To Be Free, Face Your Deepest Fear — Star Trek: Discovery’s “Su’Kal”

This week’s episode picks up right where last week left off, with the crew still gathered in the mess hall to memorialize Emperor Georgiou, but the gathering becomes the subject of several revelations in short order, thus allowing Discovery to finally head to the Verubin Nebula to investigate the origins of the Burn.

We start with the return of Gray to Adria’s headspace. There are several things I like about this particular development. One is that it isn’t being treated like a delusion. Stamets not only takes Adira seriously, but even turns to address the empty area where Adira says Gray is in order to rebuke him for treating Adira poorly. And we’ve seen in DS9’s “Field of Fire” that joined Trill can call up images of past hosts with the Rite of Emergence. Since Adira isn’t Trill, having the Rite happen with a past host they’re emotionally attached to as a side effect is reasonable.

It also makes for interesting storytelling possibilities, like the fact that Gray doesn’t particularly like being a non-corporeal image in Adira’s head and nothing else. It’s to Adria’s credit that they both forgive and understand this, especially since they have their own issues with trying to fit into Discovery’s already-established dynamic. And having Gray around is likely to make Adira even more daring, as we see by their batshit crazy actions at the very end of the episode.

Also at the memorial, they get more sensor readings from the nebula, including detecting a life form. Given the intense radiation at the heart of the nebula, nobody gets how that’s possible—except Saru. The recording of the Kelpien that they discovered coming from the nebula included markings on the woman’s head, which Saru reveals as indicators that she was pregnant. Saru believes that the child she was carrying survived the Burn and is still in the nebula, waiting for rescue.

And so Discovery pootles over to the Verubin Nebula, and the very problem that Admiral Vance brought up previously comes to fruition. It’s the first Kelpien Saru has encountered since Discovery’s arrival in the 32nd century, and worse it’s a Kelpien who’s been waiting for a rescue for a century. When Discovery first enters the nebula, the ship is buffeted by radiation that chews through the shields, and Saru stays in far longer than is wise before using the spore drive to pop back out where it’s safe. Book saves the day here by offering to take his much smaller ship in to find a spot they can hop to inside the nebula, which he does with a minor case of radiation poisoning that Dr. Pollard is able to fix up when he comes back.

My initial instinct was that this was unfair to Saru, whose ascension to the captaincy was long overdue—but he’s still also new at the job. He’s actually handled himself extremely well thus far, under very trying circumstances, but he’s not perfect, and he definitely loses perspective several times here, with Book, Burnham, and Culber all having to drag him back to his responsibilities. Though, amusingly, Burnham at the very end has to convince him to be less responsible, in a sense. (More on that in a bit.)

We’ve seen this with other captains before. Kirk (“Obsession“), Picard (First Contact, not to mention the entire backstory for the first season of Picard), Sisko (“Take Me Out to the Holosuite“), and Janeway (“Year of Hell“) have all had their moments when they’ve lost perspective and were single-minded to the point of absurdity, and one could argue that Archer pretty much did that from jump in “Broken Bow.”

Star Trek: Discovery "Su'Kal"

Credit: CBS

Discovery can’t stay in the nebula long, but Book’s scouting mission has given them a spot to sit in long enough for a team to beam to the ship and try to rescue the lone Kelpien—whom we eventually learn is named Su’Kal, which means “beloved gift,” and is a name given to a Kelpien child born after a great tragedy. Saru, Burnham, and Culber beam away, leaving Tilly in charge of the ship for the first time.

Saru’s presence on the away team is necessary, as the ship is pretty much one big holodeck designed to raise and educate Su’Kal until a rescue comes, and he’s needed to explicate Kelipien customs and language and mythology and stuff.

But the holodeck is not functioning at 100% efficiency, as many of the programs are glitchy. The program also has altered the appearances of the away team to make Culber Bajoran, Burnham Trill, and Saru human. The reasons for this are not particularly convincing, but it’s nice to see Doug Jones’s actual face (and I suspect Jones himself was grateful to perform in a chunk of an episode without his head being covered in latex, something he’s had rare opportunities to do in his career). These cosmetic changes extend to their uniforms and equipment, so they have no combadges, no radiation medication (which they desperately need, and all three of them start breaking out in epidermal sores), and no tricorders or weapons.

