Looking Up, Looking Down — Star Trek’s “The Brightest Star”

One of the hallmarks of Star Trek from the very beginning was to have at least one alien character who provides a non-human perspective on things. It started, naturally, with Spock on the original series, and also includes Worf on The Next Generation (and to a lesser extent, Troi and Data), Tuvok, Neelix, Kes, and Seven of Nine (and to a lesser extent, Torres) on Voyager, T’Pol on Enterprise, and more than half the cast of Deep Space Nine.

On Discovery, that role has gone to Saru, who has in one season vaulted himself into the upper echelons of great Trek characters. His compassion, his intellect, his unique perspective as a prey animal, all combine to make him a most compelling character.

So it’s just a pity that this focus on him doesn’t really work.

“The Brightest Star” gives us our first view of the Kelpien homeworld of Kaminar, as we meet Saru and his father and sister. His father is a priest who is in charge of the ritual whereby the Kelpiens sacrifice a certain number of themselves regularly to the Ba’ul.

It’s never explained who the Ba’ul are, or why they do this, or what they gain from it, or really anything. To be fair, that’s the point, but it’s still frustrating to never actually get those answers. Saru seeks those answers, only to be shot down by his father Aradar.

The Ba’ul device that appears and takes away the sacrifices is apparently very badly maintained, as a piece falls off it, and Aradar says that this happens sometimes. The pieces that fall off are to be disposed of and not examined in any way.

Saru, of course, won’t have any of that. He tells Aradar he’ll get rid of it, but he keeps it for himself. Eventually, he figures out how to turn it into a communications device, and sends out a signal. That signal is answered by Starfleet, and he meets in secret with a shuttlecraft piloted by Lieutenant Philippa Georgiou. Saru’s ability to manipulate Ba’ul technology makes him worthy of being contacted, but Starfleet can’t interfere with Kaminar generally because they haven’t achieved space travel. (They’re barely aware of the grander universe, thinking of it only in terms of it being where the Ba’ul come from.) So Georgiou makes him an offer: come with her to see the rest of the galaxy, leaving his homeworld behind forever, or stay on Kaminar with the heavens denied him.

The Saru we know from a season of Discovery, and from the short exposure to him here, can only make one decision. Saru’s scientific curiosity is as great as any Trek character this side of Data. He goes with Georgiou, leaving his father and sister and life behind.

This is the first of the Short Treks that fails in my opinion, and it does so on two levels. The first is that this is very much not a story that should be told in 10-15 minutes. Both “Runaway” and “Calypso” were perfectly designed for the short format. But “The Brightest Star” feels like the outline of a longer story, not a story in itself. We get no context for the Kelpiens’ life. We know nothing of the Ba’ul, nor of what actually happens to the sacrifices. There’s so much story left on the floor here because of the limitations of the timeframe. What else to the Kelpiens do besides farm? What form of government do they have? Are all of them doing what Saru’s village is doing? More to the point, how does the rest of the galaxy view what’s happening there? Georgiou knows that Saru manipulated Ba’ul technology, and she also mentions that her contacting Saru was a controversial and fraught decision in Starfleet. Why didn’t we see those arguments? Why isn’t Starfleet doing something about the Ba’ul’s enslavement of the Kelpiens? (Assuming it is enslavement—even that is not clear.)

The story of Saru’s background is one that requires a full one-hour episode at least. What we get here is maddeningly abbreviated.

And it also just isn’t very interesting, which is the second failure. Saru and his people have been described as prey animals, as a people who are regularly hunted, and who know when death is approaching. This fascinating notion is tossed aside for a bog-standard primitives-are-directed-by-beings-with-greater-technology that we’ve seen a thousand times before on Trek, from “The Apple” and “The Paradise Syndrome” on the original series to “Justice” and “Homeward” on TNG, none of which are episodes you want in your list of comps. Worse, it makes the Kelpiens out to be less alien than we originally thought, as their being “prey” is just to do what the folks on Eminiar and Vendikar did in “A Taste of Armageddon,” wander into oblivion when they’re told to and that’s it. That’s not being prey, that’s being enslaved. Nothing in what we see of Saru’s life here tracks with what we’ve been told about the character in “The Vulcan Hello” and “The Battle at the Binary Stars,” nor what we’ve seen particularly in “Choose Your Pain” and “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum.”

Because humans are (likely) the only sentient species on Earth and because we’re also at the top of the food chain, the notion of a sentient prey animal is something that is truly alien. It’s one of the things that appeals about Saru, and to see it abandoned here to turn the Kelpiens into generic “primitives” right out of mid-twentieth-century portrayals of Natives is disheartening to say the least. Worse, we get that most tired of clichés, the traditionalist father and the kind but not-understanding sister, played with complete blandness by Robert Verlaque and Hannah Spear.

Short Treks is a great concept, one that promises lots of nifty storytelling possibilities in the short format, from fascinating spotlights to character studies. But “The Brightest Star” fails that promise on every level. (Well, except acting. Doug Jones is still the best, and he makes even this misfire eminently watchable, and it’s never bad to see Michelle Yeoh in anything.)

Keith R.A. DeCandido first started writing about Star Trek for this site in 2011 (including rewatches of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and the original series, and reviews of most of the movies and each episode of Discovery and Short Treks), first started writing Trek fiction in 1999 (he’s written sixteen novels, thirteen novellas, seven short stories, six comic books, and one reference book, and also edited three anthologies), and been watching Star Trek since birth. His rewatch of live-action superhero movies appears every Friday here on Tor.com, and 2019 will see the publication of three new novels of his: Alien: Isolation (based on the videogame), Mermaid Precinct (latest in his fantasy/mystery series), and A Furnace Sealed (debuting a new urban fantasy series).

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