Kids cause the darndest Burns: Star Trek: Discovery "Su’Kal"
Previously: In the solid two minutes of “previously on” clips we get this week, there’s another detailed explanation of the Burn, and another glimpse of that Federation communications officer who hasn’t been seen since the season premiere. The crew of Discovery learned the Burn started in the Verubin Nebula, where a Kelpien ship crashed. They decoded a holo-message from a Kelpien doctor named Issa showing radiation burns on her forehead, and Saru was overwhelmed at seeing another Kelpien for the first time since they came to the future. Discovery faced off against Osyraa, the leader of the Emerald Chain, and walked away victorious, but now she wants Discovery’s spore drive. Adira was seeing the ghost of their dead boyfriend Gray Tal until he disappeared, and geez, they even show us Georgiou walking through the Guardian of Forever, which has nothing to do with anything in this episode. Is there any actual episode this week, or is it all recap?
We pick up right where we left off, with the whole crew having a memorial service for Georgiou. Adira is being a wallflower, looking around amazed at how the crew is there for each other in this time of… let’s say grief, but Stamets is here to say that Adira also has this big happy family to rely on too, as well as himself and Culber, who are a “package deal”. Suddenly, Gray Tal reappears and announces, “You have me too.” Adira starts talking to him, and Stamets realizes Gray is back, and turns around and sternly tells the empty air that if this weren’t a memorial service, Gray would be getting a “piece of my mind”.
He leaves Adira alone with the ghost, and Gray apologizes for leaving. So, is he still just an extension of Adira’s mind? Or have we established that Gray is an actual consciousness that exists independently from Adira? More importantly, does anyone care? Gray says he disappeared because he’s coming to terms with the fact that while Adira can interact with others, only Adira can see him, and he can’t connect with anyone else. Dude, you died. You should be thrilled that you can see or interact with anyone instead of experiencing eternal oblivion.
Just then, Stamets reports to Saru that they’re receiving data from the Kelpien ship in the Verubin Nebula. Shockingly (to anyone who didn’t see last week’s preview), there’s a life sign on that ship. Everyone is stunned, because the ship crashed before the Burn, which was over a hundred years ago, and Dr. Issa couldn’t possibly still be alive after all this time. Saru chooses this moment to explain that Dr. Issa didn’t have radiation burns: those red markings on her forehead meant she was pregnant. Yeah. He could have let his crew in on this a little sooner, I think. Anyway, the implication is that Issa’s child is the one alive on the ship… but that’s still a pretty long time for them to still be alive too, right?
They immediately spore jump to the Verubin Nebula. The newly PTSD-free Detmer pilots them in, and it looks like after that one skirmish with Osyraa, she’s totally cured. Unfortunately, the ship is getting battered by “ionizing radiation” and taking a lot of damage. And then we get one of my least favorite Trek tropes as Owo yells out that shields are down to 80%, then down to 60%, then down to zzzzzzzz….
Burnham warns that a hull breach would be pretty bad for everybody, but Saru presses on because he doesn’t want to abandon whoever’s in the nebula. Haven’t they been in there for at least a hundred years? I doubt a few more hours or days will make a difference. Book, who’s evidently just hanging out on the bridge all the time now, says he can take his ship into the nebula. Discovery’s too big, he explains, and his ship is smaller and it can “morph”. Book beams onto his mighty morphin’ spaceship and Discovery spore jumps out of the nebula.
Book’s ship morphs as it flies through the nebula, meaning parts of it detach and reassemble automatically, which appears to keep him from colliding with debris. He zeroes in on the Kelpien ship’s crash site, which is on the surface of a planet. But now Book is experiencing symptoms of radiation poisoning from the nebula. This mostly consists of everything going into slooowwww moooootion, but he’s able to get the coordinates for the life sign and send it back to Discovery.
He’s close to death and we get shots of Burnham on the bridge looking worried, but Book is able to engage auto-pilot and safely return to the ship. She says he’ll be fine, and there’s nothing wrong with him that a little “DNA recombination” won’t fix. Tilly gets Book’s readings and determines that the planet is made almost entirely out of dilithium. They immediately share this news with Admiral Vance on the holo-horn, who says that this much dilithium would be a huge boon for the Federation.
