"Su'Kal" would be a reasonably okay sci-fi story in the standalone tradition of Star Trek if the circumstances were different. This is an alien contact within a holographic simulation that has some things to recommend, including notable atmosphere and characters trying to use psychology and storytelling to communicate with someone who has endured a lifetime of isolation. The problem is, this is tied into the season's central mystery of the Burn in a way that's crushingly disappointing. (At least, so far. Specifics are not yet revealed, although I can't imagine any technobabble explanation could salvage this general idea.)
I'm reminded of DS9's "Extreme Measures," in which a big piece of the fate of the Dominion War was riding on a virtual-reality probe to explore the mind of Section 31 operative Sloan, but the device was mostly used as an excuse to give O'Brien and Bashir one last buddy adventure. The idea of one last buddy adventure was fine, but the vehicle was inappropriate and the timing was terrible.
Same thing here. This is episode 11 in a 13-episode season that has revealed itself to be about a whole lot less than what we probably imagined going in. We're spinning our wheels with the mirror universe and now elaborate holodeck simulations, while the 32nd-century Federation continues to be a microscopic nonentity. All the world-building that seemed like it would be mandatory when the season started has barely happened. The Federation has been reduced to a single set and one admiral. (Granted, that admiral continues to be one of the best depictions of an admiral in Star Trek, but still.) We've seen precious few new worlds and gotten very little understanding of the larger political landscape. Probably the best world-building came with the Vulcans and Romulans in "Unification III," and that was catching up with familiar faces who were no longer even part of the Federation. The only new element we've really dealt with at all is the Emerald Chain (which we'll discuss momentarily).
The season's other larger arc has been focusing on following the breadcrumb trail of clues to this episode's Verubin Nebula and the apparent source of the mysterious Burn. That has actually been done competently in a series of investigative B-stories, but it has taken most of the season and now, here we are, approaching the end and … well, sigh. One would think a sci-fi mystery that led to the destruction of most of the galaxy's dilithium and the collapse of the Federation would reveal some sort of large-scale event that held some intrigue or major secret or something that would at the very least not be an arbitrary one-off concoction.
Nope. Apparently, the whole thing was an accident caused by the title character of the episode for reasons having nothing to do with anything else. Su'Kal is a Kelpien who has lived isolated in a protected bubble on a planet rich with dilithium within the Verubin Nebula. He's not even aware of the true nature of his world because he has lived his entire life in a holographic simulation built by his parents, who were stranded when their ship crashed on the planet while he was still in the womb. They died of radiation exposure, but were first able to build this holo-world to give their son a place to live until he might eventually be rescued. He has lived there for more than a century, but has experienced the limits of the computer's programming, which have not allowed him to socially develop beyond that of a child.
There are some decent ideas here having to do with trying to communicate on this Kelpien's limited terms within a framework he can understand (and this uses some of the core ideas of Star Trek), and trying to incorporate the communication efforts into this bizarre fantasy novel of a setting (replete with stone staircases and strange creatures). This doesn't explain, however, why the kid's parents would concoct such a strange setting in the first place when presumably they would want to prepare him for whatever his real life afterward would look like.
Most distressingly, at one point he gets really upset, and his emotions somehow destabilize the planet's dilithium, and beyond. It becomes clear that he's somehow connected to the planet in a way we don't yet fully understand but that this connection is what somehow caused the cataclysmic Burn, and that a second Burn is certainly possible. I'll reserve judgment until the conclusion's further explanations, but this revelation is the sort of unfortunate small-world thinking that is all too typical on this series. We once again reduce a massive galactic crisis down to a one-character play, which feels way out of scale compared to the consequences.
In a similar vein, we have Osyraa giving Tilly and Discovery a hard time amid all this. Naturally, the entire Emerald Chain — presumably the Big Bad standing against the Federation this season — has been reduced to this one ship and character, since less is more, except, of course, as is too often the case with this series, when less is less, on the account of inadequate story development. Osyraa has tracked Discovery to the nebula and arrived on the scene to make the usual threats and claim the dilithium planet for her own. Tilly, despite her earlier reservations about taking command, actually shows a decent amount of poker-faced competence through the standoff and is able to stand toe-to-toe with Osyraa better than what should be expected given the lack of adequately setting her up with this level of command confidence.
Following a series of events, the episode ends with the ship being boarded and commandeered by Osyraa and her ship's forces. This could be good fodder for next week's action plot where we have to re-seize control of the ship after having had it seized by the villains (see also: Voyager's "Basics"), but we'll have to deal with that then. For now, I can't help but feel like this episode has reduced the Burn to the shakiest of payoffs while having Discovery defeated by the blandest of villains. A season of initial promise seems to be disintegrating before our eyes, just as crunch time has arrived.
Okay, let's go ahead and shoot up the place:
- Maybe I haven't paid enough attention this season to the arbitrary technobabble around the dilithium shortage, but it seems like the issue is that everyone is too slow when it comes to traveling at warp, when it really should be range — not speed/time — that is the limiting factor. I could be completely misunderstanding how dilithium fuel works, but it goes back to the typical MO of Discovery that they haven't made the rules of How Things Work easily understood and well explained the way previous Trek series would have.
- I know this was way back in "Unification III" and I'm nitpicking, but the ridiculously arbitrary nature of all dilithium exploding at the exact same time across light-years of space, down to the fraction of a microsecond, is just so, so dumb, especially as we see Su'Kal freak out and a visible shockwave of energy emits from him, in a way that would definitely not affect everything simultaneously, even if it was within 100 yards.
- The holographic program disguises the visiting Discovery away team in a way that Su'Kal would better understand them, and makes Saru a human rather than a Kelpien. This gives Doug Jones a chance to appear on this series without his prosthetics, but why would the Kelpien programmers of this environment, designing for their Kelpien child, not incorporate Kelpiens into the program? This does not add up.
- The whole character arc with Adira and Gray is going nowhere. It basically has gone: Adira sees the dead Gray, which unsettles Adira. Then Gray vanishes, which unsettles Adira. Now Gray appears once again, confusing Adira. Adira notes this to Stamets, who is a good friend. The friendship between Stamets and Adira has been one of the season's brighter character points, but this whole thing with Gray has stretched well beyond its usefulness and is now bordering on pointlessness. This is not a character arc that's telling a story; it's a plot point on a loop.
- The framing of Saru as having "lost objectivity" and Burnham having to basically tell him that he needs to stay behind while she returns to Discovery to help Tilly take on Osyraa is just too much. I understand Burnham is the star of the show, but Saru is the captain, so why can't we have him act like it rather than having Burnham step in to make all the decisions?