The latest episode of Star Trek Discovery, “The Sanctuary”, is now available for streaming on CBS-All Access. Written by Kenneth Lin & Brandon Schultz and directed by Jonathan Frakes, this story probes a little deeper into the galaxy-wide calamity known as “the Burn,” as well as the mental health of both Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and Lt. Detmer (Emily Coutts). Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green) also meets the ‘brother’ of her 32nd century beau, Cleveland Booker (David Ajala). Sadly, the central story gets a bit lost in the woods at times in what is perhaps the otherwise terrific third season’s first stumble.
The episode opens on a story thread seen in “Scavengers” two weeks earlier, with former Terran Empress-turned-Section 31 operative Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and her debilitating flashbacks. The flashbacks allude to an incident of violent torture in her past, involving the death of someone very close to her named ‘San.’
As kindly Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) probes his patient for more information, Philippa becomes more defensive and hostile. Their prickly tête-à-tête continues, until Philippa’s elevated heart rate forces Culber to examine her. With no options, Philippa is compelled to submit to the good doctor’s examination.
Later, we see Philippa wearing the examination unitard (a biomedical conductive suit) which she grumbles makes her look like “a human spermatozoan.” Dr. Pollard (Raven Dauda) sedates the patient in record time (32nd century medicine to the rescue!), and the two doctors begin their scan.
Note: Sadly, we never learn the full results of this intensive scan. A dying Philippa, and her traumatic past, could’ve been the A-story of this episode, but the previews for next week make it clear that this thread will be picked up again.
In a somewhat clumsy exposition dump, Booker (David Ajala) catches up to Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green) in one of the corridors and tells he has to return to his “sanctuary” home planet of Kwejian. Booker just received a message from his “brother” Kyheem (Ache Hernandez) that the planet’s crops are being decimated by an infestation of ‘sea locusts’, and that they’ve been forced to buy a repellent from the “Emerald Chain” (the Orion/Andorian syndicate seen in “Scavengers”). However, the Chain wants the planet’s ‘trance worms’ (seen in “That Hope is You, Part 1,”), which interspecies’ whisperer Booker struggled to safely relocate. The repellent isn’t enough to combat the swarms of sea locusts, and the infestation threatens to destroy the planet’s crops, plunging the planet into famine. Orion overlord Osyrra (Janet Kidder) wants more of the trance worms for her own nefarious purposes. A reluctant Admiral Vance (Ohed Fehr) gives Discovery permission to jump to Kwejian as “observers.”
We then briefly cut to the planet of Hunhau (from which Booker and others were rescued in “Scavengers”), where Osyrra is dressing down her incompetent stepson Tolor, who allowed the prisoners to escape. After hearing his pleas for lenience, she feeds him to a ravenous trance worm.
Note: I realize that Osyrra is being set up as a new big bad, but actor Janet Kidder simply doesn’t have the magnetism or the chops to do the role true justice (despite a great Orion makeup). Star Trek has certainly had its list of compelling villains (particularly Deep Space Nine), but the sadly two-dimensional Osyrra is unlikely to be on that list anytime soon.
We see Captain Saru (Doug Jones) talking with his new acting First Officer Ensign Tilly (Mary Wiseman). They discuss various things, including a new catchphrase for the captain. Tilly half-kiddingly suggests, “Hit it!” They also discuss Saurian crewman Linus’ nasty habit of shedding skin in the mess hall. Both Saru and Tilly are on their way to Engineering, where Commander Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and his new wunderkind assistant Adira (Blu del Barrio) have analyzed Burnham’s hard-won Ni’Varan data about the Burn. They learn that the Burn, which destroyed most of the galaxy’s warp-travel enabling dilithium crystals, originated in the Verubian nebula.
Note: The origin of the Burn was another very compelling revelation that feels oddly sidelined in favor of the less-interesting tale of the Emerald Chain shaking down a planet.
Inside the nebula was a deliberately sent signal–a signal which Adira realizes carries an audio component; playing the signal aloud, Saru’s sensitive Kelpien hearing picks up musical phrasing within the noise…the same music that everyone in the galaxy seems to be hearing, either consciously or subconsciously. Adira has played the music on their dead lover Gray’s cello, for example. Everyone recognizes it. “The Burn” clearly has a deliberate and intelligent origin. When isolating the signal within the music, the crew instantly recognize it as a Federation distress call.
