Star Trek: Discovery Season 3, Episode 11– Debuted Thursday, December 24, 2020
Written by: Anne Cofell Saunders
Directed by: Norma Bailey
With a renewed focus on the main arcs, Discovery moves into the final episodes of season three strong. With a good mix of plot progression, character development, and weird science, “Su’Kal” has a classic Star Trek feel.
WARNING: Spoilers below!
“We may have just found the source of The Burn”
After some distractions and delays, we finally arrive at the highly radioactive Verubin Nebula with news that there is someone alive on the Kelpien ship that crashed there right before The Burn—which happens to also originate from the nebula, but that’s just a coincidence, right? Oh and Saru drops a new Kelpien Fact, Dr. Issa was pregnant in that distress recording. So this episode is all about the rescue of a Kelpien child, alone for over 100 years, and nothing—and I mean nothing—is going to get in the way of Saru seeing it through, starting with diving the ship right in and almost cooking the whole crew until Book volunteers to search for the crashed ship on his own.
Book and Grudge return only slightly crispy from their scout of the location of the crash landing, which turns out to be on a planet made of dilithium, the essential element that has been almost entirely used up since The Burn. So, score! The single-minded Saru assigns himself to the rescue team with Michael and Hugh, which garners some skepticism from Admiral Vance. He’s not quite sold on the idea of Ensign (and yet First Officer) Tilly in command of the fleet’s most important ship that’s also being hunted by the annoying Osryaa. Michael, whose own distractions resulted in her being removed as XO, seems to be the only one on board who sees that the Captain has gone a bit Kelpien-crazy.
The rescue mission kicks off with a bit of a snag. All their equipment (including radiation meds) is gone, Michael is now a Trill, Culber is a Bajoran, and Saru is Human. WTF? After encountering a glitching hologram, everyone gets what’s going on here. Welcome to the first holodeck malfunction episode of Star Trek: Discovery, and it is only going to get wonderfully weirder. This trippy training simulation takes them from a creepy forest into an MC Escher ruin where they finally meet the sole resident of this crashed ship, a skittish Kelpien who freaks out at the concept of anything “outside.” Oh, and he has manifested a scary monster too… which their arrival provokes. This is not going to be a simple rescue operation. While Michael deals with the monster, Culber and Saru go off to find some exposition holograms to explain what the hell is going on.
Turns out Dr. Issa (of the distress call from a few episodes back) created the training program to keep her child (the eponymous Su’Kal) safe while awaiting rescue, but no one expected it would take this long and the radiation has degraded things. The away team’s physical appearance has been altered to be more consistent with the program, and not just to give Doug Jones a week off from the makeup trailer. Michael finds Su’Kal and uses her xenoanthropology degree in a fun touching scene where she connects with him by pretending to be a hologram, which is all he really can understand. (This man-child is going to need some serious therapy if they ever get out of this crazy program.) But the radiation has them on a four-hour ticking clock and it appears the only way out of the nightmare is for Su’Kal to face his fears—specifically, the monster he has created.
“You belong in that chair, Tilly”
Before leaving, Michael gave her roomie a pep talk and some command tips to stave off any impending panic attacks from Tilly taking the conn. And it’s a good thing, too, as ship got real on the USS Discovery. The nebula has fritzed the shield generators and they can’t go back in to beat that ticking radiation clock until they’re fixed, which is driving poor Paul crazy as he frets over Hugh, reverting to season one Sour Stamets mode. But what’s this? A Federation starship is approaching, here in the middle of the galactic nowhere? Captain Tilly senses a green fish, confirmed through some smart scanning of smelly neutrino emissions. That’s no friendly ship.
