Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-3, Star Trek: Picard, and for other iterations of the franchise.
Until three days before its broadcast, Su’kal went by the title The Citadel. It wasn’t immediately obvious why the name was changed – or why the producers at ViacomCBS felt a need to conceal that fact. After all, they let us know every other episode title before the season premiered, even spoiler-ish ones like Unification III. So it was a bit of a surprise to learn that we’d be watching Su’kal this week!
The two-part episode Terra Firma largely took us away from progressing the overall story of the season and focused on the departure of Mirror Georgiou to a still-unknown destination. With only three episodes left before the season is over, Discovery really needed to begin bringing its storylines together and wrapping them up, lest it repeat the mistake made by Star Trek: Picard earlier in the year and rush through a lot of potentially interesting plots. This was the moment where the season needed to enter its endgame, and for better or worse it seems to have done so.
My first thought when the credits rolled was “hmm.” What had we all just watched? The two major storylines both had ups and downs, and we’ll have to deal with them in turn. I liked the idea of the holographic world. Both as an interesting setting and as a metaphor for isolation – something many people dealing with mental health issues will experience – it worked very well. Tilly sitting in the captain’s chair for the first time was great to see, and we can see why she was chosen ahead of, for example, Stamets to serve as first officer given that the conflict with Osyraa needed someone less experienced at the conn. I also liked the standoff between Discovery and Osyraa’s ship; it had a familar feel that anyone who’s seen the Battle of the Mutara Nebula in The Wrath of Khan can appreciate.
Now let’s get into the big disappointments. Discovery being captured so easily by Osyraa, whose ship had been simple to defeat a couple of episodes ago, was poor. Yes, it showed how Tilly’s inexperience at the conn was an issue, but even then it felt too easy. Osyraa’s ship, with its ability to transport huge numbers of troops and its weird grappling arms, just felt overpowered. Next – and I will admit this is perhaps more of a personal pet peeve – the cliched story of “the heroes’ ship/base is captured” just doesn’t really work for me. It’s annoying more than anything, and since we know Tilly, Burnham, and the crew will retake the ship it just feels like forced tension.
Now we come to the point of the season, and the main storyline which underpins all of the others: the Burn. If Burnham and Culber are correct in their assessment of Su’kal, he caused the Burn telepathically when his fears destabilised dilithium across the known galaxy. Though my initial reaction to that was some form of “what the actual fuck,” I’m prepared to wait and see what the next two episodes have in store, and whether they can better explain how this happened. Burnham and Culber’s analysis of the situation was short, and if all the explanation we’re going to get is some technobabble about dilithium and DNA cells in an unborn child, I think that’s poor.
But I’m hopeful that won’t be the entirety of the explanation that we get! The Burn had been set up across the season (and even before if you count the trailers) as a huge mystery, something galactic in scale. Perhaps the reason this answer feels like such a non sequitur – aside from the fact that it only consisted of a couple of lines from Burnham and Culber in the midst of a bigger crisis – is that the explanation for this colossal apocalyptic event being a mentally ill man with the mind of a child is some combination of anticlimactic and small.
Huge events in fiction typically need causes that are comparable in scale, and there’s a disparity between the truly epic, cataclysmic nature of the Burn and Su’kal, a mentally challenged man who’s led a horrible life trapped in a weird educational holoprogramme. That’s before we get into the frankly upsetting real-world implications of this metaphor: a mentally ill person ruining the galaxy.
When dealing with significant events, we can typically point to powerful characters or forces of nature setting those events in motion. We can point to Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, for example, or Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars. Or we could look at the zombie virus in The Walking Dead as a force of nature – a powerful, planet-wide force. Su’kal doesn’t fit the bill, and while the idea of the Burn being something accidental rather than something intentional like a weapon may indeed be a good one – and one I’d support – this particular way of explaining it feels like an anticlimax right now.
On the other hand, if this is the explanation for the Burn, it would be in line with certain other Star Trek stories. The V’ger probe in The Motion Picture was similarly described as “a child” as it caused chaos en route to Earth. The Star Trek franchise has always been about exploring the unknown and offering help – and Su’kal clearly needs the Federation’s help.
Any time a mystery is created in an ongoing story, there’s a risk of the explanation jarring with what some members of the audience expected. I’m not criticising Su’kal from that point of view, though – or at least I’m consciously trying not to. I’m not saying that the Burn needs to have some other explanation, like one of the ones I postulated before the season began. What I am saying, though, is that if this is all the explanation we’re going to get – that Su’kal’s body somehow adapted, connecting him on a quantum level to dilithium, and that he accidentally caused the Burn as a child while upset – it feels anticlimactic.
