Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Season 3.
As I was wrapping up my Discovery Season 3 series of articles in January, I said that we’d return to the Burn at a later date once I’d had time to get my thoughts in order. The Burn was the main storyline running through all of the show’s third season, and in addition it’s a story which has significant ramifications for Star Trek going forward, so I wanted to be able to do justice to this big subject. As you may recall from my commentary as the season was ongoing, I have mixed feelings. There’s a lot to talk about.
First up, let’s recap what the Burn was purely from an in-universe perspective, then we can get into my analysis of how well it worked as a narrative.
Though the timeline of some of these events was vague, we know that beginning in the 28th or 29th Centuries, the galaxy began to experience a dilithium shortage. The reason for this was never given nor explained in detail, but it was serious enough that the Federation began seeking out alternative sources of dilithium. At the same time, the Federation started to research alternative methods of faster-than-light travel, the most successful of these being the Ni’Var (Romulan-Vulcan) project called SB-19.
All of this came against the backdrop of a conflict referred to as the Temporal Wars. It’s assumed that this is related to Enterprise’s Temporal Cold War storyline, which saw a temporal agent named Daniels spend time aboard Captain Archer’s NX-01 Enterprise. The end of the war in the late 30th or early 31st Century saw the implementation of a ban on time travel, which is an aspect of the storyline that never really went anywhere.
By the mid-3060s, the Federation’s quest for dilithium was ongoing, and a Kelpien ship – the KSF Khi’eth, with Dr Issa on board – travelled to the Verubin Nebula. After finding a route inside, the ship crashed on a dilithium planet inside the nebula, and wasn’t able to be rescued. A child named Su’Kal was born to Dr Issa while inside the nebula, and as a result of exposure to the Verubin Nebula’s radiation and the dilithium of the planet where he was born, Su’Kal developed a telepathic connection of some kind with dilithium, a link which was seemingly amplified by being on the dilithium planet. At moments of extreme emotion, Su’Kal could trigger a psychic shockwave which destabilised dilithium. The death of his mother in the late 3060s caused this to happen, and the psychic shockwave travelled across the entire galaxy near-simultaneously. Almost all active dilithium went inert, and any ship with an active warp core exploded. This event was later referred to by survivors as “the Burn.” No one, including the Federation, knew how or why this happened, and for more than a century the cause of the Burn went unknown.
The Burn caused widespread societal changes across the known galaxy, including the withdrawal of many Federation members and the rise of a faction called the Emerald Chain – which was implied to be a successor to the Orion Syndicate. Worlds like Trill, Earth, Ni’Var, and others left the Federation, and the severe dilithium shortage meant that other Federation members and colonies were no longer within travel distance. It’s not clear whether the Burn wrecked the Federation’s subspace communications network directly, or whether decades of decline and decay were responsible. Either way, by the time of Michael Burnham’s arrival in the year 3188, the rump Federation was not able to even communicate with some former and current members.
So that, in a nutshell, is the Burn.
Over the course of Season 3, Discovery dropped hints about the Burn and what it could be connected to. We had the mysterious piece of music that everyone seemed to know, Michael Burnham’s year-long research quest into starship black boxes, the aforementioned SB-19 project, the missing Red Angel suits and Michael’s mother, the name “Burn” possibly implying a connection to Michael Burnham, a mention of the Gorn having “destroyed” a region of subspace, a couple of possible ties to the Short Treks episode Calypso – by way of the word “V’draysh” to refer to the rump Federation and the timelines seeming to line up – and a couple of other smaller things.
This setup forms a fairly typical “mystery box;” a style of storytelling pioneered by people like the writer/director of 2009’s Star Trek (and The Rise of Skywalker) J.J. Abrams. Alex Kurtzman, who was Discovery’s executive producer for all of Season 3 and who’s in overall creative control of the Star Trek franchise for ViacomCBS, is a colleague of and frequent collaborator with J.J. Abrams, and has adopted at least some of his storytelling methods. So it makes sense to see a “mystery box” in Discovery considering who’s in charge – and how television storytelling in general works as we’ve moved into an era of serialised shows.
The basic problem with the Burn as a “mystery box” is that the clues we as the audience were fed throughout the season did not add up to the story’s resolution. None of the clues or hints that the show dropped ultimately mattered; there was no way for anyone to put the pieces together to figure out the cause of the Burn based on what we saw on screen, not until the final episode when the Burn’s true origin was revealed. Some, like the piece of music, were dropped from the story altogether, despite seeming to be important when they first appeared. This made for a narrative that was, for many viewers and fans, unsatisfying at a fundamental level.
I’m not suggesting that the storyline should have been telegraphed or written in a very obvious way, but once the decision had been made to establish the 32nd Century’s semi-post-apocalyptic setting as being of mysterious origin, that mystery needed to be resolved in a satisfying way. The fact that nothing that we learned across the entire season mattered or had any impact whatsoever on the Burn made the reveal that Su’Kal was the cause feel like a bolt from the blue; a deus ex machina.
