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Everything goes wrong on a messy Star Trek: Discovery

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Well, I’ll give them this: it’s a good cliffhanger. “Su’Kal” is getting near the end of Discovery’s third season, which means it’s time for the shit to start getting real; and given that we more or less wasted the last two episodes saying goodbye to a character who will never be relevant again (and wasn’t all that complicated when she was relevant), the shit needs to move fast. So I guess that’s something else nice to say about “Su’Kal;” it moves very fast. By the end of the hour, our heroes have found the cause of the Burn, been separated to the four winds, and, maybe most importantly, have lost Discovery itself to the villainous predations of the Emerald Chain. That’s bad! And also good. It’s just a shame that so many people have to be so stupid to get us there.

It’s hard really to know where to begin with this one. In the broad outlines, I get what the episode is trying to accomplish. Discovery finally tracks down the source of the distress signal; Saru gets to spend some time remembering his culture; there’s a high concept holodeck plot; and Tilly has to hold her own as a captain. Much of this is stuff the show has been laying tracks for all season, and, if you don’t think about it any of it for longer than, say, ten seconds, and if you’re on the emotional wave-length the show is so determined to jam down our throats, I can see it working okay. Not great, but the special effects are nifty, there are a lot of “oohhhh shit” line deliveries, and it’s all pretty darn exciting in a “fuck yeah, the fireworks factory!” kind of way.

It’s just… okay, let’s start small. Roughly half of the episode’s plot deals with Saru, Michael, and Dr. Culber beaming down to a dilithium-rich planet to make contact with a Kelpian survivor from the distress signal Adira uncoded earlier in the season. An early twist has them arriving on scene, only to find themselves changed into different races; we learn later on that this is because a holo-program is trying to protect the survivor from seeing too much of the outside universe. But why does the holo program that changes Michael, Culber, and Saru’s physical appearance get rid of their anti-radiation meds? Were they destroyed? And for that matter, why does the program change their appearance at all? Sure, we get an explanation later that the system was trying to protect Su’Kal, but how does making Michael look like a Trill and Culber look like a Bajoran accomplish this? Worse, why does making Saru, a Kelpian—you know, like Su’Kal—look human make him less of a potential threat? We see Kelpians and humans inside the program. What is it about this particular trio that would’ve upset him?

Nitpicking is not really criticism; it’s just nitpicking. Most genre shows won’t hold up to perfect scrutiny, and that’s fine, because fiction doesn’t have to be real. That’s why it’s called “fiction.” But this is sloppy, and that sloppiness is indicative of a larger disregard of internal logic and consistency throughout the series. Discovery has always played fast and loose with its own rules, in part because it values strong emotional beats over narrative consistency. There are contexts in which that could work, but the show also doesn’t really have anything interesting or useful to express with its emotional beats. It’s just telling us stories we’ve heard a hundred times before, only louder and dumber and with sappy music playing the whole time.

Su’kal is the son of the Kelpian scientist from the distress signal. (We learn from Saru that the marks Tilly mistook for radiation poisoning were actually signs that the scientist was pregnant; it’s weird that he held this information back for as a long as he did.) We don’t get the complete story this week, but we get enough to know the basics—when the scientist realized she would die before Su’kal was able to fend for himself, she left him living inside a holo training program, full of useful Federation goodies and a comforting elderly Kelpian hologram to tell him stories about his past. When Saru and the others arrive, Su’kal is at first nowhere to be seen; and when they do find him, he’s frightened and hostile towards outsiders, because he lacks the emotional development to face the truth of his world.

All of this feels like a riff on half a dozen different original Star Trek episodes, right down to a mysterious monster that is absolutely going to turn into a metaphor for death or something next week. An orphan living inside the ghost of a world he’s never known is a trope, albeit a potentially compelling one, and there are moments when “Su’kal” threatens to actually live up to the expectations it engenders. As mentioned, everything on the planet certainly looks amazing, and while there’s no real justifiable reason for Saru to be out of his make-up, it’s nice that Doug Jones gets to act outside of the latex for a bit. As one of Discovery’s best characters, Saru deserves the modest share of the spotlight he gets here, even if Kelpian culture remains muddled and fairly generic.

