The crew finally discovers the secret of the Burn, which only leads to another sea of tough decisions as the season begins its endgame.
The best storytelling in Star Trek often comes down to characters making difficult choices. That could mean deciding to fire on your own captain after an enemy force has enveloped him, or acquiescing to diplomatic sabotage in the midst of war, or splitting one sentient into two after a transporter malfunction. Whatever the scenario, our favorite characters are defined by those decisions, as Starfleet officers and as people.
“Su’Kal” anchors itself around those challenging decision points. The most telling moment comes when Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) reassures Acting Captain Tilly (Mary Wiseman) before her first command. Tilly is, understandably, anxious about sitting in the big chair while Saru (Doug Jones) goes on an away mission. To ease Tilly’s nerves, Burnham tells her a story about how Captain Georgiou used to nudge the metal burr in the captain’s chair as a centering ritual while staring down the barrel of such difficult choices. Until, one day, Burnham sat in the chair and discovered that Georgiou had worn it down to a dent.
There’s a leveling, humanizing message in that: even great captains struggle with tough calls in big moments, but they faced them and you can too. That advice stands whether you’re taking command for the first time, torn between your connection to the Federation and ties to your people, or wandering through a bizarre haunted playhouse that turns out to be the unlikely source of the galaxy’s great catastrophe.
That’s right! We finally get a firm answer (more or less) as to who and what caused The Burn! But it’s a doozy, so buckle up! It turns out the stranded female Kelpien whose recorded distress call the Discovery recovered was pregnant. When the ship detects a life sign from within The Burn Nebula, the usual suspects surmise that the source must be that Kelpien’s offspring, now more than a century old. Saru, Burnham, and Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) beam down to a planet within the nebula to try and rescue him.
But there are, inevitably, complications. For one thing, the nebula is riddled with radiation, limiting how long the Discovery can remain inside and the time our heroes can spend searching before suffering from radiation poisoning. For another, the planet is full of dilithium, making it and the ship targets for a resource-hungry Osyraa (Janet Kidder). Last but not least, when the away team finds this Kelpien refugee, the eponymous Su’Kal, they discover that he’s basically been raised and educated by a deteriorating holoprogram his mother set up 125 years ago, stunting his development.
If that weren’t enough, this holoprogram isn’t just the last resort of a dying parent; it’s a necessary palliative to stop Su’Kal from wrecking the galaxy… again. The episode reveals further that the nebula affected Su’Kal in utero with its strange properties and wild radiation. As a result, he holds a certain power over the nebula, one that he doesn’t fully understand and which, given his simplicity, is attuned to his emotional state. An outburst born of his fear and discomfort unleashes a shockwave that threatens to destabilize the Discovery’s dilithium supplies, confirming that he himself, the orphaned child of a stranded Kelpien, is the cause of The Burn.
That’s a lot, while also not being terribly clever. Star Trek is no stranger to using science as magic, but the “kid born in a weird place has weird powers” routine is more of a rote explanation than a satisfying answer to the season’s big mystery. Sure, there’s a solid link between the Kelpien lullaby that calms Su’Kal down and the tune that first sparked our heroes’ suspicions about the Nebula. But there’s no “Aha!” moment or greater resonance from the answer we receive here, and Su’Kal’s existence and connection to The Burn doesn’t really tell us anything new about the show’s characters or their world. It’s just a mechanical answer to a mechanical question.
It’s also problematic, to say the least, to have the solution to your overarching mystery come down to the emotional perturbation of someone who scans as a developmentally disabled adult. Bill Irwin plays Su’Kal with grace and earnestness, lending the poor orphan an emotional depth and sympathetic bent that adds sensitivity to the character’s portrayal. Irwin is no stranger to playing adults with a childlike affect and has a history in projects from Discovery writer-producer Jenny Lumet, both of which pay off here. Still, there’s something uncomfortable about framing the explanation for the galaxy’s hardships in those terms.
Star Trek is no stranger to using science as magic, but the “kid born in a weird place has weird powers” routine is more of a rote explanation than a satisfying answer to the season’s big mystery.
And yet, at the very least, the solution to this mystery connects with Discovery’s thematic aims in its third season. It’s a fair guess that the destabilizing event, which created such an emotional disturbance in Su’Kal that it caused The Burn, was likely the loss of his mother. That dovetails neatly with Burnham’s loss of yet another surrogate parent in the prior episode and, at a broader level, with the trauma that so many characters on Discovery are still recovering from, both before and after their jump to the 31st century.
But more to the point, Su’Kal’s haunted holodeck program comes down to his fear of “the outside”—the big scary unknown represented by an impressively-animated kelp monster from his people’s folktales. The implication is that this grim state of affairs cannot end, that nothing can progress, until Su’Kal leaves the safety and security of the known and familiar and faces what lies beyond his holographic doorstep, however terrifying that prospect may be.
