‘Star Trek Discovery’ Season 3 Episode 11: Su’Kal
While a trip to a dilithium planet seemingly gets us to the cause of the Burn, there may be more to the story yet to be revealed.
What caused the burn? The Burn has been the single biggest driving force of the U.S.S. Discovery and her crew since arriving in 3188. An event so catastrophic, that it has shaped the very fabric of the organization to which they have devoted their lives. And while the journey to the future was necessary in order to save all sentient life, getting the answer of what caused the burn might be just as vital for the future of the Federation that once was. A mystery so intriguing, that one has to hope the answer to the question is as interesting as the question itself.
Season 3, Episode 11: Su’Kal
We start the episode with a scan detecting life signs aboard the Khi’eth, though Saru (Doug Jones) seemed less surprised by the notion; an outcome he had secretly suspected, fully aware that Dr. Issa was pregnant by the markings on her face during the initial distress call. Simply saying, “The Child”.
The thought of active life signs aboard the Khi’eth raises a few questions, the first of which is the fact that we are unsure of the exact lifespan of a Kelpian. Due to Vahar’ai, we don’t actually know how long a Kelpian can live. So the fact that a Kelpian aboard a crashed ship can survive after all this time is not something that can be ruled out. Next, there is the radiation on the planet. We have to assume that after all this time, survival in such an inhospitable environment would be impossible for almost any form of sentient life, raising the question of how could anyone survive for such a prolonged period in those extreme conditions.
Saru immediately takes Discovery into Verubin Nebula to get answers to those very questions, though getting to the coordinates of the Khi’eth proves to be a daunting task. The nebula’s ionizing radiation and hydrogen dust begin to wreak havoc on the ship’s shields, leaving Discovery to make a quick exit. Lucky for us, Cleveland Booker’s (David Ajala) little-ship-that-could is able to traverse the nebula with ease, finding a safe pocket next to the planet for Discovery to spore-jump into; a mission in which he narrowly escapes with his life.
Scans from Book’s ship reveals the dilithium nursery in which the Khi’eth was previously investigating turned out to be a planet with a massive supply of dilithium, a coincidence Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) finds too compelling not to instantly deduce that this would be the source of The Burn. Though the how of the matter remains to be a huge question. Scans also reveal a pocket of breathable atmosphere on the planet, though radiation would prevent the away team from safely staying there for more than a few hours. After a chat with Admiral Vance (Oded Fehr), Saru chooses to join the away mission with Burnham and Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) to retrieve the child, with the hopes that his Kelpian knowledge will aid in the mission. In doing so, Saru chooses to leave Ensign Silvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) in command of the ship, after assuring Admiral Vance that he is more than confident in the ensign’s abilities.
At this point, you really have to start to question Saru’s decision-making as a captain. His relationship to the matter was too close to be ignored. Saru knowingly withheld vital information about Dr. Issa being pregnant from the crew, leading them to believe it was radiation burns on her face and not a Kelpian sign of pregnancy. Why would he do that? Next is the decision to give Tilly control of the ship while both he and Burnham are on the away mission. While I do believe Tilly is coming into her own, at this point, it just feels like a bad decision. Once again raising concerns about Saru’s judgment and the possibility that he is just too close to the issue. Remember, as early as last season, he didn’t believe Kelpians could survive Vahar’ai, and he certainly didn’t believe that Kelpians could ever become an internal member of the Federation.
Burnham gives Ensign Tilly some heartfelt reassuring words, then the away team is beamed down to the planet, with Discovery waiting outside the nebula for the team to complete the mission. Tilly’s daunting responsibility is almost immediately put to the test when Discovery receives a distress call from a ship with Federation response codes that is en route to their current coordinates; a ship that is quickly revealed to be none other than Osyraa’s (Janet Kidder) Viridian Battle Cruiser.
Osyraa scoffs at the notion that Tilly is in charge of Discovery and immediately begins to put the ensign through the paces. Sufficient to say, things don’t go well for the ensign and her crew, with the encounter ultimately ending with Discovery being boarded and under full command of Osyraa. The ease at which Osyraa is able to commandeer Discovery further emphasizes the notion that there may be a spy among the Federation ranks. Not only are they able to beam through Discovery’s shields into key areas with ease, but they also come equipped with a suppression device for Lieutenant Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp); enforcing the idea that they know he’s required to make the spore drive operate. Osyraa then initiates a plan to latch onto Discovery, then use Discovery to jump with the Veridian to Federation headquarters; where chaos is sure to ensue. Fortunately, Book is able to narrowly escape Discovery before the jump, with hopes to save the away team.
When thinking of Tilly’s performance against the warlord Osyraa, I will give the ensign credit for standing her ground. While I ultimately felt the outcome of the ordeal was predictably a failure, she did an exceptional job when it came to exuding confidence in her command. And in Tilly’s defense, Osyraa’s plan was so well executed that the outcome may have quite possibly been the same even if Saru were in charge.
