When we first met Commander Saru on Star Trek: Discovery, it was difficult to know what to make of him. He was new to viewers as a Kelpien, the first one we had ever seen in the Star Trek universe. But despite the fact that he towered over his fellow Starfleet colleagues thanks to his remarkable height, Saru somehow felt small. He seemed a jealous creature, intent on protecting his relationship with Captain Georgiou and disagreeing with Michael Burnham, her protégé, at every turn.
Over the past two seasons, though, we’ve watched Saru grow from a seemingly suspicious, untrusting character into a compassionate, thoughtful, and effective leader. Now, Discovery is headed into an unknown and uncertain future with Saru in command as the ship’s ranking officer.
But Saru has earned the right to sit in that chair. He shouldn’t just be the acting captain — Saru deserves to be the captain of the U.S.S. Discovery.
Michael is our hero; we knew this when Discovery began, even as Saru was often pitted against her, counseling a more cautious approach to events. We knew that his people, the Kelpiens, were a prey species, and that he had an extreme fear response as a result. It was easy to assume that he was ruled by his fear, that it was what defined him. After all, it’s what Saru himself thought.
But as the first season progressed, we saw Saru grow and change. He was cautious of Michael when she first came aboard the Discovery, but for good reason: She had committed mutiny aboard the Shenzhou and her actions directly led to Captain Georgiou’s murder. Michael may have lost a mentor, but Saru lost the person who saved him from certain death. Georgiou believed he could overcome his biology, even when Saru doubted himself. She’d given him a chance at an entirely new life that Saru didn’t think was possible as a prey species.
He earned his place as Discovery’s first officer, keeping the crew together while taking orders from the increasingly erratic Captain Lorca. That is, until Michael discovered that Lorca was from the Mirror Universe and had been using the ship and her crew to his own ends. It was in this most desperate moment that Saru truly found his voice. It was not, perhaps, reflected in his rank at the time, but he became the captain then. In that moment, Saru assumed leadership of a group of people desperate to cling to something, and he proceeded to do something remarkable: He told them that he trusted them. That he believed in them. That Discovery was theirs — not his, as the acting captain, but her crew’s.
That was the moment Saru became the true captain of the Discovery, but it wasn’t the end of his journey to the captain’s chair.
If Michael is the soul of this show, then Saru is its heart. Over the course of the second season, Saru demonstrated again and again that he is not defined by fear, but by empathy and compassion. He was an excellent first officer to Captain Pike, a mentor to Ensign Tilly, a friend — a brother — to Michael, even a verbal sparring partner to the quick and witty Agent Georgiou. And when we, as viewers, were faced with his death, we were bereft.
Saru’s eternal shame was that his species was ruled by its fear; he contends that the vahara’i —in which he lost his threat ganglia and his instinctual fear response — made him into a new kind of Kelpien. While that might technically be true, it actually made him more sure of the person he’s always been: one defined by empathy. The evolution wasn’t easy for him, though. In many ways, fear was a comfort for Saru. It was what was familiar to him; it was what he knew. Moving into an entirely new phase of existence, one without that fear response he so relied on, was an incredible act of bravery.
In the face of noble Starfleet officers who stared down death every day, Saru was ruled by his fear instinct. But, as we know, courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is doing what is right, even when we are afraid. That makes Saru — who left everything he knew to voyage among the stars; who turned his back on fear to embrace life — the bravest person many of us have ever encountered on our television screens.
But the fact that Saru’s fear response is now diminished isn’t what makes him fit to be a captain. It was the fact that he persevered in Starfleet despite the fact that every fiber of his being was telling him that he was in danger. That he should not press forward. That he shouldn’t take action, and should instead seek refuge somewhere safe. He matches bravery and compassion with extreme competence in his role as mentor, friend, and commander. And when he was finally called to be the leader of this crew, he chose to elevate them above himself.
Now, Discovery voyages into the unknown. We don’t know where — or when — she’ll end up. As her crew heads into the final frontier, they deserve the very best leader possible. And that’s why it’s so right that Saru sits in the captain’s chair.
Whatever the future holds for Star Trek: Discovery, whether it stays in a brave new world and makes contact with the Starfleet of that era, or whether it’s able to return to its own time (or something entirely different), Saru deserves to remain in the captain’s chair.
He’s not the “next” captain of Discovery. He’s the permanent captain of the ship and its crew.
Swapna Krishna (she/her) writes about tech, science, and sci-fi. She’s a contributing editor at SYFY FANGRRLS and has been published at Engadget, Gizmodo, Mental Floss, the Los Angeles Times, and more. You can find her on Twitter @skrishna.