'Star Trek: Discovery' reveals the cause of 'the Burn' in 'Su'Kal' and … it's bizarre

More spoilers than a Delta Flyer.

With only two episodes left of "Star Trek: Discovery" season 3 on CBS All Access after today, the origin of the Burn is clearly not as big of a plot driver than, say, the rise of Control or the origin of the Red Angel last season. However, in this week's episode, entitled "Su'Kal," it seems like we actually discover how the Burn happened and regardless of whether you think it's awesome or awful, we're willing to wager no one saw this coming.

We pick up right where we left off last week with Georgiou's wake in the mess hall. Gray (Ian Alexander) finally makes an appearance to Adira (Blu del Barrio), so they finally get a chance to talk some things through, and Lieutenant Stamets (Anthony Rapp) is alerted to the fact that their analysis of the KSF Khi'eth data has revealed a life sign. Captain Saru (Doug Jones) deduces that Dr. Issa is not the survivor: the marks on her forehead observed from the holographic message were not caused by radiation poisoning as first thought, but an indication that she was pregnant. Therefore, the survivor must be a child. And so the Discovery sets course immediately for the Verubin nebula.

However, Discovery cannot penetrate far enough into the nebula without risking a collapse of its shields from the ionizing radiation storm, so Book (David Ajala) suggests that he take his ship into the storm to find a safe position where the Discovery can remain. We see his ship do that "Transformer" thing, which really makes no sense and we're still amazed that if the technology exists to allow his ship to disassemble into different sections, remaining in close proximity, continue to fly in formation then reassemble into the same, original shape whilst retaining hull integrity and without losing full operational control, then surely the technology should exist to make the flight controls thought controlled by now. 

Not only does the Discovery sport the very latest in detached nacelle tech, it also has a cloaking device  (Image credit: CBS All Access)

Book begins suffering from the radiation, but finds a sweet spot where Discovery can safely remain then passes out, relying on his autopilot to bring him back to the ship. Data suggests that there's a planet more or less composed entirely of dilithium within this nebula, which would certainly be useful to the Federation. Roll opening credits. 

Saru, Ensign Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and Commander Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) give a briefing to Admiral Vance (Oded Fehr) and we learn that the KSF Khi'eth is actually crashed on the surface of this dilithium planet and inside that ship, there is a breathable atmosphere with only modest exposure to radiation. 

Vance approves of the away team's mission and gives warning that Osyraa (Janet Kidder) and the Emerald Chain were conducting military exercises near Kaminar in an attempt to draw the Discovery there, just like she did with Book and his homeworld of Kwejian in "The Sanctuary" (S03, E08). She wants the Discovery and its spore drive and we are clearly going to see an attempt by her to get them before the end of this episode. 

 A planet made almost entirely of dilithium? That'll certainly help the Federation get back on its feet.  (Image credit: CBS All Access)

And then we have a strange scene; emerging from sickbay, Burnham tells Book that she's worried about Saru — she's not sure if he can be objective and how he'll handle it if he has to make a hard call. And if that isn't the pot calling the kettle black, well then I'm a sentient sponge pudding from Ceti Alpha VI. We sincerely hope that Burnham isn't about to go through another significant personality change following the five-second "You're meant for more than this" conversation with Georgiou before she stepped through the Guardian's space/time portal last week. Surely, this is purely for the sake of potential friction and even just personal growth on Saru's part and not a set up for Burnham to eventually become captain? Either way, it feels slapdash, like so much of this season of "Discovery."

Stamets shares his concerns to Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) about his partner going on the away mission and Culber gives some poorly written reasoning about how lost he was when he came back from the dead. Unfortunately, it just feels contrived. Burnham gives Tilly a pep talk before her big debut as second in command. It's an attempt to bring a tiny bit of small scale, real world, relatable dialogue to this episode and for the most part, it works as Burnham explains how there's a tiny metal burr under the left armrest of the captain's chair that's basically leftover from original construction and whenever [Prime] Georgiou would get into a sticky situation, she would press on it with her thumb to "stay in the moment." 

