Doug Jones
Photo: Michael Gibson (CBS)
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Be careful what you wish for, I guess. “The Sound Of Thunder” spends nearly all of its running time focused on a single story, and it’s one of the most frustrating episodes of the season this far, full of big crowd-pleasing moments that make little to no sense and rash decisions which always manage to work out for the best. The premise should be fascinating: Saru returns to his homeworld after an 18 year absence, determined to try and help his species against their oppressors. Mysteries abound, and by the end of the hour, the Kelpians have taken steps towards liberation, we’ve learned a little more about the “red angel,” and Burnham, for some reason, has decided to go back to Vulcan.

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Oh sure, the ostensible justification is because Burnham is inspired by seeing Saru reconnect with his sister Siranna, which makes her think about her brother like just about everything else that’s happened so far this season (“Whenever Spock is not on screen, characters should be asking, ‘Where’s Spock?’”), but since there’s no reason to believe Spock is on Vulcan, it seems like a stretch. But let’s leave that till next week. “Sound Of Thunder” offers enough to unpack on its own that we don’t need to go looking for problems.

A “red angel” signal appears outside of Federation space—and, in an absolutely astonishing coincidence, it winds up right over Saru’s home planet. This seems like a blessing, given what Saru has recently discovered about the Kelpians (namely that their apparent biological death sentence is not fatal at all), but things get complicated when Saru’s newfound courage runs headlong into Pike’s determination to put the mission above everything else. Burnham talks Pike into letting her bring Saru down to the planet, which triggers the Ba’ul, the race keeping the Kelpians in bondage. The Ba’ul aren’t happy to see Saru back, especially after he tells them what he’s learned, so he gives himself up to prevent the destruction of his hometown. While he’s coming into his own on a Ba’ul ship, Burnham and Tilly use the sphere database to learn the truth: that the Kelpians used to be the dominant species on the planet, and the reason the Ba’ul have convinced them to kill themselves before their fear ganglia atrophy is because the Ba’ul were once their prey.

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It’s a lot. And if you don’t think about it too much, I guess there’s some joy to be had here. Saru gets to be the hero for much of the episode, and while losing his fear response means more or less dropping what made him interesting as a character, he’s still someone who’s been around along enough for us to be emotionally invested in his fate. Seeing a race rise up and throw off the shackles of oppression is always a good time, and, structurally, the episode does a fine job of both telling a single contained storyline while still inching forward the season-long arc. Hell, we even check briefly back in with the reborn Dr. Culber, just to see how he’s handling resurrection (he’s shiny but concerned).

But on a moment to moment level, there’s a lot of dumb going on here, of the kind that should be familiar to anyone who’s watched the original Trek, or any number of episodes from the first seasons of Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. You could be generous and pretend the show is paying homage to its forebears, especially the original series—given that this is supposed to be a prequel, wouldn’t it make sense of the writers to try and recapture that fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach to plotting and world-building?

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Maybe. Maybe I’m just not being generous; the show style of swooping the camera in every damn scene (the conversation between Burnham, Pike, and Ash near the start of the episode is a particularly egregious example: it’s just three people talking in a room, and it’s shot like they’re standing on drunken Tilt-A-Whirl) is not putting me in a kind mood. But there’s also the fact that with so much to build on, the writers really ought to know better at this point. And the original series at least had the benefit of camp charm. Discovery just leans hard into feeling good, and refuses to contemplate the actions of nearly ever narrative choice, either out of laziness, not knowing better, or just assuming the audience will be so distracted by the bright lights that we’ll forget to see what’s behind them.

I’m fine with the coincidence of the light showing up over Saru’s planet. For one thing, this is a time honored tradition of mildly serialized television; for another, given what we learn over the course of the hour, it’s entirely possible that the Red Angel chose to visit Kaminar not just to free the Kelpians, but because—I dunno, it’s connected with the sphere? Look, I’m going to do the writing a favor and just pretend this will all be explained in the future. Besides, coincidence is the least of the episode’s problems.

