*****STARSHIP-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!*****
The latest episode of Star Trek: Discovery’s third season, “Su’kal”, is available on CBS-AA, and it is the first episode following the departure of regular cast member Michelle Yeoh. Written by Anne Coffell Saunders (“Battlestar Galactica”) and directed by Norma Bailey, “Su’kal” also unravels the mystery of the galaxy-wide calamity known as “the Burn”, which crippled and divided the once United Federation of Planets.
Beginning right where “Terra Firma, Part 2” left off (in the mess hall wake for Georgiou), we see the crew toasting their departed comrade.
Stamets (Anthony Rapp) walks over to Adira (Blu del Barrio), to remind them that they are a part of the Discovery family now as well. Adira confides in newfound parental figure Stamets that they have began to see their late Trill lover Gray (Ian Alexander) again, and Stamets offers encouragement for them to understand why. Gray tells his lover that he no longer feels ‘connected’ to the world of the living. They are resolving their differences, just as Stamets gets new data from his combadge about the crashed Kelpien vessel Ki’eth, which is stranded within the Verubin nebula.
Stamets reports to a curious Captain Saru (Doug Jones) that there is a life-sign within the 125 year old ship. Saru realizes that the life reading isn’t from the late Issa (whose 125-year old holographic distress call has haunted Saru), but from her child. Red-markings seen upon Issa’s forehead, which were assumed to be radiation burns by Tilly, were actually signs of Kelpien pregnancy. The crash site of the Ki’eth is coming from just within the nebula–a potentially dangerous voyage filled with heavy radiation and turbulence.
Saru, obsessed with reaching the stranded Kelpien within the Verubin nebula, takes the ship to red alert and goes inside of the dangerous radioactive cloud. Discovery’s shields are badly damaged, and it’s clear they can’t go any further, but Saru wants to take the vessel in closer. Realizing the danger to Discovery, Booker (David Ajala) volunteers his own ship, the Nautilus, to act as a scout. The Nautilus is smaller and more maneuverable, not to mention it can also morph its shape, making it a perfect candidate to probe deeper within the nebula before radiation forces its own return. With Discovery’s damaged shields unable to continue, Saru agrees.
Booker takes the Nautilus from Discovery’s shuttle bay and flies into the nebula. He soon learns that the Ki’eth has crash-landed on a planet composed largely of dilithium. The planet has broken up now, but the remaining chunks are still loosely bound together by gravitational attraction. Booker sends the coordinates of the planet to Discovery, just as hard radiation from the nebula begins to affect him as well. He is forced to return to Discovery’s sickbay for immediate medical treatment.
Discovery of the fractured dilithium planet leads Saru to have a holographic-consult with Starfleet Admiral Vance (Oded Fehr). Saru reports that Booker detected breathable atmosphere at the Ki’eth crash site, and relatively moderate radiation exposure–survivable for a few hours, at least. Vance grudgingly gives approval for the mission, but he advises Saru that the Emerald Chain (the Orion/Andorian alliance currently threatening the Federation) has been conducting aggressive maneuvers near Saru’s homeworld of Kaminar, in the hopes of luring Discovery there as well. News of the vessel’s instantaneous spore drive has made its capture a high-priority for the Chain. With the admiral’s permission, Saru volunteers to lead an away team consisting of himself, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green) and Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz). As a Kelpien, Saru assumes he would be a natural liaison for any Kelpien survivors to be found. As Discovery will be unable to endure the radiation of the nebula for too long, the ship will beam down the away team before quickly jumping out of the nebula itself.
Note: While I love Doug Jones’ Captain Saru, one has to question if Admiral Vance (Oded Fehr) was indeed correct to let a clearly obsessed Kelpien commander risk his ship and crew in pursuit of the Kelpien distress call source. Were there not any other captains at Starfleet Headquarters who could’ve accompanied Saru on this mission, just in case his obsession posed an unwitting danger? Clearly Vance wasn’t entirely sold on Tilly as First Officer just yet either, despite Saru’s confidence in her–the brief wince Vance makes when Saru mentions her acting in his stead betrays the usually unflappable admiral’s emotions.
Meanwhile in sickbay, Booker is nearly fully recovered from his would-be lethal radiation exposure, thanks to a little DNA re-sequencing courtesy of Dr. Pollard (Raven Dauda), who reunites him with his massive cat Grudge (who also underwent a bit of DNA re-sequencing as well). Outside of sickbay, an excited Booker is hopeful that this rich new source of dilithium can restore warp drive and “make the galaxy a lot smaller.” Michael deflates Booker’s spirits a bit by telling her beau she is joining Saru on the dangerous away team. She is worried about her captain’s objectivity when it comes to the Ki’eth and his fellow Kelpiens. Booker understands.
