Monday, January 4, 2021

Discovery, Season 3: Su'Kal

Discovery, Season 3
Airdate: December 24, 2020
40 of 40 produced
40 of 40 aired


The crew of Discovery learns the true cause of The Burn. Tilly totally beefs it on her first day in command.

Spoiler: It's this guy. When he gets upset.


Matthew: Well, here we are, the grand solution to the "Burn" mystery. Here's the thing - when you extend a mystery over 13 episodes, it is almost guaranteed to be anticlimactic and unsatisfying. And boy howdy, is it ever here. So I'll just get it over with first and foremost - the solution to this "mystery" fucking sucks. It sucks in several different ways. Firstly, it is the randomness of it. Yet again, we are treated to a complete ass pull (look it up) when a character we have never heard of is the lynchpin around which everything turns. Is a mystery compelling as a storytelling device when there is in principle no possible way that the reader/viewer could have solved it? This is just like last season's introduction of Mama Burnham as the greatest scientist in human history and inventor of the Red Angel suit one episode before the finale of the Big Dumb Mystery. Here, both the ass pull and the methodology are even stupider. If you tell me that someone invents a time machine and that this was the cause of strange timey-wimey plot garbage, I guess I can deal. But here, you're telling me that a baby was born into a massive radiation zone that kills everybody else within hours. Then this baby, in the womb, adapts to said radiation in such a way that, not only does he survive it, but that his body can, upon the introduction of emotional upset, produce an energy field that can instantaneously detonate dilithium across an entire galaxy, BUT HAS ONLY DONE THIS ONE TIME OVER AN ENTIRE CENTURY OF LONELINESS, and might do it again if we're not careful! I just.... I don't really have anything more to say about it. If it doesn't bother you, then we have fundamentally different things we're looking for in a Star Trek story, or in filmed entertainment generally.

Kevin: Yeah, this was not their best work plotwise and that's saying something. I agree with your critiques and will only add, the problem is compounded by the serialized telling. Even a perfectly executed story would creak under ten episodes of buildup, but there was no hint or connection to anything that's come before so we are introduced to this character and are expected to feel enough of a connection to him to feel...anything...about his feelings. There have been ass pull stories even in good Star Trek, but those handwaving set ups are the springboard for a good story not the resolution of one. I was thinking about Star Trek IV recently, and I think it proves my point. The alien probe is a total asspull of a story driver. We learn nothing about them and much as we could malign the spores in the spore drive, the idea that whale song can travel interstellar distances is an idea that seems a tad silly on its face. The key differences are that the probe story was enough to propel two hours of story, not fifteen, and the bulk of the time in that story was spent on well developed characters with understandable goals. The actual substance of who the probe was from or what they wanted wasn't actually what the story was about. If the movie ended with Kirk breathily crying with the child inside the alien probe, we get a different movie. This is a roundabout way of saying that it's not that I need hard science fiction to propel every story, it's that whatever you use to push your characters on their journey, the journey itself has to be built in a way that makes me feel things about them rather than tells me with music cues.

Matthew: The crime of it is that, while derivative, the overall plot is a fairly decent germ of a Trek story. The kid who is left alone with holographic caretakers is reminiscent of "Future Imperfect" and "The Bonding." There are many interesting aspects of such a story to explore, and they do a so-so job of investigating one of them, namely, the mental illness of the child in question. I was, despite myself, fairly engaged when Burnham pretended to be a projection in the program in order to reach the guy. Not that this went anywhere, but it was at least interesting and somewhat novel.

