WARNING: This article discusses spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery season 3.
Before the third season of Star Trek: Discovery began, the “What is The Burn?” mystery had been established as the main plot arc. Now the showrunners are talking about developing this arc, and what inspired it.
Le Guin’s Omelas inspired the story of Su’Kal and The Burn
When the crew of the USS Discovery arrived in the 32nd century they found a fractured Federation where warp travel had been severely limited due to a lack of dilithium. Michael Burnham made it her mission to solve the mystery of The Burn, leading them to the Verubin Nebula and a crashed Kelpien ship. The sole survivor, Su’Kal, had remained on the ship for a century awaiting rescue, living in a holographic world created by his mother. The final episodes of the season had the surprising revelation that it was Su’Kal as a child who caused The Burn through his unique link to dilithium. His emotional outburst at the loss of his mother had rippled through subspace, rendering dilithium inert throughout the Federation and beyond.
In a post-finale live chat with Gold Derby, Discovery executive producers and co-showrunners Michelle Paradise and Alex Kurtzman discussed the season, including developing the story of The Burn. Kurtzman discussed how he and Michelle developed the story during walks together before bringing together the writers’ room:
In the early conversations, the [Ursula K. Le Guin] short story [The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas] came up, which is a very famous science fiction story. And at the heart of that story is a child, which is centered around a village. It’s not exactly a one-to-one analogy, because our story is different. But it was an inspiration. When we got the idea that this was actually all caused by a child. I think that came out of the instinct that we wanted the answer to be something you didn’t see coming or didn’t expect, but made sense once you got there. In order for that to work, you have to know where you’re going and you have to plant flags along the way that the audience is either consciously or unconsciously taking in, so that when you get to that reveal, you realize, ‘Oh, it all added up to something.
We knew that there was going to be a dreamworld. We knew that it was his own version of The Matrix. We didn’t know exactly what it would look like, and it took a full season to actualize it and the rules and the logic for it. But we knew from the beginning that that’s where we wanted to go.
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is one of Ursula K. Le Guin’s most famous stories and often used in classrooms discussing ethics in literature. The 1973 short story tells the tale of the utopian city of Omelas, which includes a dark truth. From Wikipedia:
Everything about Omelas is so abundantly pleasing that the narrator decides the reader is not yet truly convinced of its existence and so elaborates upon the final element of the city: its one atrocity. The city’s constant state of serenity and splendor requires that a single unfortunate child be kept in perpetual filth, darkness, and misery. The child is helpless: anything kind, small or big, will turn Omelas from a utopia into a dystopia. The terms are strict.
As a nod to Le Guin’s contribution to the season, one of the 32nd century Federation ships was named in her honor and mentioned in the episode “Scavengers.” The award-winning author passed away in 2018 and was never able to see herself added to Trek canon. After the episode mentioning the USS Le Guin aired, the late author’s estate sent out a tweet saying she would be “would be tickled!” by the reference.
#StarTrekDiscovery S3E6 introduces the USS Le Guin. Ursula would be very tickled! Thank you Peter O'Brien for bringing this to my attention and (I assume) writer/producer @acofell for making it happen. pic.twitter.com/vxJjetoY1Q
— Ursula K. Le Guin (@ursulaleguin) December 17, 2020
And last week CBS shared concept art for the USS Le Guin and other 32nd century Federation ships.
During the same live chat, Kurtzman’s co-showrunner Michelle Paradise talked about coming up with an unconventional answer for The Burn, and how it tied into the theme for the season:
It was something that we talked about from the beginning of the season, in terms of what was The Burn, and what would have caused it. And one of the things that Alex and I were talking about very early on was: What does it mean?… One of the things that we were exploring a lot in season three was this notion of connection and disconnection. And when we were getting to the end of the season, it was, ‘What is the greatest metaphor or symbol of disconnection that there is?’… That idea of disconnection, coming to a very emotional moment, and a disconnect between this child and his mother, between any two people. What is the thing that that is the most emotional? That’s what we were digging at as a symbol of disconnection. We couldn’t think of anything that was more emotional than that.
And the idea that this world was also created by his mother’s love for him, and trying to make his world a better place, even in her absence. And the ways in which she was continuing to reach for him are many of the ways in which our characters have been reaching for one another over the course of the season. The ways in which the characters who were born into this world – Admiral Vance and Book and all of these other characters who have been adrift from one another, and disconnected, reaching and trying to connect. We wanted the world that Su’Kal lived in to be symbolic of that.
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