This week Star Trek: Discovery screamed: “WE’RE IN THE LAST THREE EPISODES OF THE SEASON” at the top of its lungs. It did, in the typical Discovery manner, a fine job of flinging big emotions, big stakes, big twists, and more at our faces to get us ready for season three’s climax. But unlike past seasons, it managed to also deliver its own take on a classic Trek franchise story format.
“Su’Kal” at first starts off pretty subdued; we pick up where we left off, with the crew continuing to reminisce about the loss of Phillipa Georgiou. But everything starts to rapidly unfurl into Finale Preparation Mode pretty fast, when the crew’s wake is interrupted with information about the location of the signal in the Verubin Nebula that Tilly, Adira, and Stamets have been investigating as the potential starting point for the Burn.
Turns out, they were right. Because the Kelpien ship’s distress signal they’ve been analyzing for episodes is coming from a planet at the heart of the nebula, with a single survivor on its surface: a planet made almost entirely out of Dilithium. This doesn’t just make it a vital resource the Federation needs to secure for itself, but, above all for Saru in particular, a rescue mission. Whoever’s on the planet is the key to solving the Burn, but for the Discovery’s captain, it’s a moral and ethical dilemma, a chance to save a presumably traumatized member of his species.
After Vance dispatches part of Starfleet’s limited military forces to Kaminar—while Osyraa stages an Emerald Chain military exercise there, trying to draw Saru and the Discovery out—the crew heads for the nebula, hoping to find a way through its deadly radiation pockets to the safety of the one planet in its midst. It’s a marriage of the action stakes of Discovery, a high-speed thrill chase as Book zooms his ship through the nebula to get a ping on the planet for the Discovery to beam a team down to, and the kind of cool worldbuilding sciencey stuff classic Trek is made of, as Saru and the Bridge crew probe the mysterious nebula and try to science their way through its barriers.
One DNA-recombined cat and some important coordinates later, Michael, Culber, and Saru leave Tilly in charge—hell yeah—aboard the ship while they beam to the surface. What basically follows is 30-ish minutes of a classic episode ripped right out of the Star Trek of old. Our heroes find themselves on a strange planet, unlike anything they expected, at the whim of a powerful, almost godlike being—the lone surviving next generation of the Khi’eth’s research team: Su’Kal. Su’Kal, however, is not really cut from the same cloth as a Trelane or what have you; he lives in a vast holo-program simulation that doesn’t just mask the Dilithium world but even transforms Saru, Michael, and Culber into alternate personas (including a human Saru, letting Doug Jones truly shine without his usual Kelpien platform heels and layers of prosthetics). They’re perplexed, out of their element, and battling mysterious radiation that could kill them all in a matter of hours, unless they do what many Star Trek heroes have done before them: explore the hell out of this weird thing they find themselves in.
It works extremely well, even if much of this is a mood piece rather than actually providing answers about the Burn that we the audience and our away team alike want to know. We get to see Saru, in particular, struggle with the pain of being so close to meeting another Kelpien only to find that Su’Kal is living through trauma—the last hope of his parents, sheltered his whole life so that neither he nor even Michael can manage to make a connection with him before he runs away (summoning some kind of holo-monster in the process). We get to see Michael, who tries so often to put the burdens of others upon herself, not measure up to the task of making that connection to Su’Kal, and realizing that, even with a human visage, it must be a fellow Kelpien who bonds with the haunted adolescent.
Most fascinatingly, it presents Michael and Saru’s relationship in an inverse manner. Earlier this season, we saw Saru struggle to get through to Michael after her return to the crew, a year ahead of them in this new future. We saw him grow frustrated with her reluctance to re-acquaint herself with Starfleet protocol, as he came into his own as captain and as part of the battered Federation of this timeline. A few episodes ago, he demoted her for betraying his trust and not following his orders ahead of her own personal desires, and now, it’s her turn to see that personal dilemma compromise him. But instead of calling him out on it to score points, Michael makes Saru realize that sometimes being part of command means you have to embrace that at times you will be emotionally compromised. In this case, Saru’s compromise could be the link that lets him reach out to Su’Kal and figure out just how the Kelpien seemingly caused the Burn in his emotional throes in the first place.
Alas, it’s almost unfortunate that this heady balance of Discovery’s bread-and-butter character drama and classic Trek adventure tropes has to be momentarily shunted aside in the climax of “Su’Kal,” because, after all, there are TWO EPISODES LEFT and WE HAVE TO HAVE MORE STAKES. The stakes are, at least, filled with potential.
While the away team have been down on the planet, Osyraa’s flagship has warped in over the unexpecting Discovery, setting the stage for her hostile takeover of the ship, warping all the way back to Federation HQ with the Discovery as an interstellar trojan horse. Oh no, Michael and Book are seemingly trapped with no way to get back in time! Stamets has been mind-controlled by gross looking Chain tech! Tilly and the crew have been cut off from comms 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’s with them too.
It’s a lot. A whole lot. But it’s hard to say if the overwhelming amount of escalation will be too much just yet, as we’ve got the next two episodes to see how all these problems play out. At least in the somewhat relative calm before the storm of its third endgame, Discovery at least handled itself with a much more comfortable marriage of high stakes and classic Trek heart and mystery than its previous finales did.
- 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.
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