One of the consistent flaws with this season has been the music, surprisingly. It tends to drown any dramatic scene and there's little noticeable variation other than different orchestral arrangements of the main theme. Moreover, more often than not, any surprise in a scene is given away in advance by the incidental music that's already accompanying it.

There's no adequate reason why Saru should appear human, but it's fun to see Doug Jones for real.  (Image credit: CBS All Access)

As the away team readies itself, Culber explains they must take radiation meds in order to remain safely on the Khi'eth and as soon as the Discovery's shields are back up to full strength, it will return for them. Following a montage of at least a full minute of every member of the bridge crew's facial expressions we finally get to the best bit of this episode: Culber, Saru and Burnham beam down to the Khi'eth and appear as different alien species: Culber has become Bajoran, Burnham is a Trill, but Saru is human — so we get to see Doug Jones minus makeup! 

It's an often-entertaining trope that's been adapted and used in different ways throughout sci-fi and it's fun to see in "Discovery." They quickly deduce that they must be inside an advanced holographic simulation that has reinterpreted their physical visual representation as well as somehow removing their com badges, phasers, tricorders and radiation meds. It's a good job none of them were changed into say, a horta, or a bowl of petunias. Apparently, their appearances are to correspond with the purpose of the simulation, which we'll get to in a moment, but that doesn't really make much sense. It's just an excuse for a bit of fan service and fun and that's perfectly fine.  

They come across a number of malfunctioning holograms and eventually reach a structure with what looks like a giant set of Penrose stairs inside; it's in some disrepair and there's giant wooden door that's draped in padlocks and chains. Then they spy a young Kelpien male (Bill Irwin), who is clearly not part of the simulation. Saru tries to explain who they are and this makes the boy very nervous and causes something on the other side of the big, thick, locked wooden door to bang heavily on it.

She's mean, she's green, she's the Emerald Chain queen, she's the iron Orion… Osyraa!  (Image credit: CBS All Access)

Evidently, it's a metaphor for his fear and the holographic simulation could be a representation of the child's mental landscape, comparable to a psi-moon from "Red Dwarf" for example. The doors burst open and the Kelpien male runs away, terrified, saying, "You've woken the monster!" Culber deduces that since they only scanned one lifeform, whatever the "monster" is, it's holographic. Clearly, he's never heard of "hard light," safety protocols or indeed has any clue how a holodeck actually works. 

Burnham pursues the child while Saru and Culber explore a little more. They find holographic representations of past events as they continue to make their way through the simulation, including the ceremony marking the day that the Kelpiens joined the Federation. One hologram is able to offer them fragments of information, including the fact that the child has been here, alone for 125 years, three months, 17 days and four hours. 

Burnham comes face to face with the Fear Demon, which looks and moves a lot like a Mimic from "Edge of Tomorrow." She tries to communicate with it, but it's not interested and chases her instead causing Burnham to slip and fall. When she comes around, the child is with her and cleverly and every effectively Burnham pretends to be a hologram designed to instruct social interaction. 

Is there a bit of a "Blake's 7" vibe going on with this guard's outfit? They were the Federation, after all.   (Image credit: CBS All Access)

Saru and Culber find a Kelpien "elder" complete with long, wispy white beard (like Lorien from "Babylon 5") and we learn the child's name is Su'Kal. It's a tradition on Kaminar that after you've suffered a great tragedy, the next child born in your family must be named Su'Kal, which roughly translates to "beloved gift" as the child symbolizes the end of suffering. They also learn that the whole simulation was created by Su'Kal's mother, Dr. Issa. Saru reminisces about Kaminar and we get a montage of shots from the "Short Trek" episode "The Brightest Star." The elder says that when Su'Kal is frightened, he goes to his fortress, so off they go to find him, but the clock is ticking as Culber begins to notice tissue damage from radiation poisoning. 

