SI am a broken record at this point. I do not know what sort of crystal ball the writers were looking into when they made Season 3, but I am continuously astonished by how they have not only made every single episode speak to prescient matters of real life in 2020 but also tied each character’s story into the larger theme of the season. And this is even true when it comes to the answer to the big season-long mystery of what caused The Burn in Episode 11 “Su’Kal”.
Now, let us start at the beginning of the episode with everyone still at the wake of the “deceased” Mirror Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). Adira (Blu del Barrio) comments to Stamets (Anthony Rapp) that everyone is so lucky to have each other. This coming from their feeling of isolation at Gray’s (Ian Alexander) disappearance in the last few episodes and the fact that they are still new on this ship and finding their place with this crew. But as Stamets reminds them, they have everyone on the ship too, this is their family and crew as much as it is anyone else’s. They also have Stamets and Culber (Wilson Cruz), a package deal. And they have Gray too, who returns somewhat hesitantly, afraid of what Adira’s reaction may be. Stamets refrains from giving Gray a piece of his mind and leaves to let Adira and Gray talk. And it is through their conversation that we see how both Adira and Gray’s stories tie into the overarching theme of Season 3. Gray feels disconnected, alone. He has not known how to be because Adira gets to connect and interact with others, with the world, but Gray is just stuck, like a ghost whom no one can see. It is not how things are supposed to be. This season has repeatedly hammered the point that as humans, as sentient beings, we need connection, we need each other. We have seen how loneliness and isolation have broken apart the Federation made it weaker. And we have seen how people standing by each other and coming together have made immeasurable changes that make life better for everyone. Adira and Gray both in their ways felt alone and disconnected and that has made their lives harder to bear. But they also learn that in being with each other and connecting with others around them, they can figure this out, things can be better.
The quiet moment at the wake is interrupted when data pops up from the crashed Kelpien ship the Khi’eth shows that there is a life sign. Saru (Doug Jones) further surprises everyone when he announces that it must be the child who has been able to survive this long. The marks on Dr Issa’s (Hannah Spear) face were not from radiation but pregnancy. So now we are on our way to a rescue mission with Saru somewhat unwisely pushing the ship into dangerous situations to rescue the child. Something that Michael (Sonequa Martin-Green) notes. As she later laments to Booker (David Ajala) that she worries about Saru’s ability to stay objective in making decisions. Now one might say that is a little pot calling the kettle black given Michael’s own tendency to impulsively jump into situations to save the people she loves, something that she was tested on in this episode too when Booker seemed to almost being lost when he took his ship to scout a safe location that Discovery can jump to inside the nebula. But who else can recognize someone behaving emotionally and impulsively than Michael? No one. It is because Michael has done it herself that she knows when someone else is struggling the same way. And given that Michael has been one of the few characters in Star Trek to ever suffer the consequences of those decisions, she knows more than anyone what it costs, and what it will cost Saru. Michael has always been someone who takes everything on her shoulders, it is not surprising here that Michael would worry about Saru or even tries to make decisions to protect Saru so that he would not have to face any consequences.
But sometimes we cannot escape consequences. In this case, The Federation’s need to seek more Dilithium is what sent the Kelpien ship out into the nebula, which led to its crash on a Dilithium planet, which in turn is the source of The Burn that devastated so much of the galaxy and the Federation itself. It has become more and more that maybe the Federation’s own emotionally driven decisions came back to haunt them all. Admiral Vance (Oded Fehr) is informed of the situation and comments, much like Booker does, that a Dilithium planet could be just the kind of news they all need if nothing else to break the galaxy of The Emerald Chain’s grip. But one tiny bit of bad news, The Chain has been spotted near Kaminar, so part of the fleet has been sent there to protect Saru’s homeworld. Now it is in this moment that alarms are ringing in my head that this feels like Osyraa is going for a divide and conquer strategy. If everyone is spread a bit thin, then she could bash down the door more easily. By the time everything has been decided and Saru is going on the away mission and leaving Tilly in charge and Vance promises to take care of Kaminar, I was having a distinct sinking feeling that something bad was going to go wrong very soon.
I could not even blame Stamets for freaking out a bit about Culber going on the away mission. And he had just got Culber back too, so letting him go into danger cannot be a good feeling at all. But Culber delivers a line that might as well perfectly summarizes the theme of the season about him knowing what it is like to be alone and how he wants to help others, so they will not have to be. Stamets reluctantly lets Culber go while Adira and Gray watch. Meanwhile, my alarm ringing has just gotten louder.
