With season three of Star Trek: Discovery now two weeks underway, we rejoin the NCC-1031 as it arrives in its new home, the year 3188. Though absent from the premiere episode of the season, we catch up again now with the crew of the ship as they begin the new phase of CBS All-Access’ flagship Trek series. Doug Jones, who plays Commander Saru on the series amongst other beloved roles, sat down with us to discuss episode 3×02, “Far From Home.”
Spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery
Nerdist: This is the first episode of Discovery where Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) plays almost no role. And it’s the first time you’ve been given a major plot to carry as Saru without Michael by his side.
Doug Jones: You’re right, but turnabout is fair play. She had episode one to herself.
Very true! What was it like finally getting the chance to stand on your own two feet and be the episode lead?
DJ: Right, those were some big hoof-boots to fill, being Burnham-less. We all needed a chance to get back on our feet again. Literally, because you find us all crashed around the bridge of the ship. So, it was waking up and sitting in the captain’s chair and starting with the barking of the orders. Not knowing what the heck happened, someone’s got to be in charge… Oh, golly, shoot, that’s me.
I think that was my biggest fear as Saru and Doug Jones. We don’t have a captain still. I’m the highest-ranking one sitting here so I gotta take this chair. I’ve got to get us through this very traumatic thing. Saru has been through this before every time the captain has left the ship or, you know, turned out to be a bad guy from another universe.
Yeah, Same old, same old.
DJ: Yeah, So he understands leadership. And now without his threat ganglia, he can meet that leadership and those responsibilities with less fear and more confidence. So I tried to take my cues from Saru. As an actor that’s like, okay, I have a very heavy workload in episode two, where it is very Saru-and-Tilly-centric. With us leaving the ship and trying to make first contact with this new world and time that we’re in. We have so much we don’t understand.
I feel that way every day as an actor. There’s so much I don’t understand. I feel like, oh gosh, any minute right now they’re gonna find out I can’t act and it’s all gonna fall apart. So I had Saru to inspire me. Because of the journey he’s been on and the fears he’s overcome—I can do it too, dang it.
It’s interesting that you mentioned the threat ganglia, because we’d seen Saru step up to the plate prior to losing it; like his “this is our ship” speech after the Lorca reveal. That was prior to the metamorphosis and the confrontation with the Ba’ul. Did you make conscious choices to play him as more assertive or bold after that than you previously did or does it feel more like a natural character evolution to you?
DJ: Yeah. I think it ended up being a natural evolution. It was a surprise to me I couldn’t pre-think any of this. When I got that script of episode four (“An Obol for Charon”) last year in Season two and thought: Oh… are they gonna kill me off? You know, cause he thinks he’s dying. Reading that script was the first I’d heard [that] he loses his fear. I’d developed the entire character with a cloud of fear over him since season one. So this was all news to me. I did have a bit of a reset to deal with him. Like, how is he going to wake up tomorrow without threat ganglia? How’s that gonna feel?
He’s still very much a gentleman. I think that’s his number one thing is he’s very prim and proper. If you’ve noticed the way he carries himself, he’s like the butler of the ship. He wants everything to run smoothly and by the book. And he’s very refined and very gentlemanly. So he hasn’t lost that core being of who he is.
But he might go through a little bit of teenage liberation where it’s like, “I’m 18, I can do whatever I want!” Having that kind of a moment, right? Especially when he steps up into Captain Pike’s face. When we find Kaminar again and Captain Pike (Anson Mount) suggests that I not be the one to go down and investigate. I was like, oh huh-uh! And I got up in his face. That’s something that Saru would never have done before.
And even when Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) and Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) got into a lunchroom brawl, and I held the crew back saying, “Nope, let them fight it out.” Probably another decision that Saru would not have made before. One of my favorite lines ever delivered was in the turbo lift with Pike, explaining that we’ve never faced these two personality types ever before having a conflict. It’s not in the Starfleet guidebook.
Speaking of personality types and conflict, I love the interactions between you and Michelle Yeoh as Mirror Georgiou in this episode. It’s like Saru’s Lawful Good meets her Chaotic Neutral. It’s fascinating as a viewer because we also know Saru’s warm history with the Prime Georgiou. She’s the one who saved him from Kaminar; she was his mentor. Does that inform your choices as an actor playing off of her?
DJ: We definitely do have butting heads with different forces. And especially, he has not forgotten that this Mirror Georgiou used to eat his kind [as a] delicacy. He hasn’t forgotten that. But what keeps him civil with her is that she wears the face of that beloved Captain that was a maternal figure to him. So that’s why he can tolerate her. And we’ll see how that relationship grows in season three. But without his threat ganglia, he gets to have moments where he can be very curt with her about not taking her with him for this first contact. And later when she just wants to level all the bad guys, the most poignant thing he said was just getting her face one more time to say, “This is not who we are.” So he does have Starfleet and all that it stands for in his heart and he carries that true and blue.