Had the Su’Kal reveal come in episode 3 or 4, and then the story had moved on to deal with things like the diplomacy with Ni’Var and the conflict with the Emerald Chain, perhaps it would’ve worked better. But it came at the end of a season that had been running for several months, and in which several episodes were side-missions that didn’t further the Burn story in any way. Season 3 feels like it spent a lot of time getting to an anticlimax; all of those expectations which had been built up quite cleverly over the preceding episodes basically fizzled out. It wasn’t a catastrophic disaster of an ending, but it was one which just didn’t seem to fit with the story that had been teased all season long.
For Trekkies – and for more casual viewers too, I would argue – the Burn was the most interesting, tantalising, and engaging part of the story of Season 3. How had Star Trek’s optimistic future been brought to its knees? How had the Federation allowed this event to happen in the first place, and how had the organisation so badly bungled its aftermath that even Earth had quit the organisation? These questions were all teed up by the Burn storyline, and providing a satisfying answer was perhaps the single most important task that befell the writers and producers of Season 3.
Su’Kal being the answer could have worked if the mystery had been set up differently. Bringing in the Kelpiens at an earlier stage would’ve helped, as would clues or hints about missions to seek out dilithium or experiments about radiation and telepathy. But I don’t think there can be any denying that Su’Kal as the cause of the Burn in the version of the story that made it to screen came from nowhere; it simply does not fit with what was set up in the rest of the season. That’s the fundamental reason why, for many folks, the Burn feels like a storyline that didn’t deliver at what should’ve been its climax.
There’s more to say, though. The idea of running out of an essential fuel and looking for alternative options is an interesting analogy considering that the real world remains dependent on fossil fuels. The Burn can be read, perhaps, as an extreme metaphor for climate change – the Federation’s dependence on dilithium ultimately caused a catastrophe that almost led to the collapse of civilisation itself.
But if this kind of analogy was part of the writers’ intentions, it has to get a failing grade. The concept itself works. It does what Star Trek has always done: uses its sci-fi setting to look at real-world issues. But once Su’Kal was shuffled out of the way, what did the Federation find? A massive cache of dilithium. A planet-sized mass of this vital fuel could power the galaxy for decades or more, regardless of the fact that it was almost responsible for the end of advanced civilisation. To continue the climate change analogy, this is the equivalent of running out of coal and oil, trying to use renewables, then the story ending with a huge new coal mine and oil fields being discovered.
Though some Trekkies may be glad to see that dilithium crystals aren’t in danger of disappearing from the franchise, this adds another element to the Burn’s unspectacular ending. After all of the talk of a shortage of fuel, alternative methods of propulsion (including several mentioned in the season premiere that were never spoken of again), and how dangerous dilithium could be, the story ends not with some new technology being invented to circumvent the crisis, nor with Federation starships being fitted with Spore Drives like Discovery has, but with a cop-out – finding a huge new dilithium planet that can be strip-mined for fuel.
The Burn and the dilithium shortage storylines were effectively reset by the end of Season 3. With Season 4 seemingly picking up a new story, what could’ve been one of the most powerful turning points in the entirety of Star Trek may find itself relegated to being little more than an unsatisfying season-long story arc that future stories will simply ignore. The Burn could’ve led to significant changes for Star Trek, assuming future shows might use a 32nd or 33rd Century setting. New kinds of starship could have been created using different methods of propulsion and new technobabble to explain it. Instead, basically what happened is that after a season-long dalliance with a setting teetering on the edge of the post-apocalyptic, Star Trek will shift back to using the same things as before.
A story that comes full-circle can work. After a season of seeing the galaxy struggling in the aftermath of the Burn, it will feel great to see Captain Burnham and the crew bringing hope back to the shattered Federation, and hopefully seeing the organisation returning to full strength. But how we get to those ending points is significant, and in the case of the Burn, the storyline took an odd route that has left many viewers feeling it wasn’t all it could’ve been.
Finally, we come to what I consider to be the worst and most egregious failing of the Burn and its storyline: the portrayal of Su’Kal and his role in it.
Bill Irwin put in an outstanding performance as Su’Kal, and I don’t want to criticise him for a moment. The way Su’Kal came across on screen was sympathetic, and his scenes with Saru in particular were deeply emotional. This is no criticism of the performances of Irwin or any of the other actors involved in the Su’Kal sequences.
Neurodivergent people, people with learning difficulties, and people with mental health issues have long been portrayed on screen in a variety of negative ways. That can be by becoming the butt of jokes, at other times being portrayed as villains, having no say in or agency over their own lives and stories, or simply by being ignored; it hasn’t been an easy road. Simply seeing a positive portrayal of someone in that situation could be a big deal, yet Discovery completely screwed this up.