Su’Kal himself is a frighteningly effective character, magnificently played by Bill Irwin. One of the prototypical “oh, that guy” character actors who’s been in everything at some point or other (much like Jones, in fact), Irwin beautifully portrays someone who has been alone with only holograms for company for far too long. His sanity is questionable, his development hasn’t really gotten beyond the pre-teen level despite his years, and he also does not face his fear, which is manifested as a sea monster out of Kelipien mythology. The monster itself is a nice scary bit of CGI, a clever combination of the Kelpiens mixed with the tattered drippiness of their enemies, the Ba’ul.

All the performances in this episode are superb. Jones shows Saru getting overcome by nostalgia, losing himself in the Kelpien lore. Wilson Cruz’s Culber is ever the doctor, trying to fix everyone and everything, and dragging people back to reality. And Sonequa Martin-Green does a particularly good job of pretending to be one of the holographic characters to try to get information out of Su’Kal. Robert Verlaque also does fantastic work as the holographic Kelpien elder, a storyteller who provides the most insights into Su’Kal and holographic world they’re in.

There’s also strong evidence supporting the notion that Su’Kal himself may be responsible for the Burn. One of the things Discovery finds in the nebula is a huge cache of dilithium. This is a game-changer if they can harvest it, though the nebula’s intense radiation is a stumbling block. But at one point, Su’Kal has something like a temper tantrum, and it has an adverse effect on both Discovery and the Veridian, the first indicator as to what, exactly, in the nebula it was that made all the warp cores go boom.

Star Trek: Discovery "Su'Kal"

Credit: CBS

And yes, the Veridian’s there, as that’s the B-plot: with Tilly in charge of the ship holding station outside the nebula until the shields can reconstitute following their trip in to drop the away team off, Osyraa’s ship arrives. This is a baptism of fire for Tilly, and unfortunately, but not surprisingly, she gets burned. She handles herself well in the verbal negotiations with Osyraa, giving as good as she gets, but the minute she lowers shields to use the spore drive to bop into the nebula, Osyraa beams in a boarding party that takes possession first of engineering (and Stamets and, thus, the spore drive) and then the bridge.

Unfortunately, this is what happens when you make an ensign the first officer. There are reasons why making Tilly first officer made sense, but those reasons were all in terms of her being someone who could run the day-to-day of the ship and carry out the captain’s instructions. However, a big way it doesn’t make sense is in a crisis. Tilly was not ready for this, and she loses the ship.

Having said that, Mary Wiseman and Janet Kidder play the conversations between Tilly and Osyraa quite well. Kidder very much did not impress in her first appearance in “The Sanctuary,” but she’s way better here. Her two-sentence pegging of Tilly’s personality is beautifully played, as is Tilly’s unimpressed response, throwing Sigmund Freud in her face.

Once again, Book saves the day, as he leaves the ship as it’s being taken over and heads into the nebula to rescue the away team. To his surprise, he has a stowaway: Adira, who beams down to join the away team with a bunch more radiation medication. Meanwhile, Burnham has to convince Saru to stay behind. After an entire episode where he loses focus, Saru finally gets it back, wanting to return to the ship and his duty as her captain—but Burnham is right that Saru is the only one who can get through to Su’Kal. Culber also remains behind, as he knows what it’s like to be stuck alone in a strange place for far too long.

As soon as Burnham is beamed back by Book (say that ten times fast!), her uniform and equipment are restored, so she can at last take the radiation meds. Unfortunately, by the time they get out of the nebula, they’re just in time to see Discovery and Veridian—which is tethered to the Starfleet ship—disappear via spore drive.

So now we’ve got the head of the Emerald Chain in possession of Discovery, complete with its knowledge of the location of Starfleet’s hidden headquarters, Book and Burnham stuck back at the nebula eating their metaphorical dust, and Saru, Culber, and Adira trapped on decaying, radiation-wracked holodeck with a slightly crazy hundred-year-old pre-adolescent.

Looks like they plan to end the 2020 calendar year with a bang next week…

Keith R.A. DeCandido hopes everyone is having a safe holiday season.

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