Warning: This Star Trek: Discovery season 3, episode 11 review contains major spoilers – many of them set to stun. Boldly go further at your own risk…
It’s clear from the excessively long recap at the start of the episode that something big is on the horizon in "Su’Kal". It somehow condenses every major event of season 3 into a fast-cut info-blast – and when a TV show does that, you know numerous story arcs are about to come to a head.
The good news is that the episode delivers – and then some. The first instalment of an ongoing story (we’re guessing it’s a three-parter that’ll wrap up with the season finale in January) this is a near-perfect piece of sci-fi TV that builds to a wonderfully tantalising cliffhanger. As the numerous plotlines begin to coalesce, a memorable villain and a relentless ticking clock add to an ever-growing sense of doom – come the end credits, you’re convinced not everyone is going to make it back from this particular mission in one piece. In fact, the episode relishes the opportunity to put various officers in harm’s way.
"Su’Ka"’ picks up where "Terra Firma: Part 2" left off, with the crew at Georgiou’s wake. Adira’s boyfriend, Gray, has returned from his unexplained absence – the pressure of living in someone else’s mind was getting to him, apparently – while Discovery has picked up life signs from the KSF Khi’eth, the Kelpien vessel stranded in the Verubin Nebula 125 years earlier.
It turns out Saru wasn’t entirely forthcoming when Discovery decoded a communication from the ship. The marks on scientist Dr Issa’s forehead weren’t caused by radiation – it’s actually an indicator she was pregnant, and her child may be the lone survivor Discovery’s sensors are detecting.
Star Trek has a long history of fateful journeys into nebulae – most notably the final battle in The Wrath Of Khan – but they’re rarely as explosive as they are here. Detmer has to pilot the ship through a maelstrom of radiation and weird currents, under orders from a captain whose desire to meet another of his species is causing him to behave somewhat irrationally. Ultimately it’s Book who comes to the rescue, suggesting he take his own, smaller, morphable ship into the storm to get closer to the planet. He reports that this strange new world is made of dilithium, and that the lifesign is located in a region with a breathable atmosphere. Could the source of the Burn also be the route to the Federation’s salvation?
Saru decides to take the gung-ho James T Kirk approach by leading the away mission himself, bringing Burnham and Dr Culber along for the ride. Burnham’s sceptical, wisely suggesting that Saru’s too emotionally involved, while Stamets is having all sorts of “My god, I hope you’re not leaving the show!” worries about Culber heading off to the potentially deadly planet. When your husband’s died once before, it’s only natural to be concerned.
Saru’s absence also means that First Officer Tilly – bizarrely, still ranked Ensign – gets her first outing in the captain’s chair. Burnham’s pre-departure pep talk – about a little nodule on the underside of the big chair, of all things – is inspiring stuff, especially as it was always unlikely to be a quiet first day. Indeed, it becomes an extreme case of ‘learning on the job’ when Emerald Chain leader Osyraa’s activities around Saru’s homeworld of Kaminar turn out to be a cunning decoy.
By this point, things have got really weird in the nebula. When the away team beam in, they find themselves radically altered – Culber is Bajoran, Burnham is Trill and, oddest of all, Saru is human. It’s a rare opportunity for Doug Jones, traditionally hidden under prosthetics in Guillermo del Toro movies, to walk on to a set without hours in the make-up chair, and a welcome chance to see the human being who makes Saru tick.
Even stranger is the environment they find themselves in: a fantasy world of castles, strange flying creatures, and a very confused Kelpien. It’s surprising, then, that the least believable thing about it is the amount of time it takes the Discovery crew to work out what’s going on – before Issa died, she created a complex holo-simulation to raise her son, Su’Kal, in her absence. It feels kind of obvious.
Decades later, the holo-tutor programs are deteriorating and there’s little more Su’Kal can learn from them. He’s also been sheltered from the real world to the point Culber points out they have to treat him as a first contact situation. What makes the scenario particularly intriguing, however, is that Su’Kal’s emotions seem connected to the behaviour of the dilithium planet – it’s starting to look like a temper tantrum could have been enough to wipe out warp drive in the Federation.
And yet, even though the away team have just four hours before radiation levels become extremely problematic, the holo simulation may be the safest place to be. Osyraa has a cunning plan to seize control of Discovery and its spore drive, and the pantomime villain schtick of her first appearance in "The Sanctuary" is long gone. Now she’s a scarily charismatic strategist whose tit-for-tat verbal sparring with rookie captain Tilly is one of the highlights of the episode. Her flagship, the Viridian, is also armed with tentacles that grab a powerless Discovery in one of the season’s best visuals.
With the crew in custody and the clock ticking on the away team’s radiation monitors, it’s once again up to Book to save the day, launching an ad-hoc rescue mission in his own ship – unaware that Adira has stowed away with a rescue plan of their own.
Not everyone is ready to be saved, however. While Saru feels his obligation is to the ship, Burnham points out that his connection to Su’Kal means he should stay behind. Culber also agrees to hang around so he can make a difference.
Unfortunately, both are prime candidates for a heroic departure. Not only did the first act make an effort to emphasise the strength of Stamets and Culber’s relationship (so often an on-screen death sentence), Saru’s rank is no guarantee of safety, either. Remember, Discovery gets through commanding officers at the rate Hogwarts spits out Defence Against the Dark Arts teachers. And besides, when Georgiou made the loaded remark in "Terra Nova: Part 2" that Saru isn’t the only crew member capable of command, it’s unlikely to have been a throwaway comment.
Burnham and Book make it back to Discovery just in time to see it jumping away with the Viridian in tow. It’s arguably the crew’s darkest hour, but it’s also one hell of a cliffhanger. Roll on next week…
New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery season 3 land on Thursdays on CBS All Access in the US, and on Fridays on Netflix in the UK.