Later, as Adira plays the melody on Gray’s cello, Stamets comes to visit. Adira tells Stamets that Gray’s ‘spirit’ no longer appears. Earlier in the episode, Adira respectfully requests for Stamets to address “her” as “them” instead, preferring the non-gender specific pronoun.
Note: Once again, the 120-year old Burn turning out to be some kind of melody with an embedded distress signal is more than enough story to pursue. I was almost eager to get the Kwejian storyline over with, so that we could revisit this one. Despite my issues with this episode, I very much appreciated the private scenes between Adira and Stamets, which was informative for both the characters and for the audience as well. Stamets has become something of a parental figure for Adira.
On the bridge, the PTSD-suffering Lt. Detmer (Emily Coutts) is coping with a new holographic failsafe interface as she gets sympathetic words of encouragement from her friend Lt. Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo). Saru awkwardly orders the ship to jump to Kwejian (“Execute!”); once there, they hail the planet without response. Michael and Booker are dressed like locals as they prepare to beam down to the surface. Former Hunhau prisoner Ryn (Noah Averbach-Katz) finally meets Saru, but the Andorian ex-slave is terrified of Osyrra, and offers no helpful information.
Note: “Execute” was also the signature command of the arrogant Captain Styles (James B. Sikking) in “Star Trek III: The Search For Spock.” It doesn’t quite fit Saru, who is too nice a guy for that word to roll off his tongue.
After beaming down to Kwejian, Michael and Booker walk the forests of Booker’s troubled home planet, where they see a mass of gently floating, blue, shrimp-like creatures all around them. These are the ‘sea locusts’ which are decimating the crops and threaten the planet. Before he can elaborate, Booker hears something and immediately raises his arms–he eyes Michael to do the same. They are surrounded by locals who aren’t too thrilled to see Booker, their leader is Kyheem–Booker’s “brother” (not by birth, or adoption). Kyheem accuses Booker of selling out by leaving them behind. The bitter ‘brother’ Kyheem dismissively calls Booker by his real name, Tareckx (say that ten times fast). We also learn that Kyheem shares Booker’s gift of communing with other lifeforms, since we see his glowing forehead as well.
Note: To the writers, I ask: Why couldn’t Kyheem have been Booker’s real biological or adopted brother? It certainly might’ve given the story a lot more dramatic heft to have the two characters actually related. As it is, their relationship feels like a dramatic copout. It lessens our emotional investment in the fate of Kyheem and his people. Having the two “brothers” merely sharing the empathic gift seems a bit weak. A genuine familial relationship might’ve offered an interesting glimpse into Booker’s early life growing up on Kwejian as well. A missed opportunity.
As Booker and Michael are escorted to Kyheem’s fancy home (which looks a lot like Michael’s childhood home on Vulcan), Booker correctly guesses that Kyheem has been harvesting the worms for Osyrra, who keeps him in luxury. Kyheem stresses that he has no choice; he has to do what the Emerald Chain wants or the planet is dust.
Discovery is soon met in orbit by Osyrra’s vessel, the Viridian. The massive, heavily armed vessel is formable. Saru, ever the diplomat, opens a channel to the potential threat…
Note: The name Viridian was also the name of the star system which was nearly destroyed by Dr. Soran in “Star Trek: Generations” (1994). Viridian III is the planet where Captain Kirk was laid to rest by Captain Picard, after the two successfully thwarted Soran’s plan to obliterate the Viridian star, which would’ve killed the inhabitants of the 4th planet in that system.
Osyrra appears on Discovery’s holographic bridge viewscreen, where she asks for the release of the fugitive Ryn. Saru stalls her. Later, on the planet, Kyheem receives a non-traceable hologram communique from Osyrra, who congratulates him for luring Booker to the planet. She assumes her wanted fugitive Ryn is with whomever brought Booker to Kwejian. She threatens to withhold any more shipments of repellent for the sea locusts which threaten the planet’s inhabitants with famine–including Kyheem’s son–unless Kyheem continues to cooperate.