Saru says he’s going on the away mission to the crashed Kelpien ship, but Vance looks a little worried, probably because Saru has been a bit too preoccupied with seeing another Kelpien. Saru says that he and the rest of the away party will be taking medication to block the effects of the radiation, and also, he’ll be leaving Tilly in charge, which makes Vance looks even more concerned. He knows immediately that nothing good can come of this, but Saru says he has full confidence in his first officer.
Vance tells them that part of the fleet is heading to Kaminar to deal with another potential threat from the Emerald Chain that we all know by now will never, ever materialize. Burnham immediately figures out that Osyraa is threatening Saru’s home planet to draw Discovery there, the same way she attacked the planet Kwejian to lure Book there. Tilly declares, “She wants our spore drive,” and when did Osyraa even learn that Discovery had a spore drive? Regardless, Vance says that Saru can rest assured the fleet will handle any attack on his home world.
In Sickbay, Dr. Pollard gives Book a clean bill of health, as well as his chonky cat. Wait, he let Grudge get exposed to radiation? What kind of cat owner is he? Burnham is here to tell him that she’ll be going on that away mission to the dilithium planet, and she’s worried because, as we’re reminded for about the twentieth time, Saru is having a hard time being “objective” about this mission because it involves Kelpiens. Yes, yes, we got it.
In Engineering, Culber breaks the news that he’s also going on that away mission, but Stamets worries that it’s too dangerous. Culber says he has to go. Is it because there’s someone down there possibly in dire need of medical attention? No, Culber needs to “go for me”, because he’s been feeling “lost”, but now he has a purpose: with his previous experiences, he can provide special help to that survivor who’s dealing with being alone for all these years.
Tilly and Burnham are in their quarters on the cusp of Tilly assuming command, and Burnham sits her down to talk about the first time (Prime) Georgiou left her in charge of the Shenzhou. She says there was a “metal burr” under the left armrest of the captain’s chair, which was a “construction glitch”, and Discovery has it too. Whenever Georgiou was pondering a problem, she would rub that burr with her thumb, and when Burnham took command and looked for that burr, she found out Georgiou rubbed it into a dent. And she often sees Saru rub that same burr on Discovery’s captain’s chair. Burnham adds, “Burr, dent, shiny spot… whatever! It’s there for you.” And that’s what passes for an inspirational speech on this show.
Burnham tells us, for about the fiftieth time, that Tilly belongs in that chair, and they hug, but thankfully, there’s no crying. Then there’s an announcement calling “Ensign Tilly” to the bridge. Can’t they upgrade her rank, just a little bit? She’s about to be in charge of the whole ship. Isn’t there like a field commission or battlefield promotion that Saru can give her?
Discovery jumps back to the dilithium planet, but they still haven’t recovered from their last foray into the nebula, and yes, shields are already back down to 35%. Saru and Burnham and Culber prepare to beam down, and we learn that with their anti-radiation medication, they can only survive on the planet for four hours, so Discovery will be have to be back before then. They beam out, and everyone stares at Tilly as she takes the chair. She finds the metal burr that Burnham told her about, and orders them to spore jump out of the nebula.
The away party beams in and finds themselves in a snow-covered forest. They’re no longer wearing their uniforms, and Burnham is dressed like Red Riding Hood, and Culber is in a big parka. Burnham notices that Culber now looks like a Bajoran, and Culber sees Burnham now has spots like a Trill. They’re totally perplexed, and then Saru comes walking up. He says, “My heel is touching the ground!” I’m not sure what that means, but it seems Saru is now human, and it’s Doug Jones without the Kelpien makeup. And I’m sure this “species-switching” gimmick was dreamed up purely to save Jones some time in the makeup chair, or to give him some well-deserved (actual) facetime, because it ends up making no sense whatsoever.
They quickly figure out they’re not on the surface of the planet, because they’d be dead already. They must be on the ship, and this must be some sort of holo-program, and the holo-program must be what switched their species and is masking their uniforms and equipment. Saru tries telling the computer to end program, and would that it were so simple.
They go searching for the life sign, and come across a holo-teacher standing at a tree and giving a lesson about replicators. They try to talk to the teacher, but she jerks around like Max Headroom on meth before finally disappearing. Maybe somebody blinked at her really fast. Burnham says that “125 years of radiation” must be degrading these systems. Which means that the Kelpien child must be over 125 years old now, which never gets discussed at all. You’d think it would be a huge deal for Saru to find out that without the premature Vahar’ai “culling”, he could potentially live for centuries, but this doesn’t warrant a single line of dialogue.
