"The Sound of Thunder" is probably the most riveting episode of Discovery yet (and was well on its way to an elusive four-star rating) for its first three acts — before it then rushes through a final act of overheated drama that has some considerable problems. Overall, this is still a very strong and satisfying hour of this series that ends with a major change in the status quo for two entire species. But the shortcuts and missed opportunities on the way to the conclusion take some bloom off the rose.
For the most part, this is an episode that has the necessary elements, weight, and established backstory to stand alone and work on its own merits. But the episode also tries to tie this standalone story into the Big Serial Arc of the season involving the Red Angel, while incrementally moving that arc forward. While I think tying your serial arc into individual standalone stories is the right way to do a season-long arc (as opposed to the "10-hour movie" that leads to lots of narrative drag), the way they do it here proves to be one piece too many.
For a very long time, this doesn't step wrong. The focus is almost entirely on Saru, and it's all the more effective because it mostly adopts his point of view. One of the mysterious red bursts has been detected on his homeworld of Kaminar, and the Discovery goes to investigate. We know from "An Obol for Charon" (and the "Brightest Star" short) that Saru's species willingly sacrifices themselves at the behest of the planet's other species, the Ba'ul, who are warp capable and control the Kelpiens through their technology and the Kelpiens' long-held beliefs surrounding the Great Balance, where they must be "culled" at the time of their vahar'ai. Saru knows this to be a lie from his own personal experience with the vahar'ai, which left him alive and no longer with the fear that defined him. But to share this truth with his people would be a violation of the Prime Directive (still known as General Order 1).
Or would it?
That's the question. It's worth asking, and Saru certainly wants to consider it, since he represents an entire species whose fate rests on a lie perpetrated by another. There's an especially tense scene on the bridge between Pike and Saru where Saru steps up and voices opinions in an insubordinate manner as he moves slowly toward Pike until he's practically in his face. It's an eye-opening scene that raises the question of what a post-vahar'ai Saru — and by extension, any Kelpien — might actually be like without the built-in submission to fear.
Saru and Burnham take a visit to the planet surface. For Saru, it's returning home after many years to discover it hasn't changed at all. There, Saru is reunited with his sister Siranna (Hannah Spear), who figured him to be long dead. The scenes on Kaminar allow us to experience some Trekkian world-building at a very nicely relaxed pace, which sets the stage for the growing tension that comes later.
The Ba'ul notice. They don't take kindly to the Federation coming near their planet, and they have no intention of letting Pike interfere with their affairs. They demand Saru be turned over to them. Pike refuses. The situation quickly escalates, and for once we have a ship-to-ship standoff that feels tense and exciting because the stakes are so personal and immediate. (The creepy audio depiction of the Ba'ul is inspired, albeit difficult at times to understand.) Saru keeps interfering in the dialogue. Pike orders him off the bridge. It's dramatic stuff, done straightforwardly. We follow Saru off the bridge and into the corridor, and the story simply lets us experience his feelings in the moment.
Saru surrenders himself to the Ba'ul to stop them from destroying his sister's village, which brings us to an equally compelling sequence on the Ba'ul ship, where a Ba'ul emerges from a black oil slick (like Armus in "Skin of Evil," but in a decidedly less corny and more menacing way). The revelations come fast and furious. As the Discovery crew tries to get to the bottom of Kaminar's history — discovering that the post-vahar'ai Kelpiens were once the predator species before the Ba'ul reversed the role by stopping the vahar'ai from happening — Saru undergoes more physiological changes that essentially bear this out first-hand while turning him into a superhero. It's fascinating to watch the prisoner/jailer standoff unfold as we begin to wonder who actually has the upper hand here. Subsequently, the crew discovers they can free the Kelpiens from the Ba'ul by prematurely invoking the varhar'ai on all Kelpiens and exposing the lie at the root of this society.
From here it looks like "The Sound of Thunder" is going to become an analysis of whether exposing the lie should or shouldn't be done, especially given that it becomes quite clear the Kelpiens freed of that lie might upset the balance of the planet. It would, in short, be inciting a revolution, which is, shall we say, not exactly what the Prime Directive is about.
