Review: Star Trek Discovery’s “Su’Kal” Succeeds & Frustrates In Equal Measure

Saru in the captain's chair in "Su'Kal"

After searching all season, the crew of the Discovery finally finds the source of the Burn on this week’s episode of Star Trek: Discovery, “Su’Kal.” Star Trek: Discovery’s third season is now in its home stretch with only two episodes left, and “Su’Kal” directly sets up events for the finale.

Despite the universal ramifications, most of the episode is an atmospheric horror story set within a holodeck program. “Su’Kal” succeeds and frustrates in equal measure. It works as a small-scale playful Gothic sci-fi story, but refuses to resolve anything, only teasing out extra mystery and conflict for the season finale.

Star Trek Discovery (Season 3)

Norma Bailey (director), Anne Cofell Saunders (writer)
Sonequa Martin-Green, Mary Wiseman, and Doug Jones (cast)
December 24th, 2020

Bill Irwin guest stars as the Kelpian Su’Kal, the episode’s titular character stuck in a simulation on a crashed ship within a highly dangerous area of space. It’s a wonderfully terrifying setting, visualized as a massive winding citadel, constantly shifting in small ways. Ghostly beings haunt Su’Kal, visual representations of both his internal fears and possibly the external dangers beyond the simulation. This episode’s spooky visuals are its high point and much more memorable than any of the technobabble surrounding either the simulation or the Burn.

Doug Jones as Saru and Wilson Cruz as Culber look at shifting citadel around them in Star Trek Discovery, 311, "Su'Kal"
Doug Jones as Saru and Wilson Cruz as Culber look at shifting citadel around them in Star Trek Discovery, 311, “Su’Kal”

This episode drops new pieces of Kelpian mythology throughout, with Su’Kal’s program containing many historical records from Kaminar. The writers know how wonderful Saru (Doug Jones) is, and continue to give him and his people more backstory. Even Su’Kal’s name comes from Kelpian mythology, and Kelpians seem to be crucial to this season’s mystery and its resolution.

I was confused at first by the revelation that Su’Kal has bonded to the dilithium in the nebula surrounding him, and that his struggles and anxieties caused the fluctuations that resulted in the Burn. “Su’Kal,” both the episode and character, is a literal mountain of technobabble at the center of this season’s arc. I’m not sure if it makes sense scientifically (it probably doesn’t), but it’s at least consistent with the internal logic of Star Trek: Discovery. Su’Kal’s link with the dilithium parallels Stamets’ (Antony Rapp) link with Discovery’s spore drive, a dynamic explored throughout the series.

Upon entering the program, Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), Saru, and Culber (Wilson Cruz) appear visually as different alien races — Burnham now appears as a Trill, Culber as a Bajoran, and Saru as a human. Seeing Doug Jones outside of his Saru makeup feels particularly exciting and shocking. He’s made his career playing creatures and monsters, so it’s jarring and unique to see Jones portray a human, both in Discovery and in general. He does a lovely job though, keeping Saru’s trademark mannerisms and body language even while human, making him both strange and familiar at the same time. His connection to Su’Kal will likely resolve or counteract the effects of the Burn in the next two episodes. It’s a cheesy story about the power of friendship, but frankly that’s Star Trek, and Doug Jones does an amazing job selling Saru’s care and love for the Kelpians around him, holographic or otherwise.

Osyraa takes the ship from Tilly.
Mary Wiseman as Ensign Tilly. Credit Michael Gibson/CBS

Meanwhile, Janet Kidder returns as Osyraa, an Orion woman, the leader of the Emerald Chain, and this season’s central villain. Osyraa spars verbally with Tilly (Mary Wiseman), acting captain of the Discovery, and eventually stages a full-scale capture of the Discovery. Osyraa’s massive ship has tentacles that protrude out of it and hold Discovery in place, in line with the horror motifs seen throughout the episode. Osyraa’s ship directly contrasts Book’s ship. Hers extends to swallow other ships, while Book’s small ship collapses in on itself to quickly navigate tight spaces. All of the ships involved have interesting memorable designs and immediately signify their characters’ intentions.

Osyraa acts as a foil to both Su’Kal and the Discovery, working consciously against the universe’s best interests and commanding her crew more efficiently (for now). She’s an enjoyably stern character and fun to watch, although her motivations still feel unclear beyond hating the show’s main characters.

“Su’Kal” walks a fine line, beginning to resolve season-long mysteries while also ramping up the intrigue and conflict for a dramatic finale. The episode’s visuals will likely stick with viewers long beyond the story’s plot. The episode ends with a cliffhanger, directly leading into next week’s episode, and I’m curious to see how the two conflicts and plots intertwine in the next two episodes. Ultimately, I’m thrilled that they’re leaning into Saru and his people, and the Burn wasn’t caused by Michael Burnham (at least for now).

Sasha Fraze

Sasha Fraze

Sasha Fraze is a professional comic book gremlin. You can find her on Twitter at @schlocking where she's probably sharing random thoughts about comics new and old or retweeting trans news and memes.