They walk on and come to a place that looks like the ruined remnants of an MC Escher drawing. The holo-program has changed their clothes again for no apparent reason, and Burnham explains this place is an “ancient step wall”, which older civilizations used for “irrigation”. There are gormaganders flying in the sky, and they see a big, imposing fortress door that’s all barricaded and boarded up. They also find random sculptures that they decide must be part of a ritual.
They talk to what they think is another holo-program, but guess what? They’ve just happened to run into the life sign they’re looking for. It’s the Kelpien survivor, who’s clearly mentally stunted from being alone for 125 years, and he’s confused about what holo-program they’re from. And from his makeup, I’m kind of thinking he came from the Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge holo-program, but maybe that’s just me.
Saru tells him they’re not from a program, and they’re responding to his mother’s distress call, and they “come from outside the program”. Suddenly, the fortress door breaks open and the Kelpien yells, “You woke the monster!” He runs off, and Burnham explains that maybe all he’s known his entire life is this holo-program, and Culber says he could be emotionally “fragile”. Gee, you think? Burnham tells the guys to go after the Kelpien while she makes the rather strange decision to stay behind and make sure the “monster”, whatever that might be, stays in the fortress. Um… okay?
Back in Engineering, they’re trying to get shields back up, and it seems like Gray is helping Adira somehow? Okay, maybe he’s just pointing at stuff, but still, why is it that every character in the Star Trek universe seems to have an engineering degree?
They have comms open to the away party, and all they hear are spoooooky noises. They report it to the bridge, and Tilly says they heard it too, but they can’t jump back until they get shields again, and they’re only up to 40%. Then Owo detects a Federation ship approaching, but it’s not responding to hails.
Back in the holo-program, Saru and Culber find a group of Federation holograms, and Culber immediately knows they’re reenacting the day that Kaminar was admitted to the Federation. How? Was he there? They try to talk to the holos, but they’re all distorted and herky-jerky and they respond robotically with statements like, “Process emotion: ecstatic gratitude!”
The main holo says that they’ve been here for 125 years, and their purpose was to keep the “child” alive until someone could come and rescue him. Culber wonders how he survived the radiation, but the holo is less than forthcoming. He does say that the away team’s species were altered to be “consistent with the program”, because the child may be “frightened of your true appearance”. Huh? They turned Saru into a human, so obviously the kid’s not frightened of humans. So why turn Burnham and Culber into other aliens? Saru says they’re the long-awaited rescuers, and the holos all robotically applaud, and he asks where the child is now.
Meanwhile, Burnham goes into the fortress and catches glimpses of a monster scurrying around, so she picks up a rock. The monster appears, and it’s basically a smoke monster. Actually, it reminds me a lot of Parallax from that awful Green Lantern movie.
Burnham puts down her rock and introduces herself, but the monster just snarls and growls. Her attempts to communicate don’t go so well, because the monster soon roars and comes chasing after her and she goes scampering away. And I suppose it’s smart to assume there are no “safety protocols” on this particular holodeck, but it’s kind of weird that she would be this scared of something that’s obviously not real. The monster chases her up and down staircases in the Escher drawing, until eventually she falls off a ledge. But instead of falling down, she goes hurtling up into the sky.
On Discovery’s bridge, it takes forever for them to realize the approaching ship is only pretending to be a Federation ship. Sure enough, Osyraa’s ship the Viridian warps into view, and Tilly calls for a red alert. Book says she must have used a “transwarp tunnel” to get here so fast, and while he implies that using this tunnel is quite dangerous, it does make you wonder why she wants the spore drive so bad if she can get to wherever Discovery jumped to just a few hours later. They can’t just jump away for some reason, but Tilly remembers Discovery has a cloaking device now. She orders the ship to cloak, and for some reason, Osyraa’s ship cloaks too. Tilly knows this is a do-or-die situation and feels for the nubbin under her armrest again.