Such deliberation would certainly have been the instinct of TNG. And that brings us to the biggest problem with the Discovery writers, which is, I think, their lack of patience. They're not content to let a story just play out on its logical terms with "boring" negotiation. They always have to outdo themselves by overbaking everything into a Massive Cinematic Production. Don't get me wrong: What they do here is visually and viscerally awesome. Discovery manages to do TV spectacle better than Star Trek ever has before, by a very wide margin. (And I think we also tend to take for granted these elaborate visuals, and forget that someone had to actively imagine, plan, and sketch them out, even before all the pure technical CG execution.) But there's another road that could've been traveled using dialogue and negotiation to resolve this, and by taking its time in considering the Prime Directive arguments seriously. Art thrives on restrictions and we're seeing what happens when those technical restrictions are removed. This could've been a great episode had the creators pulled back on the spectacle and focused on characters and issues. When you have an actor in a role as good as Doug Jones makes Saru, why not use that as a simpler (and more effective) tool in the toolbox than all the CGI? Instead, this misses out on a prime opportunity to tackle the big Trekkian ideas.
Instead, we have a sound-and-fury climax, which is effective in its own way but glosses over some major questions, like: What happens when you completely change the power structure of a planet after a decision made in a moment that was deliberated for what seems like only seconds because we're rushing through a late scene? And what happens when the Ba'ul decide to take the extreme action of using their technology to resort to genocide? And what happens when you intervene to stop them, and you fail, only to have the Red Angel show up and stop them for you? And what then after all that? Where are all those Ba'ul ships that were out there facing off against the Discovery? Are they just going to let this go? Did they vanish? Decide to go for coffee? Maybe gonna write a letter to Pike's boss later?
These are sloppy cut corners that hurt an otherwise excellent show. Can I come up with answers for these questions and fill in the blanks on my own? Probably. But I shouldn't have to because the episode should focus on showing its work rather than showing us awesome FX.
This is all mitigated by the fact that Saru takes agency for himself on behalf of his people to overcome millenniums of injustice in the face of an unreasonable adversary. It's intended in the spirit of the Grand Gestures of Justice and is compelling in that vein. But considering Saru is also a Starfleet officer and this show theoretically has as much time as it wants to tell a story, why not tackle the Prime Directive issues and downstream societal effects in a little more thoughtful detail?
Some other thoughts:
- We get a few details about the Red Angel when Saru witnesses its latest "miracle" by stopping the Ba'ul's planned genocide of the Kelpiens. The angel is apparently a time-traveling humanoid in a mechanized suit deliberately appearing at certain points in time to drive specific events, rather than some mystical creature or god. I suppose this changes the question of the season from "What is the Red Angel?" to "Who is the Red Angel?"
- Culber gets a good scene early in the episode where it's revealed that his mind and memories are occupying a new "pristine" body that has been completely freshly generated from his DNA. This adjustment proves to be unsettling and not easy for him because he doesn't feel like himself. Thematically, this connects well with Saru's similar struggle of self-identity relating to a fundamental change in physiology. Better still, the writers manage not to underline the point.
- It seems impossible that no Kelpien ever, for thousands of years, went through the vahar'ai before to survive like Saru. Perhaps the Ba'ul had perfect controls on Kaminar and could cover up the dissenters or kill them even if they didn't surrender willingly to the culling. But this logical gap probably should've been addressed.
- That ridiculous never-ending arc shot with Pike, Burnham, and Tyler is a perfect example of drawing attention to technique where it is absolutely not wanted. To quote from a review Roger Ebert wrote in 1997 (which I somehow remember 22 years later, about a movie that's not even worth mentioning the title of): "Consider the scene involving a heated conversation, during which the camera needlessly and distractingly circles the characters as if to say — look, we can needlessly circle these characters!"
- Airiam (Hannah Cheesman) gets a chance to leave the bridge and play a supporting character in the database search scene. But I'd still like to see these bridge people explored more as characters than props. My guess is this show has no time for that.