Back on the Discovery, efforts continue to restore full power to the shields when an approaching ship is detected. You guessed it, it's Osyraa. But it turns that the Discovery had a cloaking device installed as part of its retrofit, so Tilly engages that to buy a little more time. The leader of the Emerald Chain hails Tilly and the two engage in some averagely-written banter. And the way that the bridge crew repeatedly exchange smug glances as if to say to each other, "Yeah, nice one Tills, that really showed her" is truly awful. It's bad enough that they do it once, but to have to endure a second round of it is agonizing.

Culber and Saru find Burnham already in Su'Kal's fortress watching him trying to rebuild a totem, but the Mimic Fear Demon comes along and knocks the rocks down. No big deal, right? But then Su'Kal lets out a scream that produces a shock wave that destabilizes the dilithium in Discovery's warp core and if Adira hadn't managed to get it offline as quickly as it did, it would've caused a chain reaction, destroying the ship. So…er, there we have it. The Burn seems to…er, have been caused by Su'Kal. 

You thought the end of Season 2 was bad, wait until you get a load of "dilithium and subspace radiation." (Image credit: CBS All Access)

Saru sings a Kelpien lullaby to calm Su'Kal down and it seems to work. The Fear Demon scurries away and Su'Kal himself plods off to sulk. Book has launched from Discovery in an attempt to rescue the away team and conveniently communications seem to be reestablished. He tells them that another burn nearly just happened and Culber attempts to provide some sort of explanation, when he really shouldn't have bothered. "Bodies adapt," he blithers. "All this dilithium and subspace radiation, his cells acclimatized to it in utero as they divided. Something must have happened to trigger him." So, yeah, it looks like the writers on "Star Trek: Discovery" are actually, seriously, going to give us this turkey for Christmas. 

Osyraa launches her attack on Discovery by way of beaming armed guards onboard before Stamets can use the spore drive and deploying some weird long tentacle things that actually ensnare the ship. Saru asks Burnham to remain behind but she says it must be him, conveying this vibe that she's snapped back to being a level-headed Starfleet officer and now Saru is suffering an emotional crisis. Is there a great, big ping pong table in the writer's room? Culber opts to stay as well, doubling down on his how-it-must-feel-to-be-lost reasoning. 

It's all bit haphazard towards the end; Adira, who came with Book, beams down with more radiation meds and Burnham, who desperately needs some radiation meds, beams up to Book's ship. Armed troops beam aboard on every deck of Discovery and some sort of mind control device is placed on Stamets. Then Osyraa herself beams to the bridge to finalize her hijack. She order the spore drive be activated and sets course for Federation HQ… as Book and Burnham look on helplessly from the bridge of his ship. Cut to black, roll end credits. 

It is odd how this episode and next week's didn't form a two-parter and after next week's installment, which is entitled " The Good of the People," there's only the season finale left. 

 Rating: 6½ out of 10 

Fancy cocktail on Omicron Delta ✓ 

  • That looked a lot like a space orchid in the holographic simulation sky. 
  • Burnham's attempt at impersonating a hologram was very effective.  
  • The species swap was fun, but misplaced and underused if anything. 
  • Really hope we find out why Grudge is favoring her left front paw. 
  • Nice to get a glimpse of more chapters in Kelpien history. 

Flat beer on Nimbus III ✗ 

  •  Why didn't they blink repeatedly at the holograms, that disrupts them, right? 
  •  Really wish Burnham would stop whispering. 
  •  Surely the sight of another Kelpien would've helped the child understand? 
  •  Su'Kal caused the burn? Really? Seriously..? Are you sure..??! 
  •  Can we please settle on exactly what Burnham's character is going to be? 

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Scott Snowden

When Scott's application to the NASA astronaut training program was turned down, he was naturally upset...as any 6-year-old boy would be. He chose instead to write as much as he possibly could about science, technology and space exploration. He graduated from The University of Coventry and received his training on Fleet Street in London. He still hopes to be the first journalist in space.