Star Trek is no stranger to the “everyone’s survival hinges on the emotional state of one very powerful baby” trope. The second-ever episode of the original series is about that very concept; later, The Next Generation did it a few times, too, as did Voyager and Deep Space Nine. In fact, I’d go as far as to call it one of the most recognizable monster-of-the-week plots for the franchise, if not the sci-fi genre writ large. (Jaunt in the cornfield, anybody?) TV Tropes calls it “Goo Goo Godlike.”
Now, Su’Kal isn’t technically a baby. He’s a full-grown Kelpien orphan who has spent his entire life alone on a dilithium nursery planet, in the middle of a violently radioactive nebula, talking only to computer programs designed to keep him alive and (relatively) well-adjusted until rescue. (In a way, you could argue that Discovery finally got a holodeck episode.) But the holos haven’t totally succeeded: instead of creating an adult ready to be rescued, they’ve created an incredibly sensitive, childlike creature, adjusted only to holo-life and certain that the “outside is probably dead.” (It’s unclear how he’s been able to live for over a century, but whatever the reason, it appears to have kept him from undergoing vahar’ai, as well.) As such, he has been content to confine himself to his holo-castle on a cloud, even as he is hounded by a “monster” that is most likely a manifestation of all the trauma he has experienced and is now in denial about. Every time he’s forced to confront it, he panics; at the same time, his biology — uniquely altered by his having been born inside a nebula, on a planet covered in dilithium — releases a huge energy burst creating a massive shockwave that resonates through dilithium across the galaxy, threatening to destroy whatever and whoever is actively using it.
So this week we learn that the Burn — the biggest conflict of Star Trek: Discovery’s third season — was entirely the work of an unwitting, Goo Goo Godlike, Kelpien rainbow baby. I can’t say I’m thrilled by this, on account of how common it is versus the sheer enormity and devastation of its impact. Then again, most tropes are tropes because they work, and it’s at least on-brand for the series, so I can’t say I hate it, either.
What is clear is that there is simply Too Much Happening right now. Somehow, in the span of two episodes, Osyraa has orchestrated an almost-too-brilliant red herring maneuver, fooling the Federation into believing the Emerald Chain was dumb enough to try the same home-planet-as-hostage maneuver twice. While Vance was busy trying to prevent the Chain’s “military exercises” near Kaminar, believing they were attempting to lure Discovery and its Kelpien captain to steal its spore drive and dilithium, the Jolly Green Godmother and her sorely underestimated ship has somehow managed to catch up with Discovery all the way out here at the Veruben nebula, just as their shields have reached critical condition, just minutes after Acting Captain Sylvia Tilly has dropped Captain Saru, Dr. Culber, and Michael Burnham out of range on the dilithium planet’s surface. I now believe Osyraa as a criminal mastermind, though she has to be operating with some kind of inside knowledge. How else would she know about Stamets being the driver, or how to track them through mushroom space, or how to successfully pass her ship off as a Federation vessel until the last second?
Props to Tilly, at least, for faking it till she makes it, showing the Wicked Wise-guy of the West only sarcasm, disdain, and a firm resolve as she tries to undermine her leadership in the same way haters have likely been complaining since Saru promoted the ensign a few weeks back. Osyraa might have overwhelmed the Disco crew, storming the ship, putting Stamets in a mind-control tiara and forcing them to jump directly to Federation headquarters with the Chain onboard, but I have a feeling that this has simply given Tilly the chance to “prove herself” in a massive way next week.
The rescue mission happening down below is just as chaotic. All the radiation meds, bio-monitors, phasers, and tricorders they brought with them to keep them alive have vanished; the holoprogram, designed by the late Dr. Isa from the distress signal, has transformed all of them into new races: Culber into a Bajoran, Michael into a Trill, and Saru into Doug Jones. (Raise your hand if you screamed when you realized this was about to happen.) Isa preselected these races for whoever showed up, “to be consistent with the program.” Shame she decided not to include their own kind in the mix — would’ve been nice for the “child” to have been rescued by Saru’s authentic Kelpien face. If he had, perhaps he wouldn’t have been scared off when they show up initially, spooking the “monster” he has shut up behind a chained door and sending him running in the opposite direction.
