It’s time for the latest installment in my ongoing episode by episode reviews of season 3 of Star Trek Discovery. Reviews of previous episodes may be found here.
Warning: Spoilers behind the cut!
“The Sanctuary” is a busy episode, partly because Star Trek Discovery finally remembers that it is an ensemble show, so we have several B-plots and even C-plots in addition to the A-plot. Camestros Felapton calls it “not 100% B-plots, but it feeels like it”. Furthermore, “The Sanctuary” also provides answers to several open questions and raises new ones.
Let’s get to the C-plots first: Linus is moulting, which is rather unpleasant both for him and the crew. Saru is looking for a Picard-like catchphrase to give commands and tries out several catchphrases, before finally settling on “Carry on”. Tilly is first officer now and gets to come up with one good idea to save the day, but otherwise her actual role doesn’t seem to have changed much, which begets the question why they did the whole first officer switcheroo in the first place.
Moving on to the B-plots, Dr. Culber and Dr. Pollard try to determine what the hell is wrong with Philippa Georgiou, which is complicated by the fact that Georgiou is about the worst patient imaginable. Honestly, I thought I was a bad patient, because I don’t much care for doctors. But so far I have never threatened to kill a doctor to their face, whereas Georgiou threatens to gruesomely murder poor Dr. Culber repeatedly. Culber is remarkably sanguine about that. After all, he’s been dead before, murdered by a patient. Georgiou also experiences another of her weird flashbacks/flashforwards/flash-sideways. The Georgiou scenes don’t really tell us anything new, but Michelle Yeoh is always fun to watch and Wilson Cruz manages to hold his own against her.
A somewhat more important B-plot is that Stamets and Adira have used the SB-19 data and the flight recorder data to determine the source of the Burn. That source is located inside a nebula, which makes it somewhat hard to reach. However, Stamets and Adira have discovered a distorted audio signal emanating from the nebula. When remastered, that signal turns out to be none other than the lullaby that the family on the seed ship hummed and that Adira and Gray were playing on their cello. Further remastered, the signal turns out to be a Starfleet distress signal. So Starfleet somehow managed to cause its own destruction, though likely unwillingly.
Furthermore, Adira also informa Stamets that they don’t want to be addressed by the pronouns “she” and “her”, but prefer “they” and “them”, which Stamets takes in stride and promptly switches to the correct pronouns. Adira also confesses that they didn’t tell anybody about their preferred pronouns other than Gray and now Stamets. Oh yes, and Adira cannot see and hear Gray anymore, which is bothering them.
io9 reviewer Zack Handlen praises Discovery for the relatively low-key handling of Adira’s preferred pronouns, as does Emmet Asher-Perrin at Tor.com. However, I felt that the pronoun scene was clumsy in the well-meaning progressive way that Star Trek can sometimes be clumsy. Because at least in some area such as Twitter bios, convention badges, Zoom conferences and meetings, etc… we are rapidly moving towards normalising people stating their preferred pronouns. So by the 24th century, let alone by the 32nd, I would assume that the universal translator automatically recognises pronoun preferences or that they have something along the lines of the Betan earring code from Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan novels to indicate pronouns.
Not to mention that the fact that non-binary people exist isn’t exactly new to Star Trek. Way back in 1992, The Next Generation had a whole episode, “The Outcast”, featuring a planet where being non-binary was the norm and binary folks were considered abnormal. And yes, it’s a crappy and offensive episode by modern standards (and frankly, I found it crappy and offensive even back in the 1990s), but it still happened, so non-binary people are not a new concept in the Star Trek universe. As Jonathan Frakes, director of “The Sanctuary”, should well remember, because he starred in “The Outcast”, where Riker falls in love with a rare binary non-binary alien played by Melinda Culea, before she is brainwashed into non-binariness again. And yes, the episode is exactly as bad as it sounds.
But even though the whole pronoun things was handled a tad clumsily, I really love the relationship that’s developing between Stamets, Culber and Adira with Stamets and Culber basically acting as surrogate parents to Adira. So Adira has two daddies now and since Culber mentioned to Georgiou, that he would have children, if he had more time, there might even be siblings on the horizon.
So let’s get to the actual A-plot of the episode, which is that Book receives a message from his never before mentioned estranged brother Kyheem (Book and Spock really would get along, considering both never mention relatives, unless forced to do so) asking him to return to his home planet Kwejian.