Sure enough, Osyraa and her big scary ship show up. Tilly orders the Discovery to cloak. Wait, what? The Emerald Chain ship cloaks too. Cloaking is not just for Romulans and Klingons anymore; in 3189 it’s quite the trend. The Emerald Chain can track the Disco, so why didn’t Ryn or Book mention this before? Instead of firing all weapons, Osyraa tries to Mean Girl the acting captain into capitulating, but Tilly fights back with her own A-level debate-nerd banter, helped by a bit of Freud. Bottom line, the greenie meanie wants the Discovery. Tilly politely declines the opportunity to become a hostage, buoyed by a supportive crew and a totem to give her strength in the form of a secret flaw in the captain’s chair.
“This isn’t over”
Back in the amazingly realized holo-hellscape, Su’Kal has retreated to his fortress of solitude to build more totems for warding off the kelp monster of his own making. Upping the weird factor even more, as he is overwhelmed with fear, his screams are amplified in waves that ripple from the planet all the way to the ships outside the nebula, disabling both of their cloaks. Something freaky is happening to all the dilithium on board and Reno barely has time to stop the damage. Wait, Reno is in this episode? No time for her to make any fun quips as Book is now sent in to retrieve the away team on his ship, while Grudge presumably smartly stays behind this time. Perhaps she’s still in Sickbay getting her front paw looked at. Mrow.
The only thing calming the child is the humanified Saru, who comes in strong singing a Kelpien lullaby. But all this craziness has finally answered the big question and they are staring at it: Su’Kal is the source of The Burn. Culber has some brief technobabble explanation of how Su’Kal adapted to the radiation and dilithium planet in utero, but something big must have triggered that first outburst that became The Burn a century before. With time running out and Book there to pull them out so they can help with the whole Osryraa situation, Michael convinces Saru to be the one to stay behind, as he is “emotionally compromised” and the only one who knows Kelpien lullabies. Dr. Culber stays too, as he was reborn for this exact kind of thing. “I know what it’s like to be all alone,” he tells Michael. In another touching goodbye for this season, Michael beams out… and Adira sneaks onto Book’s ship and beams down (with some meds), telling a surprised Book, “I’m not asking for permission.” Teenagers!
In the post-cloak chaos and after Tilly’s tried some posturing and threatening to self-destruct the Discovery, Osyraa makes her move by ensnaring the ship with tentacles. She has tentacle tech? Come on Ryn, you are falling down on the intel job here. Orions and Andorians board the ship and quickly take over. Well, that was easy. Couldn’t one redshirt have at least futilely tried to fight them off? Next, a couple of scary Daft Punk guys capture Stamets with some sort of mind-control headwear. “What you want is irrelevant,” they tell him. That sounds familiar. Finally filling out her role as the big bad of the season, the Orion sashays onto the Discovery bridge as if she has always owned the place. Michael and Book stare in bewilderment as they escape the nebula only to watch the Disco and Viridian jump away to Federation HQ. Cliffhanger!
Now we are getting to it
After a diverting two-parter with one great and one not-so-great episode, Discovery bounces back with a deep dive into the season’s main arc. “Su’Kal” put The Burn front and center with an excellent mix of action, trippy sci-fi weirdness, and emotional character development. Discovery’s first holodeck malfunction episode relished in the conventions of the subgenre but was still able to add some twists, notably the cross-species surprise. Doug Jones was especially impressive, taking on the challenge to solve a Kelpien mystery devoid of his Kelpien makeup for the first time.
Writer Anne Cofell Saunders is new to Disco for season three but shows a deep understanding of the characters as each tests their limits and culminates arcs that have been building all season long. There are even callbacks to past seasons, such as Saru’s life on Kaminar, Michael’s stint as the first officer of the Shenzou, and Culber’s time in the mycelial network. Adira’s story also takes an interesting turn as they finally come out of their shell and jump into the action, perhaps buoyed by the return of their hype man Gray. But his ghost boyfriend routine is getting a bit old so maybe some crazy sci-fi magic will resolve that issue on the weird dilithium planet.
