Once upon a time, nearly every episode of Star Trek: Discovery was a “Michael episode,” in which the main plot centered upon putting Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) through as much hell as could be managed in about 50 minutes. This season, however, there’s been more of an effort to spread the spotlight between members of the main and recurring cast. As a general rule, this is an improvement for the series, but this week’s episode, “The Sanctuary,” is a bit too scattered, giving a lot of characters something to do but not doing very much for any of them.
Cliff Notes for Book
In our A-plot, Commander Burnham’s new boyfriend, Cleveland “Book” Booker, responds to a distress call from his homeworld of Kwejian, which he left behind 15 years ago in protest of their poaching endangered species. In his stead, Book’s quasi-brother Kyheem (Ache Hernandez) has become responsible for Kwejian’s dealings with the sinister Emerald Chain, the alliance of Orions and Andorians that extorts and enslaves a significant slice of the galaxy. The Burn fouled up Kwejian’s ecosystem, and they now require help from the Chain in order to keep hordes of sea locusts from gobbling up their crops — help that the Chain provides in exchange for Kwejian’s supply of native trance worms, and anything else they demand.
With the support of Admiral Vance (see what happens when you ask nicely?!), Discovery transports Book to Kwejian, where he gets the chance to show off his lovely planet to Michael. She doesn’t get to see much of it, though, and as a result the stakes of the episode are never realized with sufficient gravity. While we’re told that millions of people are being threatened with starvation by the advancing sea locusts, the episode offers us the barest glimpse of the planet, represented only by Kyheem, a half-dozen stunt performers, and the forest behind a nice rental house outside Vancouver. The sea locusts float peacefully through the forest, and we never see them consume anything. Even when the Emerald Chain flagship begins their orbital bombardment of the planet and their photon torpedoes break through the planet’s defense screen, they land in the woods with all the destructive power of a mortar charge.
The drama on the planet is focused tightly on the conflict between Book and Kyheem, the brother who resents the shady family business and the brother who resents being left behind to run it, respectively. This backstory is also only provided in the broad strokes, and that doesn’t help the episode, either. I’ll use the word “brother” because that’s the word Book uses to refer to his fellow empath, as it’s not based on a blood relation but on “something [they] felt.” I’m not the kind of viewer who reads any whiff of intimacy between two characters as romantic, but if these two haven’t had sex, I’ll eat my hat. After multiple viewings I find myself far more interested in an invented narrative in which a young Book invites a fellow empath into his privileged family home, discovers the terrible truth of where his wealth comes from, and runs away while the heartbroken Kyheem stays behind with the in-laws. I’m stuck thinking about this because the actual episode doesn’t give me enough to get me fully invested in their conflict or their reconciliation at the end of the story.
Gimme a Minute to Think of a Good Fleetwood Mac Reference
The Emerald Chain’s leader, Osyraa (Janet Kidder, The Man in the High Castle), finally makes her debut in this episode, and after weeks of build-up, I find her to be something of a disappointment. The character as written is a fairly run-of-the-mill supervillain, and Kidder doesn’t imbue her with much menace or gravitas. We see Osyraa feed her nephew to a trance worm and threaten to starve Kyheem’s child to death, and yet she’s still not nearly as scary as our own Emperor Georgiou, which is a problem if she’s to be the overarching villain for the season. As cheap a play as it is, this role may have benefitted from some stunt casting to give her a little instant flavor — someone in the vein of a Lucy Lawless.
Osyraa has come to Kwejian in order to force Book to turn over Ryn (Noah Averbach-Katz), an Andorian who escaped slavery with Book in “Scavengers.” Ryn’s failed rebellion against Osyraa has cost him his antennae as well as his courage, and he plans to get off Discovery and away from danger as soon as he can. It’s only his debt to Book, who refuses to deliver him back into bondage, that convinces him to take action and rediscover a bit of his heroic streak. Ryn will apparently also be sticking around a while, and despite my decades-long wish for a regular Andorian character on a Trek show, so far I’m struggling to invest. Just because Michael Burnham is happy now doesn’t mean we need to introduce a new depressed character onto the show.
Through Ryn, we also learn that Andorians in general no longer trust the Federation, and after Earth and Vulcan, that implies that three out of the four founding planets have checked out. The actions of the Discovery crew seem to be winning people over week after week, but Starfleet and the Federation at large have clearly spent the last few centuries wrecking practically every relationship they ever built. We seem poised to learn the origin of the Burn soon, and it would be no surprise if they’re the cause of this whole mess.
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The biggest reason why “The Sanctuary” feels anemic is the way it divides its time between a number of ongoing subplots without advancing any of them very far. At the start of the episode, Dr. Culber tells Georgiou that the strange spells she’s been having since “Scavengers” are signs that her mind is collapsing. By the end, Georgiou has accepted that she’s sick, but we still don’t know the cause. Last week, Michael acquired some new sensor data regarding the Burn, so this week Stamets and Adira get to work on analyzing it, discover a few details, and then have to wait for some data to compile, delaying the real payoff for another episode. We learn that Adira is no longer seeing visions of their late boyfriend Gray, but we’re not really using that information, at least not yet.
What we are finally using are Adira’s promised they/them pronouns. In a private moment, Adira firmly requests to mentor/surrogate parent Lt. Stamets that they not be referred to as “she” or “her” anymore. Stamets models the proper response to such an edict, warmly responding “okay” without asking for any further explanation beyond what Adira volunteers, and putting the new language into practice immediately. It’s a moment that is convincingly intimate, true to the best versions of real exchanges on the subject, and without needing to dedicate a “very special episode” to it. While I still prefer the idea that no one would hesitate to share their gender identity in the 32nd century, I can imagine this scene being constructive for a viewer who finds themselves on either side of this conversation.
One further subplot does get wrapped up nicely this week, as Lt. Detmer’s (Emily Coutts) crisis of confidence finally comes to an end. After questioning her skills and generally being a wreck for weeks, Detmer is asked to fly Book’s ship on a dangerous attack run against Osyraa’s flagship, the Veridian. It’s rewarding to see Detmer get her groove back, boldly taking manual flight control and rediscovering the joy of flying and the thrill of danger, and it’s a pleasant outcome of this season being a bit more of an ensemble show than Discovery has been in the past. “The Sanctuary” may have overstretched itself a bit, but there’s definitely room on this show for multiple characters to experience growth at the same time.
And speaking of growth, Discovery’s help over Kwejian gives Book the last push he needs to decide that he wants to remain aboard — not just to be with Michael, but to be a part of their mission to help worlds like his. Book began the season as skeptical of Starfleet as the rest of the people in his era, but like everyone else Discovery encounters, he’s becoming a believer. Book and actor David Ajala have been a welcome addition to the cast and I hope he remains a fixture into next season — just don’t make him trade the cool leather jackets for a blue jumpsuit.