Published May 2, 2023
Saru Teaches That Going Boldly Does Not Mean the Absence of Fear
A longtime Star Trek fan shares how he's related to and gained courage from Saru's journey from fear to hope.
By William Smith
Star Trek has always been a mirror for humanity. Its stories allow us to see a reflection of our society and ourselves and, at times, we may not always like the image that stares back. As a fan for more than 40 years, I thought I had learned all I needed to from Star Trek, but I was wrong.
Like many of you, Star Trek has held a special place in my life since childhood. I became a fan in the 1970s when The Original Series was in syndication and, at that time, it was my escape. When Star Trek: Discovery premiered in the fall of 2017, I knew that I would love the character of Saru, but I had no idea that he would become a teacher of sorts as I struggle with one of my biggest challenges.
It’s not easy to admit publicly, but I have a crippling fear of tall buildings and cities. Approximately 10 years ago, I was commuting to South Boston, Massachusetts, for work and had a massive anxiety attack as I drove there. I hadn’t traveled to Boston in years, and I got lost when my GPS couldn’t provide direction. I had no idea where I was going and wound up in the heart of the city surrounded by everything that terrified me. I had tears streaming down my face. My heart pounded in my chest so loudly I felt like I couldn’t hear anything else. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and I held the steering wheel of my car so tightly that my hands ached for days. I had never had an anxiety attack before, and it forever changed how I perceived the world.
It also began a long road of trying to understand my particular version of anxiety. It’s become a constant companion, and some days are easier than others.
When Discovery debuted, I felt drawn to the character of Saru almost instantly. I’ve always identified with Star Trek’s messages and themes, but Saru was the first character I saw something of myself in. There are times when I feel as though I exist in fear, so I understand him all too well. Throughout Discovery’s first season, the subsequent Short Treks' “The Brightest Star,” and into Season 2, I felt as though Saru has been teaching me lessons that I need to be mindful of on my journey.
There is no shame in fear. When Saru’s threat ganglia became visible, his first instinct typically was to cover them. He seemed embarrassed by it at times, even though it was a normal reaction. When I’m experiencing anxiety, I feel certain that the world can tell, and it’s the kind of thing I become extremely self-conscious about. I feel like I’m on display and that others must see how terrified I am, causing the anxiety to become worse. In those moments, it’s easy to forget that such fear is normal and, while other people may not share it, they certainly don’t judge me for it.
Going boldly does not mean the absence of fear. For decades, Star Trek has entertained us as our starship crews have gone boldly where none have gone before. Saru goes boldly, but he shows us that one can still be fearful about it. He experiences new things and even danger on a regular basis and still moves forward. It is a powerful reminder to me that I shouldn’t avoid new experiences or situations because I’m afraid it could generate anxiety. Like Saru, I can go boldly — I just need to remind myself.
Don’t accept the no-win scenario. In “What’s Past Is Prologue,” Saru gives an inspiring speech to Discovery’s crew. He trusts in those around him to be successful even when his instinct as part of a prey species might tell him the exact opposite. It’s a reminder to me that I don’t need to do everything myself. I have an amazing support system around me who will help me succeed even when I think I’m not capable of it.
You are capable of more than you think you are. Saru is a being who has lived with fear, but aspires to be more than what he is. In “The Brightest Star,” Saru is faced with a choice that will change everything he thinks he knows. Despite his instinct and trepidation, he eventually decides to leave his home. His hope that there could be more to his existence is far stronger than his fear of the unknown. It’s easy for me to get into my own head and talk myself out of things simply because I don’t think I’ll be able to do them. Yet, in the last 10 years, there have been times I have truly amazed myself with what I can do. Sometimes it comes naturally and other times there is some degree of trial and error, but the only thing that limits me is my own fear.
In Season 2, Saru has continued to evolve on his journey. I’ll admit, I was emotionally affected by the loss of his ganglia in “An Obol for Charon.” While I was happy that he might no longer live with this constant anxiety of what might happen, I was also sad that this might make his world even more uncertain in some ways. Up until now, he’s had what amounts to an early warning system. Could the loss of his ganglia make him more fearful in the future or might it embolden him to do things he never thought possible?
I have tattooed on my wrist the phrase “Boldly Go.” It’s as much a trophy of my accomplishments as it is a reminder. I look at it daily and know that I’ve come so far — but still have a distance yet to go on my journey. In many ways, it’s the perfect mantra for me, and now I have a remarkable teacher. I know that Saru still has things to teach me, and I can only hope that I meet those challenges with as much courage as he has.