The third season of Star Trek: Discovery hasn’t just shaken up the series by thrusting the crew 930 years into their future; it’s also changed the usual shocks-a-million nature of the series established in Seasons 1 and 2 to become a pleasant throwback to the more mission-of-the-week nature of classic Star Trek, albeit with better effects and a higher budget. So it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that the reveal of what caused The Burn, the overall mystery driving Season 3, is simultaneously weirder and smaller than expected.
Spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery Season 3, Episode 11 “Su’Kal” past this point.
Obviously with two more episodes left in the season it’s possible there might be another twist. But “Su’Kal” seems to have pretty clearly established what ignited the event that caused most of the galaxy’s Dilithium to go inert about a hundred years back, leading to massive explosions and the near end of the Federation. And no, it’s not some overpowered villain, the revenge of Lorca (Jason Isaacs), a universe threatening AI or anything else premeditated. The Burn was caused by a child crying out when his mother died.
To be fair, we haven’t 100% gotten that explanation, but it’s still pretty clear what’s going on, and Discovery hasn’t been working hard to hide the info like in seasons past. It’s refreshing, in a way, to have the stakes be grounded so emotionally; and also, to have the eventual reveal be tied much more closely to Saru (Doug Jones) than Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green). Though of course it’s Michael who figures everything out.
A few episodes back, Adira (Blu del Barrio) and Stamets (Anthony Rapp) discovered a signal hidden in a song that led them to discover a Federation ship stranded in the center of a radioactive cluster since before The Burn happened (escape rooms have nothing on Star Trek: Discovery). That ship turned out to not only be from Kaminar, Saru’s home planet; but also contained a message from a Kelpien (Saru’s species). Markings on the Kelpien’s head led the crew to think she was dying of radiation poisoning, but Saru reveals this week that she was pregnant, and probably had the kid 4 or 5 years before The Burn happened. And then they discover that there’s a life sign alive on the ship.
Naturally, Discovery heads towards the cluster to try to rescue whoever is still alive, both because that’s the humane thing to do and also whoever is at the center of this cluster may have info on The Burn. There, they find out that the cluster is centered around a planet made of pure Dilithium, enough to bring back the Federation and unite the entire galaxy. Saru, Michael and Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) head to the ship to try and rescue whoever is still alive, knowing they only have about four hours until they succumb to radiation sickness. Meanwhile, Tilly (Mary Wiseman) is left in charge of the ship — which is exactly when villain Osyraa (Janet Kidder) and her gang The Emerald Chain attack, trying to take control of Discovery‘s spore drive.
So, lots going on there, but the focus of The Burn mystery is on (or near) the planet itself. Once there, we get a fun bit where the ship’s computer transforms Burnham, Culber and Saru to make their appearance more palatable to the now adult Kelpien. Burnham becomes a Trill, Culber is Bajoran, and Saru becomes… A human who looks very much like Doug Jones. For an actor who spends most of his life in makeup, it must be a nice relief to just be yourself for once; and seeing Jones move and talk like Saru out of layers of prosthetics is neat for viewers, too.
The adult Kelpien, who we later find out is named Su’Kal, is still, mentally, a child. He’s been living in a simulation for decades now, interacting with a slowly deteriorating computer, and running away from a strange smoke monster, one that he clearly needs to stand up to and conquer his fear of, if he’s going to be able to escape from his holographic prison (again, not quite figured out in the episode, but pretty obvious to put together).
He’s also the source of The Burn. When the monster attacks, the upset Su’Kal sends out a shockwave scream that resonates off the Dilithium planet, and nearly causes a second Burn. As a side effect it removes the cloaking device protecting Discovery, which ends up getting captured by Osyraa. But back on the planet, Burnham realizes that some combination of the cloud they’re in, the Dilithium planet, and whatever was done genetically to Su’Kal as a child to make him impervious to radiation, as a side effect, allows him to render Dilithium inert if he yells very loud.
Given the timeline, and that The Burn happened four or five years after Su’Kal was born, it’s pretty clear that seeing his mother die (Burnham asks him if he remembers anything before he was in his current habitat, and he offers only a blank stare) caused a grief scream of epic proportions, one that changed the entire galaxy.
The question becomes, how does Su’Kal control this ability so it never happens again? And can he even do that? Saru, Culber and a rogue Adira stay behind to try and help him, while Burnham and Book (David Ajala) watch Discovery get stolen by Osyraa, so we’re not quite done with this yet. But what’s most surprising about the structure of the season is that the threat isn’t caused by a villain. Here, the season’s real villain — Osyraa and The Emerald Chain — are a side effect of The Burn, not the cause. And neither is Discovery, or Burnham, or any of the suspects we had previously. In fact, the galaxy nearly died because of one child, grieving for his mother.
Star Trek: Discovery streams Thursdays on CBS All Access.
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