This STAR TREK: DISCOVERY review contains spoilers for Season 3, Episode 11
As the season finale looms on the horizon Star Trek: Discovery attempts to begin pulling together its disparate Season 3 plot threads into something like a cohesive story. “Su’Kal” brings the villainous Osyraa and her Emerald Chain back into the picture, investigates the mysterious Kelpien ship that sent the distress call a few episodes back, and finally gives us an answer to what likely caused the Burn in the first place.
If this all feels a bit crowded and overstuffed, that’s because the hour tries to do too much, cramming in a ton of primary exposition alongside its more action-oriented B plot. Plus, if you had “the Burn was somehow triggered by a radioactive Kelpien child who lives in the holodeck version of Plato’s cave” on your Discovery Season 3 bingo card, well – you’re a smarter viewer than I am.
But, hey, at least Tilly gets to sit in the captain’s chair at last. (In the Prime universe, at any rate.) Take joy in the small things, folks.
The crew of the Discovery is surprised that there’s a life sign emanating from the abandoned Kelpien ship discovered in that mysterious nebula, but we shouldn’t be. This season has been extremely interested in interrogating whether Saru is the right leader for this brutal new future, and for weeks his arc has been foreshadowing a critical choice at a point when he clearly cares more about the needs of the one than the many. The moment of that test is upon him, and it may very well end up costing him his life, or the lives of his crew. (I suspect it will at the very least cost him his captain’s chair next season, but that’s just a shot in the dark.)
There was never any real question of whether Saru would jump at the chance to rescue the child that’s still trapped in the wreckage of that Kelpien ship. And, naturally, Michael can’t resist the opportunity to find out the truth about the Burn she’s been obsessed with since she arrived in the 32nd century, since she blames that event for the downfall of the organizations she most loved. It makes a certain amount of sense for Hugh to tag along since he’s at least a medical professional, but this is another of those installments where it feels as though Discovery simply enjoys constantly putting him – and Stamets – in mortal peril, for no other reason than because it can.
As noted last week, we were always going to miss Philippa Georgiou’s presence on this show, but I didn’t think the weight of her absence would be felt so completely this quickly. Truly, this episode would have been vastly improved by the presence of anyone willing to argue the more difficult points of the situation: That Saru and Michael’s trip into the nebula was actually kind of a stupid plan to begin with and that the smartest decision they could have made once they recognized Su’Kal’s abilities would have been to kill or otherwise incapacitate him in the name of preventing countless more deaths.
This is Star Trek, of course, so that plan would have rightfully gone nowhere, but the fact that no one even mentions the hard truths to Michael or Saru now is kind of a problem. (Except for Tilly, a little bit, as she at least tries to leave Michael and jump Discovery to safety – just a minute too late.)
What emotional heft there is in this story comes from Doug Jones who, thanks to an oddity of the program that protects Su’Kal that cloaks all visitors in skins that will be familiar to him, is for once allowed to convey every moment of Saru’s emotional conflict on his own very human face. The lack of the prosthetics he normally wears allows for a degree of performative nuance that he is not always afforded, and Jones sells every second of Saru’s personal grief and devastation over the things he sees.
The child Su’Kal – now grown to a young man – exists in a world populated entirely by holograms and computer simulations. He’s never been outside the ship he was born on and doesn’t even really understand the idea of “outside” as anything beyond the vaguest of concepts. He seems to spend his life trying to avoid the literal manifestation of a monster from one of his childhood storybooks and is painfully excited to meet Burnham, who he believes to be something new in a world that became stale long ago.
He is also, apparently, the source of the Burn. Which, admittedly, is not the answer to this season long mystery that I was hoping for, particularly since the planet he is trapped on is essentially made of dilithium, a twist which pretty much solves everything that was interesting about this season’s space politics in one fell and largely dull swoop.
Thanks to the combination of extended exposure to subspace radiation and the nearby dilithium nursery that has transformed him into what is essentially Star Trek’s take on Dark Phoenix. (The episode was not tremendously clear on the explanation for any of this beyond Hugh’s insistence that life forms adapt when they have to, so hopefully more exposition is coming, both about what happened 125 years earlier and what Su’Kal is capable of doing now.)
As the final credits roll, Sa’Kul remains a threat that no one knows how to neutralize; Saru, Hugh and Adira are trapped and slowly dying of radiation poisoning; and Michael and Book are left watching Discovery disappear, her spore drive now in the possession of the Emerald Chain.
Now what? We’ve got two more episodes to find out.
If I were going to take my ship into a radioactive death trap, I would definitely take my amazing cat off of it first, Book! Protect Queen Grudge at all costs!
The fact that the Discovery now canonicallyhas what is essentially a veterinarian on board is the best thing. (This must mean that more people have pets, yes?)
Michael Burnham lecturing literally anybody about allowing their emotions and desires to distract from the needs of the larger mission is r i c h.
That said, Michael’s pep talk to Tilly about sitting in the captain’s chair in Saru’s absence was the sort of ladies supporting ladies stuff I always want to see in this franchise.
Tilly’s threat to self-destruct the Discovery before allowing Osyraa to have the spore drive was hardcore. I hate that her determination was undercut by the Emerald Chain just…apparently transporting straight onto the ship with no problem?
Sorry about the mind control, Stamets. You truly have the worst luck.