How Saru’s Selflessness Upends the Importance of Rank in Star Trek

Saru in the Captain's chair with explosions behind him(This article contains spoilers up to Star Trek: Discovery Season 4.)

Does rank still matter in an egalitarian organization like Starfleet? For many Star Trek characters, the answer is yes. Being promoted is a privilege and a responsibility which young officers work hard to earn. Commanding a starship in particular is a dream; Sylvia Tilly, for example, is still a cadet when she declares: “I’m gonna be a captain someday” (DIS s01e03 “Context Is For Kings”). When Captain Picard gets lost in an alternate timeline where he is only a lieutenant, he is determined to undo it even at the risk of his life (TNG s05e15 “Tapestry”). When a starship captain loses their position, it’s usually either because they’ve been killed in action, promoted to Admiral like Janeway or Picard (Star Trek: Prodigy, Star Trek: Picard), incapacitated like Pike ( “The Menagerie”), or disgraced like Garth of Izar (TOS s03e14 “Whom Gods Destroy”).

Saru in Star Trek: Discovery is the only starship captain in the history of the franchise who willingly gives up his command to switch places with his former first officer, Michael Burnham. What does this say about both Saru’s character and the values represented by the series’ writers?

It’s not that he doesn’t want the job. While serving aboard the U.S.S. Shenzhou in Season 1, Saru and Burnham compete fiercely for their captain’s approval: “Agreement among my senior officers, make a note in the ship’s log,” Captain Georgiou comments sarcastically the one time they don’t argue (DIS s01e01 “The Vulcan Hello”). Saru even creates a computer program to evaluate his actions based on the logs of famous Starfleet captains, such as Christopher Pike and Jonathan Archer, all with the goal of someday becoming a captain himself (s01e05 “Choose Your Pain”).

Saru as Burnham's XO on the Discovery Bridge

It’s not that he fails once he does take command—on the contrary, Captain Pike entrusts Saru with the task of taking the U.S.S. Discovery 900 years into the future, in order to keep vitally important data out of the reach of a corrupt A.I. Captain Saru rises to the occasion, helping his crew adapt to a strange and hostile timeline in which the Federation has all but collapsed. He negotiates a truce between enemy factions in the Sol system (s03e03 “People of Earth”), looks after the crew’s mental health with the aid of the newly sentient ship’s computer (s03e04 “Forget Me Not”), and wins the trust of Starfleet’s Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Vance, to get Discovery accepted as part of the fleet and retrofitted with 31st-century technology (s03e05 “Die Trying”). He also upholds discipline when he has to; he demotes Burnham for going on an unsanctioned mission, even though they have become as close as brother and sister by this time and the punishment is painful for them both (s03e06 “Scavengers”).

Burnham and Saru at Starfleet HQ in "Scavengers"

When Burnham’s rogue mission proves crucial to the survival of the Federation, however, and Admiral Vance rewards her with a promotion to captain, Saru shows no resentment for his former rival. He graciously leaves the ship to her, and after a few months’ leave on Kaminar, returns to serve as her first officer without any sign that he used to outrank her (s04e02 “Anomaly”).

In Short Treks s01e03 “The Brightest Star”, we learn that Saru’s people, the Kelpiens of Kaminar, believe in a “Great Balance” that is maintained by putting the needs of the community above the individual’s. “Those of us who sacrifice our lives do so (…) that the rest of us can live in peace and comfort,” says Saru’s father Aradar, the village priest. Saru recognizes that this principle of selflessness has been manipulated by the Kelpiens’ predator species, the Ba’ul, to keep their prey compliant, but he honors it even as he breaks with tradition by leaving his homeworld. Eighteen years later, he gives himself up willingly to the Ba’ul to protect Discovery (s02e06 “The Sounds of Thunder”), and along with his sister, Siranna, liberates the Kelpiens for good, taking the first step to peace with the Ba’ul that will last into the 31st century (s04e01 “Kobayashi Maru”).

Saru and Siranna in Sound of Thunder

Saru sums up his approach to leadership in a few words when appointing Tilly as his first officer to replace a demoted Burnham. When the young ensign asks if he’s only promoting her because she’s compliant, he assures her that is not the case. “You will put the needs of Starfleet and the Federation ahead of your own wishes,” he tells her (s03e07 “Unification Part III”). His faith is justified when Tilly, usually a timid and anxious person, defies an Orion pirate to protect Discovery (s03e13 “That Hope Is You Part II”), and later, having switched careers to teach at the Academy, brings her students with her to save Federation Headquarters from being destroyed by a massive spatial anomaly (s04e13 “Coming Home”).

Saru asks Tilly to be his XO

Saru recognizes Tilly’s potential to become the same kind of leader as he is. They both give up a high rank to which they once aspired, because they know it’s not where they belong. Unlike Captain Burnham, whose strength is her self-confidence—she follows her own conscience even when it means breaking rules—Saru’s strength is his humility, because it allows him to put himself aside for the good of his crew. This dynamic between an older white man and a younger black woman, in which he loyally serves the same person he once demoted, and she trusts him without question, means a lot. It does not diminish either character; it makes them stronger as individuals and as a team.

With the series going into its fifth and final season, changes are in store. Saru might return to Kaminar, or even join his new partner T’Rina on her homeworld Ni’Var. Wherever he goes, though, he is certain to observe the Balance—and remain a leader of whom his predecessors would be proud.


  1 comment for “How Saru’s Selflessness Upends the Importance of Rank in Star Trek

  1. Great insights! I love this seeing this kind of leadership portrayed in Trek, and Discovery exemplifies it beautifully. Saru shines as Number One, just as Captain Michael Burnham shines in The Chair, where she belongs. They make a great team.

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