The discovery of the Verubin Nebula and its dilithium planet is likewise a little odd. This is perhaps more of a nitpick, but in the 32nd Century, when the Federation and other spacefaring cultures have had a millennium to explore and chart the galaxy, how could they have been unaware of this dilithium nursery/dilithium planet? A few weeks ago I wrote that the discovery of a huge cache of dilithium at the end of the season, allowing the Federation to get back on its feet and rebuild, could feel like a deus ex machina – and that’s kind of how this planet feels right now. The story from here seems predictable: save or neutralise Su’kal to prevent another Burn, use the dilithium planet to power the Federation and Starfleet, and retake Discovery from Osyraa.
There may be twists and turns along the way, but that seems to be the direction of travel. Simplifying a story as it approaches its end is inevitable, perhaps, but coupled with what I have to call an unsatisfying explanation for the Burn, it risks the end of the season feeling formulaic. Having made those criticisms, two caveats: there are still two episodes to go in which the Burn’s explanation can be padded out or even changed entirely, and if this is the real explanation for what happened, it avoids many of the pitfalls I feared a 32nd Century post-apocalyptic story would. It isn’t as epic in scope as perhaps I was hoping, nor does it seem to connect to other iterations of the franchise. But it is a very “Star Trek” way for an apocalyptic event to play out.
By that I mean it’s closer to some stories from The Original Series or even The Animated Series in terms of pure science-fantasy. Su’kal being the cause of the Burn because he has some kind of telepathic link to dilithium is a weird story, and that weirdness and quirkiness is what made many fans – myself included – fall in love with Star Trek to begin with. So I’m hot and cold on the Burn right now, as you can tell. I’m not 100% convinced that it’s the right way for this story to conclude, given that it’s taken us eleven weeks to get here and the Burn has been presented as this epic cataclysm with mysterious origins. But as a pure Star Trek story, I can’t deny that it works.
If you’re a regular around here, perhaps you’ve read my methodology. If not, you can find it via the menu at the top (top-right on mobiles). To make a long story short, I never read other reviews before writing my own, and I do my best to avoid any and all critical opinion and even responses by people involved with whatever I’m reviewing until I’ve got my own piece published. So I have no idea if I’m alone in my feelings about Su’kal offering an unsatisfying end to the season’s biggest mystery or not.
I feel like I’ve deconstructed the titular Su’kal and his relationship with the Burn as much as I’m able to at this stage. Like several ongoing storylines that saw major developments in Su’kal, my thoughts on this point can and likely will shift depending on the way that the remainder of the story progresses. So let’s look at a few other points from the episode.
Tilly becoming first officer was a point of contention in earlier episodes, and I do understand that. While I defended Saru’s reasoning at the time, as he felt Tilly had adapted best to the future which was a significant consideration in his XO search, what I’d say now is that that storyline feels as if it was constructed deliberately to reach a specific goal. The first part of that goal is, as we saw this week, the capture of Discovery by Osyraa, which we’re to understand came about in part through Tilly’s inexperience. But there may be a further plan for this storyline – effectively cornering Saru and forcing him to reinstate Burnham as first officer.
So what we got with Tilly this week was a deeply emotional and very touching scene between her and Burnham. As Saru prepared to lead the away team, it was her turn in the big chair for the first time, and she was nervous. Burnham tried to comfort her, and in this moment she was back to the older, more nervous character from earlier episodes. A lot of us have been nervous or anxious about taking on a big task, and Tilly’s reaction to what was going on was very human.
Likewise, the scene where she took the captain’s chair for the first time was also very well done. Though clearly still nervous she sat down for the first time with determination – and with a plan for what to say and do. She handled herself well, and she clearly had the respect of the other officers on the bridge. But there was a different kind of respect that they showed Tilly compared to Saru, or past commanding officers like Pike. Tilly was almost being treated as a child, judging by some of their expressions: “aww, it’s so sweet they’re letting her have a go in the big chair,” some of their faces seemed to say. While the crew followed their orders, there was a sense among some on the bridge – at least in the moment Tilly assumed command – that they didn’t hold her to the same standards as Saru or Pike.
When confronted by Osyraa, Tilly played a role comparable to Sulu in Star Trek Into Darkness – sitting in the big chair for the first time talking to an enemy. In Sulu’s case he was broadcasting a message to someone rather than having a two-way conversation, but like many things in modern Star Trek I appreciate the symmetry that exists between wholly different stories.
