Ursula K. Guin’s ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ Inspired the Mystery of The Burn in ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Season 3

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The mystery of “The Burn”  was inspired by one of legendary sci-fi writer Ursula K Leguin’s most famous short stories ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.’

The 1973 short tells the tale of the utopian city of Omelas, which includes a dark truth.

“The Hope That is You, Part 2” — Ep#313 — Pictured: Doug Jones as Saru and Bill Irwin as Su’Kal of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/CBS ©2020 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Everything about the city is catered to the narrator’s desires. But for Omelas to to remain so requires that a single unfortunate child be kept in perpetual filth, darkness, and misery. The child is helpless: anything kind, small or big, will turn Omelas from a utopia into a dystopia.

The terms are strict.

Writer Michelle Paradise: “One of the things that we were exploring a lot in season three was this notion of connection and disconnection. And the most powerful disconnect between this child and his mother—we couldn’t think of anything that was more emotional than that. And then this world created by his mother’s love for him, trying to make his world a better place, even in her absence. The ways in which the characters who were born into this world – Admiral Vance and Book in particular and all of these other characters who have been adrift from one another, and disconnected, reaching and trying to connect. We wanted the world that Su’Kal lived in to be symbolic of that.”

“The Hope That is You, Part 2” — Ep#313 — Pictured: Bill Irwin as Su’Kal, Doug Jones as Saru, Wilson Cruz as Dr. Hugh Culber and Blu del Barrio as Adira of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/CBS ©2020 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

A teenage fan on Reddit compared the loneliness he experienced self-isolating due to COVID-19 to Su’Kal’s onboard the holo-ship. He felt Burnham and Su’Kal presented a reflection of his loneliness during the worldwide lockdowns.

He wrote: “Su’Kal is farther along in his own journey than I am but he fills me with the hope that you can find your own way and still find a family that is willing to accept you without being seen as weird or eccentric. It’s what I hope will happen after COVID-19 is in the rear-view mirror. As he is the cause of the burn which left the Federation in shambles Su’Kal also represents COVID-19 itself and it’s political fallout.”

Michael’s struggle with reconnecting confounds her as they revisit all of the places that were homes for her (albeit a thousand years ago): Earth, Ni’Var (formerly Vulcan), and even Discovery.

Ultimately Michael is able to reconnect with her crew vis-a-vis Book when they both confess that when together, “they feel like home.”

The writers had fun with several nods to both the story and Le Guin herself, even naming one of the 32nd century Federation ships in her honor. The ship is mentioned in the episode “Scavengers” by Admiral Vance. After the episode mentioning the USS Le Guin aired, the late author’s estate sent out a tweet saying she would be “would be tickled!” by the reference.

Le Guin died in 2018.

Above: CBS shared concept art for the USS Le Guin and other 32nd century Federation ships.

Another influence on the season, but especially the last two episodes, was Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

The Allegory of the Cave is generally considered to be Plato’s most famous and powerful meditation on the nature of reality and how it’s shaped by knowledge (or lack of it) and point-of-view/perspective.

It also forces you to considered the role of belief in truth versus actual truth, so the nature of truth itself. Finally, it considered the notion of being blinded by truth/reality: when one leaves the cave for the outside, he is initially blinded. It acts as a parallel for sensory “truth” vs. spiritual truth, the light being an allegory for spiritual truths or deeper truths, as it were.

The forms or shadows as articulated by Plato, are more real than reality, they later become the basis for Carl’s Jeung’s widely accepted “archetypes.”

The holos are the shadows on the wall. But even the realization that they merely represent reality but not are reality doesn’t impact your overwhelming preference for the safety of something not real versus the real fear of something real that cannot be anticipated.

Like Su’Kal’s fear of outside. “The holos said the federation would come for me from outside. And they never came.”

Su’Kal, like the narrator in Omelas, knows that the holos are too good to be real, but his fear barely allow him to question whether they’re real, any hint which of would suggests that he too may not exist.

Above: Kaminar in the 32nd century.

In classic  Star Trek style, Su’Kal is an avatar of 2020, COVID-19, and isolation but also of the hope that is us (and particularly Michael Burnham).

Burnham’s voice over at the end of the season finale as she officially prepares to take over the command of Discovery for the first time speaks to these themes. “Disconnection. That’s how this future began—one moment in time that radiated outward until no one even remembered that connection was possible anymore. But  it is. The need to connect is at our core as  sentient  beings.  It takes time, effort,  and understanding.  And sometimes it feels impossible.  But if we work at it, miracles can happen….

“And a future. One where the sky has no limits. That shines with all the breath and wonder this new future has to offer us.”

But as she has each season, these finales also demonstrate her growth and the tease of whether or not she would finally assume command. Now when she actually does, her performance projects an effortless gravitas, that unquestionably gets her in the captain’s chair and that not only feels deserved but earned.

Following Michael’s first command and  jump into warp as captain, we also get a powerfully relevant and rare new quote from Star Trek’s creator Gene Rodenberry that sums up season 3 as well: “In a very real sense we are all aliens on a strange planet. We spend most of our lives reaching out and trying to communicate. If during our whole lifetime we could reach out and really communicate with just two people, we are indeed very fortunate.”

“Let’s fly,” indeed.