HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!
I suppose including a spoiler warning for an episode that aired three weeks ago is a bit optimistic, but in case you are as behind as I am, there it is. I do want to apologize for my two-week hiatus. Between Christmas and the New Year, I could not keep pace with Discovery, so I’m going to be playing catch up. Hopefully, gentle readers, you can bear with me. That said, considering the events of January 6th, “Su’kal” feels like a very appropriate episode to discuss because the episode’s primary themes concern fear and how damaging it can be. Su’kal’s fear leaves him imprisoned in a toxic environment and potentially jeopardizes the lives of his rescuers. If that’s not a metaphor for something, I don’t know what is.
“Su’Kal” is very much a prefatory episode because while there is action in the plot, most of it exists to drive plot points for the final two episodes of the season. The Discovery jumps to investigate the Verubin nebula but discovers the nebula to be more difficult to explore than anticipated. Cleveland Booker takes his Courier ship and investigates, despite the intense radiation that batters his shields. He manages to identify the Khi’eth’s final resting place on the surface of a planet riddled with dilithium but not without earning himself some time with a DNA re-sequencer. Saru resolves to beam to the wreck to find the solitary life sign aboard the Khi’eth, which he believes to be Dr. Issa’s child as the markings Tilly noted on her forehead in “Terra Firma, part I” were not radiation burns but actually signs of pregnancy.
Saru, Michael Burnham, and Dr. Culber beam down to the planet, aware that the consequences will be dire should they fail to return to Discovery within four hours. Saru leaves Ensign Tilly in command with instructions to return to fetch them within the time window. The Away Team says their goodbyes, and they beam down to the planet. Upon materialization, they find their appearances radically altered. Burnham has become a Trill, while Dr. Culber has become Bajoran. Most disturbingly of all, Saru now appears human. They quickly conclude that they find themselves trapped within a sophisticated holographic simulation, in true Trek form, and their experiences with the holograms only confirm that conclusion. They encounter the remaining survivor, only to find him terrified of a monster wreathed in kelp. Burnham separates from Culber and Saru, in order to prevent the monster from breaking free of its prison. However, when she tries to confront the monster, she finds the child, now an adult, instead.
Dr. Culber and Saru find a Kelpien elder, rather than the child, and that elder, who happens to be a hologram designed to teach Kelpien and Ba’ul history and culture explains that Dr. Issa created the entire holographic simulation to protect and educate her child, Su’Kal, keeping him alive until such time as rescue might arrive. Saru explains to Culber that “Su’Kal” is the name given to the first children born after a great tragedy and translates roughly to “Beloved Gift.” Saru notices that the Elder holds a story book in his lap, and the elder tells Saru that the monster in the simulation is actually a monster from Su’Kal’s story, and that unless and until Su’Kal faces the monster, no one will be able to leave the simulation. Saru and Culber head to the fortress to seek out Su’Kal.
Pretending to be a hologram intended to teach Su’Kal about social interaction, Burnham has discovered that Su’Kal has no real concept of the world beyond his simulation. He believes everyone to be dead. Pressing him on the issue of his memories regarding his life prior to the simulation results in Su’kal panicking. When he does, the dilithium appears to react to his emotional state. Burnham concludes that Su’Kal may be part of the cause of the Burn.
Aboard the Discovery, Tilly assumes command somewhat nervously only for their sensors to detect a “Federation” ship. Skeptical, Tilly requests additional information, and when the crew finds peculiar readings, she correctly deduces that the ship is Osyraa’s Viridian. Osyraa contacts Discovery and threatens to take the ship, but Tilly refuses and has the ship cloak. However, Su’kal’s panic causes energy fluctuations that interfere with that cloak, forcing both the Discovery and the Viridian to decloak. Osyraa threatens Tilly again, and despite Tilly’s resolve, Osyraa and a team of Emerald Chain operatives take Discovery and hijack Stamets. Before they do, however, Adira beams to the planet’s surface from Book’s ship where they stowed away because they have an idea on how to help the Away Team.
Burnham meets back up with Culber and Stamets just in time for them to receive a transmission from Discovery about Osyraa. Culber and Saru convince Burnham to beam aboard Book’s ship, leaving them behind to negotiate the hellscape that is the only world Su’kal has ever really known. Culber reminds Burnham that if she cannot rescue them within a day, they will succumb to radiation poisoning.