In the same way, the common story of Discovery’s third season has been one of communities that were once lifted up by their connections to one another seeing those connections forcibly severed in a traumatic event, only to then close ranks and turn inward. (See: Earth, NiVar, the Trill, pretty much everybody.) This episode suggests that such trauma cannot fully heal and the chance to flourish cannot begin anew until people like Su’Kal make the choice to face their fears and brave “the outside” again.
At the same time, Tilly stares down the barrel of her own terrifying set of choices, when she’s forced to stand up to Osyraa and her taunts and threats. The Emerald Chain boss questions Tilly’s role as a leader in an effort to get into her head, while Tilly admirably (no pun intended) holds the line.
Wiseman does great work here, playing Tilly as someone who projects confidence given the position she’s occupying and deflects attacks on her credibility with equal and opposite snark, while inwardly worrying that this villain may very well have her pegged and questioning whether what she’s made the right calls. “Su’Kal” commendably doesn’t belabor the point, letting Wiseman’s performance do the work. There are layers to the experience and the performance, and she does a stellar job of communicating the interiority of what Tilly’s going through.
And who wouldn’t be questioning themselves in the midst of not only your first command, but one where you have to face the quadrant’s most notorious villain, decide whether to save your ship or save your friends instead, and contemplate destroying your vessel and everyone on it rather than allowing it to fall into enemy hands? Tilly “wins” a baptism by fire during her first time in the captain’s chair, and she handles it well under the circumstances, albeit with plenty more challenges to come.
That just leaves Saru. The episode hypes up the prospect of his conflicted loyalties. Admiral Vance himself questioned whether Saru’s judgment might be clouded after seeing the first glimpses of other Kelpiens since he came to the future, which could cut against his responsibilities as the captain of the Discovery.
Sure enough, at times, Saru seems transfixed by what he witnesses in the holographic world crafted by another member of his species. He sees a recording of Kaminar being welcomed into the Federation, encounters the first Kelpien face he’s laid eyes on since his arrival, and revels in a familiar melody from his home world, sung by an elder, that conjures memories of the past and people he left behind.
But it’s all a head-fake. When the time comes, Saru’s judgment is a bit clouded by his emotions, but in the other direction. Discovery’s captain doesn’t want to leave his crew on their own, despite the fact that he’s the one best positioned to soothe Su’Kal and avoid any further dilithium-destabilizing outbursts. Burnham has to talk him into staying in this realm practically littered with his people’s cultural history and traditions rather than talk him into leaving it.
Despite that choice, “Su’Kal” ends with more of a semicolon than a period. Osyraa takes over the Discovery and uses her forces and technology to jump away with it. Saru, Dr. Culber, and Adira (Blu del Barrio) remain stranded within the Nebula. Burnham escapes in Book’s (David Ajala) ship, but has to watch her enemy all but kidnap her friends and the Federation’s best tool to god knows where. This episode is plainly the first chapter of the season’s endgame rather than a story in and of itself.
Nevertheless, the direction of that story and its attendant challenges are each the product of a tapestry of tough decisions—to linger amid danger for the chance to save those you care about, to prioritize the needs of the galaxy as a whole over your own wants and wishes, to stay hidden where it’s safe and familiar or to brave a wondrous universe that’s not for the timid. Our heroes don’t always make the right choices in these situations, but with any luck, they’ll continue to make the ones that reflect not only who they are, but also who they can be.
- Gray (Ian Alexander) appears to Adira again, explaining that he went away because he had trouble dealing with the prospect of still existing in this world while only being able to interact with Adira. They try to be understanding given the weirdness of the situation, but Adira is, quite reasonably, still frustrated by it.
- To the same end, Stamets’s (Anthony Rapp) “You better be nice to my kid, or else!” routine, once he realizes that Gray has returned, is downright adorable.
- Even with more lines, Osyraa still plays like such a generic Trek movie villain here. Hopefully, in the final two episodes of the season, she’ll receive more shading and deliver fewer shopworn bad guy clapbacks.
- The vibe down on the planet within the nebula is nicely creepy, with malfunctioning holographic programs, Davy Jones-style nautical monsters, and an unreal haunted house atmosphere that sells the omnipresent danger.
- One neat thing about the holoprogram, though, is that it restyles Burnham, Saru, and Dr. Culber to make them seem more familiar to the skittish Su’Kal. It’s cool to have an excuse to see Doug Jones perform without his makeup and prosthetics.
- Unfortunately, I don’t buy that Hugh would just resign himself to staying on the planet in the Nebula; after all, he and Stamets have been through, just because he doesn’t want Saru to have been stranded by himself. It plays like plot necessity rather than a natural move for the character.
- Still, maybe it’s just the “close-cropped coif” look, but Dr. Culber does look impressively natural (and sharp) as a Bajoran!