Back within the Verubin Nebula, the away team arrives on the planet to find things not as they would have anticipated. The environment in which they beam into seems to be a snowy forest-like planet. Not only that, but Burnham, Culber, and Saru have all changed in appearance — Burnham now seems to be Trill, Culber looks to be Bajoran, and Saru now appears to be a human! While the changes to both Burnham and Culber are subtle at best, seeing Doug Jones as himself was a true delight. It was an enjoyable exercise to see the intricate nuance he provides to the character of Saru conveyed in his human form — giving Doug Jones a break from the makeup-chair, and us a more in-depth look at the brilliance the actor truly brings to the role.
Taking the change in appearance and environment into consideration, it doesn’t take long for our trio to figure out that they are inside some type of holo-environment, a theory solidified by the inclusion of several Federation training programs they encounter while trying to locate the child. The away team deduces the child’s mother may have created these holo-environments to raise the child after the remaining survivors aboard the Khi’eth have long since passed away; an idea that was confirmed by several holograms within the construct, with one even stating that they have been watching over the child for 125 years, 3 months, 17 days, and 4 hours.
After making their way across several of the holo-environments, Saru, Burnham, and Culber encounter a lone-Kelpian, who they assume to be the child—although life signs cannot be confirmed. Saru attempts to make contact with the being, but 125 years of living among holograms, leaves the Kelpian with a lack of basic social grace, and the Kelpian quickly runs away from the trio.
In addition to the identification of the Kelpian, there is also a ghostly monster present in the construct, unsure of why it would be a part of this program, Burnham goes to investigate; a mission well suited for our resident Xenoanthropologist. The confrontation between Burnham and the entity raises a few questions. Why would Dr. Issa leave such a horrifying entity within the environment meant to raise the Kelpian? And, Burnham senses that there is more to the entity than it seems. In addition to her initial moments studying the monster, she seems to have a strange connection with it by the end of the episode; after we witness the Kelpian’s temper tantrum.
Meanwhile, Saru and Culber search the holo-construct for the lone-Kelpian, leading them to a part of the program that seems to be a Kelpian home; where the duo come into contact with a holographic Kelpian-elder, the oldest Kelpian Saru has ever laid eyes on. Saru learns the name of the child is Su’Kal (William Irwin), which means beloved gift, symbolizing the end of suffering. The elder also explains that the monster within the construct is meant to help a Kelpian conquer fear, stating that his fear will keep him bound to this place. Finally, Saru asks where can he find Su’Kal, the elder states that the Kelpian often retreats to the fortress when he is afraid.
Things come to a head when Saru, Culber, and Burnham confront Su’Kal in the fortress; where Su’Kal seems to have had enough of his new friends, retreating to his totem, where he often goes to combat his fear. The monster arrives at the fortress as well, attacking Su’Kal. Su’Kal, with the emotional maturity of a child, is understandably afraid when the monster attacks. And in one outburst of emotion, Su’Kal lets out a great scream; releasing a massive energy burst out from the planet’s surface. At that exact moment Discovery feels the massive surge; witnessing a destabilization in the ship's warp core. Leaving us with what seems to be a very clear answer to the ultimate question of the season. Su’Kal caused the Burn — a notion confirmed by Book’s message to the away team as he races to rescue them from the planet. Culber deduces that Su’Kal’s cells may have climatized to the planet’s radiation and dilithium in utero, leaving him with a physiological connection to the planet at birth. The Burn may have been the result of a similar emotional outburst when Su’Kal was younger, likely after the death of his mother.
While the notion that the Burn was caused by a temper tantrum from a Kelpian on a dilithium planet seems a bit of a letdown at first glance, I strongly feel there is more to the story the showrunners have yet to unfold. In fact, Su’Kal may not be the one causing the anomaly, but it may be the monster that is the true source of the phenomenon. With the absence of tricorders, we don’t truly know who or what was the origin of the life sign that Discovery originally detected on the planet — a notion iterated several times by the away team. Also, both the monster and Su’Kal were at the point of origin of the energy wave, leaving room open for a bit of extra doubt.
Book is eventually able to get back to the dilithium planet within the Verubin Nebula, only to pick up Burnham in exchange for Adira who has stowed away in order to help the away team. Saru and Culber choose to stay on the planet to get at the root of the issue with Su’Kal, with the hopes of preventing an event such as the Burn from ever happening again.
On the production side of things, the visuals in this episode were nothing short of stunning. It would seem that the Discovery showrunners spared no expense on the computer-generated visuals in the episode; everything from the Verubin Nebula, the animatics of Book’s ship, the look of Osyraa’s Viridian Battle Cruiser, and even right down to the look of the fortress and other visuals on the dilithium planet. Though one would assume that most of what we saw on the dilithium planet would have been computer-generated, and a lot of it was, behind-the-scenes have revealed that more of it was practical than you may think.
Finally, with two episodes remaining in the season, there will undoubtedly be a massive showdown between Osyraa and the Federation. And with the anticipation of two very action-packed episodes, I remain anxious to see the mystery continue to unfold around Su’Kal, and also the way in which Discovery will get out of their current predicament with Osyraa. As much as I want to hate the resolution to the Burn, I still think it has been resolved in a way that seems true to the core of what Star Trek is. And I remain convinced there is one last piece to the puzzle that we will see play out in the last few episodes. Like always, I’m strapping in and enjoying the ride!