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We spent almost no time with actual Kelpian culture. We don’t even see another Kelpian beyond Siranna until the final five minutes or so, and given that the episode hinges on a decision that more or less restructures the biology of the entire race in about thirty seconds (yeah, we’ll get to that), you’d think it would be a good idea to at least show us how miserable they are with the current status quo. Sure, “enslavement” is an obvious and inherent evil, but without introducing us to anyone outside of Saru’s immediate family, there’s no emotional weight to any of the decisions anyone makes. It’s a problem that’s haunted the series from the beginning; for stories that are supposed to span the universe, Discovery often feels like a dozen or so people hanging out in an office building and occasionally swapping floors.

We learn that the Kelpians haven’t seen the Ba’ul in a century, which seems to be setting up some kind of twist that never actually arrives—instead, we get some weird hodge-podge villains that are a mix of the albino cannibals from The Descent covered in oil and anonymous tech drones. While the Ba’ul have behaved monstrously, presenting them simply as monsters, with nothing to distinguish them beyond some heavy-handed special effects, is bad writing, especially considering the actual big twist the script foists on us about three-quarters of the way through.

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That twist, and Saru and Burnham’s decision to oh-what-the-hell let’s make every Kelpian go through this terrifying and painful biological ordeal without any warning, is where this really falls apart. It’s so shallow and thinly considered, the most obvious reversal imaginable (I suppose having the Ba’ul actually turn out to be Kelpian themselves would’ve been more obvious, which is where I assumed they were going), and something that should lead to some ambiguity but absolutely does not. The Ba’ul have kept the Kelpians subjugated because in ancient times, the Kelpians had nearly wiped them all out. The solution is to turn all the Kelpians into super heroes and, I dunno, let God sort it out.

There’s no consideration in this, no “let’s stop and talk about the implications of what we’re going to do.” Which, again, calls back to the original series and Kirk’s willingness to upend entire civilizations if he decided they were wrong. But that worked in the pulp-driven context of the original show, where most of the plots were thinly veiled allegories that succeeded on their energy and the charisma of the main cast. (And even then, there’d at least be conversation before he blew shit up.) Here it just makes everyone look colossally arrogant and short-sighted, especially when the Ba’ul realize what’s going on and decide to try and wipe out the entire Kelpian race. The only reason Saru and Burnham’s plan doesn’t indirectly lead to a genocide they can’t prevent is that the Red Angel decides to step in and save the day.

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The Red Angel has been a force for good before, but I think this is the first time the figure has served as a clear deus ex machina. While that could lead to complications in the future (as the conversation between Pike and Tyler at the end tries to suggest), it just seems like a cop out here. The Kelpians don’t seem angry at being forced to rethink hundreds of years of theology in one fell swoop, and none of them express annoyance at Saru and Burnham for proactively deciding to thrust them into a gigantic war between the species. The Ba’ul are probably not pleased, but given that we never get more out of them than villain sneering, it’s hard to know for sure.

This is a mess that’s treated as an unambiguous triumph, the worst example yet of Discovery’s first draft idea approach to writing. And that’s not even taking into account the use of the anonymous sphere’s “data” to answer any challenging questions. In the first season, we had a magical new spore drive that was even faster than warp speed. Now we have a magical sphere that gives us information on everything. Oh, and it turns out the Red Angel is probably a time traveler. There’s still enough good here to keep me from giving up hope entirely, but after something like this (which honestly should’ve been a triumph), the odds don’t seem quite as strong as they used to.

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Stray observations

  • I suppose it’s not that surprising that time travel would come up, given the episode title.
  • The little we do hear about Kelpian culture is potentially interesting. But it gets pretty much shredded by the end.
  • I realize Siranna hasn’t seen her brother in years and believed he was dead, but it’s hilarious when she only recognizes him after he takes off his hood. It’s broad daylight and the hood wasn’t covering his face. Was she assuming he’d have hair?
  • It’s very heroic the way Burnham and Saru beam down long enough to piss off the Ba’ul and then immediately return to the ship, leaving Siranna and the others (I’m assuming there are others) to deal with the fallout. I realize Siranna tells Saru to leave, but it still comes off, like so much of this episode, as shortsighted and arrogant.
  • Does anything about the Ba’ul make sense?

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