All the actors were on top of their game, but Anthony Rapp was especially heartbreaking as he tried to fix the ship with Hugh’s uncertain fate weighing him down. However—and through no fault of Rapp’s—there is again confusion about who is really in charge of engineering, as Stamets is a scientist while Reno is an actual engineer. Why Tig Notaro was so criminally underused in this episode is a mystery as her single line could have been delivered by any random background actor. The episode is also lifted by strong performances from guest actors, especially Bill Irwin, playing the very challenging role of Su’Kal himself. And Janet Kidder’s Osyraa finally feels like the season villain she is supposed to be.
This excellent episode also benefited from impressive work by the production design team creating Su’Kal’s holographic training world, especially the visual effects team who turned the location into something much larger and scarier, complete with a kelp monster. We also got some new interesting costumes, including yet another set of Starfleet uniforms from an earlier century.
The mystery of “What is The Burn?” has been going since before the season began. After bits and pieces and numerous hints, we finally have an apparent answer: It was Su’Kal, a Kelpien child born on a dilithium planet in a radioactive nebula whose emotional outbursts destabilize dilithium. The bigger the outburst, the bigger the radius. The trigger for the original outburst remains a mystery, although the death of his mother Dr. Issa is a good candidate. While we had Kelpiens high on our list of suspects for The Burn, we really didn’t see this weirdness coming. This answer was certainly creative. Hopefully, there is a bit more to it, especially in the resolution to reversing or mitigating The Burn in the final two episodes.
The episode did provide a lot of satisfying world-building for Kaminar and the Kelpiens, a key race in Discovery mythos. Through exploring the ship and discussions of the elder, we now know that after the USS Discovery forced an end to “The Great Balance,” the Kelpiens and Ba’ul were able to form a new alliance. We even saw this illustrated in the child’s storybook: a Kelpien and (dripping) Ba’ul hand in hand, with the added touch of the formerly ominous Watchful Eyes now becoming a totem of protection. Apparently, the Emerald Chain is threatening Kaminar, so perhaps we will return to Saru’s homeworld and see how much it has changed since the gang left the 23rd century.
Only two more to go
“Su’Kal” was one of those episodes that kept you on the edge of your seat, not knowing who or what strange thing would pop up next. Director Norma Bailey kept the pacing just right, so before you knew it, the episode was over, leaving so many things to be resolved in the final two. And that’s okay. It looks like season three is wrapping up as strongly as it started.
Random extra bits
- The couriers have a network of transwarp conduits, but they are dangerous.
- The away team was armed with a different 32nd-century phaser. Unlike the previously seen programmable matter pistol design, these were affixed to the belt and akin to 24th-century phasers.
- The USS Discovery can now cloak, but can’t jump while cloaked.
- Meeting with the Kelpien elder and hearing his lullaby triggered flashbacks for Saru, taken from the Short Treks episode “The Brightest Star.”
- Robert Verlaque, who played the Kelpien Elder program, also played Saru’s father Aradar in “The Brightest Star.”
- Why were there no Kelpiens or Ba’ul at the induction ceremony for Kaminar?
- Osyraa approaching the USS Discovery using a Federation code had a vibe of Khan approaching the USS Enterprise in the USS Reliant in Star Trek II.
- Stamets’ eyes going white was the same effect seen when he went into a coma in season one.
- The headband controlling Stamets was reminiscent of the remote-control device used in “Spock’s Brain.”
- Burnham declaring Captain Saru as “emotionally compromised” could be the trigger to some regulation, as it was in the 2009 Star Trek movie.
- Even though the helmeted robot-sounding guys were evocative of the Borg, they are almost certainly not related to the Borg.
- Bill Irwin (Su’Kal) is a Tony Award-winning actor and clown known for many roles, including Mr. Noodle from Sesame Street.
- At some point, they should build an actual engineering/engine room set instead of using Stamets’ lab as a stand-in.
- The holodeck program was shot on location at a former maximum security prison in Ontario.
- Line of the week: “And get blood all over the chair?”
More to come
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