Star Trek: Discovery – Season 3 Episode 11
Star Trek: Discovery reveals the source of The Burn and gives Tilly a trial by fire in the Captain’s chair.
This won’t be new information to anyone who has read any of my reviews this season but I don’t find The Burn to be an engaging mystery. It’s a catastrophic event that happened prior to Discovery’s arrival in their now present and an open question to everyone native to that time period but the cause of it is far less interesting than what it did to the universe. To my mind there would never be an answer to that mystery that would be satisfying and the time spent investigating it has taken time away from more interesting plots.
I will say that I am glad that the cause of The Burn had absolutely nothing to do with Burnham. That reveal is something I would have been almost willing to put money on because this show has an unfortunate tendency to make everything revolve around her to the detriment of other characters. That’s not to say the actual answer was a good one because an emotionally unstable Kelpien who has acclimatised to a dangerous nebula and a planet made of Dilithium having a fear or panic induced episode that spread across the galaxy rendering most of the Dilithium inert is a bit of a stretch as far as explanations go. Culber’s explanation that life forms adapt to their surroundings and this adaptation happened in utero is too quick, too simplistic and far too difficult to accept. Granted we don’t know a great deal about Kelpiens and what they’re capable of but the idea of a single organic being having the ability to impact things on a galactic scale needs more explanation than a throwaway line. This appears to be a classic case of starting with the mystery because the season needs to be built around it and having no idea how to resolve it so when it comes time to offer an answer it’s half baked. As I said, it’s unlikely there would ever be an answer to the mystery that would be satisfying so dwelling on it isn’t going to accomplish anything. It’s best left at the explanation was poorly done and get on with what the rest of the episode has to offer.
This was actually a very good episode otherwise. The pacing was near perfect, characters were put into situations that tested them in compelling and unexpected ways, there were a lot of strong emotional beats and it felt very old school Star Trek in the way the two plots played out. There was even a compelling mystery surrounding the ship broadcasting the distress call and what was found inside it. The holographic setting full of broken training programs that have been running for far too long and the labyrinthian environment that makes up the setting is visually striking, unsettling and ominous. The production designers did a great job with this, it set the mood perfectly. Keeping the focus on Saru was a no-brainer due to the ship and inhabitant being Kelpien though it’s still notable as this show often forgets where the focus should be. It’s a very personal plot for Saru as he’s getting something of a glimpse into the future of his people albeit a somewhat limited one. Admiral Vance talks about how the Emerald Chain are making trouble near his home planet which threatens to divert his attention and he is dealing with a lost Kelpien so everything in this episode is intensely focused on both him and his culture.
There are several notable moments involving Saru. The conflict between his concern for his people and the responsibilities of command is shown at two key points; the first is when he puts Discovery in danger by remaining in the nebula despite everyone telling him that shields are rapidly failing until Book takes control of the situation by offering his ship and the second is when he almost abandons the current mission in order to support the fleet at Kaminar. These make for brief yet fascinating insights into how protective Saru is of his people. It’s consistent with what has been established prior as he spent most of his life thinking of himself and his people as prey so accepting that they are able to look after themselves and thrive isn’t all that easy for him. He knows that he has powerful resources at his disposal and his first instinct is to use them to protect his people. Vance understands this and assures him that the Federation will protect his home. This is delivered with his usual sincerity and serves as a reminder of what the Federation exists to do. Vance is also well aware that using Kaminar is no accident as Osyraa is deliberately baiting Discovery to respond so that she can seize the ship and Spore Drive so tactically the best option is for Discovery to remain where it is.
Another strong moment is when he encounters the holographic Kelpien elder (Robert Verlaque). It prompts a strong reaction as he has never seen a Kelpien reach that age so it’s a tangible -even though it’s holographic- example of how far his people have come and what he helped make possible for them. The holographic elder is also a source of information around how symbols have changed in Kelpien culture while also reminding him of what has been preserved so it’s a very important interaction for Saru who clearly takes great joy in learning about his people. Perhaps a visit to Kaminar will come next season so that Saru can see first hand how his people have developed but for now he experiences small morsels of what he wants to know and is endlessly grateful for them. Using the holographic skin conceit to have Doug Jones appear without makeup to give him the benefit of access to more nuanced performing without the prosthetics limiting his facial expressions was used to great effect with Doug Jones delivering a routinely excellent performance showcasing the vast array of emotions being experienced by Saru.