Note: Seeing how easily treatable and reversible radiation poisoning will be in the 32nd century, one wonders if, hopefully, this will be of those Star Trek-inspired future predictions waiting to happen, like diagnostic bio-beds, medical apps on smartphones (i.e. tricorders), or any number of medical/scientific miracles that have since come to pass since 1966.
In engineering, Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) breaks the news to his lover Stamets that he, too, is going on the dangerous away mission. As Paul objects, Hugh tells him that he has found new purpose in this century, and that he needs to do this. Hugh assures him that they will keep comms open the entire time. Realizing he is right, Paul grudgingly consents, and the two kiss and say their goodbyes.
Roomies/besties Michael and Tilly are both facing tough choices. Michael will be going on an away mission to a dangerous, radiation-drenched planet and Tilly will be assuming full command of Discovery for the very first time since she was made First Officer. Michael tells the worried Tilly that there’s a metal burr under the armrest of captain chair. The burr is a construction glitch found on the armchairs of various Starfleet vessels created at Starfleet Shipyards at San Francisco. Michael advises Tilly to rub it in order to keep herself focused in the moment. She tells Tilly that when she was First Officer aboard the USS Shenzhou, she reached under that captain’s chair armrest once to realize that the late Captain Georgiou had rubbed the burr into a dent. She’s even seen Saru reach for it as well.
Note: A touching scene that reaffirms the close friendship between these two characters, who have traded places since the beginning of this season, with Tilly now serving in Michael’s old job, and Michael serving as chief science officer. The scene also tells us that the USS Discovery and USS Shenzhou were both made at the same shipyards as the famed USS Enterprise 1701 herself! Nice bit of Trek-trivia.
Jumping into orbit around the fractured dilithium planet, Dr. Culber briefs his fellow away team and acting Captain Tilly that they will only have about four hours on the surface before the radiation damage to their DNA becomes critical. Stamets estimates that Discovery’s damaged shields will take at least three hours to fully repair before they can retrieve them. With the clock ticking, the away team led by Captain Saru beams down. Acting Captain Tilly is now in charge. She orders “black alert,” and Discovery jumps away to repair its shields for more prolonged exposure within the nebula.
On the surface, things become instantly surreal–instead of finding themselves in the wreckage of the Kelpien vessel Ki’eth, the away team find themselves in a snowy dark forest. None of them appear as their normal selves, either; Michael is cloaked in a cape and red outfit, with the sides of her face now covered in spots–she appears as a member of the Trill species!
Note: The Trill, of course, are the same species as Adira’s late lover Gray as well as Deep Space Nine characters Jadzia and Ezri Dax (played by Terry Farrell and Nicole DeBoer, respectively). The Trill were first introduced on Star Trek: The Next Generation “The Host,” where it was revealed that select members of the humanoid Trill act as hosts to slug-like creatures with whom they share a symbiotic, mutually-beneficial existence.
She quickly finds Dr. Culber, and he has the distinctive crinkly nose and earrings of a Bajoran native (as well as a silvery update of what appears to be the DS9 Bajoran militia uniform). As the duo tries to get their bearings in this unfamiliar and unexpected landscape, they are both surprised to see their Kelpien captain Saru now appearing as a human (an out-of-makeup Doug Jones). The humanoid Saru can walk on his back heels now, instead of his natural, satyr-esque gait. The disoriented trio quickly realize that their apparent new forms aren’t physical transformations, but rather holographic facades, as is the shifting surrounding environment. They see an interactive instructional hologram dressed in a pre-32nd century Starfleet uniform, trying to answer their questions, but glitching badly. As the hologram destabilizes, the trio spots a large, crumbling tower beyond the nearby trees…
Note: The Bajorans, of course, were the race occupying the planet Bajor, whose solar system was the setting for “Deep Space Nine” (1993-1999). The Bajorans were first introduced in the TNG episode, “Ensign Ro,” where they were seen as impoverished, resource-depleted refugees whose home planet they had recently liberated from the occupying Cardassians.