Burnham, last seeing falling into the sky, wakes up in some other spooky place that looks like an underground parking garage. She finds herself face to face with the “child”, and she decides to attempt a different tack than Saru by pretending to be a new holo-program he’s never seen before, and the guy is giddy at getting to meet someone new. She pretends she’s here to teach about “social interaction” and he’s mystified at why such a lesson would be necessary. He wonders if this has to do with the “hoo-man” (which he pronounces Ferengi-style) who said he was from “outside the program”. The holo-programs used to talk a lot about the outside, he says, but “the outside never came inside”, and he’s sure that everyone on the outside is dead by now. He calls her “obsolete”, and she says she’ll “deactivate” herself then. But he’s obviously none too bright and buys Burnham’s bluff, and asks to learn all about social interaction.
Saru and Culber are still wandering around somewhere when they come upon a hologram of a Kelpien “village elder”. Saru says his village had elders, but they were never allowed to grow this old. Culber notes that “this is the oldest Kelpien you’ve ever seen,” meaning… older than the 125 years that the “child” has lived? What’s the Kelpien life expectancy, then? It really does seem like it could be centuries, but no one wonders about this.
They find a drawing of a Kelpien family, and Saru sees that the child’s name is “Su’Kal”, which is a word on his planet that symbolizes “the end of suffering”. Alas, we must suffer further, as Saru talks to the elder hologram, who offers to tell a story. Saru asks where Su’Kal is, but the elder says he’s only here to teach “Kelpien and Ba’ul history”. In fact, he has a book containing a drawing of a Kelpien and a Ba’ul holding hands, implying their societies eventually found a way to co-exist peacefully despite their former predator/prey relationship, but of course they don’t talk about this at all.
The elder hologram also says he was created by Su’Kal’s mother Dr. Issa, and yeah, I think we all figured that out a while ago. Culber reacts to this news with wonder. “A whole world to raise her son!” Like, duh. Where has he been for the past 30 minutes? Meanwhile, Burnham is using her social interaction lesson to sneak in some questions about Su’Kal’s family, asking if he remembers anything “before” the holo-program. He gets agitated and yells, “Computer, reset parameters!” So Burnham turns away, turns back, and re-introduces herself.
She asks where the “exit” is, or how one might “reset parameters” for the whole holo-program. This gets Su’Kal even more agitated, and he yells, “Why would you dooooo that? I do not like this program!” He runs off and Burnham notices a lesion on her wrist that must be a sign of radiation poisoning. Cut to Culber noticing he has one too. So, the holo-program can change their species and clothes and cloak their weapons and communicators, but it can’t hide the signs of radiation sickness? Saru is still wasting time talking to the village elder, who explains that when Su’Kal is afraid, he goes to his “fortress”, and he shows them a drawing of it in his book. And it turns out to be the same fortress where the monster dwells. So Su’Kal goes there to… get more afraid?
The elder asks Saru if he wants to hear a lullaby, and he starts singing in Kelpien. Saru looks emotional, and brief clips of Saru on Kaminar from the Short Treks episode “The Brightest Star” are spliced in to try to make this feel meaningful. Saru looks at the elder’s book, and sees one of the totems he saw at the entrance to the fortress. He reads that it’s for “protection” from the monster. The elder explains the monster rises from the sea, covered in kelp, and according to an old legend, for a Kelpien to be “free”, they must “face their deepest fear”. Saru decides that he has to face the monster, or else they’ll be stuck here forever. Sure, why not. Saru and Culber find the fortress and head over, and they have to walk across hovering chunks of an airport runway to get there.
Meanwhile, back on Discovery, they wonder how Osyraa found them, and they think she’s been tracking the spore drive. A better question is, who told her about the spore drive in the first place? When Vance explained it to all the Starfleet captains, he said the info wasn’t to even leave the room, so who blabbed? If this were a smarter show, I’d think they were setting up the reveal that Osyraa planted a bug on Book, or Ryn the Andorian was passing along info to her, but I’m sure it’ll never be explained.
Unfortunately, Discovery still doesn’t have full shields, so they have to buy time by responding to Osyraa’s hail. She’s on the viewscreen and immediately dismissive of Tilly, asking where the real captain is. They talk trash to each other; Osyraa says that deep down, Tilly must know she’s just a fraud, while Tilly says Osyraa is only projecting. After declaring, “Don’t test me, Red,” Osyraa lists her demands: she wants the ship, the spore drive, and the crew “as leverage”. Tilly says that’s not happening, and cuts her off.