Since Kwejian doesn’t have warp travel, the Burn did not affect them directly. However, they were affected indirectly, because whatever caused the Burn (the mystery distress signal/lullaby?) caused a species of glowing blue insects named the sea locusts to swarm the planet and destroy the harvest. We never learn what this harvest might be, since Kwejian belongs to the approx. 30 percent of planets in the galaxy that look like British Columbia, so all we see is forest. Maybe the people of Kwejian export timber (though who in the Star Trek universe uses wood except for Jean-Luc Picard?) or maybe they eat trees?
At any rate, the people of Kwejian were starving until rescue arrived… – no, not in the form of Starfleet, because they’re bloody useless these days, but in the form of the Emerald Chain syndicate (who have turned violations of the Prime Directive into an artform according to Admiral Vance) who offered Kwejian a sea locust repellant for a price. That price was that the people of Kwejian hunt down transworms and hand them over to the Emerald Chain (And has it ever been explained why transworms are so sought after? Do they shit dilithium crystals? Is there slime the best drug against erectile dysfunction ever?). Kyheem was willing to pay that price and cooperate with the Emerald Chain. Book was not and left to become a courier cum transworm rescuer.
And now the repellant has stopped working, Kwejian is in trouble and Kyheem sends Book a message after more than ten years. It’s very obviously a trap, especially since Book (and Michael) seriously annoyed the Emerald Chain only two episodes ago. However, Book is determined to go. And Michael is determined to not let him go alone. Now we could get a repeat of “Scavengers”, with Michael going rogue to help Book. However, it seems as if someone (the characters? the writers?) has learned from that particular disaster and so Saru, Michael and Book go to see Admiral Vance together. And Vance listens to them and then allows Discovery to travel to Kwejian, but only as observers. They are not allowed to engage with the Emerald Chain.
So the Discovery is off to Kwejian. Book and Michael beam to the surface and are immediately cut off from the Discovery, because Kwejian’s defence systems block transporter and communication signals. Book and Michael wander through the woods, while Michael assures Book that his homeplanet is beautiful, cause he was a bit nervous whether she would like it. They encounter the sea locusts, which don’t look like a dangerous pest at all, and Book demonstrates his “talk to the animals” abilities to driving a few of them away. When Michael asks whether he couldn’t just tell all of the sea locusts to go away, Book says that he’s not strong enough for that.
Book and Michael are quickly found by Kyheem’s people, held at gunpoint and taken to Kyheem’s surprisingly cozy headquarters. Book and Kyheem also yell at each other – a lot. We learn that Book and Kyheem are not biological brothers, but found family. Oh yes, and Book isn’t really called Book. He had another name once, though I didn’t catch what it was.
Meanwhile, the Discovery detects something alarming. A massive armed ship is on its way to Kwejian. The Emerald Chain are coming and they’re not happy. The ship turns out to be the Viridian, flagship of Emerald Chain leader Osyra (played by Janet Kidder, niece of Margot Kidder, who was Lois Lane in the 1970s and 1980s). Osyra is your typical vampy villainess in black leather, only that she’s green (and I hope we’ll get a Georgiou versus Osyra catfight). And she’s not at all pleased about the events in “Scavengers”, so displeased in fact that she feeds her nephew and representative of the scavenger planet Tolor to a transworm.
Once the Viridian reaches Kwejian, Osyra demands that the Discovery hand over the antennaless Andorian Ryn whom Book and Michael had rescued back in “Scavengers”. Now Ryn clearly doesn’t want to be aboard Discovery either and pretty much demands to be beamed down to Kwejian to be with Book (he blunders into Saru’s ready room and promptly asks “Which of you is the captain?”). But Ryn is also terrified of Osyra and frankly terrified of everything. Saru, meanwhile, won’t hand over anybody who is under his protection and makes that very clear to Osyra.
Meanwhile, Osyra gives Kyheem a holographic call. Unsurprisingly, we learn that she was the one who ordered Kyheem to contact Book. And even though Kyheem has gotten Book to come to Kwejian, Osyra still isn’t satisfied. Because what she really wants is Ryn. She also threatens Kyheem with the destruction of the harvest and starvation for his kid (cause that is why Kyheem is so willing to cooperate with Osyra, because he’s afraid for his kid), if he doesn’t produce Ryn.
Since no one is willing or able to give up Ryn, Osyra decides to tighten the thumb screws and begins bombing Kwejian, targetting the defence systems. Book and Michael use the ensuing chaos to escape, though they still can’t hail Discovery.
Saru is not just going to sit by and watch as a helpless planet is bombed. However, he’s also not going to hand over Ryn to Osyra’s tender mercies, because he has principles. But his hands are bound, because Admiral Vance ordered Discovery not to engage. Saru is about to grasp the virtues of being a maverick and doing what you know is right, orders be damned (and I was applauding at this point), when Tilly comes up with a brilliant idea. Discovery cannot fire on the Viridian without violating Vance’s orders and risking a direct conflict, but Book’s ship can. And so Dettmer and Ryn attack the Viridian with Book’s ship, while the Discovery continues to observe.
