Because the powers that be at US streaming services apparently believe that all their viewers are bored slackers sitting on the sofa with nothing else to do and that no one has such a thing as a family or a life that does not involve watching TV, CBS All Access in its infinite wisdom decided to stream the latest episode of Star Trek Discovery on Christmas Eve. So here is the latest installment in my ongoing episode by episode reviews of season 3 of Star Trek Discovery. Reviews of previous episodes may be found here.
Warning: Spoilers behind the cut!
“Su’Kal” starts of literally where part II of “Terra Firma” ended, at the “wake” for Philippa Georgiou. Adira stands around, looking a bit lost, since they don’t really feel like part of the crew yet. Stamets goes over to them and tells them to interact a bit more with people, when Gray – who’d been missing for a few episodes – decides to put in an appearance again. Stamets decides to play along and tells off Gray, even though it looks as if he’s talking to thin air, because no one except for Adira can see Gray. As for why Gray has been absent, he is bothered that Adira can talk to people and interact with them, while Gray can only interact with Adira.
The wake is interrupted, when the program Stamets and Adira rigged up with Book’s help to hack into the systems of the crashed Federation ship inside the Verubin nebula that’s the source of the Burn finally gets a result. It has found a lifesign on board the crashed research Kelpian vessel, even though the vessel has been lost 125 years ago. Stamets, Tilly and Michael wonder how it’s even possible that the Kelpian scientist whose distress signal they intercepted is still alive after 125 years, especially considering the intense radiation inside the nebula. Saru replies that it’s not the scientist whose lifesign they detected, but her child. Because the forehead markings of the Kelpian scientist, which Stamets and Tilly took for radiation burns, indicate that the woman was pregnant. This also explains why Saru was so fascinated by the distress signal.
So the Discovery sets off for the Verubin nebula. However, the attempt to enter the nebula to rescue the person whose lifesigns they detected go wrong almost immediately, when the Discovery is battered by turbulences and radiation. So the Discovery has to pull out. Book offers to fly into the nebula in his own ship, since it’s smaller and can morph, treating us to some nice special effects scenes. In fact, this whole episodes features some very cool space action and effects. I guess they spent whatever money they saved on the largely studio-bound and low on special effects “Terra Firma” two-parter on this episode.
Book (and Grudge, the cat) suffer some radiation damage (which is easily cured via 32nd century miracle medicine), but he does manage to fly in far enough to scan the planet, where the Kelpian ship crashed, and find a stable pocket inside the nebula for Discovery to jump into. The scan of the planet at the heart of the Verubin nebula reveals something remarkable. For it turns out that the entire planet is basically one huge dilithium deposit. Considering how rare dilithium has become after the Burn (and supplies were running low even before), this discovery has the potential to be a gamechanger.
As a result, Admiral Vance is as excited as we’ve ever seen him, when Saru makes his report. However, Admiral Vance is considerably less thrilled when Saru announces that he will lead the away team himself. Of course, Saru is from the era and Kirk and Pike, where the captain frequently beamed down with the away team. And besides, his knowledge of Kelpian culture may come in handy, when dealing with a Kelpian who has been alone for a very long time. Finally, Saru points out that Tilly is more than capable of handling the Discovery in his absence, whereupon Vance shoots Tilly an “And who are you again?” look.
Vance also has bad news for Saru, because the Emerald Chain has chosen the Kelpian homeworld Kaminar as the site of its latest “training exercises”. Saru immediately offers to have the Discovery jump to Kaminar and help out, but Vance tells him to focus on his own mission and leave the defence of Kaminar to Starfleet. He also points out that the location of the Emerald Chain’s latest training exercises, first Book’s homeworld and then Saru’s, is no accident. The Emerald Chain is trying to deliberately draw out Discovery to get hold of their spore drive and their dilithium stores. For some reason, this does not worry the Discovery crew nearly as much as it should.
Tilly is understandably nervous about her first mission as acting captain, so Michael tries to calm her down by telling her a story about a knob underneath the armrest of the captain’s chair on multiple Starfleet vessels that captains tend to touch in times of stress. Michael also tells Tilly that she has to beam down to the planet, because Saru needs her more than Tilly does, because Michael isn’t sure that Saru is entirely objective about the whole mission.