Back in the holo-program, Burnham watches Su’Kal build something out of rocks. If this is supposed to be another totem to protect him from the monster, it’s not very effective, because the monster immediately comes up to him and starts snarling and growling at him. Enter Culber and Saru, who recognizes the monster from the elder’s book. And then the monster attacks Su’Kal, and Su’Kal screams out, “Nooo! Nooo! Nooo!” And a wave of energy erupts from his body and goes spreading outwards, and the wave radiates out from the fortress, and then out from the planet. Eventually, it hits Discovery outside the nebula. Stamets reports that it’s destabilizing the warp core, and it might cause a chain reaction.
Did you catch that? Yes, we just found out the source of the Burn. Apparently, it was caused by a Kelpien child shitting himself because a holographic monster scared him, which made him involuntarily send out energy that triggered the instant destruction of every active warp core in the galaxy. There’s some facile technobabble later to explain that Su’Kal has special powers, and to be honest, the Burn being caused by a childlike being unaware of his own powers isn’t a terrible idea. And it’s definitely unexpected. It’s just presented in a completely confusing way. Are we to assume the monster only attacked Su’Kal twice in 125 years? Or that he only got this scared twice in 125 years? This is the big reveal we’ve been waiting 11 episodes for, and they totally botched it.
It looks like Discovery’s warp core was also powering the cloak, because Discovery decloaks, and so does Osyraa’s ship, and… both ships are in exactly the same place. What? Isn’t the point of a cloak that you make yourself invisible, and then you immediately move somewhere else so that your enemy can’t find you? They both could have just fired on the spot where the other ship used to be, and they would have hit the target dead on. Why? Why is this episode so stupid?
Shields are only up to 54%, making a spore jump dangerous, but Tilly decides to risk it and orders Stamets into the spore chamber. He wastes time screaming, “Nooooo! We can’t leave them!” So Book, still on the bridge, once again volunteers to take his ship to the planet to rescue the away team while Discovery spore jumps out. Stamets puts his hands in spore goo while Adira whispers to Reno that the away team is going to die on that planet, but Adira has an idea to save them.
Back in the holo-fortress, Saru sings the Kelpien lullaby, which calms down both the monster and Su’Kal. The monster scurries away, and yes, it looks like the Burn could have prevented by a lullaby. Su’Kal just sort of wanders off, while the monster does the same. Okay, good seeing you guys; we’ll have to do this again soon.
Discovery gets hailed by Osyraa again, purely for more trash-talking. Tilly reminds her of how they defeated Osyraa the last time they met. But Osyraa explains they only took advantage of some Death Star-like fatal flaw in her ship that’s since been fixed. She wants Discovery, but Tilly swears she’ll activate the self-destruct before letting the spore drive fall into Emerald Chain hands. Cue the Chekov and Sulu-like nervous looks that Owo and Detmer shoot each other at the mention of “self-destruct”.
Just then, Discovery gets back the ability to jump and Tilly yells out “Black alert!” But it’s too late. Two Emerald Chain soldiers beam directly into the spore chamber and grab Stamets so he can’t interface with the drive. Out in space, giant mechanical tentacles come shooting out of the Viridian and latch onto Discovery. Moments later, the entire ship is filled with Emerald Chain goons, and it doesn’t look like a single person on Discovery puts up a fight. Oof. Even Archer’s Enterprise wasn’t this easy to hijack.
Meanwhile, Book is morphin’ his way through the nebula once again and he reaches the planet. He announces through the still-open comm channels that he doesn’t know what caused that energy wave, but the away team needs to make sure it doesn’t happen again, because “it nearly caused another Burn!” They put it together that Su’Kal caused the Burn. Culber explains, “Bodies adapt. All this dilithium, and subspace radiation—his cells acclimatized to it in utero as they divided!” In other words, Su’Kal is an X-Man. Book also tells the away team that Osyraa is here, and Saru wants to get back to the ship immediately because he’s captain and he needs to deal with this threat. But Burnham says that Saru needs to stay, because he’s the only one who can get through to Su’Kal and make sure another Burn doesn’t happen. Burnham says she’ll go back and support Tilly’s (now short-lived) captaincy.
