This week Star Trek: Discovery shouted, “WE ARE IN THE LAST THREE EPISODES OF THE SEASON” at the top of our lungs. He did, in the typical Discovery way, a great job of throwing big emotions, big bets, big twists and more on our faces to prepare us for the climax of season three. But unlike previous seasons, he also managed to present his own version of a classic story format from the Trek franchise.
“Su’Kal” at first starts well contained; we continue where we left off, with the crew continuing to reminisce about the loss of Phillipa Georgiou. But everything starts to unfold quickly in Final Preparation Mode very quickly, when the crew’s awakening is interrupted with information about the signal’s location in the Verubin Nebula that Tilly, Adira and Stamets have investigated as the potential starting point for Burn.
It turns out that they were right. Because the distress signal from the Kelpien spacecraft that they have been analyzing for episodes comes from a planet in the heart of the nebula, with a single survivor on its surface: a planet made up almost entirely of Dilithium. This not only makes it a vital resource that the Federation needs to protect for itself, but, above all for Saru in particular, a rescue mission. Whoever is on the planet is the key to solving Burn, but for the Captain of Discovery, it is a moral and ethical dilemma, a chance to save a presumably traumatized member of his species.
After Vance dispatches some of the limited Starfleet military forces to Kaminar – while Osyraa stages an Emerald Current military exercise there, trying to take Saru and the Discovery away – the crew heads for the nebula, hoping to find a way through their pockets of deadly radiation for the safety of a planet in its midst. It’s a marriage of Discovery action bets, a high-speed chase of emotion as Book takes his ship through the nebula to get a signal on the planet for Discovery to send a team, and the classic kind of cool scientific world-building material Trek it is done, while Saru and the bridge crew search the mysterious nebula and try to find their way through its barriers.
A cat with recombined DNA and a few important coordinates later, Michael, Culber and Saru leave Tilly in charge – hell, yes – on board the ship as they head to the surface. What follows is basically 30 minutes of a classic episode from Star Trek of yesteryear. Our heroes find themselves on a strange planet, unlike anything they expected, with the taste of a powerful, almost divine being – the only survivor of the next generation of the Khi’eth research team: Su’Kal. Su’Kal, however, is not really made of the same fabric as a Trelane or whatever; he lives in a vast holo-simulation program that not only masks the Dilithium world, but also turns Saru, Michael and Culber into alternative personas (including a human Saru, letting Doug Jones really shine without his usual Kelpien platform heels and layers of prostheses). They are perplexed, out of their element and battling the mysterious radiation that can kill them in a matter of hours, unless they do what many Star Trek heroes did before them: explore the hell out of this strange thing they find themselves in. .
It works extremely well, even though a lot of it is a part of the humor rather than actually providing answers about Burn that we, the public and our visiting team, want to know. We can see Saru, in particular, struggling with the pain of being so close to meeting another Kelpien only to discover that Su’Kal is going through trauma – his parents’ last hope, protected his whole life so that neither he nor even Michael manages to make a connection with him before he runs away (summoning some kind of holo-monster in the process). We can see Michael, who tries so often to put others’ burdens on himself, is not up to the task of making that connection with Su’Kal, and realizing that, even with a human appearance, he must be a fellow Kelpien who is related with the haunted teenager.
The most fascinating thing is that it presents the relationship of Michael and Saru in an inverse way. Earlier this season, we saw Saru struggle to reach Michael after his return to the crew, a year ahead of them in this new future. We saw him frustrated by her reluctance to become familiar with Starfleet protocol again, when he took over as captain and as part of the battered Federation of this timeline. A few episodes ago, he demoted her for betraying her trust and not following her orders before her own personal desires, and now it’s her turn to see that personal dilemma compromise him. But instead of asking you to score points, Michael makes Saru realize that sometimes being part of the command means that you have to accept that sometimes you will be emotionally compromised. In that case, Saru’s commitment may be the link that allows him to reach Su’Kal and find out how Kelpien apparently caused the burn in his emotional throes in the first place.
Unfortunately, it’s almost unfortunate that this intoxicating balance of Discovery’s bread-and-butter drama and Trek’s classic adventure tropes has to be momentarily set aside at the climax of “Su’Kal”, because, after all, there are TWO EPISODES LEFT and WE HAVE TO HAVE MORE STOCKS. The bets are at least full of potential.
While the visiting team was down on the planet, Osyraa’s flagship flew over the unexpected discovery, preparing the ground for its hostile takeover of the ship, returning to Federation headquarters with the discovery as an interstellar trojan horse. Oh no, Michael and Book are apparently stuck with no way to go back in time! Stamets have been mentally controlled by coarse-looking chain technology! Tilly and his team were cut off from communication and detained! Oh, and, Saru and Culber are still slowly dying back in the Nebula as they try to rescue Su’Kal, and now Adira is with them too.
This is too much. Very. But it’s hard to say whether the overwhelming amount of staggering will be too much yet, as we have the next two episodes to see how all of these problems unfold. At least in the relative calm before the storm of its third game end, Discovery at least conducted itself with a much more comfortable marriage of high stakes and Trek’s classic heart and mystery than its previous endings.
- Nothing to add here, but please, do enjoy this picture of Michael Burnham cradling Grudge. Extremely wholesome.
- But also, on no, Grudge got radiation poisoning! I mean, so did Book too, that was also bad. But Grudge! They had to recombine her DNA!! Which sounded petrifying, but everyone treated it as no big deal in the sickbay. That seems kind of like the thing that would take someone out of the picture in past Trek shows, so maybe it was just a bit of narrative convenience, or a fun, subtle way to show that medicine has advanced so far in the 32nd century that a little thing like lethal radiation poisoning isn’t all that much to deal with.
- It was very fun to see Michael, Hugh, and Saru out of their element being “holotransformed” by Su’Kal’s programs, but a special shout out has to go to the chance to see Doug Jones act without layers of prosthetics as Saru here. It was a great performance that balanced the line between still feeling like Saru while still being unsettling for both the audience and the character that he’s vulnerably presented like this.
- Tilly’s first time in the Captain’s chair was like being thrown in the crucible, but she handled it pretty dang well considering it was a nightmare scenario. It’s so cool to have seen her and the crew’s faith in her come so far from season one that she’s now having bridge-standoffs with the bad guys and keeping her cool like the kickass officer she always wanted to be. Step aside, Mirror Killy, Captain-to-be-Tilly (Mary Wiseman) is in command of our hearts now.