Moving the Pieces Forward — Star Trek: Discovery’s “The Sanctuary”

One thing I’ve appreciated about this season of Discovery is that it’s found a sweet spot between heavy serialization and still doing standalone episodes, which is especially better for a show being released weekly. Season one was written as if it would be binged, which made a lot of the revelations and plot movements feel drawn out. Season two was better, but it was also almost entirely focused on the signals and the red angel. This season is giving us more variety.

The actual main story in “The Sanctuary” is visiting Book’s homeworld of Quazhon (I have no idea if I’m spelling that right). Their harvest was destroyed by sea locusts that emerged from the sea after a natural disaster and ate it all. The Emerald Chain showed up with a solution, and now they’re back. It sounds very much like the Chain caused the crisis and then stepped in to solve it, in the tradition of criminal gangs throughout history. (Admiral Vance says that the Chain has raised Prime Directive violations to an artform, which is a delightfully Trekkish way of describing them.)

In addition, Book’s brother Kaim (don’t know if that’s the right spelling either) has been working for the Chain. Book and Kaim haven’t spoken in fifteen years. Oh, and we find out that “Cleveland Booker” is a name he chose, not the one he was born with.

This main story is—okay? I guess? I dunno, the brothers-who-aren’t-speaking-and-then-fight-and-then-almost-kill-each-other-and-then-team-up trope is tired to say the least, and this doesn’t really do much to add to it. I do like the fact that Book and Kaim are not biological brothers, but are rather found family. (The anthropological term is “fictive relations,” but “found family” sounds less clinical.)

Honestly, the biggest problem with the main plot is in casting. We finally meet the infamous Osyraa, leader of the Chain, in this episode, and after all the buildup in “Scavengers,” the person turns out to be incredibly disappointing. Janet Kidder imbues the character with absolutely no menace, no personality, no style, no nothing. She’s just kind of there. We know she’s evil because a) everyone says so and b) she kills her idiot nephew Tolor before the opening credits, but the character herself doesn’t give us much of anything. I found myself longing for Necar Zadegan’s over-the-top performance in a similar role in Picard. Ache Hernandez as Kaim gives a stronger performance, but he too has nothing to work with, as his part is as much a mass of predictable clichés as Osyraa’s.

What’s compelling about this episode is all the side plots that move other things forward. Two of those connect directly to the main plot. Osyraa is specifically after Ryn, the Andorian prisoner whom she maimed, and who was among those Burnham and Georgiou rescued in “Scavengers.” At the episode’s end, after Discovery has risked a war between the Federation and the Chain to save him, he reveals why she cares about him while she obviously doesn’t give an airborne intercourse about the other dozen or so prisoners they rescued: he knows that the Chain is running out of dilithium. This is disastrous for Osyraa, and will endanger her stranglehold on the Chain’s leadership, so of course, she doesn’t want it getting out.

The reason why Ryn confided this intelligence to Discovery is in gratitude specifically to Detmer, who is slowly crawling out of her PTSD hole mostly by getting to be a badass pilot. Discovery‘s mission is to observe what’s happening on Quazhon but not to engage. When Osyraa’s ship, the Veridian, starts carpet-bombing the planet, Saru is between a rock and a hard place. He’s under orders not to engage, but he can’t just sit there and do nothing. It’s Tilly who has a solution: use Book’s ship to fight off Veridian. Since Book himself is on the planet, it’s left to Detmer, ace pilot, to fly it, with Ryn guiding her to Veridian’s weak spots.

Star Trek: Discovery "Sanctuary"

Screenshot: CBS

I’m really happy to see that Detmer’s recovery continues to be a thing, starting early in the episode where she’s customized her console. The 32nd-century tech is adaptable, and it adjusts to the user’s needs, but Detmer’s not willing to wait for that, she wants it exactly her way now. It’s an obvious attempt to regain control. But what really works in that regard is her getting to zip around in Book’s ship doing strafing runs on Veridian. Emily Coutts beautifully plays it, with Detmer truly coming alive for the first time all season when she puts Book’s ship on manual.