Then Culber says he’s staying too. He explains, “I know what it’s like to be all alone in a world that doesn’t make sense, Captain! No one should experience that!” He’s referencing the time he was stuck in the mycelial network, and he’s right about none of that making sense. That was the episode of Discovery that gave me my biggest “what the fuck did I just watch” reaction, at least until this episode.
Cut to Book, who suddenly realizes Adira is on his ship. Adira says they’re beaming down with Book’s supply of anti-radiation medication. Book protests, but Adira says they’ve got Reno’s badge/transporter and they’re “not asking for permission”, and they beam out. Okay, so I guess Adira is going to help everyone remaining down on the planet survive longer. But if all you have to do to last longer than four hours is take more medication, why didn’t the away team just bring along extra?
A voice declares Book’s shields are down to 40%, and he beams Burnham aboard, and she’s half-dead from radiation. How did he know not to beam Saru or Culber aboard? Regardless, Burnham says that they’ll have to go back for them, but first they need to get out of this nebula, because Book’s shields are down to critical levels. Meanwhile, Discovery continues to be easily taken over by Osyraa’s goons. In Engineering, a gimp-like guy with a comically evil voice puts a mind control headband on Stamets, causing his eyes to turn completely white, and soon he’s willingly putting his hands in the goo to trigger the spore drive.
And now the bridge is crawling with Emerald Chain soldiers, and Osyraa herself makes an appearance to order her troops to take everyone’s badges. Do any of the bridge crew try to quickly beam out before their badges get snatched away, given we’ve seen that all it takes is a quick tap to transport anywhere? They do not. Osyraa tells Tilly to get out of the captain’s chair, but Tilly says she’ll have to kill her first. So she just shoves Tilly out of the chair. Well, that was a letdown.
Osyraa sits down and happily notes that Tilly already plotted the coordinates to Federation headquarters. She then wants to know, “what is it you say when you do your jumpy thing?” Oh come on. So somehow, she not only knows about the spore drive, and that it takes Stamets in particular putting his hands into goo to activate the spore drive, but also about Saru’s attempts to pick a new pre-jump catchphrase? Somebody onboard leaking this information to Osyraa would explain all this away, but I’m pretty sure it’s just lazy writing. Nobody answers, so she just says, “Get us outta here.” Actually… that’s not a bad catchphrase, to tell the truth.
Book’s ship comes out of the nebula just in time to see Discovery and Osyraa’s ship linked by those mechanical tentacles. Burnham helpfully cries, “We’re too late!” And just like that, Discovery and Osyraa’s ship spore jump away together. Huh. So all it takes is physically connecting to Discovery, and any other starship can spore jump, too? It seems like that would have been useful during say, the Klingon conflict of the first season; just link up a whole fleet of starships to Discovery and boom, war over. Anyway, the end.
They never do stick the landing on these big season-long plot arcs, do they? First season, it ended with the ridiculous reveal that Lorca was from the Mirror Universe, flushing all that character development down the drain. Season two ended with the revelation that Burnham was the Red Angel, which I think everyone figured out after episode four or five. And now we get this strange reveal that the Burn was basically caused by an even more emotionally unstable Charlie X.
Like I said, it’s not a terrible explanation for the Burn, but the way it’s presented is baffling. A conversation about the Kelpien lifespan would have gone a long way towards clearing up the confusion; I spent most of the episode wondering why no one was amazed that a Kelpien could live this long. Also, the event that triggered the near-Burn in this episode obviously should have had something to do with outsiders intruding into Su’Kal’s holo-world. If the away team had found a way to shut down the simulation, or at least show Su’Kal the rest of the Kelpien ship, I could see that getting him upset enough to nearly trigger another Burn. But an encounter with some smoke monster he’s been living with for 125 years and who he seems to actively seek out? It makes no sense.
Next time: That last scene would have been a pretty great way to end this episode, with Book and Burnham stranded in space, Saru and Culber and Adira stranded on the planet, and nobody knowing how they’re going to get back to Discovery. But of course, the preview immediately spoils that Book’s ship catches up to Discovery just as it reaches Federation headquarters. Osyraa figures out how the spore drive works and threatens to destroy the Federation, and of course it’s up to Burnham to lead what looks like a rather lackluster charge to retake the ship.