As I said, though, the ultimate payoff to this storyline was Osyraa’s incredibly easy capture of the ship. We can argue that Su’kal’s telepathic tantrum damaged all the ship’s systems and thus probably knocked the shields down, which is how Osyraa’s goons could so easily beam over. But as a point of drama, the standoff between the ships was far too short before we got to this point. When Detmer took Book’s ship and completely disabled Osyraa’s flagship a couple of weeks ago, Osyraa’s flagship was shown to be big but flawed, and Osyraa herself made no moves against Discovery. This time, she was able to defeat Discovery in seconds using powers we’d never seen her vessel have before. There were low stakes at the beginning of the engagement – because Detmer had so easily beaten her using Book’s ship a few weeks ago – and thus Osyraa’s victory seems to come from nowhere.
If we had seen some more of her ship before Su’kal to know what its capabilities were, that feeling would not persist. But despite its vaguely menacing appearance, the only time we encountered Osyraa before this episode showed her ship to be vulnerable even to Book’s glorified shuttlecraft. The turnaround was only explained by a single line from Osyraa, as she claimed to have fixed the vulnerability Detmer had exploited – but that just wasn’t good enough, in my opinion.
There’s also the big question of how Osyraa came to know about the Spore Drive. This seems to have happened entirely off screen, and while it may be shown in a flashback later on, it’s something we as the audience needed to know. What is Osyraa’s plan now she has control of Discovery? What will she use the Spore Drive for? Who told her about it/how did she find out? None of these points were touched on, and while we can construct theories based on Book’s macguffin from last week that concerned Admiral Vance, nothing was explained on screen in a satisfactory way.
As this is an ongoing story, these points may be addressed, and if so I will gladly withdraw my criticisms. But right now it feels like Osyraa knew about the Spore Drive almost by magic – she even knew its name, despite having never heard of it the last time we met her. She also managed to turn her ship from an easily-beaten wreck into an invincible powerhouse and defeat Discovery with a snap of her fingers. And after all that, we don’t know her intentions. There are too many unknowns for the stakes to feel particularly high.
I mentioned at the start that this storyline – the heroes’ ship being captured – has never been one I enjoyed, and that’s a factor in how I feel about Su’kal too. I tend to feel that any time a story goes down this route the ending is usually known, and as a result the drama and tension just feel forced. Whereas we could see any one of a hundred different endings to Su’kal’s story or even Georgiou’s Mirror Universe story over the last couple of weeks, it’s obvious that Burnham and Book will retake the ship from Osyraa, just as it’s obvious in any comparable story that the heroes will reclaim their starship or base. It’s not exactly a cliché, but it’s a basic narrative that I’ve seen play out dozens of times at this point – including within Star Trek.
Enough about Tilly, Discovery, and Osyraa for now. The sequences set in Su’kal’s home were interesting. The setting itself was reminiscent of the castle Captain Pike encountered on Rigel VII – as seen in Star Trek’s original pilot, The Cage. Castles and Star Trek have an association going back a very long time, and the dark, abandoned castle – with a monster to boot – gave the sequences set there a very creepy, almost horror vibe.
The cinematography for some of these scenes was outstanding, too, and shots of the fortress and its surrounding landscape were beautiful and immersive. There were some amazing overhead angles that gave the stepped structure a deeply confusing feeling, one which helped us get into the mindset of Burnham, Culber, and Saru.
Speaking of the away team, the choice of makeup was interesting. Having Burnham and Culber be a Trill and Bajoran respectively really didn’t do much, and in a lot of scenes where they were seen from a distance the makeup wasn’t even noticeable. Saru being portrayed as human, however, was far more visually interesting, and the reveal of Doug Jones without makeup was perhaps the biggest shock moment of the whole episode. Everything about that moment was perfectly set up, from Burnham and Culber noting their appearances first to build up the mystery to Saru’s voice being heard before the camera panned to him. It was a very well-constructed moment.
Within the story, though, I’m sorry to say it makes no sense. Saru is a Kelpien; a species Su’kal is obviously familiar with as he has at least one Kelpien hologram – the Elder. Likewise we saw human holos within the programme, and since Burnham and Culber’s physical appearances were not changed to copy pre-existing holograms, I don’t know what reason there is for changing their appearances in this minimal way. Nor do I understand why – aside from reasons of dramatic effect – the away team’s radiation burns were visible on their holographic bodies.