The titular character Su’Kal (Bill Irwin) is largely sidelined as the plot is more focused on the environment around him while he remains a mystery in himself. This is appropriate considering the episode is named after him which will lead viewers to wonder “what is Su’Kal?” which is a question that the episode directly explores. At this point it’s known that he has lived most of his life inside this interactive holoprogram being educated by the various programmed teachers while he waits for rescue. Unfortunately for him that rescue took over a century which means that Su’Kal has no idea what real social interaction is and has developed an understandable fear of what may be outside his world. He is so completely isolated that he barely believes an outside exists and the prospect of engaging with it terrifies him. This is why he runs away and recoils in terror when anyone mentions it so it is very difficult to find a way to help him. Burnham tries posing as a hologram programmed to teach him about social interactions and makes some headway until she pushes too far and causes him to retreat. It’s a great scene that allows Sonequa Martin Green to show her impressive range and gives a sense of Su’Kal as a character while providing clarity on some of the challenges that will be faced around him.
A clear solution when it comes to leaving the program is presented through Su’Kal facing his fears in the form of a monster. The fact that he continues to be terrified by the monster means that the program can’t end so the objective becomes helping Su’Kal to conquer that fear and leave the virtual world that has been all he knows for a long time. Su’Kal’s situation is another timely message that this season has presented. In our own world at this time we are all dealing with isolation in one form or another and for many there is a fear associated with returning to the outside world and going back to normality because so long has been spent away from it. The monster is representative of the fear of joining the outside world and leaving what has become familiar and comfortable. The small structures he builds are representative of his resistance to accept what he needs to do and falling back on ineffective coping mechanisms. It’s a really powerful display of a relatable problem and it’ll be interesting to see how the next episode goes about resolving it. The fact that this isn’t resolved in a single episode helps a great deal because there is time for the story to breathe. This season has had a major issue with rushed plotting but this was more measured and deliberate which was definitely to its benefit. Burnham recognising that Saru is the one who needs to stay to deal with the situation because he has the connection with Su’Kal addresses another of the show’s problems around the forced focus on Michael Burnham. Saru asking her to stay makes sense because he feels torn between his desire to protect his people and the responsibilities of command but Burnham urges him to trust his crew and remain where he’s needed though Burnham expressing concern over Saru becoming emotionally compromised and failing to be objective about the overall situation isn’t exactly all that self aware from her which isn’t a bad thing by itself but having nobody call her out on that is bizarre.
The B plot is focused on Tilly taking command for the first time. I still have my issues with the mechanism around her being put in this position because it doesn’t make sense for her to be promoted over anyone else but this plot was handled brilliantly throughout the episode. It could be said that the episode addresses this through Vance’s soundless reaction to Saru leaving her in command. Shifting the audience perspective to that of Tilly in that moment made it seem like a very long pause even though it was only a few seconds. Her apprehension on the eve of taking command makes for an excellent scene between her and Burnham where Burnham talks about the first time Georgiou left her in command and gives her really practical advice about how to cope with that while acknowledging her fear of the situation as valid. The use of the burr under the arm of the Captain’s chair as a symbol of support was a great touch. It’s something to hold onto when in a position of authority and therefore comforting. It’s something everyone needs no matter how experienced and shows Tilly that every Captain has felt as she does. The Captain’s chair can be used as another metaphor for isolation as the Captain sits alone in that chair responsible for the entire crew with no real support. Survival depends on the Captain’s decisions and it’s something they have to arrive at on their own after considering all the available information. Tilly feels alone because she knows that she is alone and doubts her ability to manage that. This is uncommon in terms of Captains in Star Trek. Prior iterations tend to talk about characters like Kirk or Picard stepping up when the occasion calls for it and proving that they were born to lead with no doubts or personal reservations which does work for those characters but having Tilly be a reluctant leader with concerns about her own ability is very realistic and relatable. Leading people is hard, assuming responsibility for others is hard and making difficult decisions in crisis situations is hard so having that recognised while forming a massive part of the story being presented is certainly interesting.
In the moment she acquits herself really well with her personality feeding into it naturally. She makes decisions and delivers them with the necessary authority and does well when trading barbs with Osyraa who constantly tries to intimidate her. There’s a particularly strong facial performance from Mary Wiseman when Osyraa manages to read her accurately where Tilly is clearly trying not to show fear in that situation. It’s subtle and beautifully performed while feeding into Tilly’s overall anxiety around the situation. Tilly hitting Osyraa back by suggesting she’s projecting her own feelings of inadequacy was great and something that only Tilly could do. Her style is her own and the character remains unique even in this unfamiliar situation for her.