Some time ago during a Wiki spiral, I found myself stumbling on a page about Genie, a feral child rescued from profound abuse in the seventies. Genie’s page should come with trigger warnings because the abuse she suffered was horrific, but the most significant form the abuse took was that of profound isolation. She was not allowed to make a sound or even look out of a window until age thirteen, when her mother stumbled into the wrong office. As a result of her isolation, Genie never really acquired a first language or learned how to navigate society the way the rest of us do. Dr. Issa’s lovingly creating holographic world seeks to spare Su’Kal Genie’s fate, but no matter how good Dr. Issa’s intentions might have been, Su’Kal spends 125 years alone. We can tell by the state of the holograms that the radiation that killed the crew has also steadily eroded the Khi’eth’s computer systems, meaning that Su’Kal has been losing the only companions he’s ever known at a fairly steady rate. Su’Kal’s discussion with Burnham indicates that the simulation taught him that an “outside” might exist, but because he’s been alone for so long, Su’Kal truly cannot conceive of a world beyond the simulation. Neither can Su’Kal process his emotional reality. He expresses excitement at finding “a new program” and seems to miss aspects of the simulation that have eroded, but he does not exhibit the same ability to cope with his feelings that a fully socialized adult would. That inability leaves Su’kal almost at the mercy of his stronger emotions. Genie, too, had trouble processing and expressing her negative emotions, but for her, she tended to harm herself. When Burnham presses him to recall a time before the simulation, Su’Kal becomes distressed and inadvertently causes the dilithium fluctuations that nearly destroy the Discovery, leading Burnham to conclude that Su’Kal unintentionally caused the Burn.
The root cause of the Burn, therefore, is fear, which the episode makes explicit. The Kelpien elder tells Saru that the monster that haunts Su’Kal’s simulation represents his greatest fear, and that monster exists because Kelpien culture requires that Su’kal face his greatest fear in order to be free. Lamentably, no matter how sophisticated the holographic simulation that raised him might have been, it could not compensate for Su’Kal’s extreme isolation. Su’Kal lacks the tools not only to identify that fear but to face it. Thus, Su’Kal has spent 125 years and change tortured by a literal bogeyman, and that fear not only prevented Su’Kal from attaining emotional maturity but also completely upended life in the universe as its citizens had previously known. Su’Kal’s entire existence has become bound up in avoiding the monster; in one of the episode’s more heartbreaking moments, the monster futilely pleads with Su’Kal to see it. The implication seems to be that if Su’kal really sees the monster, he’ll be able to face it, but Su’Kal refuses just as he refuses to deal with the memories Burnham attempts to draw out of him. Ironically, a child whose birth symbolized the end of suffering—no doubt the loss for which he is named is the Khi’eth’s entire crew—causes untold suffering because he desperately wants to protect the only life he has ever known. His fear, therefore, becomes the most powerfully destructive force in the universe. The metaphor here is not subtle, but it is relevant.
The episode presents Tilly as Su’Kal’s foil. Unlike Su’Kal, because with the guidance and support from both Saru and Burnham, Tilly can face her fear of command and move beyond it. Saru makes it clear to Admiral Vance that Tilly has his full faith, and Burnham reminds Tilly that she belongs in the Captain’s chair. These messages combat her mother’s cruel dismissal of Tilly’s abilities we saw in “Runaway.” More importantly, however, Burnham tells Tilly about a burr underneath the arm of the chair. Burnham watched Captain Georgiou rub the burr to keep herself grounded in the moment, and because she was fully present in the moment, Georgiou could make the best decisions she could. The key here is that Burnham is teaching Tilly that remaining in the moment will allow her not only to perceive the situation for what it really is but also to sort through the host of options and pick the best moment. It’s a very Zen approach, and it yields dividends for Tilly while also contrasting with Su’Kal’s refusal to do the same.
Tilly’s stand-off with Osyraa is a thing of beauty, and while I hate that Osyraa ultimately gains control over Discovery, I have every faith that Tilly will manage to find a way out of this, hopefully with Burnham’s help. Adira’s presence on the planet could also provide some interesting story elements for the coming episodes, so we’ll have to see if their idea comes to fruition.
Three cups of Earl Grey Tea
Stray Thoughts from the Couch:
- Does anyone else wonder how long Kelpiens live? Saru never indicates surprise at Su’Kal’s age, only that he has managed to survive in the radiation as long as he has. Obviously, something was done to Su’Kal to ensure his survival, but I now have real questions about Kelpien life-spans, even when the Ba’ul would have them killed.
- Janet Kidder seems to be more comfortable with Osyraa, which is great, considering that she’s the season’s Big Bad. This is really the first episode in which she feels like a threat, however, so I hope that the next episode reinforces that feeling. Otherwise, we’re all going to feel a bit cheated.
- The step-well comment took me back to Discovery’s first episode.
- Why did the computer change Burnham and Culber? They’re humans, and Saru is a Kelpien. Neither of these species should have been surprising to Su’Kal. I guess we chalk that up to a radiation-induced logic fail?
- I have the feeling that Su’Kal will have to deactivate the computer in a gut-wrenching sacrifice, but I do wonder what will happen to him if he survives. How will he cope with being the source of such suffering?
- You can find Genie’s Wiki page here, but I cannot stress enough that her situation was horrific. Be safe on the internet, kids.