Warning: This Star Trek: Discovery season 3, episode 8 review contains major spoilers – many of them set to stun. Boldly go further at your own risk…
Star Trek: Discovery season 3 has been something of a mixed bag, in terms of both quality and story. Now they’ve been relocated to the 32nd century, the Disco crew has experienced action, adventure, and courtroom drama while gaining plenty of experience of bringing the Federation’s utopian message to the masses. "The Sanctuary" feels like it’s bottling the essence of the entire season into one episode.
With at least four storylines jostling for attention – that’s not even counting Linus’s annual moult or Saru’s quest for a new catchphrase – it’s an instalment that lacks focus. Indeed, if it were an episode of Friends, they’d have their work cut out coming up with a suitable "The One Where…" title. Nonetheless, every one of the strands feels like it’s making a worthwhile contribution to the show’s overall arc, albeit in a fleeting way. That the disparate strands all come together may have something to do with the presence of Jonathan ‘Riker’ Frakes behind the camera – the man has Trek in his blood.
If there is an A-plot, it’s arguably Book’s return to his homeworld to help out his ‘brother’ in a dispute with criminal syndicate the Emerald Chain. This time Burnham doesn’t have to break ranks to come to her boyfriend’s aid, as Saru is able to convince Admiral Vance that the Chain’s activities are a threat to the Federation. So Starfleet’s Commander-in-Chief – who notes that the Chain has turned Prime Directive violations into an artform – dispatches Discovery on a strictly diplomatic mission to sort things out.
For Burnham and Book that means an away mission to the so-called "Sanctuary", where Book’s brother has made a dubious alliance with the Emerald Chain warlord, Osyraa. In return for a repellent that prevents a (surprisingly cute) plague of sea locusts from decimating the planet’s vegetation, he’s agreed to help the Chain capture and kill trans worms – the reason he and Book haven’t spoken for 15 years. Now Osyraa wants to use Book’s brother to get her hands on Ryn, the Andorian whose antennae she cut off as punishment for leading a rebellion.
It’s the sort of redemptive story arc Star Trek can do in its sleep. As Osyraa batters the planet with photon torpedoes, there’s never any doubt that Federation ideals will eventually win Book’s brother over – ultimately they put their differences aside, and use their empathic powers to repel the sea locusts without the need for Osyraa’s aid. The reunion has just as much effect on Book who, by the end of the episode, is seemingly so impressed by the Federation that he’s looking for a way to enrol in Starfleet. Hopefully joining the crew won’t remove his more interesting edges of the character.
The episode’s fireworks mostly take place in orbit, where Osyraa is making a nuisance of herself. Although referenced in episode 6, this is her on-screen debut, and she hasn’t softened one bit since cutting off Ryn’s antennae; her first action is punishing her bully of a nephew, Tolor, by feeding him to a trans worm. In fact, she veers perilously close to pantomime villain territory – it can’t be a coincidence she looks like the Wicked Witch of the West’s less sympathetic sister – to a point where she’s almost too evil to be plausible. Luckily, a commanding performance from Janet Kidder (niece of Superman star Margot) keeps her the right side of parody.
Her refusal to follow the usual democratic protocols also allows for some classic Star Wars-style dogfighting. While Vance’s orders prevent Discovery from stepping in to protect the planet, new first officer Tilly thinks outside the box by suggesting a member of the crew goes rogue and attacks Osyraa’s ship using Book’s craft. The pilot is Lt. Detmer, who clearly relishes the chance to fly like Luke Skywalker – in fact, when she takes manual control, it feels like a nod to Riker flying the Enterprise in the otherwise forgettable Star Trek: Insurrection.
And it’ll be interesting to see how Saru explains this particular piece of Star Trek insurrection to Vance. Will Tilly finding out from Ryn that Osyraa’s dilithium is running out make the whole exercise worthwhile? Or will the Starfleet CiC demand that the Discovery crew have a permanent minder – they are getting pretty skilled at insubordination, technicalities or not.
There’s also plenty of time devoted to Georgiou’s blackouts, as Dr Culber tries to understand what’s causing them. The strand is mostly an excuse for a succession of deliciously mean putdowns, and feels annoyingly unresolved come the final credits. We’ll be disappointed if this isn’t the key storyline in the next episode.
But the most memorable of "The Sanctuary"'s many story arcs goes to Adira and Stamets. The development of their friendship has been one of the most satisfying elements of the season so far, and Star Trek has rarely delivered human drama quite as strong as this. As Adira confides in Stamets that they’re no longer able to speak to their Trill boyfriend, Gray, they also explain that they prefer non-binary pronouns. His response, utterly accepting yet low-key, is perfect, and whether making music, working on the ship, or simply having a conversation, their relationship is utterly believable. It barely feels important that they’ve worked out the origins of the Burn – though in the grand scheme of things, it could be essential information guiding where Discovery jumps next.
New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery season 3 land on Thursdays on CBS All Access in the US, and on Fridays on Netflix in the UK.