Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-3, Star Trek: Picard, and other iterations of the Star Trek franchise.
After a disappointing episode a couple of weeks ago, and a follow-up last week that was middle-of-the-road at best, I was hoping that Jonathan Frakes’ second outing as director this season would give Discovery’s third season the boost that it needed. Frakes has directed some of my all-time favourite Star Trek episodes, including some of Discovery’s best in earlier seasons, so there was reason for hope as I sat down to watch The Sanctuary.
I’m trying to see past some of Discovery’s flaws as it pertains to Michael Burnham and be more empathetic to the show’s main character. I’ve recently written an article all about Luke Skywalker’s characterisation in the film The Last Jedi, and while the characters are certainly very different, one thing I’m keenly aware of is the need for empathy – and that extends to fictional characters too, even those who have flaws and failings. Maybe I’ve been a little too quick to jump on Burnham for making mistakes, and even too harsh in some of my criticisms. I’ll certainly try to keep that in mind as Discovery Season 3 rolls on.
So on to The Sanctuary. It was a really great episode, with an engaging collection of story threads which brought together elements from across Season 3. Part of the episode – the journey to Book’s homeworld – was relatively standalone, but other aspects which looked at the Burn and the Emerald Chain connect to ongoing stories across the season as a whole.
The only weak aspect of The Sanctuary was its villain: the Emerald Chain’s leader, Osyraa. While she may see further development in future episodes, this week she felt flat, one-dimensional, and really just a villain stereotype. Her scene at the beginning when she executed her nephew for allowing Ryn to escape set that up, and it continued through her threats to Saru and Book’s brother Kyheem later in the episode.
A well-written antagonist is important, and finding a way to give villains understandable motivations beyond “I’m evil and I love it” is something Discovery has consistently struggled with. Its Mirror Universe and Klingon antagonists in Season 1 fell victim to this trope, as did Control in Season 2 to an extent. None had their backgrounds or motivations sufficiently fleshed-out, and where motivation did exist – as in the case of the Klingons – it didn’t really make a lot of sense. It would seem that the Emerald Chain, at least from what we’ve seen of its leadership, are basically just over-inflated playground bullies who don’t really have any specific goals or motivations beyond acquiring wealth, power, and, as we’ll learn in The Sanctuary, dilithium.
After Osyraa kills her nephew, we get a scene aboard Discovery when Book chases down Burnham to tell her he needs to return to his homeworld. We learn a little more about Book in The Sanctuary, and it would seem that he isn’t human – despite appearances. I had speculated for a while what the source of his abilities could be, including that he could have a synthetic origin in a storyline that would connect with Star Trek: Picard. While technically that could still come true, it seems that he is, in fact, a native of the planet Kwejian.
I wish we’d spent a little more time with Book in previous episodes to better-inform his moment at the end of The Sanctuary. We’ve known Book to be independent-minded and to have been unimpressed with the Federation overall, and those aspects of his character have been present since we met him at the beginning of the season. However, there have been several episodes where Book was entirely absent, and seeing a little more of his individualism and anti-Federation sentiments would have perhaps made the moment where he seemed to recognise the good that Starfleet can do more impactful. It was certainly a powerful, emotional moment as he explained his change of heart to Burnham, especially after seeing him unsettled aboard Discovery last week; he seemed only to be there for Burnham’s sake. However, it could have been even more than it was had we spent a little more time with him in the episodes leading up to this point.
After his scene at the beginning of last week’s episode felt so rushed, I was pleased to see Admiral Vance was back on form. When considering whether or not to allow Discovery to jump to Kwejian he has to take a lot into account. Not only is Discovery one of only a handful of ships at his disposal, but the Spore Drive is a valuable – and vulnerable – piece of technology. Despite Discovery’s retrofit it’s still a 23rd Century vessel at its core, crewed by people who are still new to this era. Engaging in a confrontation with an enemy vessel is not something he could countenance, and after he acted so rashly last week I’m glad to see him taking some time to consider the options before sanctioning Discovery’s mission.
Also set up at the beginning of the episode was Dr Culber’s investigation into Mirror Georgiou’s mysterious blackouts. It was clever to have Dr Culber try to talk his way around Georgiou, but my complaints about her being a dull character haven’t really been addressed. She’s undergoing – presumably at her own initiative – a medical examination, yet for the duration seems unable to stop quipping one-liners about how she used to be a killing machine.
