HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
While I understand that not every episode can push the plot forward in a major way, with five more episodes to go, “The Sanctuary” feels like it’s meant to be a breather. Yes, the SB-19 data, when combined with the data from Michael Burnham’s black boxes, yield the location of the Burn’s origin point. Yes, Dr. Culber’s tests reveal some pretty devastating information about Empress Georgiou’s health, and yes, we do get some insight into both the Emerald Chain’s weaknesses and the surprising source of the music that both Gray and the Barzan mother seem to know. However, the episode relegates most of those developments to the back burner because “The Sanctuary” is an episode about returning to one’s roots, metaphorically speaking. Book brings Burnham to his home planet Kwejian. Detmer gets her piloting mojo back by eschewing technology and flying the way she learned to fly in the first place. Even Saru gets to discuss Kaminar’s history while verbally sparring with Osyraa. One could even argue that Saru and Burnham are trying to bring back the Federation ideals by which they live. Thus far, sticking to those core principles has proven to be the correct choice, even when Burnham herself was uncertain, and while “The Sanctuary” does nothing to rock that particular boat, there are some undercurrents that render the episode interesting.
We’ve known since the season opener that Book has a problematic relationship with his family. He mentions to Burnham that they became poachers, which is anathema to his actions to try and save the trance worms, but despite that discomfort, all it takes to drag Booker back home is a comm from Kyheem telling him that Osyraa, the Emerald Chain representative with whom he has been working for the last decade and change, now threatens the planet. Despite the fact that this has trap written all over it, Book, Burnham, and Discovery hop over to investigate. They find Kwejian at the brink of agricultural collapse, with “sea locusts” driven far inland and destroying the native crops, and Kyheem leading the planet, albeit underneath Osyraa’s oppressive thumb.
Aboard Discovery, Stamets reveals to Saru that he and Adira have calculated the origin point for the Burn, the Verubin nebula. Moreover, they detected an audio signal emanating from the nebula, and between Tilly, Saru, Adira, and Stamets, they determine that not only is that signal the source of the peculiar music but that it is actually the sound of a Federation distress signal that has been distorted by magnetic fields in the area. Stamets volunteers Adira to write an algorithm to determine whether the audio signal contains an encoded message, and after Saru and Tilly leave, they correct him on their preferred pronouns.
Saru and Tilly head back to the bridge, and they jump to Kwejian. Once there, Saru sends Book and Burnham down to make contact. Joann Owosekun reports that a Chain vessel approaches the planet at maximum warp. The vessel, of course, is the Viridian, which is Osyraa’s personal vessel. Osyraa hails Saru and demands that he turn over Ryn, the Andorian Book rescued on Hunhau who is apparently still aboard Discovery. Saru declines, and Osyraa fires on the planet.
On Kwejian, Osyraa demands that Kyheem turn over Book and whoever came with him to use as bargaining tool to compel Saru to turn over Ryn. Book and Burnham sneak out of Kyheem’s manor to repair some of the planetary defenses and contact Discovery. Kyheem’s people attempt to apprehend them, forcing Book and Burnham to fight back. Eventually, Book and Burnham neutralize Kyheem’s entourage, but Kyheem himself gets a knife to Book’s throat. Burnham threatens to shoot Kyheem, and Book gets control over the knife.
Torn between Admiral Vance’s orders to remain as an observational presence and his desire to rescue Burnham, Saru prepares to order Discovery to engage the Viridian, but Tilly suggests using Book’s ship to attack the Viridian as Book’s ship isn’t a Federation vessel. Thus, Keyla Detmer and Ryn end up aboard Book’s ship firing onto the Viridian. The visibly nervous Detmer eventually disables the software assisting her to pilot the ship, and she goes full manual. In a move reminiscent of another Star franchise, she disables the Viridian with Ryn’s help with targeting.
Burnham convinces Book and Kyheem to use their empathic abilities to ask the sea locusts nicely to go out to sea, which they do, successfully. Book decides to sign up with the Federation, and they all save Kwejian. Culber, who has been wrangling a very uncooperative Georgiou throughout the episode, has some thoughts regarding Georigou’s condition, which he shares with her, offscreen. Stamets becomes closer to Adira, and presumably, Saru takes the Discovery back to face what will be a truly unhappy Admiral Vance. However, Ryn shares with Tilly that the reason Osyraa wants him is because he knows the Emerald Chain’s dilithium supplies are dwindling.
So much information gets thrown at us in this episode that “The Sanctuary” should have been more affecting and effective than it actually was. On the one hand, Book’s return to Kwejian serves as a strangely distorted mirror for Commander Nhan’s decision to try and make it home in “Die Trying” and also serves to reinforce the themes of “home” and “belonging” that have characterized much of this season. However, on the other, Book’s decision to hare after his estranged brother-in-arms makes absolutely no sense. Kyheem’s message is clearly a trap, and as a longtime courier, one would think Book savvy enough to recognize it as such. However, neither he nor Burnham really discuss the possibility that Kyheem is Up to Something. If anything, Book is more concerned about introducing his new girlfriend to the fam and about how embarrassing his old room will be.