Elsewhere, we have lots of other little bits that are way more entertaining than the main plot, some important, some just interesting. Stamets and Adira have found the source of the Burn, which is a nebula—and to make matters more complicated, they’ve found a signal, one that matches the musical number that keeps recurring. (The Barzans at the seed dispensary were humming it, Gray and Adira have both played it on the cello, and Willa said she knew it, too.) But when they clear the distortion from the nebula, they find that it’s a Federation distress call.

Adira also takes the step of requesting that they be referred to with that pronoun rather than she, which Stamets (and later Culber) immediately take to. The timing of this episode airing the same week that Elliot Page came out as trans and requested he and they as pronouns is fortuitous, and according to interviews with Blu del Barrio, Adira’s progress matches their own journey to coming out. In universe, it’s not treated as much of a big deal. But this has been one of Star Trek’s hallmarks from the very beginning. The original series aired at the height of the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and civil rights unrest, so it was very important for the viewers of the time to see Sulu, Chekov, and Uhura on the bridge working peacefully alongside the white folks. Just as especially Asian and African-American viewers were inspired by the sight of Sulu and Uhura on the bridge and being accepted as peers, so too is it important for trans folks to see Adira’s pronoun request be accepted without question. (Indeed, this is a running theme in the episode, as it takes the whole hour for Kaim to finally refer to Book by his chosen name rather than the one he was born with.)

Tilly is settling into her role as acting first officer so far, though my favorite thing she’s doing is what Saru refers to as “the ongoing matter”: finding Saru’s captainly catchphrase. After all, Picard had “Make it so,” Janeway had “Do it,” and Pike had “Hit it.” Saru attempts his own variation on “Hit it,” which doesn’t really work, and then “Execute,” which is even worse (especially since that was last seen being used by the Klingon Kurn when he was temporary first officer of the Enterprise-D in TNG’s “Sins of the Father“), but then he settles on “Carry on,” which I kinda like. It fits Saru’s more relaxed style.

Star Trek: Discovery "Sanctuary"

Screenshot: CBS

Finally, we have Georgiou, who is suffering some kind of brain damage that Culber and Pollard are having a hard time narrowing down, especially since Georgiou herself is the world’s worst patient. Her verbal sparring with Culber is excellent, as Culber gives as good as he gets from her, but what I love about this subplot is that Georgiou is very obviously scared shitless. She’s turning her snottiness up to eleven as a defense mechanism, and it’s to Culber’s credit that he sees right through it. It’s to Michelle Yeoh’s credit that she’s so perfectly playing it, as every time Georgiou is alone, or at least knows no one is looking at her, you can see the fear on her face—but she hides it when she’s seen, laying the obnoxious on even thicker than usual.

However, while this particular subplot gives us lots of Georgiou snark and Culber snark, which is never not fun, it doesn’t really move anything forward in a meaningful manner. We still don’t know exactly what’s wrong with Georgiou or what caused it, the only difference is now that more people know about it. Steps are being taken in-universe, which is as it should be, but story-wise, it’s not really all that much by way of progress.

Osyraa ends the episode saying that the Federation has made an enemy. The cover of having it be Book’s ship that attacks Veridian doesn’t really fly, and besides, the real issue is that Discovery hasn’t given up Ryn to her. The consequences of this could be very interesting, both in terms of Osyraa’s desperation, with her dilithium supply running out (especially since Discovery has lots), and in terms of what this does to the tattered remnants of Starfleet, which isn’t in any kind of shape to wage a war.

Keith R.A. DeCandido’s next novel is Animal, a thriller he wrote with Dr. Munish K. Batra, about a serial killer who targets people who harm animals. It’s now available for preorder, and if you preorder it directly from WordFire Press before the 24th of December, you get a free urban fantasy short story by Keith.

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