Su’Kal is a lump of coal in the Star Trek Discovery stocking this Christmas. S3E11 Review
“Su’Kal” picks up where “Terra Firma Part 2” left us: at Georgiou’s entirely undeserved and hagiographic memorial service. It’s fitting, I suppose, that it’s all based on Burnham withholding crucial information from her friends and shipmates once again.
It’s been a longstanding observation that one of the dramatic weaknesses of “Star Trek” is that it’s always focussed on Starfleet’s best and brightest. The Original Series brought us the boldest goers and “The Next Generation” shared the adventures of the harmonious Federation flagship. “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager” introduced elements of conflict by bringing us blended crews with some non-Starfleet personnel to roughen up those edges but crucially, everyone was skilled and capable and, above all, competent.
“Discovery” is not that ship, or show. These are Starfleet’s mediocrities, only without the self-deprecatingly tongue-in-cheek humour of “Lower Decks”. Perhaps it’s the legacy of Captain Lorca’s unorthodox recruitment approach that we’re left with a crew of misfit, unreliable and underqualified Starfleet officers. We’ve had these kinds of characters before, of course; Captain John Harriman in “Star Trek: Generations“, Reginald Barclay and Ro Laren on TNG or Dalby, Henley, Chell and Garron from the “Star Trek Voyager” episode “Learning Curve” but the USS Discovery may be the only vessel where the entire crew is made up of middle-of-the-grading-curve officers.
It’s “Star Trek” for a new generation, a generation which doesn’t want to see aspirational archetypes on screen but instead wants to see themselves reflected in all their flawed and fallible lack of glory. It’s “Star Trek” for the selfie generation who want comfort and reassuringly excusatory stories where practice and service and experience are less important than embracing their individual indentities so fiercely that any requirement to conform or change or grow is taken as a personal affront or some form of oppression. No wonder the Vulcans seceded from this emotionally indulgent trajectory.
Once you recalibrate your viewing of “Star Trek: Discovery” and its crew as the ship of fools it is, everything in “Su’Kal” starts to make a sort of sense, except, of course, why Admiral Vance continues to allow these underachievers to galivant around the cosmos with Starfleet’s most important strategic asset unless Starfleet has become a full-on post-Burn kakistocracy itself.
When a life sign is detected onboard the ship the crew have been remote scanning, Saru surmises that there must be a survivor – probably the descendant of the sender of the distress call. Saru immediately makes the decision to jump to the nebula and mount a rescue but is forced back by the tempestuous nature of the volatile cloud. Retreating to take stock, the crew devise a plan to beam into the derelict ship while Discovery waits outside but it’s not long before Discovery has a problem of its own sitting in the Captain’s chair.
“Su’Kal” is a particularly revealing episode, especially in terms of the characters because Saru seems completely out of his depth in a genuine crisis situation, as Dsicovery plunges into a nebula it’s not capable of surviving. Detmer’s plaintive ‘I’ll try my best’ attitude continues to be a growing liability that nobody seems willing to address and most egregiously of all, Burnham continues to act as defacto First Officer because Tilly doesn’t say a word when Saru’s recklessness starts to endanger the ship.
Once the ship has withdrawn to lick its wounds, Burnham remembers that she’s actually the science officer but then seems oddly surprised that, at the point where she triangulated and calculated the origin of The Burn to be, she’s discovered the source of The Burn. Perhaps it’s a homage to the early scenes of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” where various Starfleet personnel are repeatedly surprised by the revelation that there’s an object at the heart of the V’ger cloud, despite this having been established several times before.
As the show continues to overlook the increasingly substandard performance of key personnel, the Discovery edges ever closer to USCSS Covenant levels of incompetence. At least Admiral Vance is as sceptical of Tilly’s overpromotion as the audience should be and having Burnham raise concerns about Saru’s inability to be objective is the very height of hypocrisy. Yet there’s not a shred of awareness on behalf of the character or the writers in having her be the one to opine on the problem of being emotionally compromised while making command decisions. The writing and characterisation have plumbed new depths recently, but this is some of the laziest, clumsy and arbitrary material the series has yet delivered. Culber’s rationalisation for why he needs to go on the away team is as illogical and forced as his earlier explanation for why he wasn’t the right person to mentor Adira Tal when she first joined.
Having divided our cast of characters, “Su’Kal” sets out to homage a couple of classic Trek tropes. The first of these is the ‘Malfunctioning Holodeck’ – a first for “Star Trek: Discovery” which uses cultural appropriation as cosplay to have a little fun and give us a glimpse of Doug Jones without his Saru make-up. While (Bajoran) Culber and (Human) Saru head off to try and locate the survivor, (Trill) Burnham fights a monster from the Id in a holographic M C Escher painting and beyond the “Star Trek” tropes, there are echoes of “Forbidden Planet” and even “The Monster Of Peladon” in the story of a lone survivor sustained from infancy by a gradually deteriorating holographic environment.
It’s an intriguing tour through the Kelpian psyche although it does bury the lede of the cause of the burn, obliquely implying it was originally caused by Su’Kal – the Kelpian manchild who looks so disconcertingly like Freddy Krueger that I had to check it wasn’t Robert Englund playing him – having a tantrum and could have been prevented had there been someone around to sing him the correct lullaby.
The other storyline sees Tilly facing off against Osyraa in a bland retread of “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan” albeit with barely a fraction of the dramatic tension of Montalban vs Shatner. It’s punctuated by moments of facepalm-worthy narrative laziness such as when Tilly remembers that the USS Discovery has had a cloaking device since its refit but it’s not been used until now. Once cloaked, the crew don’t really do anything with their newfound invisibility, not even change location so when the cloak is disabled both ships are exactly where they were.
Osyraa remains an underwhelming villain and lacks credibility as a Federation-level existential threat (even a Federation in reduced circumstances such as it is) but against Tilly it’s the dramatic equivalent of watching a wiffle bat beating up a beanie baby. It’s a shame too because it shifts the episode’s focus away from the more enduring mystery of Su’Kal in favour of another lacklustre ‘action beat’.
The funniest part of the episode by far though is the point where Tilly actually issues a command decision and every single senior officer who previously pledged their support for her promotion protests and refuses to obey. Ultimately, Tilly’s profound tactical naïveté and inability to command her crew effectively results in the episode’s most eye-rollingly-inevitable outcome as Discovery is boarded and hijacked with laughable ease.
You can see what the writers were going for here, with a cliffhanger on multiple fronts (Saru, Culber and – for some reason – Adira marooned on the radioactive dilithium planet with Su’Kal), Burnham and Book stranded outside the nebula with only conventional warp drive and the hijacked Discovery and its tentacled tormentor heading directly to Starfleet Command to cement the Wicked Witch of the Emerald Chain’s takeover of the galaxy) but it’s done in such an inept way that there’s no real dramatic build-up to the breakpoint and the episode just kind of stops rather than delivering a “Best Of Both Worlds”-style dun-dun-dun-dun moment.