This storyline is an opportunity for the flat, boring Georgiou to get out of her comfort zone, and while she did – at least in terms of the setting she was in – the way she acted hasn’t changed. There was a flash of vulnerability and of perhaps reaching for help in Scavengers, but that theme wasn’t continued this time. If Georgiou was trying to mask the way she feels, she did a good job. I understand the feeling that medical exams and questions are invasive, but the way she reacted to it was too much of the old one-dimensional Georgiou and failed to really offer anything different to us as the audience. It may have been in-character from a narrative point of view, but that doesn’t always make for good television, and there were other ways she could have remained in-character but been more interesting. The storyline itself, however, was interesting, and comes to a shocking climax later in the episode.
After Discovery arrives at Kwejian, I greatly enjoyed Saru’s line to Book and Burnham. He tells Book that he has “no authority” over him or what he does, while at the same time giving Burnham her orders. This line made clear that, despite their dispute and Burnham’s demotion, she’s still under his command. After Burnham seemed to have her breakthrough last week in how she feels about Starfleet, she’s okay with that.
One thing that hasn’t really been addressed for two weeks now is the damaged relationship between Saru and Burnham. They’re both being professional on the surface, of course, but they haven’t had any time together to discuss what happened. Saru has not only allowed Burnham to retain her role as chief science officer – and her rank of commander – but when she needed backing up in front of Admiral Vance, was firmly in favour of allowing Discovery to jump to Kwejian. Beginning to repair their relationship on-screen is something I hope we see in future episodes, rather than just working on the assumption that everything will get back to normal.
The Sanctuary also followed up last week’s acquisition of the SB-19 data. Adira and Stamets get to work on analysing it, and are developing an interesting dynamic that’s both friendly and somewhat parental, and the two actors – despite their age difference – have good on-screen chemistry.
The SB-19 data did eventually help pinpoint the source of the Burn – as Burnham hoped it would – but she herself was absent from the moment of victory; away with Book on Kwejian. Having complained for several weeks that “no characters other than Burnham ever get to advance the main plot,” it was actually really interesting to see Tilly, Saru, Stamets, and Adira as they found the source of the Burn. Burnham had set this up, but her on-screen presence has a tendency to overwhelm other characters, especially at important points in the story. Taking her wholly out of this moment was an interesting choice, and it’s one which worked. In fact, as of the end of The Sanctuary, it isn’t even clear if Burnham knows the source has been found.
So there were several story threads this week, and any time Star Trek attempts to do more than two or three in a single episode there can be a sense that some don’t get as much development or screen time as the others. I’m pleased to say that wasn’t the case in The Sanctuary, and the different story threads all wove together to create an episode that was exciting to watch, and one in which no narrative element felt under-appreciated.
Book has been summoned to Kwejian by his “brother” – not a biological brother, but rather someone with whom he was close in his youth. Kyheem has been working with the Emerald Chain, trading the tranceworms that Book has been saving with Osyraa for macguffin repellent to keep Kwejian’s crops safe from parasitic “sea locusts.” This setup was interesting, and reinforces the idea of the Emerald Chain being a kind of protection racket, but at the same time I have to ask why, in the 32nd Century, are crops and a harvest so important? These people clearly have a decent level of technology – judging from Kyheem’s home and Book’s ship – yet they have no replicators and must rely on crops? Star Trek has never been entirely consistent in how technology was portrayed, but I feel we could have used more background to Kwejian to know why they don’t have access to technological solutions to their food problems. Perhaps it’s Burn-related, but that’s a guess rather than anything confirmed on screen.
Book and Burnham walked into a trap. They were taken captive by Kyheem – Book’s brother – who had conspired with Osyraa to lead Book and Ryn to Kwejian. For the first time in Discovery’s third season, I found myself underwhelmed by the filming location chosen for Kwejian. Though not as bad as some of the obviously-California locations used in Star Trek: Picard, the forest setting didn’t feel particularly otherworldly, and for the relatively short outdoor sequences on its surface I’m sure a better set or stage could have been constructed.
Kyheem was an interesting character, clearly torn between helping his planet and not wanting to see his brother harmed, despite the conflict that has existed between them. Both he and Saru found themselves in comparable positions with Osyraa, and handled themselves in comparable ways. Neither Kyheem nor Saru were willing to surrender someone Osyraa demanded, despite the consequences of failing to comply.