The trio enters a descending staircase inside of the mysterious tower. The high, meandering stairwell segues into many darkened recesses and corners. Around the stairwell, they see flying, dragon-like creatures which seem to pose no immediate threat to them. An intrigued Saru sees vaguely familiar piles of stones at the bottom of the stairwell, assembled into tall obelisk-like shapes. Saru also hears singing in his native language. They find a lone Kelpien (Bill Irwin) to be the source. The Kelpien, whom we later learn is named Su’kal, thinks the away team are holograms too, just like everything else in his psycho-reactive environment. Su’kal is alarmed to hear the sounds of a nearby creature, which appears half-solid and half-smoke. The frightened Kelpien accusingly shouts at the away team, “You woke the monster!” Michael begins to realize that the lone living being doesn’t realize that he’s in a holographic environment himself.
Note: The meandering staircase of the tower reminded me very much of the surrealist staircases imagined by artist M.C. Escher. I used to have a print of his hanging in my old apartment, hence my instant recognition.
Busily working to repair the shields, Stamets, Adira and the rest of the engineering staff are listening to the communications from the away team. They hear Michael say, “We found something,” followed by the roars of the dark monster at the tower. The comms begin to break up. Fearing the worst, Stamets contacts the bridge and tells Acting Captain Tilly that they have to jump back to the planet and rescue them. Tilly tells him with the shields at only 40 percent, that is not possible. Out.
On the bridge, Bryce (Ronnie Rowe Jr) reports on what appears to be a Federation ship approaching, about ten minutes from their current position. A skeptical Tilly doesn’t believe that’s possible, and there are no habitable planets in their immediate area. Scanning the vessel, Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo) reports that the ship is shrouded in neutrino emissions, implying a cloaked appearance of some kind. Remembering that their own 32nd century upgrade includes a cloaking device, Tilly orders Discovery’s cloak activated.
Note: With the Romulan Empire collapsed, the Treaty of Algernon (which forbade the Federation from developing cloaking technology) wouldn’t really matter anymore in the 32nd century. It’s quite natural and logical to assume that new Federation starships would probably all have standard-issue cloaking devices, especially since Starfleet Headquarters itself is now shrouded within a giant cloaking field.
The away team sees a holographic recreation of Kanimar’s admission to the Federation. A Vulcan Starfleet hologram reacts to the trio’s presence, as Saru identifies themselves as “rescuers” for the Kelpien. As Saru presses the holographic Vulcan dignitary for more information, he learns that their outward appearances were altered when they beamed in, so that they wouldn’t frighten the child. It was hoped that he would welcome them simply as a new program in his artificial environment, and nothing more. The holograms populating the tower have worked to insulate the “child” from learning too much of the outside world, fearing it might traumatize him. Later on, Michael approaches what appears to be a dinner table set for them. As she slowly walks towards the spread, she sees the darkened, wispy ‘monster’ approaching as well. When Michael controls her own fear and aggression towards the creature, it too, reacts cautiously. Making sounds, Michael thinks that the holographic creature may be trying to communicate. It then beats a violent retreat, as Michael nearly falls down the staircase–but is suspended in this non-reality.
Michael is saved, apparently, by Su’kal, who thinks Michael is just another program. Understanding that first-contact protocols must apply for this isolated Kelpien, Michael pretends to be just another holographic teaching program in Su’kal’s world; one specifically designed for social interaction. This is the means by which she hopes to gain some insight into her bizarre circumstances. Speaking more freely with the Michael ‘program,’ Su’kal has been taught to believe the outside world is gone. Realizing he was raised in total isolation and ignorance of any existence beyond his holographic confines, Michael wants to teach Su’kal about the outside world…
Note: One could easily see Su’kal’s ignorance of the ‘real’ world and his preference for interacting with holograms as a metaphor for the kinds of real world awkwardness we see in our own world. Such real-world social atrophy has become particularly acute in the age of COVID-19, as more and more people are being forced (for their own safety) to communicate indirectly, via texting, social media, Zoom conferencing, or other online-only interactions.