We are now treated to the kind of space dogfight you normally only find in Star Wars, not Star Trek, as Dettmer unleashes her inner Han Solo and attacks the Viridian, while a terrified Ryn clutches Grudge and points out the weak spots. Dettmer eventually succeeds in chasing off the Viridian, but Osyra promises that she’ll be back. Which she likely will. However, the whole adventure has done wonders for Dettmer’s self-confidence and her PTSD. It has also done wonders for Ryn, who finally realises that the Federation is not evil. He also tells Tilly just why Osyra is so keen to have him back (especially since he’s “about as useful as the cat” in a fight). For the Emerald Chain is running out of dilithium, which puts Osyra’s little empire at risk. And Ryn is the only other person who knows.
Book’s reaction to seeing his ship attacking the Viridian in orbit is priceless, by the way. Though we don’t get to see a lot of it, because Kyheem and his people catch up with Book and Michael. A fight ensues that leaves Book and Kyheem literally at each other’s throats, until Michael gets them to stop by pointing a gun at Kyheem. Book confesses that he doesn’t want to fight Kyheem. Kyheem confesses that he doesn’t particularly want to fight Book either, but that he has no choice, because his planet and his son are in danger. And once the two brothers talk to each other, Michael comes up with a solution. Since Book and Kyheem are both empaths, why don’t they link together to drive the sea locusts back to sea? However, even two empaths are still not strong enough, so the Discovery boosts their signal and sends the locusts away.
It’s a very typically Star Trek solution – talking and working together solves the problem that no party could solve alone. However, even though “Let’s talk about it and work together” is the Star Trek way, it’s also much more satisfying to see characters actually talking to each other to find a solution than the past two episodes of characters not talking to each other but doing their own thing to generate artificial drama. James Whitbrook also notes in his review at io9 that the characters seem to have returned to the pre-future-trip status quo of talking to each other and trusting each other. Honestly, what was the point of the whole “Michael goes rogue – again – and gets demoted – again” excercise except generating artificial drama? And if the producers wanted to make Tilly first officer, they should just have had Michael decline and Saru offer Tilly the job. So less artificial drama, please.
The episode ends with Michael and Book giving Kyheem and his son a tour of the Discovery. Kyheem Jr. is fascinated by Linus, while Kyheem hopes Book will remain on Kwejian. However, Book declines, because he has decided that he wants to join Starfleet, now he’s seen that they’re genuinely helping people. Michael is naturally happy about this, but I wonder just why Starfleet and the Federation have such a bad rap in the 32nd century to the point that even founding members like Earth and Vulcan a.k.a. Ni’Var want nothing to do with them and Ryn (and the Andorians were another founding member of the Federation) is literally terrified of Starfleet, until they save his bacon. I mean, the Federation and Starfleet can be annoying and overly preachy and they do tend to believe a little too much in their own propaganda, but they’re not actively evil (with a few “wartime requires desperate measures” exceptions). And the current incarnation of Starfleet as represented by Admiral Vance seems fairly benign. So why are the Federation and Starfleet so disliked? Emerald Chain propaganda?
All in all, this was a solid, if unremarkable episode of Star Trek Discovery. My main criticism would be that the many B and C-plots are drowning out the supposed A-plot and that Book’s homeworld and its people remain vague as a result. Star Trek worlds are rarely well defined and often consists only of some countryside and a single city, but Kwejian basically seems to be a forest in Canada inhabited by maybe ten people in leather jackets who have a massive problem with cute floating blue things for reasons that never become quite clear. Similarly, the relationship between Book and Kyheem remains vague, especially since they spend most of their screentime together shouting at each other. Also, are the people of Kwejian even human or are they humanoid aliens? Cause Book’s and Kyheem’s abilities suggest that they’re not fully human. For a while, I wondered whether they were Betazoids, but Lwaxana and Deanna Troi never mumbled and has glowing foreheads, when they deployed their empathic abilities.
The Orions are another massively underdeveloped Star Trek race. In the original series, they were basically sexy green women and they were rarely seen in subsequent series. Meanwhile, Discovery seems to be turning them into Ferengi Mark 2 (and why are we never seeing any Ferengi anymore? Rights issues?), only with fewer unique quirks, so they’re basically space gangsters in black leather spraypainted green.
We will certainly be seeing Osyra again – after all, she announced that she’ll be back. But I still hope that we’ll eventually learn more about Orions and about Book and Kwejian, for that matter.