Star Trek: Discovery’s Doug Jones Talks Short Treks, Tilly, And Passing Time In The Makeup Chair
Star Trek: Discovery‘s Saru, played by film veteran Doug Jones (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water), is one of the series’ most beloved and complex characters—and he’s getting his own episode of Star Trek: Short Treks. “The Brightest Star,” which airs on Space this Thursday at 9e 6p, examines Saru’s humble beginnings as a Kelpien who dreams of exploring a world beyond his home planet. Last week we caught up with Jones to find out more about “The Brightest Star,” Trek conventions, and what Discovery Season 2 has in store for Saru. Check out our conversation below.
How does your Short Trek episode fit into the larger Star Trek: Discovery timeline?
Well it is a flashback; it’s an origin story of how Saru leaves his primitive society and joins the high-tech society of Starfleet. That’s a huge jump to make, so those questions are answered on how that ever happened. Which is something I was wondering myself—even as an actor I knew that I had made the jump and I knew that Captain Georgiou had something to do with that, because she was such a maternal figure and nurturing figure for Saru…so to find out how that all began and started was so satisfying for me to play in this short. You see the family dynamic that I come from. You get to meet my sister, Serana, played by Hannah Spear. You get to meet my dad, played by Robert Villacki. So it was just a lovely family dynamic. And you see that leaving that home planet, leaving my society and making the decision to explore…the almost sacrifice, that I had to leave something behind. That pulls at your heartstrings. It pulled at mine, certainly, playing this.
You mentioned that you wondered about Saru’s backstory even before getting to film “The Brightest Star.” How do you think learning about Saru’s past helped inform your performance in Star Trek: Discovery Season 2, if at all?
It’s played up so much that we [Kelpeins] come from a life of fear, of always looking over our backs. We’re looking over our shoulders to see what threat is out there…in Season 2 you’ll see more of that play out…what are the fears I face as a Kelpien, and are those fears based in any sort of reality? You’ll see a link between “Brightest Star” and a specific episode in Season 2 where we’ll do a little tie-in. The Season 2 episode will stand alone and you’ll still understand the story, but seeing the short film will really help fill in some gaps.
Speaking of the Kelpiens, the trailer for “Brightest Star” opens with the line “When my people look up at the stars, they see only death.” It got us thinking about how a Kelpien then ends up serving in such a high position aboard the Discovery. Does this question get answered in your episode?
Yes! That is the big question, is how does this primitive society, how does a member of it break out and make this huge jump from collecting kelp from the sea as his day job to pushing buttons on high-tech equipment and helping lead a starship into exploration and battle. That’s a huge, huge transition to make. When we go back and watch this Short Trek and his backstory, you’ll see Saru as a teenager. Now Kelpiens have a very long lifespan, so how old he really is we don’t even know, but this is sort of the adolescent part of his life. And who can’t relate to those teenage years when you’re growing up in whatever town or city and you grow up in whatever household you grow up in, and our world is very small during that time of life? You wonder what else is out there and [wonder] “what will I see, what will I be, what will I do?” This is a very relatable storyline, you see Saru going through all those things.
But it seems that he’s the only Kelpien who is. Every other Kelpien around him is accepting of the fate that has just been kind of given to us. It’s a part of the great balance; we are culled and taken away to our deaths at the proper time. And we know that it’s different for every Kelpien—when your time comes, it comes, and that’s the end of that. No one questions it. Well I’m the Kelpien who does question it, who does say “why do we have to do this?” I see the sense of slaughter in it.” Everyone else sees this sense of almost ritualistic passing, like it’s an honour to be chosen. Whereas I think, “honour? Are you serious? Becoming someone else’s dinner is a big, fat honour?”
So I think it’s very telling of Saru’s exceptional qualities that he’s the one who questions this and he’s the one who finds a piece of technology that the predator species leaves behind. Sort of like when you’re a kid taking apart a radio and put it back together. I’m the one who takes this technology and takes it apart and figures out how to jerry-rig it and repurposes it into a communication device to make contact with the outside world and make contact with someone from Starfleet. That is what enables that first contact that allows my passage into Starfleet and my rise and my education that goes beyond what’s self-taught. So it’s a very exciting time for Saru.
Your character and Mary Wiseman’s character are the only two Discovery crew members to get their own Short Trek episodes. Why Saru and Tilly, do you think?
We both come from humble beginnings, it seems. We’re both trying to make our way upward and trying to prove something to the world we come from. Tilly makes lots of references to her mother, who was sort of passive-aggressive and demeaning to her daughter. “Oh dear, you shouldn’t try that. You might hurt yourself. You might embarrass yourself. You might embarrass the family.” She had to overcome that in order to find her success and make her way forward.
Saru had to do the exact same thing. We are a species of beings that, when our time comes, we’re culled and we’re herded and we’re taken away to our deaths by someone else who has authority and power over us, and we just give them that authority. That doesn’t seem right. Both Tilly and Saru question what they’ve been told all their lives and have moved beyond to find some success, and I think the fans have certainly resonated with both of those storylines. Both Mary Wiseman and I have found that on the convention circuit. When we go to Star Trek conventions or other fan conventions, we meet the fans face-to-face and we both hear “oh my gosh, you’re my favourite character on the show.” We both hear that from various fans who might resonate with our storylines. For me personally, it’s all the people who deal with fear or have anxiety issues…our fears are only as real as we let them be, right? And I think the same thing rings true for Tilly.
The second half of Discovery’s first season really built up a lot of momentum in terms of both the storyline as well as in terms of fan enthusiasm to see what was going to happen each week. Does the second season debut at that same pace? What should we expect from the premiere?
Well, we’re in a total state of transition. We lost our captain because he was never our captain in the first place; he was a big phony from the mirror universe. There’s me sitting in the captain’s chair as acting captain, temporarily. Then of course we got a distress call from another starship that happens to be the Enterprise, hello! There’s a cliffhanger there. So coming into Season 2 we pick up right where we left off. How long do I get to keep the captain’s chair? Well of course, as you’ve seen in previews for Season 2, Captain Pike from the Enterprise will join us for a time. What’s good about that is that Saru, I feel, has an awful lot to learn. And I would like to learn that from a nurturing captain, one like Captain Georgiou that we lost early on. That was unfortunate, and he misses her, and he wanted to be a first officer under a captain like that. Unfortunately he got Lorca instead. So now, with Captain Pike, he has a chance to find a strong leader in him and a nurturer with a gentle hand and a good sense of humour.
We’re not at battle with the Klingons anymore. We found a way to make peace with them and to coexist now. So I think the Star Trek purist who loves the other series and the old world of boldly going and exploring, we’re going to find more of that in Season 2 which will have a nice and nostalgic feel.
Going into another season of playing Saru, have you come up with any ingenious methods for killing time in the makeup chair?
[Laughs] Oh, gosh. I’m 32 years into makeup chairs. But I’m a very boring person in real life, and so sitting still and saying nothing is a great moment for me. I thrive in that. Even though I come off extroverted in public, I’m very introverted in my real life. So having quiet time when I have to sit still and do nothing is actually glorious time for me. My makeup artists have become my best friends. We spend a lot of time together—we talk, we tell stories, we listen to music, we sometimes watch a YouTube video. I love dogs and cats. So there are ways to make the time pass pleasantly.
Don’t miss “The Brightest Star,” the third episode of Star Treks: Short Treks, when it airs this Thursday (December 6) at 9e 6p. You can check out last month’s episode, “Calypso,” below.