Inverse Interview

Discovery's Doug Jones says Saru's promotion is like Data becoming captain

It's a tough job, but someone's gotta do it.

If you see a tall, gangly creature or alien in a science-fiction show or movie, the chances that you've spotted living legend Doug Jones are pretty high. From the sexy Fishman in The Shape of Water to the decrepit vampire "The Baron" in What We Do In The Shadows, to genre favorite Abe Sapien in the original Hellboy movies, until recently, the body movements of Jones were probably more famous than his voice.

Well, not anymore. Since 2017, Jones has played the Kelpien Starfleet officer Mr. Saru on Star Trek: Discovery. In Season 3, Saru has become the Captain. For Jones, this means more dialogue than he's ever had in this career. "Chaos on the bridge is the hardest thing," Jones tells Inverse. "I did not expect the sheer amount of dialogue that comes with being the captain!"

Jones spoke with Inverse about Saru's journey to this moment and being Trek's first alien captain. Spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 episode 3, "People of Earth."

Unlike previous Trek shows, the USS Discovery hasn't had a consistent commanding officer. In Season 1, Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) was the captain, but Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) was also introduced as the captain of the USS Shenzhou. By Discovery's second episode, Prime Universe Georgiou was dead, and we later learned Captain Lorca was an imposter from the Mirror Universe. Season 2 saw Captain Pike (Anson Mount) of the USS Enterprise take over as acting captain for a bit, but fans had long wondered whether it would be Saru or Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) in command of Discovery.

"We’ve had a musical captain’s chair," Jones tells Inverse. "And I’ve been the one who steps into it when everything goes amok, or when someone steps off the ship. So, Saru is already familiar with what happens in that chair and what it takes to guide a crew."

In Season 1, Saru's people, the Kelpiens, were introduced as a species who lived in great fear, because most of them had been enslaved as livestock. But, in Season 2, we learned this is because their evolution had been stunted by another oppressive alien race. This means, these days, Saru is stronger than ever, which is why you saw him shoot those alien darts out of his head in the previous episode, "Far From Home."

Burnahm (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Saru (Doug Jones) in Season 3 episode 3 of 'Star Trek: Discovery.'CBS

"Saru is more fit to be Captain than ever before," Jones explains. "Because he was doing those acting captain roles before, but with his threat ganglia, with his old self working through fear issues every day, and still finding his courage through that to lead his crew. But now, he can do it with a bit more confidence and without the fear cloud hanging over him all the time."

The shocking moment when Saru becomes captain happens relatively early in the newest episode. After Burnham briefs the crew on the perilous status quo of the 32nd Century, it's decided that the ship should use the Spore Drive to jump to Earth. But Lt. Commander Stamets isn't sure who he's taking orders from — Burnham or Saru?

"Ever since Season 2 ended and Captain Pike stepped back to the Enterprise, we asked: Is it Burnham or is it Saru?" Jones says. "Either one of us was fit for it, either one of us wanted the other one to have it. But the fan comments have been very supportive of having an alien species in the title ship’s Captain’s chair for the first time in the franchise. It’s a very sweet honor to carry now."

Although Spock or Worf or Kira may have assumed command of starships in their respective Star Treks, the idea that the resident "alien" on the bridge is also the permanent captain has never happened until now. In some ways, Star Trek: Discovery is creating a situation parallel to an imagined universe in which Data or Spock became the new captain on their own shows.

Saru and Captain Pike (Anson Mount) in Season 2 of 'Discovery.'CBS

"Right!" Doug Jones says enthusiastically. "The fans might have backed that. At least for a while. But Saru is going to be his own kind of Captain. Like any of us, he's learned a little bit from all the people around him. He gets some ballsy decision-making from Lorca. He got crew-interaction and family collaboration from Pike. With Georgiou, he got the parental, nurturing aspects of his character. I believe Captain Georgiou will always remain his beacon of how to be a captain."

Discovery Season 3 completed filming just before Covid-19 lockdowns beginning in spring 2020. Despite that, Captain Saru makes a stirring speech about unity and being "separated" but "together." In some ways, Jones thinks Discovery accidentally became "prescient" for the times we're living through now.

"It’s a happy coincidence that there is a dramatization that we can now escape into. And we can see how people do come together and work things out and rebuild," Jones says. "These are all issues we are facing together as a world. And I’m happy to be on the bridge of a starship trying to figure out it all out in a fictitious format. So few actors before have had the honor of being a Captain in Starfleet in any of the Star Trek iterations. This puts me in a very small, exclusive club. When I was first offered this show three years ago, I had no idea they were going to have my little skinny Kelpien butt in the captain’s chair! But it’s a nice fit. It feels good."

Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 airs new episodes Thursdays on CBS All Access.

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