While Discovery has had a distinctive visual style from the beginning and some distinct themes (bloodier than other versions of Trek), it hasn’t found its own narrative style. There have been experiments with space opera (particularly Season 1 mirror universe episodes) and advances in CGI have made it possible for Discovery to include exciting, action-filled space battles. Yet the show has often relied on story conventions from the original series and TNG. Also, the relatively small number of episodes per season has meant that it has retreated from the more social slightly-soap operaish (in a good way) qualities introduced in TNG but better explored in DS9.
The Picard limited series (flawed as it was) had the advantage of committing more overtly to a single season-length plot. Each season of Discovery has had its own story arc (Lorca-Ash, Red Angel and now The Burn) but the show has still attempted very TNG episodes (often directed by Commander Riker himself!) mixed in with space-action episodes (that I’ve enjoyed but often they felt like the belonged to a different franchise).
Su’Kal is an interesting, if over-stuffed episode. Lots of things happen (and Cora’s review covers the plot better than I can http://corabuhlert.com/2020/12/26/star-trek-discovery-mounts-a-rescue-mission-and-meets-sukal/ ) and overall it doesn’t quite come together but I feel like there is a sense of both synthesis and distinctiveness here.
The opening is unusual. Has a Trek episode ever done this before? The show starts within the same scene as the last episode but not to resolve a cliff hanger. We last met the crew toasting the dead-not-dead Emperor Georgiou. She is long dead and also very much alive in the past (which is true of every dead person when you think about it) but also she’s not narratively dead. That closing scene was a way to close off that story line but also (in universe) for the crew to find closure for the loss of Georgiou (and remember that several of them had served with the non-evil Georgiou & they all had served with the evil-but-pretending-not-to-be Lorca). That scene was plausible but also plausibly discordant in tone (sadness at losing a woman who was not just rude but a mass murderer who used to eat members of Captain Saru’s species).
This episode simply carries on that scene with the crew still at Georgiou’s wake. We get Adira and Stamets interacting and Gray deciding to return. However, the social bonding is interrupted with the shocking news that there is somebody alive on the mysterious Kelpian ship that may contain the answers to the mystery of the Burn. I wonder, if they filmed this with the original intention for this revelation to be a cliff-hanger moment for the previous episode? Maybe, but as odd as it was I liked that sense of a blending between episodes. There is a thing that Discovery has done that previous Trek versions have rarely done — play with the narrative time within and between episodes.
The episode attempts to pull in the different ways Discovery can be into one episode. Space action (as Book’s ship attempts to zoom through an erratic and radioactive dilithium fuelled nebula storm) a very TNG/TOS away-team adventure in a mind-bending location along with the plot arc and Disocvery’s penchant for space-opera tropes as acting-captain Tilly has to face off evil-space-princess-pirate with green skin.
Does that all work in one episode? No but not for a lack of effort and the show delivers an enjoyable if chaotic Trek adventure. It is also probably one of the best uses of the holodeck concept in an episode that I’ve seen (note: not the best episode on the holodeck but the best concept). As the Discovery crew aren’t familiar with the technology, it is a genuine mystery to them but not to the viewer. That itself is another Discoveryesque aspect done well — a call back that rewards fans but works without prior knowledge that works organically with the plot.
It also means that Doug Jones gets to work without make-up as the holodeck on board the crashed Kelpian ship decides to represent him as a human.
The essence of the mystery of the Burn is explained and the answer is unsurprising only in so far as it doesn’t matter. It was always going to be magicphysics but we get a bit of Trekian psychic-woo which is fine. Trek cosplays as hard-science fiction in the Campbellian tradition of cosplaying as hard science (it’s recursive) and I have zero complaints about that.
The good news is that behind the scenes, Phillipa Georgiou took the script for this episode back to Season 1 and is threatening to put the showrunners for that season in the Agoniser so that they start experimenting with this format in season 1 so that by the time the new timeline gets to season 3 they’ve worked out how to make it work. “No Klingons!” shouts Georgiou as producers cower in terror while an intern tries to get Michelle Yeoh’s agent on the phone, not understanding that Georgiou is the character and not the actor playing her. “Experiment with the narrative form of Trek,” she says in a more charming tone which some how conveys a deeper threat of mutilating violence than her shouts or the combo of bat’leth and Romulan disruptor that she is wielding. “Experiment with character not Klingon prosthetics. Show us the neglected Trek species like the Orions not the Klingons again! Show non-traditional family relationships like it’s the future and not the 1990s and expecting a cookie just for having a gay couple in the cast!”. (Why isn’t Georgiou also warning us all about Covid-19 if she is in the past? Because she is an evil space emperor and she has other priorities.)
Two more episodes to go. The next one is on New Year’s Eve — it’s like Discovery is doing Christmas specials like Doctor Who! Michael, Saru and Doctor Hugh as the Three Wise Men/Sentient Beings come to visit the child born in hostile surroundings? That almost works.
Finally, once again (as the show always has) the episode delivers visually with great CGI work on the space storm planet and the crumbling fantasy world of the holodeck. Hot mess that looks fabulous is the future that Discovery wants.