In the first episode of Star Trek: Discovery, Lt. Saru (Doug Jones), a towering, green-eyed alien, tries to explain his planet to First Officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green). "Our species map is binary," Saru says with wide, fearful eyes. "We are either predator or prey. My people were hunted, bred and farmed. We are your livestock of old." Watching Saru admit his deep insecurity is a quintessential Star Trek moment—the franchise has explored uncomfortable cultural allegories through creatures and aliens since the 1970s.
Speaking with Newsweek, Jones says he hopes that Saru can take his place among the alien Starfleet officers of previous series. "I’d love to think Saru can have his place in Star Trek canon, and that Kelpiens can now be a part of this legacy," Jones says. "What kind of wit or charm or heroism is that going to take? What sort of relatability has to come across, in order for fans to find him iconic in that way? It’s a type of magic that I don’t have the answers for, but I do get to play a part in it."
Jones has brought several iconic creatures to life, including the Silver Surfer, Abe Sapien in both Hellboy films, and both The Faun and the Pale Man in Pan's Labyrinth. This December, he'll play the aquatic lead in Guillermo Del Toro's The Shape of Water, but for now, he's on CBS All Access every week as Lt. Saru. The character, in many ways, is Discovery's Spock or Data, and that's not a role Jones takes lightly.
"I’m the one who ranks high on the bridge but doesn’t look like everyone else, and it's a lot of storyline to carry. It’s terrifying," Jones admits. Saru, standing at 6'8", towers above the other Starfleet officers on screen. Although he's physically imposing, Jones says he's plagued with low self-esteem. In episode three, we begin to see hints that Saru is even more complicated than he appears.
While making himself a glass of tea (with plenty of salt) in the mess hall, Saru feels his "threat ganglia," little transclucent fins which protrude from the nape of his neck when he senses danger, as they slide out of their pockets. He pushes them back in before the scene ends—Jones says that's something Saru has learned to do over time. "He's brilliant and skilled," Jones says, "but I believe Saru is hoping no one will notice that he's an underdog. He's the only one of his kind around, and I think he just wants to blend into the starship and not stand out."
Kelpiens like Saru have cloven hooves for feet, so costume designer Gersha Philips had to create Starfleet uniform boots specifically for the creature design. Those boots, which look like Saint Laurent heelless platforms, actually helped Jones to create Saru's cautious, swinging gait. Jones stands on the balls of his feet while on set, which pushes his pelvis forward and gives his character a humble, almost defeated-looking curve in his back. "As I walked around like that on set, I realized that I could swing my arms side to side, and not front to back as a human would. I let my hands hang loose, and they have a water-like fluidity to them."
Saru, according to Jones, is especially adept in water, though we won't see him afloat in Discovery. We will, however, see Star Trek's only Kelpien when he unleashes other abilities. Jones says he saw how many Trekkies were complaining about his character's fearful nature on Twitter while the first two Discovery episodes aired, and he assures us that there is more to Saru than meets the eye. "When a prey species is backed into a corner, they do have some fight in them," he says.
Jones can't confirm much about specific upcoming dangers, but he says Episode 8 will prove just how skilled Kelpiens are at getting around on their hooves. He also points out that Saru has no idea Michael is still onboard The Discovery—in his last exchange with his old friend and rival, Saru tells her he intends to protect his ship's captain better than she protected Captain Yeoh (Han Bo). Once Saru realizes Michael has been invited to join Discovery's crew, we may see another, more cut-throat side of Star Trek's first Kelpien.
Star Trek: Discovery airs Sundays at 8:30 on CBS All Access.
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