This is a very odd narrative choice considering that the show has spent the entire season telling us are both extremely competent and also aware these characters are. In addition, “The Sanctuary” is not subtle in the slightest. From the moment they encounter Kyheem, the episode telegraphs that not only is Kyheem in cahoots with Osyraa but that he’ll ultimately spare Book. They have a completely unsurprising macho man-to-man fistfight in which Burnham has to intervene, and honestly, the whole thing comes off as ridiculous. There just isn’t enough time in the episode or information shared for the viewer to develop any sort of attachment to Kyheem, and no matter how charming David Ajala’s Book might be, he comes off as incredibly preachy more than sympathetic here.
Osyraa’s character does not fare much better because as the old axiom states, less is more. “Scavengers” built Osyraa up as the Emerald Chain’s Big Bad, so we already know she’s ruthless. Having her kill off her nephew Tolor after a discussion about how she killed off his dad really doesn’t add much. We know she’s evil. We don’t need to see her feed Tolor to a trance worm, no matter how much he might have deserved it. Janet Kidder gives a creditable performance, but the script does not give her great material with which to work.
Adira’s revelation that they are non-binary also falls a bit flat. They tell Stamets about their preferred pronouns and comment that they’d only ever told their boyfriend Gray, and while I understand that Discovery exists as a work of fiction influenced by the culture of the day, I would think that by 3189, Adira could just lead with their pronouns and go on about their life. Making the announcement be part of a bonding moment with Stamets skates along the “Very Special Episode” line. That Stamets accepted Adira’s gender identity with zero fuss is fantastic as far as demonstrating the correct way to handle that issue, but the scene felt too overloaded with 2020 baggage to be a fully 3189 experience. However, I do love the message implied by the scene, that acceptance is both possible and should be the norm, it feels a bit washed into Adira’s difficulties in reconciling the reality of having a symbiont. Their gender identity serves as a touchstone of certainty in an otherwise confusing situation, which is great, but linking that certainty with Adira’s other confusion seems to undermine the goal of this scene.
There are two real highlights in this episode. The first is letting Hugh Culber go toe-to-toe with Philippa Georgiou. Georgiou is clearly wounded and despises showing weakness in front of all of these disgustingly well-meaning Starfleet people, and Culber does not let her get away with it. Culber coldly describes the process of her downfall, and it’s great to see Wilson Cruz get a chance to demonstrate his range, especially since he goes from that to a sweet moment with his husband, Stamets. Then, there’s Keyla Detmer’s run at the Death Star, erm, Viridian. Detmer has struggled with her trauma and resulting lack of confidence in her own flying, so Tilly’s suggestion of using her to pilot Book’s ship would seem to be a terrible idea. However, Detmer does it and uses it as an opportunity to face her fears and comes out of it. Emily Coutts gives us an awkward Detmer who gets reminded about her love of flying, and it’s a great moment.
Overall, I have to admit that I’ve enjoyed seeing more out of the bridge crew this season, and it’s also been nice to see Tilly come into her own. She shuts down Ryn with unshakable confidence and then offers him uncompromising support. Everything about her in this episode indicates that Saru made the right call in promoting her.
Generally, “The Sanctuary” marks a strange dip in quality in what has been an otherwise fantastic season, and that dip makes little sense considering Jonathan Frakes directed it. Still, “The Sanctuary” offers a great deal on which the latter half of the season can build.
Two cups of Earl Grey Tea and a saucer
Stray Thoughts from the Couch:
- Fun fact, Noah Averbach-Katz plays Ryn on Discovery and is married to Mary Wiseman in real life, which may or may not have informed the way they played the scene in which Ryn stormed Saru’s conference room. He also serves as a DM for a Discovery based D&D group and has been a lifelong fan of Star Trek.
- We did see a Terran symbol more clearly in Georgiou’s flashback, but the age-regression CGI they did on Michelle Yeoh triggered my uncanny valley response. We also know that Georgiou believes she may be dying, though Culber seems to believe things aren’t as cut and dried as that. Hopefully, we’ll get more answers in the coming episode.
- Having the Chain run out of dilithium could be a game changer for the rest of the season.
- Naming Osyraa’s ship after a mostly green pigment is a bit on the nose.
- I do want to apologize for how late these last two posts have been. Real life has intervened, and while I don’t expect further issues in the next two weeks, episode II seems to be set to air on Christmas Eve. While I will do my best to get it watched and a review posted in a timely manner, I cannot promise I’ll get it done by my usual posting time. Bear with me.