Osyrra’s patience with Saru and Kyheem wears thin as she begins firing on Kwejian, obliterating swaths of the planet’s forestation. Onboard Discovery, Saru wonders why Ryn is of such great value to Osyrra and the Emerald Chain. Elsewhere on Discovery, Philippa discharges herself from sickbay, hacking into her own medical exam results (which we don’t see), just as the ship goes to battle stations…
Despite the planet’s repeated bombardment, Ryn refuses to cooperate with Saru, whose hands are tied with orders not to use a Federation starship to engage with the Emerald Chain. As a desperate Michael calls Discovery for air cover, First Officer Tilly comes up with a brilliant idea–a ‘rogue’ pilot from Discovery, namely Lt. Detmer, will steal Booker’s ship, the Nautilus (still in Discovery’s hangar bay) and use it to knock out the weapons systems on the Viridian.
Lt. Detmer, who is still struggling with her own psychological issues, nevertheless jumps at the chance to ‘go rogue’ on the attacking Veridian. Taking Ren with her, the two of them pilot the Nautilus out to the Veridian, where the ship is met with a volley of photon torpedoes.
Note: It’s the 32nd century, and they’re still rocking those old style torpedoes. For some reason, I assumed the Emerald Chain’s ships would’ve had much more advanced weaponry…?
Managing to control her fears and anxiety, Detmer goes to manual, skillfully piloting the advanced 32nd century Nautilus in a strafing run over the Viridian, expertly taking out the ship’s weapons with the aid of Ryn, who throws in his lot with the good guys. A humiliated Osyrra vows revenge on the Federation…
Note: Despite my issues with this episode, “The Sanctuary” may very well be Lt. Detmer’s finest hour, as both she and Tilly are the unexpected heroes of this episode; Tilly for suggesting the plan, and a brave Detmer for carrying it out. I wish each of the still underused bridge officers could get an episode like this one. Emily Coutts does some terrific work as she realistically struggles with her inner demons and eventually finds her joy again, which is a great victory for anyone struggling with crippling anxiety.
On Kwejian, Michael and Booker are ambushed by a desperate group led by Kyheem. With their superior fighting skills, Michael and Booker quickly fell most of their attackers, save for Kyheem; who takes on Booker with a deep rage. Michael pulls a phaser rifle on Kyheem, forcing him to stop after Booker knocks his weapon away. Inspired, Michael suggests the two ‘creature whisperers’ combine their powers to drive the sea locusts back into the ocean. A doubtful and desperate Kyheem thinks it’s impossible, but Michael suggests using Discovery’s transmitter to amplify both of their telepathic signals. The plan is executed…and slowly, the blue floating shrimp are driven back into the sea. It’s the Pied Piper by way of “Avatar.” No longer needing the Emerald Chain’s repellent, and with its stock of trance worms safe, the planet Kwejian is independent once again.
Note: I can’t say that the slightly ridiculous sight of Kyheem and Booker chanting to drive the CGI floating blue shrimp back into the sea made for a particularly satisfying climax.
Later, in the Discovery’s mess hall, Lt. Detmer is regaling the crew with her ‘macho’ piloting stories, her old confidence slowly coming back. Yes, she might still struggle, but this was an important step for her. Meanwhile, Tilly sits at the table with the ostracized Andorian, Ryn. He confides in the acting First Officer that Osyrra went after him with such a vengeance because he alone knows the location of a hidden cache of precious dilithium, which has gone all but extinct since the Burn…
Note: Ryn is played by Noah Averbach-Katz, the real-life husband of Mary Wiseman. Their chemistry together in the mess hall scene was downright palpable.
An exhausted Adira is seemingly asleep at their station in engineering, as a hushed Dr. Hugh Culber checks up on his partner, Paul Stamets. Paul tells Hugh that Adira no longer ‘sees’ Gray anymore and that “she” prefers the pronoun “they” or “them”, just as the close-eyed Adira grumpily admits that they are not asleep. With that, an exhausted Adira goes off to bed, wishing the two gents a goodnight. Paul and Hugh kiss and call it a night themselves.
Note: This humorous scene hints that the teenaged Adira may have found their adoptive parents…
“Brothers” Booker and Kyheem make their peace, as Michael takes Kyheem’s curious young son off to see crewman Linus shed his skin (!). As he goes over the damage the Nautilus took in its attack on the Viridian, Booker decides to remain with the Federation…ending the question of whether or not he and Michael will have to say goodbye again anytime soon.
Parts are greater than the sum.