As Saru and Culber find, the program also includes features like semi-failing technical tutorials about replicator repair, videos of history (such as the day Kaminar officially joined the Federation), and social programs like a very old Kelpien elder — the oldest Saru has ever seen — to pass down cultural history and traditions. (This last element felt a little too forced in Saru’s mouth. In his time, Kelpiens were defined by their lack of history, a cultural erasure specifically engineered by the Ba’ul through pre-vahar’ai culling to keep them docile and ignorant. They might pass on songs and stories, but we were led to believe that when Saru was growing up, Kelpiens didn’t live long enough to actually pass down much tradition or history; that has certainly changed in the past millennium, but Saru wasn’t around for that.)
125 years, three months, 17 days, and four hours of life support, education, and “preparation for arrival of anticipated input.” By now, the old program’s language has degraded mostly to its coding. “Anticipated input: classification: rescuer; if true: scan, process emotion: ecstatic gratitude,” the welcoming program says. “Query: are you the anticipated input? If no, then initiate defense protocols.” (They are definitely anticipated input: classification: rescuer.) They find drawings the “child” has made and signed with his name — “Su’Kal,” roughly translated as “beloved gift,” is the name Kelpiens give the first baby born after a horrible tragedy — and learn from the holo-elder that Su’Kal has literalized totems from a Kelpien fairy tale to protect himself against the monster from that fairy tale, which represents Kelpien childrens’ “deepest fears.” He’ll need to face that monster if he, or anyone else on the planet, is to finally “be free.”
Meanwhile, Michael has met this monster, a bright-eyed humanoid, made mostly of smoke and tentacles, but a humanoid all the same. (It looks a bit like the Ba’ul we met last season, just fast and billowing instead of slow and wet.) Curious at first, it opts instead to chase her around the stepwell until she slips and falls — up. Su’Kal is there when she wakes, excitedly asking if she’s a new program. It’s a rare treat to see a character catch onto and play along with the new rules of an alien environment as quickly as Michael does here, posing as a program intended to teach him about “the dynamics of social interaction.” He tries to tell her she’s obsolete, that no one is coming for him, but some easy reverse psychology keeps him interested. He tells her he remembers harvesting kelp and playing in the water with his family — no doubt computer generated kelp and computer generated water — but then immediately asks to reset the program when she presses for earlier memories. When she asks if there’s a way to reset the whole program, he runs for his special fortress, where Culber and Saru have already come looking for him.
All the while, their radiation exposure is worsening. They can’t access their supplies, and the baby is having a tantrum, preventing them from saving him or even leaving until he puts on his big-boy pants and obliges the monster when it says “see me.” And now, Discovery is being commandeered by space gangsters. Luckily, Tilly has given Book — who has been turning “rogue missions for the team” into an art form all his own, taking his ship into small and deadly places where Discovery can’t go — the greenlight to go pick up the away team manually.
But then something infuriating happens. Saru makes the hard call and asks Michael to stay with Su’Kal until they can come back with supplies and the young Kelpien can make peace with himself and accept rescue. Then Michael, who earlier had the audacity to complain to Book that Saru is too personally invested in this mission and won’t be able to make the hard calls, tells him no! She claims he’s been distracted and so he needs to be the one to stay with his kinsman. She’s not wrong — he has been overwhelmed by the emotional experience of Dr. Isa’s holo-bubble — but exactly where do you get off, Michael Burnham?
First of all, I need to reiterate for the millionth time that Michael abdicated the captaincy, which by itself should disqualify her from this conversation altogether. Then, after all she’s put him through as a leader, after how much she’s blatantly disrespected him as a so-called friend to serve her own personal feelings, doing the exact same things, only far worse, than he’s doing now — now she gets to just … make this judgment? And he just … accepts it?? No, there were a thousand better ways to engineer this configuration of “Michael leaves, Culber and Saru stay” than this truly demeaning choice.