It does get a moment of calm though, with Michael’s scene with Tilly (Mary Wiseman). And once again the theme of unity and connection shines here as Michael tells Tilly the story of her first time taking the conn and about the construction glitch that puts a metal burr under the left armrest of the Captain’s chair which Georgiou used to keep her at the moment when so many things can feel like going wrong, something that Michael and Saru both have done too. She is passing this knowledge onto Tilly, so she can something to centre and keep her steady even when there is a storm out there. Tilly and Michael’s friendship has been one of the most beautiful things on this show, and to see it grow the way it has just truly exemplified the theme of Season 3. Friendships, connections with others, it is what sustains us and makes our lives better. Tilly was the first person to stand by Michael’s side after her mutiny and demotion, that friendship sustained Michael, and now she gets to return the favour for Tilly in her moment of need.
And so, the mission is on. Saru, Michael, and Culber will beam down to the crashed ship, keeping an eye on their radiation levels as they must be back in four hours. Discovery will get shields repaired and plan to jump back in to get everyone. Everything seems simple and straightforward, but as this is a Star Trek episode, everything is inevitably going to go wrong. And immediately as our away team beams down, it seems to have already gone wrong. They are in different clothes and appear like different species! Michael is a Trill, Culber is a Bajoran, and Saru is a Human!
This episode might as well be Doug Jones’ tour de force. If you thought he was brilliant as Kelpien Saru, you would be even more awed and mesmerized by his performance as Human Saru. His face is utterly so expressive. And as the away team go further into this hologram world, you see Saru’s longing for the home and people that he thought he would never see again. Throughout this season and even in this episode, it has been noted that Saru has not seen any other Kelpiens and that it could emotionally compromise him as this mission is about retrieving a lost Kelpien. And it becomes heartbreakingly clear that everyone is right, there is no way to avoid the fact that Saru is emotionally compromised, that he is affected by longing for connection with another Kelpien. But as we later discover too, it is that connection to another Kelpien that could also be what saves the galaxy from another Burn scenario.
We meet Su’Kal (Bill Irwin), son of Dr Issa, who has been living on the crashed ship’s hologram environment for over a century. He does not know much about The Outside, in fact, he does not even believe the Outside exists, and he is afraid of a monster from Kelpien stories that he simply cannot confront. In many ways, Su’Kal is a child still. Fragile, lonely, afraid of the dark. And despite his mother’s best attempt at creating a holographic environment to keep her child safe and prepare him for the world, he is still alone and lacks the emotional support that he would have gotten in any other normal circumstances. When he runs into Michael, she pretends to be a holo teaching him about social units while trying to gauge information about his family and what happened to life before the holograms. But we see that Su’Kal, much like Adira was earlier in the season, seems to repress the past, because that past is scary and painful. And it is in this loneliness and fear that we begin to see the cause of The Burn. As Michael, Culber, and Saru later watch with horrible realization, Su’Kal’s fear and terror causes a wave that ends up nearly bringing about another Burn up on Discovery.
Now, for a while, people have been speculating on what caused The Burn, there have been theories ranging from a natural disaster, to the Federation being evil or experimentation, or some secret big bad did it. But honestly, none of those theories fit into the season’s overall theme as well as what is revealed. This whole season we have been told about the importance of connection and unity, that breaking apart is what made the Federation weaker, is what made other planets weaker in isolation and left the galaxy in such a broken and wounded state. And what ends up causing The Burn is a lonely and disconnected child. It is poetic, it is fitting, and it connects to everything this season has been about. The Federation was so desperate for Dilithium that a Kelpien ship ended up in danger to serve the needs of the many. But those few that crashed were eventually left there with no rescue other than one attempted try. It seemed like they were forgotten, left there to drown while the Federation worried about other more important matters. Episodes ago, Vance told Saru that if he let Georgiou drown then no one would look at him or the Federation the same way again, and Vance also lamented on having been in Saru’s situation and made a few bad calls in his time. And this episode we see the reality and horrible consequences of what happens when someone is left to drown. In the Federation’s attempt to save the many instead of the few, they created a set of circumstances that led to The Burn.
I love this revelation because it is unexpected, and it perfectly fits into the narrative theme of this season more than any other theories I have seen. To save the Federation, to save the world, we must heal and connect with a lonely child who was disconnected, forgotten, and left behind to drown. We must consider that the maxim of “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” may not be something for the Federation to keep holding onto. That maybe, just maybe, it is time for the Federation to grow and change, to not cling to the past but grow towards a better future, just as Su’Kal must learn as well. And who better to teach Su’Kal about healing from loneliness and disconnection than Saru and Culber, two people who know better than almost anyone that feeling of being alone.
