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‘Star Trek: Discovery’ 3.11 Review: Su’Kal

Season 3’s endgame ramps up spectacularly with one of the series’ best episodes.

Michael (Sonequa Martin-Green) holding Book's big chonky cat in 'Star Trek: Discovery'.
(Image: © CBS All Access)

Our Verdict

We're so grateful 'Discovery' appears to be sticking the landing this season.

For

  • 🖖🏻The origin of The Burn is a legitimately creative and emotional reveal.
  • 🖖🏻Tilly getting the captain's chair is everything.
  • 🖖🏻We can always use more holodeck shenanigans.

Against

  • 🖖🏻Gray's back, and that whole subplot appears to have been pointless.

This article contains spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery.
Check out our review of last week's episode here.

A pervasive worry I’ve had throughout this season is that Discovery would not be able to bridge the gap between keeping a season-long mystery going and sticking the landing with answers that were simultaneously satisfying and not explicit pandering or convenience. “Su’Kal” could have been too heavily foreshadowed, too tied in to already established canon, too singular a point to allow the galaxy of Star Trek’s far-future to feel vast and diverse. Thankfully, this episode is none of those things. In fact, what’s most shocking is that “Su’Kal” somehow manages to have the best of both worlds as an away-mission episode with an intriguing high-concept hook while simultaneously raising the stakes for the season and ending on a riveting cliffhanger.

The away mission comes into focus as the Discovery finally investigates the signal broadcast from the apparent source of The Burn. What they find is a Federation ship, crashed into a planet made almost entirely of dilithium, cloaked in radiation, and exhibiting a singular life sign on board. Saru (Doug Jones) deduces this must be the child of the last surviving Kelpien scientist on board the downed vessel, and he decides to lead the rescue team in an attempt to save the 125-year-old survivor. Accompanying him are Hugh (Wilson Cruz) and Michael (Sonequa Martin-Green), the latter of whom is concerned that Saru is allowing his desire to reunite with another Kelpien to cloud his judgment. Tilly (Mary Wiseman) is left in charge of the ship, bolstered by a pep talk from Michael but still confident in her abilities to lead.

Transporting down to the ship sparks a truly bizarre turn of events, as the trio find themselves a winter landscape. More shockingly, Hugh turns into a Bajoran, Michael turns Trill, and Saru becomes human for everyone in the audience who was curious what Doug Jones actually looks like. It’s a very TNG kind of twist that seems to primarily exist so that Saru is not immediately recognizable as a Kelpien to the childlike survivor, but it feels like the kind of holodeck chicanery that has been sorely missing from this iteration of Trek. And this is a holodeck program, albeit a vast and crumbling one, populated by glitching programs who redundantly attempt to raise the surviving Kelpien into adulthood. The Kelpien, whom we eventually know as Su’Kal, retains a Kelpien adolescent’s fear of the unknown and seems immune to the radiation that threatens his would-be rescuers, presenting a quandary for the rescuers as they have to navigate the holographic defenses of his psyche and must find a way to get him to understand the freedom they offer.

Tilly, meanwhile, holds the captaincy when things go to hell and Osyraa (Janet Kidder) shows up to take control of Discovery. Though Osyraa’s taunts toward Tilly feel a little too knowledgeable and pointed for an antagonist who has no personal history with Tilly, it’s still satisfying to see Tilly hold her own as a captain and be her own form of self-confident badass, much like her mirror universe self but without the self-seriousness or sadism. The fact that this culminates in a cliffhanger where the standoff results in Osyraa taking over the ship is genuinely nerve-wracking, especially as it leaves the away team abandoned in a radioactive environment with a ticking clock for their survival and makes the Discovery an active weapon against the Federation.

What works best about this episode, though, is how the reveal of The Burn’s origins doesn’t feel forced or contrived. There’s something almost poetic about a single, emotionally disturbed creature, mutated in utero and attuned to a specific element, unknowingly causing a universe-shattering event simply because fate left him alone without a family. It gives the reverberating lullaby a potent meaning, turning it into a tragic coda that reflects how the consequences of one person’s suffering have the capacity to cause a society to crumble. It’s an inversion of Spock’s classic aphorism: the needs of the individual are the same as the needs of the many.

With the Discovery crew captured, Adira (Blu del Barrio) beamed down to the surface with anti-radiation drugs – how they know those drugs will be needed on the surface is a bizarre point of contrivance that I’ll let slide – to accompany Hugh and Saru on their continuing journey to reach Su’Kal, and Michael reunited with Book (David Ajala) aboard his ship, next week’s episode seems primed to barrel forward with more action and revelations. I’m just grateful Discovery seems to be sticking the landing this season.