It is unfortunate that Tilly’s first day in the big chair results in Discovery being captured by Osyraa though it is made very clear that it isn’t her fault. The situation plays out in such a way that it would be difficult for anyone to maintain control of given given the requirements. Saru or Burnham being in command would have likely ended the same way so the unfortunate situation the crew is now in isn’t down to any mistakes Tilly made. She does fail to be considered a credible threat by Osyraa which is directly related to her. Osyraa still doesn’t feel like a credible threat because the background work on the Emerald Chain as an organisation hasn’t been done but Janet Kidder’s presence is notable so it’s easy to see why Tilly would begin to feel overwhelmed when having to deal with her. Things are in place for Discovery to be rescued with Burnham and Book out there on his ship but there is still a ticking clock on the Kelpien ship before Saru and Culber succumb to radiation poisoning so the episode leaves on a strong note going into the next episode.
Outside of the A and B plot there is further development for Adira when the manifestation of Gray returns to them. It turns out he disappeared because he found it difficult to deal with Adira forging connections with flesh and blood people when all he can do is exist within her. It’s something he massively struggles with and had to disappear due to his inability to cope with it. Adira understands but still doesn’t entirely forgive him for it because what he did hurt them a great deal due to the lack of explanation and associated uncertainty. There’s a further sense that Adira is becoming part of the crew and is starting to feel that way through them throwing themself into the situation despite the risks. Adira’s plot feeds into both the A and B plot organically while still developing them along personal lines. It’s another sign that almost everything in this episode works.
An excellent episode that is well paced, tested the characters in compelling ways and was full to bursting with strong emotional moments. The answer to The Burn mystery is as predicted less than compelling with a flimsy half baked explanation but the plot surrounding it was really good. Su’Kal’s holographic environment was wonderfully designed and the mystery surrounding him as a character compliments this nicely. He is somewhat sidelined though enough is known about him to propel the episode and provide an opportunity to reflect on how much his people have developed over the centuries. Using the holographic skin to make Saru Human and allow Doug Jones to express more nuanced emotion on his face was a really nice touch that aided Saru’s development. The conflict between his command responsibilities and being protective of his people was used well in his conversation with Vance and the reckless trip into the nebula only stopped when Book offered his ship. Su’Kal isolation ends up being a very timely message and his fear of the outside world is portrayed really well using the monster as a metaphor for that fear with its defeat being the mechanism for escape. Saru remaining behind to help achieve that instead of Burnham addresses the show’s tendency to needlessly rely on her even when it doesn’t make sense to do so. Letting this plot breathe rather than wrapping it up in a single episode addresses another problem this season has. Things are better developed in more measured and deliberate ways.
Tilly’s first time in the Captain’s chair is handled really well. Her reluctance allows for a strong scene with Burnham where practical advice on how to deal with the responsibility is given as well as recognition of her fear being valid. It’s a unique take on a new Captain within the franchise as previous iterations tend to highlight the born leader aspect rather than the more realistic fear of command and responsibility. It’s a very isolating role which ties nicely into the isolationism theme. Tilly does well her first time in the chair with her unique personality feeding into her command style. Seeing her trade barbs with Osyraa is really entertaining and Mary Wiseman’s performance when Osyraa reads her accurately is nothing short of excellent. It’s unfortunate that the ship gets captured the first time she takes command but there’s enough evidence to prove that nobody else would have done any better under the circumstances. The show still fails to establish the threat that the Emerald Chain represents but Osyraa remains an intimidating presence. Adira has some significant steps forward in this episode with Gray’s return and the explanation for his absence being around not being able to deal with Adira making connections that he can’t be a part of. There’s a real sense that Adira is becoming part of the crew and feeling more comfortable as shown by them throwing themselves into the situation despite the risks. This feeds perfectly into the A and B plot while developing Adira along personal lines. Almost everything in this episode works which is encouraging.
- focusing on Saru through how he reacts to learning how far his people have come
- several meaningful and complex moments experienced by Sara
- the holographic skin allowing Doug Jones to display more nuanced facial expressions
- Su’Kal providing a great opportunity to explore loneliness in really compelling ways
- the Su’Kal plot having time to breathe not being wrapped up in a single episode
- Tilly and Burnham’s conversation about command
- recognising Tilly’s apprehension as valid
- Tilly’s unique personality coming through in her command style
- Osyraa and Tilly trading barbs
- Adira demonstrating that they are becoming part of the crew
- The half baked explanation of The Burn
- still failing to establish why the Emerald Chain is a threat
What did you think? Select your rating in the “User Review” box below
User Review( votes)
We’d love to know your thoughts on this and anything else you might want to talk about. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter or just leave a comment in the comment section below. You’ll need an account for Disqus but it’s easy to set up. Don’t forget to share your rating in the “User Review” box
If you want to chat to me directly then I’m on Twitter as well.