Everyone on this show keeps talking about how the entire Discovery crew has been emotionally compromised by this journey; if that’s the case, then does Saru not get the same forgiveness as his human colleagues? Yes, he’s in a position of power, but he’s making the right calls, over and over again, regardless of his homesickness. The way people are jumping on these moments as indications that he’s not fit to lead not only feels forced and disrespectful; it also runs in direct conflict with the point of the laid-on-thick subplot of Tilly’s imposter syndrome, which posits that all leaders start green and make mistakes, but that that doesn’t make them less fit to lead. It’s really unfortunate that, while the show itself has done wonderful work continuing the diversification of Star Trek’s human cast, it still put Starfleet’s first Kelpien in the captain’s chair with the apparent assumption that he’d be an unfeeling bureaucratic stopgap between danger and his crew’s trauma. And now, when he’s showing slight signs of sentimentality — a lullaby, for pete’s sake — characters like Vance and Georgiou and now Michael (!!) are saying things that suggest the show might end up demoting him, replacing him with yet another human, and making it seem like it’s best for everyone. Saru has only ever been as imperfect as anyone else on this show, and certainly as much as any Starfleet captain in Trek history. If the writers mean for him to be treated differently, that’s one thing; I just wish the character would be allowed to notice and react to the injustice of it.
At the very least, this horrible, seemingly un-self-aware argument between Michael and Saru costs the away team the few precious seconds that might have made the difference for Book and Michael to get back to Discovery before Osyraa jumped it and her ship back to Federation headquarters. Had Adira not quickly conspired with Reno to take the latter’s badge, stow away on Book’s ship, and beam themself down to the surface with more medication in hand — what a sneaky little badass — Saru and Culber would be dead men walking. Now, even in the face of abandonment in a radioactive nebula primed to cause a second Burn at literally any moment, there’s at least some chance of survival.
Personal Log, Supplemental
• Credits color scheme is back to normal. :(
• This episode was both written (Anne Cofell Saunders) and directed (Norma Bailey) by women. :)
• Gray returns! Adira feels understandably lonely at the Georgiou wake, so he shows up apologizing and explaining that being noncorporeal has been a real drag and he’s trying to adjust. I’d bet we’re going to see a lot more of him next week as Adira makes their way through Su’Kal’s toxic dilithium wonderland. (What about them makes them less susceptible to radiation than Book?)
• When Book has to get DNA recombination therapy to treat his radiation, so does Grudge??? Book took his cat into a radioactive nebula. Someone call the Space SPCA.
• Absolutely thrilled that Culber finally gets his moment with this mission. Because, yes, his experiences have been incredibly relevant to the tasks he’s been sagely passing off to other people, this one most of all. “I need to go for me,” he tells Stamets. “I was so lost after I came back. And ever since we came to this future, I found a purpose I didn’t even know I was looking for. I can help Saru, and if there is a survivor, they’ve been alone for decades. And maybe I can help them too.” You go, Hugh Culber.
• How does Michael know what a Bajoran look like? It has to have been the year she spent as a courier here; from what I understand, the Federation didn’t encounter the Bajorans or the Cardassians until the 24th century, long after the Discovery’s original timeline.
• I don’t want to make assumptions about the art department, but were those big flying monsters just … blown-up, goth versions of the little flying fish we saw on Trill?
• When Su’Kal runs away from Michael, he does Saru’s little fish arms behind him. Gets me every time.
• Another minor detail: how great is it that Starfleet finally has cloaking technology? In Treks past, that was always a feature of enemy vessels, like Klingon warbirds or Romulan stealth ships.
• Would it really be so hard to promote Tilly to lieutenant, also? How does that work? The ensign rank has gotten sort of humiliating at this point, an insult to injury every time someone gives her that “lol ok” look upon hearing that she’s first officer.
• When they trap Stamets in the spore chamber, one of the Chain guys says, “What you want is irrelevant.” So help me, if this show tries one more variation on “resistance is futile,” I’m going to need to speak with a manager.