Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 Episode 11 Review: “Su’Kal”

Season Three of Star Trek: Discovery can be easily divided into three acts. The first four episodes, during which Discovery attempts to locate and reunite with the last vestiges of the United Federation of Planets, is our Act One. Episodes five through ten have been our Act Two, in which the crew bounces around the galaxy following clues as to the origin of the disaster that shattered the Federation while exploring and resolving assorted character conflicts. Now we’re in Act Three, the final trio of episodes, in which we finally get some answers and ratchet up the stakes big time. “Su’Kal” is a jam-packed episode and this is a giant-sized review, so let’s cut the preamble and get right to business.

Say, This Job is Kinda Dangerous!

After chipping away at it in the B-plot of the past few episodes, the crew of the USS Discovery finally has a solid lead as to the source of the Burn. Their research and analysis brings them to the Verubian Nebula, where a Kelpien science vessel went missing in search of a new dilithium supply shortly before the Burn. The nebula is so radioactive that Discovery can’t remain inside for more than a minute or so at a time, but somehow there’s still someone alive in there, living aboard the Kelpien vessel beached on a planet made almost entirely out of dilithium. 

The planet is a monumental find that could potentially put the galaxy back in touch and the Federation back together, but the first priority is rescuing the marooned Kelpien who has somehow survived down there alone for about 125 years. The away team consists of Captain Saru, because he can’t resist the chance of meeting another Kelpien; Dr. Culber, who believes his newfound counseling skills will be needed; and Commander Burnham, because she’s the science officer and also because you legally have to take her wherever the plot is going to happen.

The cast and writer Anne Cofell Saunders (Battlestar Galactica, The Boys) establish a sense of gravity that more or less promises that the mission will go wrong and indicates what to look for. Burnham is worried that Saru will be emotionally compromised. (He will be.) Lt. Stamets is scared that Dr. Culber won’t return from the alien planet. (He won’t, at least not this episode.) Burnham reassures Ensign Tilly that being left in command of Discovery while Saru leads the away team will be scary, but that she’s up to the challenge. (Tilly will be tested big time.)  It’s the scene between Burnham and Tilly that’s most effective, adding proper weight to the responsibility that Tilly’s about to take on while also giving the pair a nice tender moment. 

Star Trek: Discovery

And You Thought Cyberpunk 2077 Was Glitchy

Discovery has developed a habit of throwing wild twists into the second act of an episode without warning or fanfare, such as the surprise trip to the Mirror Universe in “Terra Firma, Part 1.” This week, Saru, Burnham, and Culber beam down to the Kelpien ship and arrive in the middle of a holodeck simulation already in progress, with their bodies integrated into the program. They’ve automatically been put in “costume,” transforming a Burnham into a Trill, Culber into a Bajoran, and Saru into a human. This transformation is most dramatic for Saru, of course, but they take it in stride. There’s a problem, however — the holographic costumes that are layered over their survival gear are seamless and non-permeable, meaning that there’s no way to reach the stash of radiation meds they’ve brought with them, and without treatment, they’ll die in a matter of hours. 

The team now has to explore the Escheresque labyrinth of caves and collect answers from malfunctioning characters while they search for the real living survivor, Su’Kal, who despite his advanced age is emotionally and intellectually stunted due to living for the past century in a video game designed for a child. In a twist on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Su’Kal has spent his entire life inside this simulated reality, does not believe the outside world exists, and is terrified by the very mention of it. His fears are manifested in the program by a spooky hovering monster from Kelpien folklore that threatens the away team, and according to a hologram of a wise Kelpien elder, Su’Kal cannot leave the ship until he has confronted this fear, and that doesn’t seem likely to happen before the team runs out of time. In order to get close to him without setting off his panic response, Burnham poses as an eerie smiling holographic tutor just to have a conversation with him, and even that doesn’t go well — he’s too accustomed to being able to dismiss whoever he’s talking to without any consequences, a true child of Online. 