If the roles of Burnham, Culber, and Saru were to be played by three different actors for this story, actors who also took on the roles of three holograms within Su’kal’s programme, I could understand it more. It wouldn’t be good to have this crucial moment acted out by different folks, but it would make sense in-universe, because the programmer of Su’kal’s world would have intended his rescuers to assume a familiar form. But the way it was done here was just odd, and I can only assume it was done for the sake of that one shocking moment – revealing Saru in his human guise. Constructing a story point off of one moment seldom works, and while it was interesting (at least, at first) to see these three characters in different makeup, as a story point I don’t get why it had to happen.
It also arguably detracts from Saru’s storyline, which seems to be building to an emotional climax. This is the first Kelpien he’s met since he left the 23rd Century, and there’s also the open question of a possible familial connection via Dr Issa. Saru being distracted by all things Kelpien is affecting his judgement, and this is a storyline worth pursuing. However, having Doug Jones essentially be out of costume is detracting from that. While it was visually interesting at first, it risks getting in the way of the story as it comes to a head. It’s possible that there may be a moment where Saru snaps out of the way he’s feeling due to being in this human guise, which if well-written could work and would be a payoff of sorts. Discovery tends not to do things randomly – somehow there may well be a reason why the away team ended up in these bodies. It’s just difficult to see right now, and the question of whether it will work as intended is up in the air.
Burnham’s work with Su’kal was sweet, and she seemed to be beginning to find a way to get through to him. Saru asked her to remain because of her training in xenoanthropology, but just as she accused him of being distracted by Su’kal, I would argue that she is equally distracted from the mission by Book – she wanted to get back to him, because within the nebula he is in danger. She did seem to make some progress with Su’kal before he cut her off – but is that the real Su’kal?
I’ll save the bulk of this discussion for my theory post, but here goes: the “monster” that inhabits the holodeck is vaguely Kelpien in appearance, and also looks older. Its decayed body could be a result of radiation exposure, and when the monster met Burnham, it seemed to react to her in an almost-human manner – by which I mean, not like a programmed machine. The character we’re calling Su’kal is far too young to be 125 years old – or at least appears to be too young – and no suitable explanation has been given for this. So my pet theory right now is that the “monster” is the real life sign that Burnham and the crew identified before beaming down.
I don’t know for sure if that will pan out, or how it could be made to fit, but it seems interesting so I’ll go into more detail next time. There were a few other little moments in Su’kal that I thought were worth pointing out, such as the little robots being identified as “DOTs” for the first time outside of the Short Treks episode Ephraim and Dot. That was a sweet little inclusion. I also liked seeing Adira and Gray back together, as well as Gray giving Adira the confidence boost they needed to make their first big independent move since joining the crew.
Speaking of Adira, Stamets’ line to them at the beginning about he and Culber coming as a “package deal” was cute, and ties in with the parental theme going on with the three of them. Stamets has gone out of his way to help Adira since they joined the crew, even talking to the unseen Gray – whenever he does that I’m reminded of a parent talking to their child’s imaginary friend. Stamets feels protective of Adira, and helping them settle in has been an unexpectedly sweet turn for his character.
So there we are. That was Su’kal, an episode which will have to be revisited in context once we know the overall outcome of the season’s big storylines. It can be difficult to fairly judge one section from the middle of a story – it’s like trying to review chapter ten of a thirteen-chapter novel – because Su’kal cannot be taken as a standalone piece of television. That said, it’s an episode which made significant developments and perhaps set up one or two more mysteries.
I’m troubled by the fault for the Burn lying with a mentally disabled man. Mental health and learning disabilities are already the subject of considerable stigma in our society today, and while on some fronts that is improving, we still have a long way to go. The episode The End is the Beginning from Star Trek: Picard showed a very crude stereotype of “mentally ill people” earlier in the year, and laying the fault of the Burn at Su’kal’s feet seems to continue an unfortunate theme in this year’s Star Trek productions. It almost feels as though the writers have picked on an easy target in Su’kal.
As mentioned, there are different ways the story could pan out from here. I briefly explained one theory I have about Su’kal, but there are different paths the story could take over the next couple of weeks before the season ends. I’m cautiously interested to see more; I do want a resolution to the Burn, but it needs to be a satisfying one – and ideally one that doesn’t stigmatise people.
Star Trek: Discovery is available to stream on CBS All Access in the United States, and on Netflix in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The Star Trek franchise – including Discovery and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.