In the final three episodes of Star Trek: Discovery Season 3, Captain Saru (Doug Jones) is facing his biggest challenges yet. In Episode 11, “Su’Kal,” Saru, Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), and Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) attempt to locate the cause of “the Burn,” the mysterious disaster that occurred a century before their arrival in the 31st Century. In the new episode, the crew of the Discovery investigates a possible answer to the source of the Burn — which just leads to a lot of new questions.
At the center of it all is Trek‘s latest starship captain, the Kelpien Saru, played by the incomparable Doug Jones, known to sci-fi fantasy fans for his amazing body of work in films like Hellboy and The Shape of Water, as well as his terrifying (and hilarious) vampiric appearance in What We Do In the Shadows. But now, after a sci-fi fantasy career defined by these various visages, the actor faces a new kind of acting challenge on Star Trek: Discovery.
In the Q&A below, SYFY WIRE caught up with Jones to talk about the big twist in Discovery’s new episode, and what it all means for Saru’s journey this season.
**SPOILER WARNING! Massive spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery Season 3, Episode 11, “Su’Kal” below!**
For the first time in his Trek career, the character of Saru appears in this episode not just as a Kelpien, but also, shockingly as a human! In the reality of the episode, this is caused by a holographic program, which is attempting to mask Saru’s true appearance, in order to not frighten a stranded Kelpien living on a complicated starship, basically opperated by a broken-down holodeck program. Burnham and Culber are transformed into a Trill and a Bajoran, respectively, but it’s Saru’s human visage that is easily the biggest twist. Here’s what Jones said about how it all went down.
Let’s talk about the big twist in Episode 11 — Saru appears as a “human.” What was your reaction when you got this script?
It was a dual reaction. Part of it was, “Oh good!.” Part of it was, “OHH NOOO.” [Laughs.] Being human buys the ability to go to the bathroom when I wish, whenever I wish. My hands aren’t inside of rubber. I can work zippers and snaps. I can go to the craft services table and get myself a snack or have a coffee!
The terrifying part was that I’ve played many humans over my career. But, I’d never played Saru as a human. That’s what scared me. All of his affectations came from that look, infused with his personality. Playing Saru is a package deal with the look; those boots that change my posture and change my walk. Now, take that all away, and you’re still Saru, go. I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” So, I was scared of that. But also I was worried, and thought, will the fans buy this? Like, I don’t want to be subject to a Twitter storm where somebody’s like, “Eww he’s way scarier without the make-up!”
Yeah, that sounds tough. How did you tackle the challenge? Theater training?
Well, thank heavens this happens late into Season 3. I’ve already worked with Saru for three years. I know how he thinks and talks. I know him well enough that his guts are still with me. It helped that I’d already established so much with him.
Saru’s captaincy has been beset with people constantly giving him advice and questioning his authority. Is this a realistic depiction of what it’s like to get a job promotion?
I absolutely think so! Especially for Doug Jones. Anytime I’ve been given any authority in real life people always question me! With Saru — even though he gained new-found confidence after his threat ganglia fell out and he passed through Vahar’ai — being fearless doesn’t mean you know everything. And he’s aware of that. He’s never lost his gentlemanliness. Part of being a gentleman is knowing how to collaborate and expect wisdom from those who have it.
Speaking of things that have changed over three years, talk to me a little about your dynamic with Mary Wiseman this season. Tilly and Saru’s relationship is so different now.
I love Saru and Tilly together. It has a very father-daughter vibe to it. At first, [in Season 1 and 2] he was always rolling his eyes at her because she was always saying these jubilant and inane things. But he saw through that eventually and came to realize she’s maybe the smartest scientist we’ve had on that ship. And how she puts others at ease, and that she has a diplomatic skill that has never really been tapped into until now. She’s a really unique talent and gift to our crew. He recognizes that in her, which is why he put her forward in the Command Training Program. He loves her. Him putting her as the acting Number One is a very bold move, which he never would have done had he not felt she earned it.
Saru’s relationship with Georgiou also evolved in huge ways this season.
There was an awful lot of emotion and tugging of the heart working with Michelle [Yeoh]. Love her. She is one of the most professional actors and performers I’ve ever worked with. It’s hard to find someone more cinematically iconic than Michelle. As far as the characters, Mirror Georgiou and Saru have been sandpaper on each other for the whole time they have known each other. She has a predatory way, in her world, he’s dinner to her. Saru never forgot that. He’s kept her at arm’s length and they’ve played tennis with barbs and insults, which I think is great.
But, when she was in great need, and Saru realized her life is at stake, he does have a heart, and he does stop to count, what are the good things that have come out of this strong woman we have with us. I’m glad that with Prime Universe Saru, that it was written in that I had a moment to say: You’ve been good. For all the sandpaper, there’s a good side to you that I can accept and say goodbye to.
What’s the been hardest thing about all these changes?
The most challenging part for me is owning that sense of authority. In real life, when someone has another suggestion, I always defer. I’m always like, “Okay. Okay. That’s fine!” I’ve often taken a backseat when it comes to thought leadership. So, playing Saru as a calm, confident leader has been my biggest challenge. He’s getting more so, as the season progresses. It’s been lovely to hear the fan chatter about the fact that they’re buying that.
This episode had a horror-vibe to it. You’ve played a lot of monsters in your time. Did that experience mesh with your Trek experience?
Su’kal’s ship is absolutely a haunted house, isn’t it? I think the monster that is plaguing him has the ultimate horror film element to it. We don’t know it is yet. What is it? Why is it there? I’ve played in many horror projects before so, a lot of this felt very familiar, yes. Classic horror is like this episode: what’s around the corner scares you way more than what’s in front of you.
Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 is streaming now on CBS All Access.