But even that gets mucked up. Michael insists on going on the dangerous away team mission to find the stranded Kelpian, and that makes decent sense; she’s no longer Number One, at least. Before she goes, she tells Booker she’s worried about Saru maintaining objectivity, and dear god, to hear Michael say that is just… Remember that time she disobeyed direct orders, ignoring the needs of the crew, and then didn’t really seem to feel that bad about it, even as she basically got exactly what she wanted? Oh, I’m sorry, should I be more specific? Michael is not someone to criticize anyone about losing objectivity, and what’s worse is that the show seems to agree with her.

At one point, Dr. Culber tells Saru that they need to move on with their mission because they’re all slowly dying of radiation poisoning; given that they’re entirely dependent on Discovery for their return, and given that they can only go back when Discovery fixes its shields, this seems like an odd criticism to make. Later, there’s a bizarre moment where Saru asks Michael to stay behind on the planet, and Michael insists that Saru stay inside, because as a Kelpian, he’ll have a better chance to connect with Su’Kal. This is the obvious choice, and given that none of them know what’s actually happening on Discovery, it’s strange that Saru didn’t make it himself. But I guess if he had, we wouldn’t have had a moment where Michael could tell him he was making the wrong call.

Oh, and that’s not even getting into the explanation for the Burn. It turns out it happened because, and I’m not kidding, Su’Kal was angry and yelled about something. The planet he’s living on is rife with dilithium, and somehow, the radiation combined with the dilithium to create some kind of weird genetic super-defect that allowed him to inadvertently blow everything up because he was having a bad day. We may get more information next week—I mean, I hope we do—but this is a disappointing reveal, in the exact way nearly all Discovery’s reveals are disappointing. It takes a galactic crisis and reduces it to the size of a single, troubled individual. For the umpteenth time, everything gets a little smaller, just to ensure our heroes are standing in the middle of it.

While all this is happening, Tilly is running Discovery just as the Emerald Chain shows up to steal the ship. Again, it’s weird how much emphasis the show puts on reassuring Tilly that she’s qualified for her job—a large part of the emotional arc of this storyline is how she handles it when Osyraa starts throwing snark about her qualifications. It sort of makes sense; Tilly is, as we’ve had repeated opportunities to learn, a bit insecure and inexperienced, and Osyraa’s determination to needle that inexperience at least makes sense on basic villain terms. But there’s a directed quality to the attacks that’s absolutely bizarre. Osyraa snipes like she somehow knows (and cares) who Tilly is, less like she’s the ruthless leader of a criminal enterprise, and more like she’s a mean girl trying to get in a few shots on prom night. It feels directed in a way that strains credibility, and is also fairly annoying to watch. We get it: Tilly is competent. This has been clear since the first season. We don’t need a refresher every week.

Of course, the irony of all of this is that it doesn’t matter how effectively hardcore Tilly is at being sarcastic (she literally brings up “projection,” like the most useful way to argue with a villain is to sound like you’re 16 years old). Osyraa simply outguns Discovery, which is still struggling after losing most of its shields earlier in the hour. The bad guys take over the ship, putting a mind control hat on Stamets and spore driving everyone away, a few seconds too before Michael arrives to save the day. Culber, Adira, and Saru are stranded on the planet, trying to manage Su’Kal’s temper tantrum before he somehow destroys the universe again. Like I said, it’s a good cliffhanger. Pity about everything else.

Stray observations

  • So what was Culber and Saru’s plan if Adira didn’t show up? They’re dying from radiation poisoning when Michael leaves, but both are determined to stick around because Su’Kal, who screamed at them before running away in terror, needs help. If Adira hadn’t brought additional meds, they both would’ve died in, like, a day (Culber actually makes a point of bringing this up). I’m not sure that would’ve provided the sort of emotional stability Su’Kal seems to need. And it’s especially dumb given that, since they don’t know what’s happening with Osyraa, the radiation sickness is the only time pressure they have to worry about. Why not leave, get treated and come up with a new plan, and then come back?
  • Adria and Gray are talking again. I guess it’s sort of interesting that Gray is struggling with his role as a Force ghost.
  • “You belong in that chair, Tilly.” Sure? I mean, I wouldn’t have thought she didn’t if people wouldn’t kept bringing it up. (Watching the crew act shocked when Tilly tells Oysraa she’ll blow up Discovery rather than let the Emerald Chain get its hands on the spore drive is pretty funny, though.)
  • Oh god, I just realized we’re going to get a “Tilly loses all faith in herself because the ship got stolen” arc next week, aren’t we.

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