Throughout the mission, Saru is distracted by being immersed in his own culture, now 930 years removed from the one he knows. He is deeply moved by the simulation of an old and bearded Kelpien sage — the likes of which he never could have seen in his era, when his species was routinely killed in their prime, and seems to lose focus on the larger mission. Doug Jones’s performance as Saru in this episode is stirring and emotional, and I suspect the gimmick of making him appear human for this story was specifically to allow him to act using his own face, rather than his usual broad (but masterful) miming. It’s so rare to see him outside of makeup, and just getting to look into his real eyes for a change adds an immediate intimacy and vulnerability to each of his scenes.

There’s an irony to Saru’s condition in this episode, as he is reconnecting with his heritage while also being bodily separating from it, but there’s also something appropriate about it. As Michael is forced to point out to him towards the end of the episode, Saru is not himself — he is distracted, emotional, and borderline unfit for command right now. When Book’s ship arrives to rescue the away team, Saru and Culber both resolve to stay and help Su’Kal conquer his fear and escape the simulation, at the risk of their own lives (though Adira will arrive shortly with more radiation meds to buy them some more time). This is more than a rescue mission now, because, as it turns out, keeping Su’Kal from throwing a tantrum may be a matter of life and death for millions of people: Su’Kal is responsible for the Burn, and it could happen again at any time.

Star Trek: Discovery

Burning Questions

Ever since Michael acquired new research data about the Burn from Ni’Var all the way back in “Unification III,” the quest to discover its source has taken a backseat to more personal concerns, such as Book’s family troubles and Georgiou’s molecules trying to escape to another dimension. While every episode has provided some small update on how Adira and Lt. Stamets’ research is going, the pieces of new information we’ve gotten each week haven’t really deepened the mystery so much as led characters to the next breadcrumb in a way that is totally opaque to the audience. Adira’s made an algorithm to extrapolate the point of origin for the Burn, which reveals a distress signal, which then needs to be decoded with more time-consuming computer wizardry, and so on. This process has demonstrated that solving the mystery is really difficult (hence why no one’s solved it in the past century) but it also hasn’t really let us solve the mystery along with them.

We now know the true nature of the Burn, and it’s nothing any viewer could have possibly predicted. This isn’t too much of a bummer to me, if I’m being honest. I’m personally disenchanted with “puzzle box” television, the notion that the audience should treat a serialized work as an adversary to outsmart rather than a story to enjoy. Discovery’s own attempts at this have been mixed — see their not terribly successful attempt to hide that Voq and Ash Tyler were one and the same, or the more convincing misdirect in Season Two regarding the true identity of the Red Angel. Fans have been speculating as to the cause of the Burn since before the season even began, suggesting that it may be tied to an old Voyager episode or even to Burnham herself (because what on this show isn’t), but I have to admit that I feel a sense of satisfaction in learning that all theories were wrong.

Narrative television does not have to be a game show played between the audience and the storytellers. It would be one thing if the season so far had been peppered with false clues or red herrings, but in truth, the reason why fans have been grasping for straws and creating outlandish theories based on Treks past is that there haven’t been any. Going into “Su’Kal,” we truly don’t know anything more about what caused the Burn than we did in the season premiere, the characters have simply been filling up their Research Meter over the course of their adventures, and now the meter is full. Instead of measuring our satisfaction over the answer to the mystery by the value-neutral metric of “Did I Guess It?” we can measure it based on how interesting the answer itself is, and how well the story around it is told. And by this measuring stick, this reviewer grades it as “Pretty Cool.”

