Photograph by Guillermo Ferla via Unsplash

The Kelpien way: lessons in life and leadership from Star Trek

May 22, 2024

Over the years, each installment in the Star Trek film and TV franchise has made space for at least one character to provide an “alien” perspective to the mostly Earthling ensemble of characters. Such characters reflect the various Trek writers’ curiosity how the rationale and choices made by the largely human crew are critiqued by the “alien,” counterbalancing the best and worst of human impulses, logic, and values. 

The current era of Star Trek shows stream on the Paramount+ app. Some of the stock plots and tropes follow on from predecessor shows, though like every show before it, newer Trek redefines some of the storytelling conventions, with mixed fan response. At present, the cry of “Woke Trek!” is commonly applied, as the franchise explores values and sensibilities far removed from the original Star Trek series echoing the mid-20th-century tensions of the Cold War, racial issues, and other challenges.  

In 2017, Star Trek: Discovery debuted, set a decade before the “original” series and controversially introducing Starfleet officer Michael Burnham as a previously unknown adopted sister of Spock. Much of this series focuses on Burnham, who keeps the show lively with her determined and sometimes impulsive ways of tackling challenges.

The “alien perspective” character of Star Trek: Discovery is the Kelpien first officer Commander Saru. A gentle giant, Saru embodies a more reticent approach to decision making than his colleague Michael Burnham. The Kelpien people were the hunted prey of another species for centuries, shaping how Saru approaches challenge and adversity.

During the series, Michael Burnham befriends Saru while on the Discovery. The two unlikely shipmates work together well. Along the way, their interactions begin changing each other’s ways. Saru learns that his species’ fear and resignation to being a prey species is a lie. Kelpiens have ganglia that sprout when feeling endangered, and they are told eventually they would die of the over-activity of the ganglia if they managed somehow not to be killed by their predators.

Kelpiens go through a ritual called vahar’ai, where they are led to believe that upon its commencement, death is at hand and the dying spiral into unimaginable pain and madness. Ordinarily, all they can do is sever their ganglia to die. Saru begins to go through this while on Discovery when the ship encountered an unknown life form, so he asks Michael to accompany him through this ritual. Before Michael can perform the severing, the ganglia simply fall off, and Saru recovers. When he loses the fight or flight ganglia and begins to live without constant fear, he discovers that the predatory Ba’ul had tricked the Kelpiens into misunderstanding a natural part of their life cycle. The Kelpien people capitalize on this discovery, restoring some balance to the planetary and interspecies order. From here, Saru grows in his confidence, navigating the interactions within the crew, and becomes more assertive. He retains his innate kindness and soft-spoken wise counsel. 

The Discovery series makes the leap in time by the end of the second season, depositing the crew and their experimental starship some nine hundred years forward into the 32nd century.

Watching the “alien” character in Star Trek series often helps viewers connect with the greater principles that the episode writers and series creators aspire to impart. Spock, Saru, and other “aliens” show us that the stranger or outsider in our midst is usually the one who helps us understand how to be better humans along the way.

Discovery is now long beyond time periods explored by previous Trek series. And the future they encounter is not remotely rosy. And no matter the century, the challenges of conflict and violence abide.

In a new episode “Under the Twin Moons,”[i] word comes that Captain Saru has been asked to serve as an ambassador to a group of not yet aligned planets to bring them into the fold. His demeanor and tact speak for themselves as assets in delicate trust-building alliances. Saru must decide if he will resign his commission to serve in the diplomatic corps.

As Saru comes to terms with his decision to leave, Michael Burnham comes to his quarters where he is packing up his belongings. She says, “There’s no replacing you. Whoever comes, I’m sure they will be great. Any last words of advice?”

Saru pauses, and says, “Well, I must say, I feel a great deal of power in this moment.” Burnham chuckles at his modest humor. Saru continues, “I will simply encourage you to continue forward as you have. One cannot predict what is to come. But I find that when I give myself over to the journey, just in the process, one might say, there’s always great meaning in that. Wherever I may eventually arrive.”

Saru’s words resonate with me as I think through the day-to-day work of ministry. We work constantly with individuals and congregations who find themselves at different points in life. The need to be impulsive or to resign oneself to “fight or flight” anxieties is quite common. Search committees often want someone who is young and new, who can shake up things like Michael Burnham, yet they get very apprehensive when that new pastor brings change, including the change they said they wanted.

Saru models another attitude of church leadership where you can be reticent to a fault. He discovered, though, that the things that held him back were indeed myths that he had internalized under pressure and unchecked anxiety. Saru’s second lease on life, once he realized the worst did not happen, makes him more active and engaged (the crew sometimes refer to him later as “Action Saru”), and yet his innate discerning nature has continued to serve him well as he serves others. Michael is a better Starfleet officer and captain thanks to Saru. Now a newfound love with another ambassador beckons as he enters this new phase of his life, bringing more into the inclusive fold that is the United Federation of Planets.

Watching the “alien” character in Star Trek series often helps viewers connect with the greater principles that the episode writers and series creators aspire to impart. Spock, Saru, and all the “alien” characters are in good company with these Earthlings they travel throughout the galaxy with in search of “strange new worlds” and “new life and new civilizations.”[ii] At the same time, they show us that the stranger or outsider in our midst is usually the one who helps us understand how to be better humans along the way.

Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot serves as Associate Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Season 5, episode 2, Paramount+ app (released April 4, 2024)

[ii]  Quoting Star Trek: The Next Generation’s dramatic opening narration, provided by Sir Patrick Stewart, aka Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

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