By saying that Su’Kal accidentally caused the worst disaster in the entire history of the Star Trek galaxy, the show plays to old stereotypes of the neurodivergent as dangerous. Su’Kal is, for all intents and purposes, no different from Lennie in John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel Of Mice and Men. Lennie would accidentally kill another character in the book because he didn’t realise or understand his own strength, and that description of a man who was “too stupid” to recognise or understand his own power fits Su’Kal almost perfectly.
Discovery treats Su’Kal with a cloying, sickening pity at times, looking down at him while trying to present him in as pathetic a manner as possible. The show sees Su’Kal as a hapless moron who blew up every starship in the galaxy with his uncontrolled emotional outburst, painting him – and, by extension, other people with mental health conditions and learning disabilities – as a serious danger to others. People with learning difficulties are often portrayed as unable to control their emotions, which is a further stereotype that Discovery leans into. These aspects of the portrayal are really just awful, and putting Su’Kal in this position has real-world comparisons that are deeply unpleasant.
How many times can you remember hearing, in the aftermath of a massacre or killing spree, that the suspect had “mental health problems” or a learning disability? It seems like it happens every time we hear of such an event, and there’s a huge stigma even today around the topic of mental health. As someone with diagnosed mental health conditions myself, this is a topic that hits close to home, and I feel that the way Discovery portrayed Su’Kal as this kind of “dangerous idiot” stereotype shows how far we still have to go as a society when it comes to talking about and depicting neurodiversity on screen.
Though I enjoyed much of what Discovery’s third season brought to the table, the way Su’Kal was portrayed in his two appearances at the end of the season were really disappointing, even more so considering that the Star Trek franchise has so often tried to be a pioneer for portrayals of underrepresented peoples. Season 3 introduced transgender and non-binary characters for the first time, for example, and the show has a married gay couple, is led by a black woman, and has characters from many different backgrounds. But when it came to depicting someone with mental health issues and learning difficulties, Discovery fell back on overused stereotypes and outdated tropes, effectively bringing a modern-day Lennie to the screen.
There are aspects of Su’Kal’s story that did work. I like the fact, for example, that the telepathic technobabble aspect of the storyline was very “Star Trek” – you wouldn’t get this kind of story in any other franchise, and that’s something that gives Star Trek a sense of identity; a slightly esoteric, weirder kind of sci-fi than you get in other stories. But that side of it is drowned out by how badly Su’Kal as a character and a trope landed.
Neurodiversity isn’t always going to be easy to put to screen, and I get that. If there were only two half-episodes to show off Su’Kal and get to know him, perhaps the chance for a nuanced portrayal that was sympathetic without being pitiful never existed to begin with. But if that’s what happened, Su’Kal should never have been created in the first place. Either a different character should’ve filled that role, or an alternative explanation for the Burn should’ve been found. Given all of the other faults, missteps, and failings present in the Burn narrative as a whole, which I outlined above, I would prefer the latter.
Su’Kal as a character exists in a weird space for me. On the one hand, the emotional side of the portrayal, and the performance by guest star Bill Irwin, were outstanding. But there are so many flaws in the premise of the character and his role in this galactic catastrophe that I can’t look past them. Su’Kal being responsible for the Burn is an age-old trope, one which perpetuates the stigmatisation of the neurodiverse, and in particular those with learning difficulties. Star Trek should know better than to use a character like Su’Kal in a role like this; Star Trek should be better than this, and that’s why it’s so disappointing to see this storyline in Discovery.
To conclude, I’ll say that the Burn was an interesting, if slightly alarming, premise for the season. It allowed Discovery to tell some truly different and unexpected stories, it provided the backdrop for some great characterisation and character moments, and it has set the stage for future stories in this era. It wasn’t a total failure and I wouldn’t want to see it somehow erased or overwritten.
At the same time, however, the storyline itself followed a very odd path. The ending didn’t flow from what had been slowly built up across the rest of the season leading to the Burn as a whole feeling unsatisfying. Season 3 is saved by the fact that it has those other great episodes, character moments, and standalone stories; had it been all about the Burn we could well be talking about Season 3 as Discovery’s worst.
For me, though, the most egregious failure and deepest disappointment with the Burn storyline is the role Su’Kal played in it, and the implications that has for how neurodiverse people are viewed and portrayed on screen. Though the stigma around mental health and learning disabilities still exists in a big way out here in the real world, Star Trek has always been at the forefront of changing minds and challenging stereotypes. To fall back on such an old-fashioned trope, even though I have no doubt it was accidental, is bitterly disappointing and even upsetting.
Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 is available to stream now on Paramount+ in the United States and on Netflix in the UK and around the world. The Star Trek franchise – including Discovery and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.