“The Sanctuary” is the first episode of an otherwise stellar third season that falls somewhat short. While there are many great character scenes and interesting threads raised, the central story on Kwejian feels dramatically inert–it is filled with new characters and situations we are supposed to feel for, but simply don’t. Kyheem’s son is the reason for his betrayal of Book, yet we only see the boy in the final moments of the story. Perhaps if we saw him earlier and got to know him a bit better beforehand, we might’ve empathized more with Kyheem’s conflict. While I really like the character of Booker, the issues surrounding his home planet just aren’t compelling enough to carry the story; in the end, even he ditches Kwejian to join the Federation. Osyrra is set up as the ‘big bad’ of the Emerald Syndicate, yet she feels like a TNG villain of the week. Sadly, Janet Kidder (niece of the late Margot Kidder ) is just not up to the challenge–she lacks menace and presence for such a role. Far more interesting plot threads are raised with Philippa’s deteriorating mental state, the origin of the Burn and the galaxy-wide ‘music’ that seems to connect to the calamity. Even Tilly rising to the challenges of being a First Officer was more compelling. Yet these threads were sidelined for the less interesting central story on Kwejian. The ‘climax’ of the two animal-empathic ‘brothers’ chanting in unison to drive the “Avatar”-like sea locusts back into the ocean is even a bit silly looking.
Now that the vinegar is out of the way, here’s the honey; some of the best moments of the episode come from the regular characters. Mary Wiseman’s Tilly is unexpectedly rising to the challenge of First Officer; yes, she still has her characteristic awkwardness (one of the things we love about her), but we also see a slow growing confidence in her decisions; her gentle coaching to Saru (Doug Jones) on his command style, and her brilliant suggestion to Detmer (Emily Coutts) to ‘go rogue’ and take the Nautilus on a strafing run against the Viridian. I also liked her friending up to Andorian Ryn (Noah Averbach-Katz, who is Wiseman’s real-life husband); it reminded me of how she befriended the alienated Ash Tyler in Season 1, reinforcing Tilly’s soft-spot for the unfriended. I would argue that Tilly and Detmer were, in fact, this episode’s MVPs.
It’s good to see Detmer (Emily Coutts) deal with her ongoing PTSD while also summoning the courage to take the Nautilus on a dangerous strafing run against the Viridian. Detmer’s ‘macho’ bragging in the mess hall afterward was also a nicely earned reward for the character and her ongoing struggle, which is never ignored (even if it is glossed over a bit). Also nice to see Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo) give her friend and bridge mate a bit of encouragement, too. Bryce (Ronnie Rowe Jr) and some of the other crew are once again relegated to extras with occasional closeups, but we’ve still seen/heard a lot more from them in this season than in the previous two. I see their characters as works in progress. The family feel of the Discovery crew we’ve seen growing in this season hasn’t been forgotten, and that’s a plus.
Then we have the character of Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), the badass former emperor of the Terran Empire in the Mirror Universe, who is now banished with Discovery’s crew in the 32nd century. She’s not having the easiest time of it. We see her suffering from traumatizing, debilitating, even life-threatening flashbacks of a torturous death involving someone close to her named “San.” Sadly, we saw Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) and Dr. Pollard (Raven Dauda) examine her, but come up with a big goose egg. Philippa later hacks into her medical data (to what end, we don’t know), and confronts Culber, but maddeningly, still no light is shed on her condition. Why are her flashbacks killing her? Who is San? You’d think 32nd century medicine should’ve diagnosed her problem easily. Maybe it did? We don’t know. Exploration of Philippa’s dangerous condition (and her past) could’ve made for a more compelling dramatic arc than two guys mentally herding a bunch of floating blue shrimp back into the sea. The trailer for next week’s episode promises a lot more to this story, but for this week? It felt shoehorned into an already crowded episode.
At any rate, one so-so episode out of eight is a better ratio than usual for most Star Trek seasons, and the previous seven episodes have been so strong that an occasional stumble is easily forgiven.
Star Trek: Discovery (and most of Star Trek) is available for streaming on CBS All Access right now in the United States, and Netflix in overseas markets. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is over 272,000 as of this writing and that number is increasing daily. There is no cure, no proven treatment and no exact rollout dates for the vaccines being prepared, so for the time being, so please continue to practice social safe-distancing wherever possible, wear masks in public, and avoid crowded outings as much as possible. With the holiday season upon us, let’s all try to keep any get togethers safe-distanced, outdoors and in small numbers, please!
Live long and prosper!