Star Trek: Discovery

Burning Answers

Unless this episode is deliberately misleading us, here’s how it all appears to have gone down: 125 years prior to the events of this season, when the Federation is desperately hunting for a solution to their dilithium shortage, a Kelpien research ship discovers a planet made almost entirely of dilithium hidden inside a highly radioactive nebula. They crash land on the planet and end up marooned there, their distress signal becoming distorted into music that is heard and adapted by several cultures independently. One of the researchers, Dr. Issa, is pregnant and eventually gives birth to a son, Su’Kal (Bill Irwin, Legion), whose DNA has been altered by the radiation in utero and becomes physiologically linked to the dilithium planet. Fearing that it may be years before they’re rescued, Dr. Issa creates an intricate holodeck program to educate and entertain him. At some point in his youth, Su’Kal has a dramatic emotional outburst, and because of his connection to the planet, the planet freaks out, too, creating a massive pulse that overloads dilithium across the galaxy in under a second, inadvertently killing millions.

Other incarnations of Star Trek would likely have given us a different answer to the mystery of the Burn. Were this The Next Generation, the Burn would likely have been a direct allegory about how reckless overmining of resources can lead to a colossal environmental disaster, or something of that nature, and that would have been fine, if predictable. (There’s still a little bit of that in this episode’s DNA, given the circumstances of the doomed Kelpien mission.) But Discovery has never really been that kind of show. Discovery trades in high emotion, and the idea that its great space disaster was caused by a crying child is, for better or worse, extremely appropriate. If Su’Kal’s breakdown turns out to be triggered by the death of his mother, then this is doubly true — this series kicked off with the death of a surrogate mother, and the main character has spent the past three years gaining and losing mother figures.

This season has been about how a society responds to a massive collective trauma. Now, it seems, that this widespread trauma is all built on top of an acute one, that the pain of one innocent child has reverberated to affect entire civilizations. It made life harder for the just, and more profitable for the wicked. And the only way to prevent things from getting worse, it seems, is to ease this one being’s pain. I’m curious to learn how the rest of the story plays out, and what the storytellers hope for us to take away from this potential parable.

Previously:

Star Trek: Discovery

It’s My First Day

Concurrent to the action down on the planet, Ensign Tilly is in command of Discovery for the first time and is immediately caught in a crisis, as the Emerald Chain’s flagship Veridian arrives outside the nebula under the command of Osyraa (Janet Kidder). Osyraa is apparently unaware of the dilithium planet, but she’s after Discovery and her spore drive and attempts to menace the Acting Captain into submission. Tilly, having had a lot of practice standing up to bullying from Georgiou, keeps a cool head under pressure, forgoing a practiced “captain’s voice” and maintaining her own idiom from the center seat. As much as it feels like a stretch to put an Ensign in charge of the ship, Tilly’s take on command is refreshing, and her youthful attitude doesn’t undercut her authority at all. She makes hard choices quickly, and even with the hindsight of knowing how horribly everything turns out, it’s hard to say she made any unforced errors. 

I was unimpressed with Osyraa as a villain during her first appearance in “The Sanctuary,” but she seems much more menacing in this episode. I attribute this to two factors: First, she’s facing Tilly, a rookie commander on her first day; Second, and most importantly, this time Osyraa wins. She says she’s going to capture Discovery and use it to attack Federation headquarters, and she does so without too much hassle at all. Her victory doesn’t depend on tricks or her opponents’ inexperience, in fact it’s hard to imagine what Saru or Burnham might have done differently in Tilly’s shoes — Osyraa’s ship simply overpowers Discovery with a set of giant freaking tentacles. Her troops beam aboard, place some sort of creepy mind control crown on Stamets, and jump away while Michael and Book watch helplessly from their approaching support craft. And just like that, Osyraa becomes the monster heel we were promised. 

With the mystery of the Burn potentially solved and the Emerald Chain primed to wreak major havoc, both of the season’s big plot threads have come to a head. The stakes are high, and our characters are once again separated from each other. Last season, Discovery was able to stick the landing with an emotional, visually exciting, and genuinely surprising finale. Coming off the momentum of “Su’Kal,” I’m cautiously optimistic that this year’s finale will be equally satisfying, and at the very least, I am intrigued by the storytellers’ willingness to hinge the climax of the season on something totally unexpected. 

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