Feels like a running theme we’ll see a lot of this season, this heightened emphasis on what Trek is about at its core when put to the test. Another big Trek element is the camaraderie between the crew. It seemed to me this episode was an indicator that some of the crew that had been previously mostly supporting cast in a serialized story are being bumped up into more of a traditional Trek ensemble?
DJ: Yeah, we have the luxury now, of a third season, thank heavens, to find out more about some of those characters that have been playing on the bridge all this time. We’ve already been given a hint of that in episode two with Lt. Detmer (Emily Coutts) our pilot.
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I’ve been watching Star Trek my whole life. I’ve seen the ship crash and I’ve seen the ships get destroyed multiple times. I’ve never seen the crew in such a realistic state of panic while it’s happening. Like, people are in pain. People recovering from injuries. Stuff like that Detmer situation; you have a doctor there saying that she has no physical injuries, but you can viscerally feel that something is up with her.
DJ: She’s going through something, and we don’t know what that is yet. So we have some onion layers to peel back there and find out what she’s going through. All of us on the crew have left something behind. And all we have right now is each other. So that’s a storyline and kind of a family feeling, a nurturing environment that, you know, we have to cultivate and we have to use in order to survive this new world we’ve jumped into.
Do you think that’s what this version of the show is in a nutshell? Taking previous versions of what Star Trek was and giving it more of a modern, more nuanced understanding of how this stuff would work?
DJ: That’s part of the dance that the writers have had to do, and they’re doing it so beautifully. They have two audiences to appeal to. One is the traditionalists that came up with it from the 1960s. Like me—I’m a 60-year-old fella who saw Kirk and Spock for the first time on network television. That generation, along with a modern audience that has a sophisticated need to see visual effects, to see more reality, even in a fantastical setting. So, it is quite a dance to do.
And more serialized now too, like you said. The bottle episode was how Star Trek started, where the story starts and ends all in one episode. But this overall arc has to cater to the binge-watching crowd that we have now. Once the season is all done, there are many fans who wait until it’s all watchable in one click. And there are also ones who want to watch it one week at a time. They have to balance out their storytelling for both audiences.
Switching gears now: Be honest, how comfortable is that Captain’s chair?
DJ: Well, Saru has been in and out of it a lot. He’s had the role of acting Captain as First Officer a few times now. So it’s familiar. But now it carries some uncertainty to it, because we don’t know… we’ve come to the future. It was hinted at; he looked at Michael Burnham when we were talking to Captain Pike before he left us back to the Enterprise. He suggested that we have to talk about the Captain seat here. And I’m the one who said, “Let’s get through this task at hand. Let’s jump to the future, then we can talk about that.” And I gave a look to Burnham and she gave a look back so it’s kind of hinted that it’s going to be between us.
And yet, when we jump to the future is… are we going to find the Federation? If we do find them, what condition are they going to be in? Are they going to be up and running? Are they going to be failing? And will they have a captain that knows the future better than we do that’s assigned to us? Or will we self govern that?
He’s feeling more capable himself. But also, as the relationship with Burnham has grown, he also wants to encourage her to also think of herself as a Captain. She’s extremely capable, and he believes in her and she believes in him. So they want this for each other. They know each other is capable. But they also both joined Starfleet in hopes of having a Captain’s chair of their own one day. So it’s another little conundrum we find ourselves in.
I feel like, regardless of what rank Saru holds, he’s definitely the unofficial ‘papa bear’ of Discovery at this point.
DJ: I feel that too; thank you. I guess he learned from the best. He learned from a very mama bear figure, which was Captain Georgiou. She scooped him up and found him on its own planet and nurtured him. He was right there growing with her and learning so much from. So that parental thing. Now that we have jumped to the future and we left all of our families behind and all our homes behind, all we have each other now. So we have this new chosen family that the Discovery crew is. Yes, I believe that the papa bear figure, fatherly parental sort of feelings, Saru does take that on and takes it on gladly.
And one last question for you, and this might be a stumper. As current Acting Captain, who is your favorite Starfleet Captain, outside of those on Discovery?
DJ: Okay, well I… gosh. Can I give you a two-pronged answer?
You can give me all the answers you want!
DJ: For nostalgia’s sake, I’m gonna say Captain Kirk, because that’s my childhood. And just for utter awesome, oh-my-gosh ‘Best Actor in the World’ sake, I’m gonna say Captain Picard.
Star Trek: Discovery is now streaming on CBS All-Access in the United States and other streaming outlets worldwide
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