Saru and Culber, both showing signs of increasing radiation poisoning (blotches on their skin and hands), press on with their own explorations as well. Entering another chamber, Saru discovers a holographic program of a Kelpien elder (Robert Verlaque), lying in a reclined chair, draped in a blanket. Coming from a 23rd centuryKaminar where adult Kelpiens were being harvested until only recently, Saru has never seen a Kelpien live to the age of this holographic Kelpien elder. Noticing some nearby drawings, Saru tells Culber that the child’s name, Su’kal, is loosely translated as “beloved gift,” and is a traditional name given to a child born after the loss of a first child. A Su’kal was meant to signify the end of suffering. A curious Saru asks the elder more questions, and learns the environment for Su’kal was indeed created by the late Kelpien scientist Dr. Issa, whose holographic distress call first led Discovery to the nebula. As she was dying, Dr. Issa hurriedly created this holographic world in which raise her soon-to-be orphaned child. Meanwhile Michael, still in the guise of a social-interaction hologram, presses Su’kai for memories of his family, or his ship, he is unwilling and frightened to answer. Su’kal runs away. As the away team’s radiation scarring intensifies, Culber realizes they have to leave now. Culber speculates that the child was somehow given a natural immunity to the surrounding radiation in-vitro. In fact, Su’kal may even have learned to unwittingly harness the energy-focusing power of the native dilithium in order to wield incredible power. As Culber goes off in search of Su’kal, Saru stays by the Elder’s side, as the old hologram sings a childhood lullaby. Saru is flooded by nostalgia for his family and the kelp harvests on the shores of Kaminar. He then realizes Su’kal’s piles of rocks are crude analogs of the obelisks on Kaminar–the ‘all-seeing eye’ from centuries past; now a forgotten legend. Su’kal is building the towers to keep the ‘monster’ away–the monster represents his own past, which he’s terrified of facing. With time growing ever shorter until lethal radiation exposure, the away team realizes they need to get Su’kal to face his past–or should they?
The false “Federation ship” signature was actually a neutrino projection raised by Osyrra (a returning Janet Kidder) to cloak her powerful warship, now hovering near Discovery’s position. The Orion leader of the Emerald Chain hails Discovery. Tilly holds off on answering until she gets a status report from engineering. Stamets reports to a mortified Tilly that Discovery’s shields won’t be up for another thirty minutes–she tells him he has ten. After Tilly answers the hail, Osyrra tries to break the First Officer’s facade of confidence, but Tilly coolly uses reserve psychology on her, noting her own projection (I know you are, but what am I?). The back-and-forth taunting continues until an impatient Osyrra demands Discovery’s surrender. A steadfast Tilly refuses. Just then, Discovery picks up a substance emanating from the surface of the dilithium planet–something is destabilizing the dilithium aboard their ship! Just she was preparing to fire on Osyrra’s ship, Tilly instead calls to Stamets and tells him to jump the ship instead. Stamets protests abandoning the away team. Book tells Tilly and Stamets he will use the Nautilus to retrieve the away team. Stamets then jumps Discovery.
Note: While I wasn’t terribly impressed with Janet Kidder’s previous outing as Osyrra, she is starting to develop the character into more of a believable and credible menace. She is arguably this era’s answer to “The Wizard of Oz”‘s own Wicked Witch of the West…right down to the green makeup. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if “The Wizard of Oz”, or even the musical “Wicked” might’ve offered some inspiration for this character…
Osyrra quickly locates the jumped Discovery, and confronts her Captain. Tilly plays hardball, refusing to yield. Tilly promises Osyrra that she will destroy Discovery before she allows the ship (and its unique spore-drive) to fall into the Emerald Chain’s hands. But before Tilly can make good on her threat, the engineering section is boarded by the Emerald Chain soldiers, who beam directly into the spore chamber, stopping Paul just before he can jump the ship. Large tendrils reach out from Osyrra’s vessel, lacing their way through the open sections of Discovery’s hull, physically preventing the rotating section of the saucer from spooling up. The Emerald Chain marauders then secure a mind-controlling band onto Stamets’ head, causing his eyes to go white (just as they did in the first season). The engineer (and sole spore drive operator) is unable to resist their will. On the bridge, Tilly is physically pulled from the captain’s chair by Osyrra herself…
On the planet, Michael realizes that Su’kal’s fear is powering the substance that threatens to create another Burn-event! Michael tells Saru he needs to stay with Su’kal, in the hopes of reaching the frightened fellow Kelpien. Culber also volunteers to stay as well, as he can relate to Su’kal’s fear and isolation (recalling his own time spent alone in the mycelium dimension).
Aboard the Nautilus, Booker realizes that Adira has successfully stowed away, and is carrying much-needed radiation meds for those still stranded on the surface. As Adira beams down to help the away team, Michael is beamed aboard. Booker detects high levels of radioactivity in her system and administers instant treatment. Once recovered, she tells Booker they have to go back before Su’kal can unwittingly cause another Burn event. Looking out the front window of the Nautilus, Michael sees the captured Discovery jump away and her heart sinks. “No!”
To Be Continued…
Outside of Comfort Zones.