Tilly’s first assignment as XO appears to be helping Saru in a “personal matter” – figuring out a catch phrase to say on the bridge. I can see this being a point of criticism, and while it was certainly silly and a little bit of fan-service, I thought it was a bit of fun. Picard had “make it so,” Pike notably had “hit it,” and Saru wants to put his own stamp on the captaincy. It was cute, and Doug Jones played it well; the slightly nervous, unsure captain trying out something new. The reactions of Nilsson and Bryce in particular were funny, and I continue to appreciate that some of Discovery’s secondary characters have more of a presence this season than in past seasons.
Saru tries out “execute,” which is… interesting. And it definitely got a reaction! He also tries out “carry on,” which was less effective. I don’t expect these to be a major part of the show or his character going forward, but the couple of moments which dealt with Saru picking a catch-phrase added some much-needed lightness to what can be a tense and dramatic series. Star Trek has always had these kinds of moments, and it worked well here.
The Sanctuary also seems to have wrapped up Detmer’s character arc. After being injured in her first appearance of the season, Detmer’s storyline took her down a route that touched on mental health and post-traumatic stress. Through a handful of scenes across the last five or six episodes we’ve seen her struggle, seen her closest friends rally to support her, and seen her come to terms with needing help. This week she appears to finally overcome her lingering issue, taking control of Book’s ship in the climactic fight against Osyraa’s flagship.
If, in future episodes, we see more of Detmer, I will gladly retract what I’m about to say, but if this is as far as it goes I don’t believe it accomplished what the writers intended. Star Trek has never shied away from looking at complex emotional issues, and in general I’m incredibly supportive of portraying mental health in fiction. But Detmer’s storyline – again, if this is the end of it – has not been given enough screen time to tackle the difficult subject it raised. Instead what we’re given is an incredibly oversimplified presentation of mental health: a problem arising from circumstances (the crash-landing and the journey into the future), struggling alone, asking for help, and then a resolution as she realises she can still be a good pilot. For a story that unfolded over six episodes it’s hardly fair to call it “rushed,” but if you were to add up every scene involving Detmer that even touched on her mental health across Season 3, thus far it wouldn’t total more than a few minutes. And that’s all this storyline can really be said to have done: touched on the issue of mental health.
Since we’re talking about Detmer and her attack run on Osyraa’s ship, I have a couple of points I wanted to bring up that admittedly stray into nitpicking territory. The first is that it seems patently obvious that Osyraa and the Emerald Chain will not believe that Detmer acted alone, and will treat the attack on their flagship as an attack by Starfleet. Osyraa strongly implied this at the end of the episode, but it should have been obvious to all involved from the start. Book’s ship was launched from Discovery’s hangar, and even if Osyraa didn’t know who the pilot was – or assumed it was Ryn – that fact alone makes it clear that it was a Starfleet-mandated attack, and any argument Saru or Vance might have to say it was a rogue officer will surely be disregarded.
Secondly, having crippled Osyraa’s flagship, would it not have made more sense to either destroy it or take her and her crew prisoner? They did, after all, attack a planet. Osyraa is currently being presented as the new “big bad” of the season, and if she comes back with a vengeance in a future episode, this will seem all the more like a missed opportunity. Saru had her in his sights; a volley of well-aimed torpedoes from the upgraded Discovery could have finished off her flagship. There’s a lot we don’t know about the Emerald Chain, and we have to assume they have more than one ship. However, the organisation has been presented so far as one with a strong cult of personality around its leader, and there may not be an obvious replacement had Osyraa been killed or captured. Cutting the head off the snake, to use an old analogy, may well cripple the entire organisation, and Saru missed a golden opportunity to do so.
Though Discovery has, at times, played fast and loose with Star Trek’s wider canon, it’s always built on past events within the show itself. We get another example of that here, when the ultimate resolution to Kwejian’s locust plague used the same principle as when Captain Pike came to the aid of the Kelpiens in Season 2. Book and Kyheem’s empathic signal was amplified, driving the locusts back into the sea. It’s always interesting to see these moments pop up, and it worked well here – even if it harkened back to a storyline I wasn’t entirely sold on back in Season 2!
