Spoilers for the most recent episode of Star Trek: Discovery to follow.
Oh captain, our (acting) captain! Commander Saru, played by Doug Jones, has come incredibly far during the first two seasons of Discovery. He’s lost a mentor and friend, survived a war, liberated his species, and helped lead the Discovery crew into the future, abandoning everything he’s ever known.
In “Far From Home,” the second episode of Discovery’s third season, Saru and the crew finally made it to the 32nd century, escaping dangers and unfriendly faces to finally reunite with Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) a year after she arrived. Saru’s acting captaincy guided the crew through these uncertain times and allowed them to reunite with their missing science officer. But who will ultimately have the captain’s chair?
StarTrek.com sat down with Jones to talk all things season three, from Saru’s decision to leave his world behind, whether Kelpians could be found in the future, and, of course, everyone’s favorite space cat Grudge.
StarTrek.com: You’ve played Saru for three years now, so what was it like stepping into the character's boots for season three?
Doug Jones: Right, the dreaded hoof boots. Well, returning to a show, it is like joining family again. You'll hear this from all of us, so that's nothing new, but yet it's very true. That's why we all say it here on the show, especially — we all get along, and we miss each other when we're not together. So, doing season three, it was just a gift, and a gift that was given to us by the fans who keep us employed by watching and keeping the franchise alive. The fan engagement, too, is another thing that I'm just so grateful for. In my 34 year career, I've been in a lot of fandoms, whether it was Marvel, DC, horror, fantasy, but the Star Trek specific fandom, it takes the whole experience to the next level.
So, to keep propelling us forward and giving us a season three, that was the best part of getting back into my Saru boots. With some love too. When I started in season one, my worry was, "Okay, this is a new species. Is it going to take? Are the fans going to buy it? Are they going to want me to leave the ship and never come back?" Because Star Trek fans can be very opinionated, and rightfully so. This is a franchise that they've owned and loved for decades. So, you want to know that you're going to fit in. And so, now coming back in season three, and being invited back, it means that something's going right. So, I believe that's what I'm most happy about.
Speaking of fans, now that the show is in the third season and fans have come to know you and to love you, do you have any favorite interactions with fans that you've had over the course of the series so far?
DJ: I do the convention circuit. And the Star Trek specific conventions like in Las Vegas, or Destination Star Trek over in England, those are such family celebrations. Those are like family reunions. A humongous family, by the way. But my favorite there, I think... Season one when I made my first Trek convention appearance, I kept hearing, "Welcome to the family. Welcome to the family" from one fan after another that would either meet me at my table, or in the photo ops, or whatever. And it was just so lovely. Because you can come into something like this feeling like the country cousin, like, "Oh gosh, I'm related to this because I got the job, but will the family take me in and recognize me as one of their own?" And so finding that out at those conventions, that's my favorite thing.
[There’s] an awful lot of love online, too. I think out of all the social medias, Twitter might be the most active with commentary, good and bad. What I don't love is when the fights break out and I'm tagged in all of it, because it's like, I hate it when mommy and daddy fight. But what I do love is the passion and the sense of ownership that this fandom has for its beloved show.
Saru, along with Burnham and the rest of the crew made an incredibly difficult choice at the end of season two. So, how will leaving behind everything he knows affect Saru going forward into this season?
DJ: Well, if we remember Saru's past, he's done this before. When I left my home planet of Kaminar the first time as a young Kelpien living in a hut, and discovering a piece of equipment that got me communication to a starship. Lieutenant, at the time, Georgiou, swoops out of the sky and says, "Hey, I'll take you with me. You're extraordinary. But you can never come back." So, he's made that decision before. Now we're facing that again, where if I jump to the future, there's no coming back. I've got to say goodbye to my sister one more time. I've got to say goodbye to this newly emancipated planet of mine. Kaminar, my Kelpien people, are finally free of the rule of the Ba'ul, and it looks like they're working together now.
I feel like I'm leaving things in good hands and in a good place, and that I'm actually more needed in the future than I am here. And I think that's what all of us on the crew decided, that where are we needed most? They're very selfless in their decision-making, which I love being a part of a storyline like that.
Like you said, the Kelpiens were coming into their own when Saru left. So without spoiling anything, can you tell us if we'll see any Kelpiens in the future?
DJ: Saru certainly hopes so. Because again, he's back to being the only one of his kind in a world of a lot of humans and a lot of other species from other planets.
He left Kaminar originally thinking he could never go back. Well, he did get to go back, and not just go back, but go back strong and liberate his people and learn that we can now live for hundreds of years without our threat ganglia in. And we go through this change, the vahar'ai, is not our death, it's our adolescence. So, he leaves now with that new understanding and that new experience. Now that he's jumped to the future, I think his biggest yearning is to see Kaminar and to see how they're doing now. Did it stay? Did it stick? Did these changes make it? So, without spoiling anything, I would say that, as Saru I would love to see that that [has] happened.
Saru is acting captain of the Discovery, which is something that fans have expressed a lot of excitement over. What does it mean to him to be in this position of power during this incredibly difficult time on the ship?
DJ: I think he wrestles with that imposter syndrome, perhaps. "How did I make it this far?" This is something Doug Jones goes through, by the way. And as an actor taking on the role of acting captain, I was having imposter syndrome. Even as first officer, like "How did I as a Kelpien get this far? How did I as an actor get this far?” Because I'm in the shadow of people like Jonathan Frakes and Leonard Nimoy in the past. Our captain's chair has been a musical chair; several people come in and out now, so Saru has had to step in and act as captain more than once. That gives him a lot of responsibility.