There are some connected threads in this episode which have to do with characters leaving their comfort zones. The title character of Su’kal (Bill Irwin) is terrified of confronting the reality beyond his insulated fantasy world that was constructed to raise him; a world where everyone lives to serve him and educate him, but there is also a ‘monster’ which keeps him within the boundaries of this giant holographic nursery (a metaphor for those who become addicted to the virtual escapes offered by the internet). It’s even suggested by Michael later on that the Burn itself, a calamity which destroyed dilithium-powered warp travel within the galaxy, was caused by this terrified Kelpien “child” who was too emotionally overwrought and traumatized to confront the reality of his own universe. This emotional instability and fear threatens to cause yet another “Burn” event now in the present.
One could compare this dilithium-charged, unwitting super-powered Kelpien to other unwitting, tragic godlike beings in Star Trek lore, such as Charlie Evans (TOS’ “Charlie X”), and Barash, the lonely alien who tried to keep Commander Will Riker in a faulty holographic ‘future’ by pretending to be his son in TNG’s “Future Imperfect”, just so he wouldn’t have to remain alone on a barren world. Loneliness, and the desire to remain in a safe, albeit artificial world (filled with many attentive virtual faces) resonates with many today, especially in the age of COVID lockdowns, where socialization is ill-advised.
Ensign Tilly, still relatively new to the idea of being Discovery’s First Officer, faces her first real command challenge, and unfortunately she loses her ship in the process. Though the previews for the next episode make it clear Tilly will not sit idly by while her starship and crew are appropriated by the Emerald Chain. Mary Wiseman plays Tilly with a new false bravado to mask her own unease, even going so far as to score a few psychological jabs on Orion big bad Osyrra (Janet Kidder–niece of the late Margot Kidder) who’s taken her ship. Many captains in Starfleet have had their vessels boarded and captured. Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway and Archer have all had to surrender their proud vessels to hostile intruders, so it’s hardly a shame for First Officer Ensign Tilly to have done the same in order to save the lives of those in her trust. The next episode will be her true litmus test– does she have what it takes to regain her ship? Will any of her crew be lost in the process?
Captain Saru, who recently berated Michael for allowing her emotions to rule her better judgment, now finds himself emotionally compromised by a severe case of homesickness and a desire to reconnect with others from his planet. He’s also not feeling quite himself in that he now appears as human within the holographic environment of the crashed Kelpien ship, Ki’eth. This affords a unique opportunity for Doug Jones to finally appear outside of his cumbersome and enveloping Kelpien makeup. Even without his famed Kelpien ‘walk’ (courtesy of the uniquely-heeled shoes that give his character a goat-like gait), Jones’ mannerisms and other bits of body language are still quite consistent with the Saru character, though his expressive ‘human’ face seems more exposed and vulnerable–something befitting Saru’s state of mind in this episode. His smoother human facade betrays his emotional state more than his sculpted Kelpien features.
This is one of the rare times I’ve seen Jones performing outside of heavy prosthetics. I’ve had the good fortune to meet Jones on two occasions; once at 2012’s San Diego Comic Con, and again in 2019 at the IMATS makeup show in Pasadena. Jones’ very expressive face is, no doubt, one of the tools that allows him to project so much emotion and character through layers of prosthetics (see: 2017’s “The Shape Of Water”). He also has uncanny gifts for body language and physical acting, which is almost akin to an actor from the silent era, such as Buster Keaton or Lon Chaney Sr. Jones is also a true gentleman; very humble and kind to his fans. When we last met, he gave me a hug. If post-pandemic life ever returns to something resembling normal, I look forward to seeing him again in person at a convention or other public appearance. Here’s to you, Captain Saru!
This will be the last column for at least a few days, as I plan to celebrate the holidays in COVID-lockdown seclusion with my wife, but I hope to have a quick review of “Wonder Woman 1984” up by sometime early next week, as well as a writeup of the next episode of “Star Trek: Discovery” by either Dec. 31st or January 1st (at the latest), so please stay tuned! To my regular readers, I want to say thank you for your continued interest in my column these past few years, and I wish you and all of your loved ones good health and a happier 2021.
Star Trek: Discovery (and most of Star Trek) is available for streaming on CBS All Access right now in the United States, and Netflix in overseas markets. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States are over 325,000 as of this writing and that number is increasing by thousands daily. The newly-developed vaccines are slowly working their way into the general population, so for the time being, so please continue to practice social safe-distancing wherever possible, wear masks in public (even if you are vaccinated; the vaccine’s immunity isn’t permanent), and avoid crowded outings as much as possible. With the holiday season upon us, let’s all try to keep any get-togethers safe-distanced, outdoors (weather permitting) and in small numbers, please!
Live long and prosper!