A part of me is worried about Culber and Saru staying behind given them running out of time with radiation damage, but part of that concern is lessened by Adira getting off Discovery in time to hitch a ride on Book’s ship to get to the surface with much needed medication. I have faith that Adira will find a way to help them all save the day. And I do not think it is a coincidence that three characters, four including, Gray, who know about loneliness and how to overcome that through unity, happens to be there to help Su’Kal find his way.
While shenanigans have been happening down on the planet, Discovery crew under the command of Tilly is dealing with their own drama. Osyraa has found Discovery outside the nebula, begging the question of how does she know and is it as simple as tracking their jump signatures? I have been wondering if there is a mole hiding about somewhere on Discovery or within Starfleet because Osyraa (Janet Kidder) seems to know a lot of things. But who that mole be I am not exactly sure? Some have suggested Ryn (Noah Averbach-Katz) or Vance, but both seem like unlikely choices. Ryn has not shown any indication that he is bad. And while Vance is stern and cautious, beyond the mere existence of the “badmiral” trope, nothing he has done has indicated that he is not Federation and Starfleet through and through. I have seen some suggest Adira and I fully refuse to believe that. And I really do not think Book, after all this character development they gave to him, they would ruin it by revealing him to be a bad person. So, I think my only suspect is Vance’s Chief of Security Lieutenant Willa (Vanessa Jackson). We do not know much about her, but she has been on Discovery to know what the ship is about, and she is inside Starfleet deep enough that she would know information that Vance knows about where Discovery is going and when to strike.
Concerns about moles aside, I am glad to see Osyraa getting more screentime and personality. I still do not think she is necessarily the “big bad” of the season though. She feels more like a Harry Mudd than The Borg Queen. She wants what she wants and is not afraid to take it, but I would not be surprised if there is more to her reasons than just simply, she is “evil”. It is great to see her locking horns with Tilly though and to see Tilly tested in a way she has not been before. Janet Kidder and Mary Wiseman expertly toe the line without ever going overboard. I was giggling at their snarky comments, especially when Tilly pointed out that Osyraa is just projecting because she is really a fraud and that is why she thinks Tilly is a fraud.
Now, I know some people will say that Tilly handling this situation as well as she did seem unlikely. But I feel like people often forget that even back in Season 1 when she was just a cadet, she had no problem playing the role of Captain Killy to perfection in the Mirror Universe. In many ways, Tilly is incredibly adaptable, and she can play a role that is needed of her. After all, fake it till you make it. And it is also great to see Tilly interacting with the rest of the bridge crew and Book to figure out step by step what to do. But this is Osyraa’s world, she knows all the tricks, all the nooks and crannies. And she ultimately outmanoeuvres Tilly and the crew to board the ship and mind controls Stamets into using the spore drive for her. I will scream if anyone blames Tilly for this though, she did everything right. I should point out though episodes ago, Saru warned Stamets that they needed to find another way to operate the spore drive in case Stamets was incapacitated, and it seems that warning has come back to haunt them all this time.
Book and Michael get off the planet just in time to see Osyraa jump away with Discovery, and the ground is set for saving the day on two fronts. Saru, Culber, and Adira saving Su’Kal and the galaxy. While Michael and Book save Discovery and the Federation. Neither being easy tasks.
The script and direction of this episode is wonderful, it flows so well from one moment to the next. But the standout of this episode truly is the way the VFX team created the holo-world. The floating creatures in the sky, the ancient stepwell, the monster covered in kelp. Discovery once again takes classic Trek elements and gives it a unique spin. It almost feels like watching a Guillermo Del Toro movie, but this time Doug Jones is not in make up!
And at the heart of this story is characters and their connection to each other that speak to the theme of this season, even more, prescient than ever during this pandemic and the holidays. We see it in the big moments of the revelations about Su’Kal being alone, terrified, and causing The Burn. We see it in the little moments like Detmer complimenting Book or Rhys and Bryce ready to fight for Tilly when Osyraa shoves her out of the Captain’s chair.
We are all connected to each other, that connection sustains us, and without it, great damage can be caused that will harm us all. In many ways, Discovery is a cautionary tale and a road map to recovery because our real world is on the edge of our own “Burn”, but Discovery teaches us a way where we can avoid The Burn by reaching out and connecting to one another through love and unity.