Kevin: That scene is exactly what I'm talking about. You have a character with a clear goal and an understandable obstacle and it was enjoyable to watch Burnham try to dance fast enough to keep the ruse going while getting the information she needed. Again, even if the particulars of how we got here are a tad "because," if the actual scene you show me makes narrative sense, I'll still respond to it. And yeah, I thought of Future Imperfect too. And I will use it re-restate my point. Why does Future Imperfect work where this episode doesn't? Because this episode needs me to invest in a fairly convoluted set of events technically initiated by a lonely child unknowingly lashing out. Future Imperfect only needs me to invest in the idea that a child being lonely in inherently sad. And indeed it is. Not only is All Life in the Galaxy not at risk, it turns out not even Riker personally is at risk. We got an interesting trip through an alt future for the show, but the dramatic heavy lifting is done by Riker and thus the audience feeling empathy for this orphaned child, and feeling a little twinge when you realize all his fantasies were about being rescued by a parental figure. It's the difference between "what happened?" and "what is the episode about?" 

Matthew:  The Tilly angle to the story is risibly dumb. Yes, Tilly, you're not ready to be captain, especially in an emergency. YOU'RE AN ENSIGN. IS there really no one else on this ship with more command experience, with deeper training on negotiation tactics, battle tactics, and the like? It's Star Trek 2009 levels of dumb, but at least Abrams had the foresight to claim that Kirk was a prodigy or something. Did Tilly do all such training off camera? Did they forget to mention that she was a prodigy? It just seems like the writers like the actress and want to give her more to do, and can't be bothered to concoct a reasonable justification for her rapid promotion, or a storytelling reason for it (like it develops her in a meaningful way, or it is a happenstance of an extreme situation). Additionally, as I have said before, this show has an Ossyra problem. Something about this character, and its casting, doesn't work. Maybe future episodes will do this (it is getting late in the game, though), but she doesn't seem like a credible leader of a real organization that could possibly wield such power.

Kevin: The problem here for me was just it being another "everyone has to act dumb to move the story" plot. The second time Engineering doesn't answer the comm in a crisis you assume everyone in the room is dead and act accordingly. The other problem is the show doesn't know if it wants Tilly to be good at it or not. The idea of Saru valuing trustworthiness or loyalty over experience, even with the best of intentions, is an interesting riff on a poor choice, but then the episode has to know that is the story we're telling. I would be fine with a story where she fails or rises to the occasion but I can't shake the sense she will do both depending on what the story needs that week.


Matthew: Doug Jones was yet again effective, and I believed Saru's emotional journey as he came into contact with his culture after a long time away. Really, all of the Kelpiens in this episode delivered very effective performances, and the way the guest actors incorporated Jones' physical cues without aping them directly was quite good.

Kevin: It was nice to see Jones outside of the make up just for funsies and see just how much of all his role in addition to Saru are all him. It's clear the make up is there to provide physical features he does not have but it is not doing the heavy lifting of giving Saru internal life. That is all Doug Jones.

Matthew: Janet Kidder, apparently the niece of Margot Kidder, just doesn't do it for me as Osyraa. To be fair, she is not being given the writing to make her character feel real. But other actors have been able to create menace, allure, and a sense of inner life and history with less. So it just fails as a performance for me.

Kevin: I don't dislike her performance but will agree it doesn't transcend the material.

Production Values

Matthew: Well, the planet was dark, and inspired by M.C. Escher (a great way to keep your Living Bomb sane, mom!). It was visually interesting, anyway. I thought the changes to the characters who entered the simulation was a rather pointless contrivance.

Kevin: I assumed the Escher of it all had something to do with the holodeck malfunctioning, but that's not really explained. I totally didn't get turning them into different Federation species. Wouldn't he respond better to another Kelpian?


Matthew: I'm wavering between a 1 and a 2 here. The monumental facial stupidity of the Burn plot resolution is really hard to see past, even when there is a potentially interesting character story that lacks development. I think when you add the stupidity of the Tilly plot, I can justify it. This is in the bottom decile of Trek. If Threshold can exist there despite having a fairly good character story for Paris, this can live there, too. It's a wretched piece of trash, and it makes everything that came before it retroactively worse.

Kevin: I was ready to go with a 2 until you mentioned Threshold. You make a good point that that story was so bad it voided any decent character work, and this one has the added problem of making the entire season have a worse arc. I agree with the 1 for a total of 2.

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