Now, as we end season two, we're jumping through the wormhole into the future, it was kind of winked and nudged, between Burnham and Saru, what's going to happen with the captain's chair. Because even Captain Pike asked us, "We need to decide what happens with the captaincy of this ship.” And Saru stepped in. I said, "Hey, let's make this time jump first. What do you say? And then we can discuss all that later." And I kind of gave a little look, a knowing look, to Burnham. So I think we can assume that either Burnham or Saru are fit for the job. They both would encourage each other to take that job, because they now have a relationship where they trust and believe in each other even more, and want that for the other one.
But the question remains in the future, are we going to find the Federation? If so, is it in good shape or is it in bad shape? Are they going to have captains that don't want to assign [the captaincy] to us? That's the big cloud of uncertainty as we go into season three. So, at the end of episode two here, we still haven't decided yet. Because as you can see, we just found Burnham again, and it looks like she's been there a year. So we're kind of working through our issues of like, "Wait, what? Okay." We have to hit a reset button here of some sort. So, what happens to the captain's chair is still yet to be discussed with all the things I just said in place.
In episode two, Saru and Tilly spend a great deal of time together, which if I remember correctly, is the first time that they've really shared a major episode storyline together. Is it possible that Saru can mentor Tilly in the future, given that Tilly's goal was always to be a captain one day?
DJ: Absolutely, yes. You're right, I think. This is one thing that I will say about season three in general, I love what's happening with the Saru-Tilly relationship. It feels more father-daughter like. In past seasons, he rolls his eyes when she says silly things, of course, but he also can see that she is smarter than most anyone else on that ship. She has an innate sense of science and of figuring things out. And he does like her. She's so affable and she's so likable. You can't not like her.
So, Saru's not stupid. He recognizes all of those qualities in her, and that's why he says to her in that conversation when we land on the planet we're trying to make contact. We're walking, and she's uncertain. "Why'd you bring me on this mission? Out of all the people that are qualified for it, why me?" "Well, I need an engineer." "We have like three other engineers." That whole conversation ended with me saying that, "You are the one that makes a good impression." The good first impression comes from Tilly.
So, he recognizes so much about her that's worthy of leadership in the future. She may not be ready today. She asked him in season two, I believe it was, after proving herself, would I consider endorsing her for the command training program? And that's when I said, "Yes, I will think about it," knowing full well that she was right. She was very deserving of being on that command track. So, no, he wants to help her grow into a captain's chair of her own one day, for sure.
Outside of Tilly and Burnham, can you share how Saru's relationship with the varying crew members will change throughout the season?
DJ: Saru did learn a lot from being under the tutelage and the captaincy of Captain Georgiou, back on the Shenzhou. And that nurturing parental guidance role that she had is something that he benefited from, and he wants others to benefit from him if he can step into that same kind of role, I believe. So, I think you'll see more parental, more guidance coming from Saru this year.
And another relationship that I'm looking forward to seeing what happens [is] his interactions with Dr. Culber. Dr. Culber, of course, has been through an awful lot, emotionally, mentally, physically with his own metamorphosis and changes that he's made. Dying, coming back from the dead, getting stuck in a mycelial network… all that he went through. So, when things go psychologically or emotionally amuck, [Saru] does have an ally in Dr. Culber to, in a roll with leadership of any sort, "What do I do now?" And so, I think they have each other to encourage each other. So that's another relationship and another... Because Saru and Culber didn't interact with that much before. So, I think what we're looking forward to more.
The latest episode was filmed in Iceland, so what was it like filming the episode on location?
DJ: I had never been to Iceland before, and it is one of the most austere, beautiful places on this earth. And it does suit filming for other planets very, very well. I didn't really notice this until way after, that there are no trees to be found, really. So unique, it has lots of other planetary sort of landscapes, with icebergs and black sand beaches and rock formations that you just don't find anywhere else. So, just taking in the beauty of it was the best part for me. And their food is wonderful. I love seafood. So, their fish soups of all sorts were just a delight. That was great.
But I will say this, when you're walking around on Kelpien hoof boots and you're on uneven terrain, like an iceberg or a glacier, which we did do, I would say there are easier ways to walk.
In the first couple episodes, the big theme is hope and finding hope. So, during this tumultuous time in our world, are you hoping that fans take away this message of hope from this season of Discovery?
DJ: Yes. And this was such a coincidental accident that the writers took us to this place last year, before we even knew what the world was going to be facing in 2020. So, yes, I think this is the beauty of science fiction in general, is the escape that it gives us to see how other worlds deal with their issues and their problems. And this specifically now, here we're dealing with a big reset button. Okay, something catastrophic has happened, and how are we going to rebuild or find or rebuild, the Federation. "Can we rebuild? And if we're going to do so, we have to band together and find our unification, find what we have in common, and not wrestle each other. We have a common goal. Let's work toward that common goal." I think that's the message that I'm happy that we get to help play dramatically on TV in a world that really needs to hear it.
A new fan favorite already is Book's cat, Grudge. And I have to ask, do Saru and Grudge interact at all?
DJ: Well, I don't know that Saru would actually know what to do with a cat. What's a cat for him? And remember, Grudge lives on Book's ship, so it all depends on if Saru has any reason to ever be on Book's ship. So, we'll see if something like that would happen. But for the time being, I don't know that he's even aware of a cat named Grudge that he calls a queen. I don't have to understand it, I just want him to have this.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Kate Gardner (she/they) is the editorial assistant for StarTrek.com.
Star Trek: Discovery streams on CBS All Access in the United States, airs on Bell Media’s CTV Sci-Fi Channel and streams on Crave in Canada, and on Netflix in 190 countries.