A new villain appears while Staments, Adira, and Tilly get closer to The Burn.
There’s way too much going on in “The Sanctuary” to the point that it feels like the creative team behind Star Trek: Discovery specifically intended this as an “odds and ends” episode. It’s the TV equivalent of a junk drawer, there to hold every subplot and smaller character beat that didn’t call for its own episode. Some of those subplots are good. Some of them are middling. Some of them are outright bad. But taken as a whole, the episode comes off too scattershot and ping pong-y to feel like a complete hour of television, instead playing like a random assortment of Trekkie bric-a-brac.
For starters, “The Sanctuary” introduces season 3’s likely Big Bad, Osyraa (Janet Kidder), who emerges more than halfway through the season. She’s definitely a letdown in the early going; all Discovery offers in her debut is a mustache-twirling baddie who chews scenery and, at best, works as a vague counterpoint to the Federation and its leadership.
There’s merit in what Osyraa represents—a mercenary “power is virtue” antithesis to Starfleet principles—but the execution turns her into a generic movie villain without enough shading or layers in the performance to make her compelling as an antagonist. “The Sanctuary” also features a standoff between Book (David Ajala), who’s worked to thwart Osyraa’s influence on his home planet, and his empathic brother, Kyheem (Ache Hernandez), who’s worked to aid her there.
Here again, there’s a solid concept behind the clash. Book favors doing what’s right even if it means speaking truth to power and putting oneself at risk. His brother, on the other hand, does whatever he has to in order to get by, particularly since he doesn’t want to risk his son’s starvation. There are understandable motivations and conflicts there, which always improve the storytelling.
However, the execution is cheesy and generic. Hernandez in particular gives an overblown performance that’s too over-the-top to scan as real. Similarly, the creative team draws the siblings’ philosophical and filial disagreements in a cornball fashion, their fisticuffs in the forests of Kwejian making little sense.
If that weren’t enough, the notion that the Discovery can just amplify their empathic powers to solve the infestation of alien locusts that Book’s people have tried to fix for centuries creates a deus ex machina. Sure, something similar happened with Saru and the Kelpiens, but repeating the same trick makes for an especially unsatisfying solution. It’s especially so when the problem is introduced as intractable in the very same episode.
The purpose of this nigh-magical fix seems to be to motivate Book (an erstwhile non-joiner) to suddenly want to become a part of Starfleet. The super-psychic banishing of the space pests—sorry, “It’s their choice”—seems to exist merely to demonstrate to Book the potential for large-scale problem solving that the Federation represents.
More relatably, his decision to join up can be seen as an excuse to stay with Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) after she decided to reaffirm her allegiance to Starfleet in the last episode. But the whole escapade plays out as too convenient, and the relationship between Book and his brother is sketched out too quickly for any of it to have the intended emotional pull.
That said, cheesy doesn’t have to be bad! There’s something a little too easy about the paternal relationship that Lt. Stamets (Anthony Rapp) has forged with Adira (Blu del Barrio), but the results are downright heartwarming. It’s telling that Adira feels comfortable asking Stamets to use their preferred pronouns. The scene that follows, where Stamets and Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) use them as a show of good faith, is as corny as anything between Book and his brother. It’s also ten kinds of sweet. It’s clear Adira appreciates the consideration and that they’re touched Stamets and Culber accept them as non-binary and accept Adira for who they truly are.
The moment comes with some strong metatextual resonance as well, as two performers from Rent (a show that increased public awareness and acceptance for issues facing the LGBTQ community at the time) pass the torch to another young performer advancing representation in popular culture. The line, “Pride, it suits you,” is a little too on the nose, but this all comes from a good place. It’s true to Star Trek’s spirit of acceptance and inclusion.
But it’s not all sweetness and pride for Dr. Culber, who spends most of the episode dealing with a testy Empress Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). Her subplot here is the utter pits. It’s hard to say whether Georgiou’s snarky dialogue varies too much from writer to writer or if Yeoh simply has good days and bad days. Either way, every line she speaks here is facepalm-level bad.
Once more, there’s a germ of a good idea behind this story. “The Sanctuary” plays Georgiou’s condition akin to Alzheimer’s or similar degenerative conditions, but the way Discovery goes about it here quickly sinks in a sea of cringey quips and overfamiliar beats. Apart from those smaller character stories, “The Sanctuary” tugs at a few threads from the season’s overarching mysteries. Stamets, Adira, and Tilly (Mary Wiseman) manage to isolate the source of The Burn, and it turns out to be some crazy, sonic nebula. Sure enough, it just so happens that the nebula is transmitting the same tune that Burnham overheard and that Adira played on their cello.
The writers throw out scores of ideas that veer between the pleasantly intriguing and abjectly dull, but few of them fit together in any meaningful way.
It’s very Battlestar Galactica, which is by no means a bad thing, but it also calls for adding some new wrinkle or twist to make this unique. The closest the episode offers is the reveal that the tune du jour stems from a Federation distress signal, which is more of a tease than a firm confirmation of anything.
That same logic applies, more or less, to the whole episode. At base, “The Sanctuary” is too jumbled, thin, and diffused for the viewer to latch onto much of anything. The writers throw out scores of ideas that veer between the pleasantly intriguing and abjectly dull, but few of them fit together in any meaningful way.
Some of the stories that spring forth from those concepts are good or at least endearing. Some of them are awful. The best we can hope for from this hour is that this grab bag of plots and character beats is in service of the greater good. With any luck, Discovery is planting seeds and moving things along here, so that the show can harvest them in a more fulsome (and successful) way down the line.
- “The Sanctuary” includes a few more neat tidbits here and there, chief among them the way Saru (Doug Jones) and Tilly continue to gel as a command team.
- Saru’s growth as a leader is palpable. His creative problem solving is especially on point when he suggests that the Federation proceed as “observers” to Kwejian to deter Osyraa without explicitly getting involved.
- Likewise, Tilly’s plan to use a Starfleet pilot in a Book’s ship “going rogue” to avoid the space equivalent of an international incident is pretty silly if you think about it for too long, but it has the baseline plausibility to work in the moment.
- The episode also includes slightly more development for Lt. Detmer (Emily Coutts). She continues to doubt herself but also comes through. It’s still not entirely clear what Discovery’s building toward here beyond the hints that Control is still within her, but the episode still gives her a solid mini-arc.
- Similarly, Ryn’s (Noah Averbach-Katz) presence here is more than a little annoying, but the reveal that Osyraa wants him captured so badly because he knows she’s running out of dilithium provides an interesting angle on likely future conflicts.
- Ryn bursting into Saru’s ready room and demanding to speak with the captain only for Tilly to dress him down and tell him to show proper respect nicely shows the young ensign growing into her new role in a “show, don’t tell” sort of way.
- The attempts at comedy in “The Sanctuary” is pretty tepid, but watching Saru try out different signature lines akin to Captain Picard’s “Make it so” is absolutely adorable.