Meanwhile, Stamets is not at all happy that Dr. Culber wants to join the away team, because he worries about his husband. After all, the radiation on the planet is intense and lethal within a few days at most. However, Culber insists that he must go. Not just because he’s a doctor and the survivor might need help, but also because he knows what it feels like to be lost and alone. And besides, the away team will be taking anti-radiation drugs along, so they should be fine. We get treated to another kiss between Stamets and Culber, which demonstrates once again why they’re one of the best – if not the best – Star Trek couples of all time. I also love that Stamets and Culber have basically adopted Adira (and Gray, since they come as a package deal, even though only Adira can see Gray). It’s just great seeing a non-traditional LGBTQ family in a mainstream SFF show.
So Saru, Michael and Culber beam down into the crashed ship and promptly get a surprise, for instead of a ship, they find themselves inside a wintery forest (considering the many wintery sceneries we’ve seen this season, I guess it snowed a lot in Canada last winter). They also find that their clothes and appearance has been altered. Michael is now a Trill, Culber is a Bajoran (which makes me wonder if the Federation even knew about Bajorans in the 23rd century, since they only show up from The Next Generation on) and Saru is human, giving Doug Jones the chance to show off his acting skills without ten kilograms of latex make-up for once. Worse, their badges/transporters and supplies, including the vital radiation drugs, are gone. There is an explanation for all this, that doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, though the lack of the lifesaving drugs does add a sense of urgency and I imagine Doug Jones was happy not to have to wear the Saru make-up for an episode or two. Besides, Michael’s red riding hood type cloak and cape nicely hide Sonequa Martin-Green’s pregnancy bump.
After some trudging through the snowy forest, Saru, Michael and Culber come across a glitchy hologram demonstrating maintenance procedures (in a forest? Yes, a lot about this episode makes no sense). Our trio now realises that they are in a – quote – “sophisticated holographic environment”. They obviously can’t say “holodeck”, because holodecks would only become a thing in the Next Generation era. When they introduce themselves, the hologram unglitches long enough to tell them that information on Starfleet and the Federation may be found in the politics and history section. Since Saru, Michael and Culber can’t figure out how to stop the program, they decide to head for the politics and history section.
Yes, “Su’Kal” is Discovery‘s take on one of the staples of Star Trek from The Next Generation onwards, the holodeck episode. Of course, holodeck episodes are normally about as welcome as mirror universe episodes. There are a handful of good ones, but most of them are inconsequential fluff. As holodeck episodes go, “Su’Kal” is certainly one of the better ones. Furthermore, since Discovery hasn’t really had a holodeck episode yet (the closest thing were the magic mushroom world scenes in season 1 and 2), since season 1 and 2 were set before holodecks were a thing, holodeck stories haven’t won out their welcome yet.
It also helps that while most holodeck episodes look like random studio backlot sets, “Su’Kal” really pulls out all the stops with gorgeous CGI environments such as a very M.C. Escher-esque stairwell and a dark fortress straight out of a fantasy cover, accessed only via floating rock islands.
Saru, Michael and Culber eventually come across a group of holograms reenacting the acceptance of Kaminar as a member of the Federation over and over again. As before, the holograms are glitchy, but the hologram of a Vulcan admiral manages to unglitch long enough to ask our trio, if they are here to rescue the child. By now, it’s pretty obvious what the holographic environment is, namely a learning and training program for the Kelpian child survivor, created – as we later learn – by the child’s mother. As for why the appearances of the Discovery away team were altered, that’s part of the program to avoid spooking the child. Of course, it makes no sense that a Kelpian child would be spooked by two humans and a Kelpian showing up to rescue them, but would not be spooked by a Bajoran, a Trill and a human. But then, a lot about this episode makes little sense, when you think about it.
Considering that the team is stuck in a holographic fantasy world – and now I am reminded of the many Alice in Wonderland references back in season 1 – there is of course also a monster, which resides behind a padlocked door, but tends to bang against it. Strange piles of stone are set up outside that door, which begins to buckle alarmingly. The piles of stone look vaguely familiar to Saru, but before he can remember why, the away team finally encounters “the child”. Only that “the child” is no child at all but an adult Kelpian, played by veteran character actor Bill Irwin, as Keith R.A. DeCandido points out in his review at Tor.com.
Though “child” is not such a bad description after all, because after spending decades alone with only glitchy holograms for company, the Kelpian survivor is still very much a traumatised child mentally. And so, the survivor initially asks the newcomers which program they are from. And then, when Saru mentions the word “outside”, the survivor runs away in fear. At the same time, the monster becomes more active behind its locked and barred door. I guess I wasn’t the only person who was immediately reminded of Forbidden Planet (which is often viewed as a precursor to Star Trek) and its monster from the Id.