We learned Book’s birth name: Tareckx. This ties in with the – unstated but strongly implied – assertion the episode makes that, despite his adopted name, he isn’t human after all. This aspect of Book may yet be further explored, in which case I will, again, perhaps need to make a retraction! But I’m not sure that this semi-revelation actually achieved very much. We still don’t know what a Kwejian native is; are they a totally different species, descendants of human colonists, or even (as I’ve suggested before) synthetic? Book has been a mysterious character in some ways since his first appearance at the beginning of the season, but if the answer to the “Book question” is just that he’s a humanoid alien from another planet… it just seems anticlimactic, and the way it was treated in The Sanctuary doesn’t help matters. Why not have simply explained it up front instead of setting up something presented as a big mystery that ultimately went nowhere?
One thing I absolutely loved, and I felt was perfectly handled within the story, was Adira’s moment of coming out as non-binary. As I said when Adira made their first appearance, one’s gender identity should not be an issue in Star Trek’s enlightened future, and as Adira came out to Stamets he reacted just as I hoped anyone would in the 23rd, 24th, or 32nd Centuries: by treating it as not a big deal. Equally, the way in which Adira told Stamets of their gender and pronoun preference was not aggressive or pushy; Stamets wasn’t made to feel bad or like he’d said something wrong. It was a moment which perfectly captured the tone of how I would hope such events would be treated in the future.
Though I don’t expect Stamets and Culber to adopt Adira in any formal way, the two certainly seem to be keeping an eye on them in a paternal way. It suits both of them, and for Adira, having a second person to talk to in Dr Culber would surely be to the good. If they trust Stamets, bringing his husband into the mix too doesn’t seem like much of a stretch, and perhaps that’s something we’ll see in future episodes too.
After hacking into the medical database, Georgiou learns a shocking revelation: she may be dying. I say “may” because Dr Culber’s line immediately after suggests there may be a way to help her. This could set up a storyline for Georgiou that goes in all sorts of directions, and right now it feels unpredictable. However, I’m convinced that she isn’t going to die; not least because she’s set to be the main character in the upcoming Section 31 series!
As mentioned, though, giving Georgiou something different to do and perhaps showing her coming to terms with moments of weakness and vulnerability could add to her character and, at the very least, change things up for her. Dr Culber doesn’t necessarily think she’s 100% dead, and there are many possibilities for how this could pan out. I’m interested to see what comes next.
The final revelation of the episode is that the Emerald Chain is running low on dilithium. Ryn confides in Tilly, and while it wasn’t shown on screen that she passed this information up the chain of command, I’m sure she will tell Captain Saru and Admiral Vance. This could make the Emerald Chain more aggressive, or it could give them a reason to try to steal Discovery and/or the Spore Drive. This revelation feels as significant as the Burn’s point of origin, and I’m sure we will see the ramifications sometime soon.
Speaking of the Burn, after Tilly, Stamets, Adira, and Saru look at the nebula which seems to be the source, they uncover something shocking: a Federation distress signal. This cannot be a coincidence, though what exactly it may mean is not yet clear. Are we about to see the reappearance of a familiar starship? That’s certainly one theory I’m toying with. In the Short Treks episode Calypso, Discovery was abandoned in a nebula. Could the ship hiding at the centre be Discovery – either from another time period or another universe? We’ll look at some of these ideas in more detail in my next theory post, so stay tuned for that.
So that was The Sanctuary. A solid mid-season episode that was in parts standalone story and connected to ongoing events. There was a lot packed into its 45-minute runtime, but practically all of it worked well, and by the time the credits rolled I was having a genuinely great time. Jonathan Frakes is a wonderful director, but I don’t want to give him all of the credit for the most enjoyable Discovery episode for a couple of weeks! There was some great writing this time, and perhaps the episode being one in which Burnham wasn’t centre-stage the whole time helped too.
When we looked at the promo for The Sanctuary I wondered if we’d get an episode which took us straight to the source of the Burn. I’m glad that we didn’t, and that Discovery isn’t rushing its main storyline. With five episodes left, there’s still plenty of time to sort out all of that. Having the story be a slow burn (pun intended) works well, and rather than racing from point to point I appreciate that the show is taking its time and that we still get semi-standalone stories like Book’s homecoming.
This week we’ll get the first half of a two-parter: Terra Firma. I honestly have no idea what it will bring, whether it will get us closer to the Burn, or what will happen to Burnham, Saru, Book, and the rest of the crew. Can’t wait to find out though!
Star Trek: Discovery is available to stream on CBS All Access in the United States, and on Netflix in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. 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.