Kirk realizes that hate and anger kills the spores off in a living host, and he sets about tricking Spock onto the Enterprise so that he can goad him into a fight.
Though it almost results in Kirk getting his head squashed by a table, Spock eventually comes back to himself and helps to de-spore the rest of the crew. After successfully evacuating the planet, Kirk asks Spock what he thought of their little escapade, to which Spock replies, “I have little to say about it, captain. Except that, for the first time in my life, I was happy.”
The episode’s emotional core contains a few questions that Star Trek regularly asks of its audience—what is happiness? When is it the same as stagnation? What does it mean to be truly content? Often, the things that people want in order to attain happiness are easy to dismiss, and Star Trek often does precisely that; the desire for wealth, power, youth, and fame are summarily shrugged off as lesser pursuits. But Spock’s arc in this fan favorite episode is a frankly baffling one, if only because it seems to come from nowhere at all. We are introduced to a woman who has spent six years pining over him, then infects him with spores against his will to force him to love her in return. There’s no indication that Spock ever really liked her at all up until that point, making their entire relationship deeply unsettling.
Spock’s insistence that he had been happy on the colony does little more than prove his lack of experience with emotion—why would a person find happiness in sudden romantic feelings for a person they never experienced any strong attachment to at all? Was it perhaps the sense of belonging that Spock was instead referring to, as the spores prompted a sense of unity with a other colonists on Omicron Seti III? Is Spock sad to be robbed of that happiness, even though it was clearly manufactured? What precisely are we, the viewer, supposed to be upset about, aside from the fact that it sucks to have good feeling ripped out from under you?
The happiness experienced in “This Side of Paradise” is closer to a drug-induced state than a true revelation of peace. But for Saru, there is something more to consider. He later admits to Burnham that he is devastated for his actions on the planet, for how he treated her and Tyler. But he also acknowledges the reason why the Pahvans offered such a tempting landscape to his mind; as a member of the prey species on his world, Saru spends his life on alert, constantly experiencing some level of fear. And to be given the chance to experience life without fear was revelatory. It was true happiness, true contentment, the likes of which he had never known or conceived of before. This concept offers more to a narrative that bases its core conceit on the “happiness drug” premise. The idea that fear is what informs our overall well-being is a more realistic look at what makes sentient beings tick. It makes Saru’s journey that much more painful to witness, and rapidly makes it clear to the audience where he stands as both an alien in Starfleet and the First Officer of Discovery.
Having seen this from Saru, it is intriguing to think where he might go next, what he might learn through the source of the series. And it doesn’t hurt that his experience updates a science fictional plot that could do with a makeover. While Discovery has been keen not to replicate too many of Trek’s typical bottle episodes, it’s stories like the Pavan intrigue on “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” that show us how it might continue to ruffle the genre in the future.