The team now splits up. Saru and Culber go after the survivor, while Michael will hold the monster – a creepy CGI horror that looks like a Kelpian zombie made from smoke – at bay. Though in the end, Michael is the one who finds the survivor and manages to get him to talk by pretending that she is a program intended to teach him social interaction. She even gets a brief memory of the survivor harvesting kelp with his family, before he runs off again. It’s also becomes increasingly clear that the survivor has no idea that there he is aboard a ship and that there is such a thing as an outside world.
Meanwhile, Culber and Saru find what appears to be the survivor’s quarters, complete with a Kelpian elder dozing in a rocking chair. Saru is fascinated by this elder, because he has never seen a Kelpian become so old before, since they experienced the vaharai and were killed long before then. Culber and Saru also find out the name of the survivor. He’s called Sa’Kul, which means “blessed gift” in Kelpian and is traditionally the name given to the first child born after a great disaster.
When Saru finally manages to wake the elder, they get some more information out of him. The elder confirms that the entire holo environment was created and programmed by Sa’Kul’s mother to keep him alive until rescue could arrive. However, rescue took far longer than expected to arrive and the holograms were forced to provide emotional support they weren’t really equipped for. The purpose of the holographic elder is basically to dispense stories and lullabies, which he does for Saru in a very sweet scene. Now we can actually see his face, it becomes even clearer what an excellent actor Doug Jones is. But then, I’m still outraged that everybody in The Shape of Water got an Oscar nomination except for Doug Jones, since the Academy apparently thought that he really was a swamp monster.
The holographic elder also explains that the stone piles the away team saw earlier are totems supposed to ward off the monster, a creature from Kelpian legend that represents their greatest fear that every Kelpian has to face (after all, Kelpians were originally a race of permanently afraid prey creatures). So yes, it is the monster from the Id. Until Sa’Kul will face the monster, he – and the away team – will never be free. This is a huge problem, because Saru, Michael and Culber are already beginning to exhibit radiation burns.
Things come to a head, when the away team come face to face with Sa’Kul and the monster. Sa’Kul freaks out and has a breakdown that sends shockwaves through the holo environment. Meanwhile, both the Discovery and Book’s ship are experiencing problems that are very similar to what happened during the Burn. Book manages to hail the away team (Discovery is otherwise occupied) and tell them to stop whatever they’re doing, cause they’re about to cause another Burn. Saru finally manages to calm down Sa’Kul by singing the lullaby the elder sang to him.
So we finally know what caused the Burn, namely a terrified Kelpian child with psychic powers induced by radiation exposure in utero. And people thought that a scared Baby Grogu tossing Stormtroopers about was a bad temper tantrum. As explanations go, this one is certainly unexpected, though not without precedent. After all, Star Trek has featured (usually malicious) superpowered kids before all the way back to the original series. Trelane from “The Squire of Gothos” and particularly “Charlie X” come to mind. However, Star Trek didn’t invent this trope. Indeed, children with psychic powers causing havoc was a common science fiction trope during the golden and silver ages. “It’s a Good Life” by Jerome Bixby and “When the Bough Breaks” by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore come to mind, as do The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham. It seems to me as if science fiction has deep-seated issues with children.
Though none of the above mentioned super-children have managed to wreck quite as much havoc as poor Sa’Kul, whose temper tantrum killed millions, possible billions of people and brought galactic civilisation to its knees. Of course, none of this is in any way Sa’Kul’s fault, since he has no idea what he’s done and doesn’t even know that the outside world exists. Nonetheless, I don’t think that anybody at Starfleet – or anywhere else in the galaxy, for that matter – will be happy to see him. Not to mention the impact it will have on Su’Kal’s already fragile mental health, when he learns that he is personally responsible for the deaths of millions, if not billions of people and the destruction of the Federation.
Book has flown his ship close enough to the planet to beam out the away team, but Michael, Culber and Saru realise that they cannot leave Sa’Kul alone, because it’s only a matter of time before he causes another Burn. Saru wants Michael to stay, because she’s the empathic one, but Michael points out that Saru was the one who managed to calm down Sa’Kul. So Saru and Culber stay behind, while Book beams out Michael just in time, before she faints from radiation sickness. Meanwhile, Saru and Culber know that they’re doomed if Discovery doesn’t return within a day or so. But luckily, help is on the way in the form of Adira who stowed away on board of Book’s ship and beams down with a supply of radiation drugs.
However, the odds of Discovery returning within a day or so are slim to none, because Discovery has been experiencing some dramatic issues of its own. For of course, Tilly was not granted a quiet first time in the captain’s chair. And so Discovery suddenly detects another Starfleet vessel approaching and hailing them, even though there isn’t supposed to be any Starfleet vessel in the vicinity. At first, the Discovery bridge crew thinks it’s a Starfleet vessel stranded by the Burn. But why would it stay near the inhospitable Verubin nebula instead of doing a Voyager and trying to get somewhere the slow way? The answer is of course – and I figured this out about a minute before the bridge crew did – that the supposed Starfleet vessel is no Starfleet vessel at all, but the Viridian, flagship of Emerald Chain boss Osyra herself. After all, Admiral Vance did note that Osyra appears to be after Discovery‘s spore drive and dilithium supplies.
What follows is a neat stand-off between Tilly and Osyra. Osyra tries to trigger Tilly’s imposter syndrome, while Tilly unleashes her inner Killy and first goes all Freudian on Osyra and then threatens to self-destruct the Discovery rather than let her fall into Osyra’s hands. There is an exchange of torpedoes and the Discovery tries out its brand-new cloaking device. However, Discovery is hampered by the fact that her shields are not at full capacity. And while jumping out would be the best course of action, that would mean abandoning the away team to certain death.
Book finally offers to get the away team out with his own ship, so Discovery can escape. But once the shields are down, some creepy masked Emerald Chain goons, who look like they should be in Star Wars rather than Star Trek, beam right into the engine room and seize Stamets to keep him from starting up the spore drive. Meanwhile on the bridge, no one has any idea what is happening and why Tilly shouting “Black alert” doesn’t result in any reaction. Methinks the Discovery desperately needs an intruder alarm.
Stamets tells the Emerald Chain goons that he’s not helping them and that they cannot operate the spore drive without him. However, the Emerald Chain are prepared for all eventualities and so they fit Stamets with some kind of mind control device. More and more Emerald Chain goons beam aboard Discovery, while tentacles shoot out of the Viridian to wrap around Discovery. Osyra herself beams onto the bridge, forces Tilly out of the captain’s chair and sits down. Then she orders the ship to jump to Federation headquarters, the location of which is secret, but programmed into Discovery‘s computers. Book and Michael emerge from the nebula just in time to see the Discovery and Viridian jump away. Cue cliffhanger.
I suspect this will be the first and last time that we’ve seen Tilly in the captain’s chair for a long time, because she’s simply not yet ready for the job. Though I hope Federation justice has become more lenient since the 23rd century or poor Tilly will spend the rest of her life slaving away in a prison mine. After all, she not just lost Starfleet’s most powerful ship to the enemy, but gave away the location of the secret HQ as well. And yes, it was an accident, but then it’s not as if Michael intended to trigger the war with the Klingons either.
“Su’Kal” is certainly an action-packed episode. And in fact, it’s so action-packed that you don’t notice that a lot of it doesn’t make any sense until afterwards. Zack Handlen calls it “messy” in his review at The AV-Club and it certainly is. It also has too much rather than too little plot, which makes the decision to waste the previous two episodes on a pointless detour to the mirror universe even more puzzling. Though I do understand why they sent Georgiou away before the endgame. Because Osyra wouldn’t stand a chance against the original tough woman in black leather.
Furthermore, as James Whitbrook points out in his review at io9, Discovery is clearly heading towards the season finale. James Whitbrook also thinks that there is rather too much plot and too many revelations packed into this episode, though he still feels that it works better than the season 1 and 2 finales. Though “better than the season 1 finale of Discovery” is a low bar to clear.
All this probably sounds, as if I didn’t enjoy this episode. That would be wrong, because I did. But enjoyable or not, “Su’Kal” is still something of a mess and the plot and revelations should have been streteched over two episodes, while cutting down the whole mirror universe sidetrip to one episode or even a B-plot. After all, “Su’Kal” relegated the hijacking of the Discovery to a B-plot.
So far, season 3 of Star Trek Discovery has alternated between telling very typical Star Trek stories and exploring common space opera tropes that Star Trek has rarely done to date. “Su’Kal” combines these two approaches and tells a very typical Star Trek story, namely a holodeck adventure combined with an emotionally unstable child with psychic powers, while also borrowing from the works that inspired Star Trek in the first place, namely golden age science fiction and Forbidden Planet.
Next week, the penultimate episode of the season will air on New Year’s Eve, which is an even worse day for any new TV than Christmas Eve. Honestly, CBS All Access, next year just do a two week holiday break.