Let’s just rip the Band-Aid(s) off, because there are a few. Does anybody live on Kwejian except for Kahim, his son, and his ineffective goons? Sure, he’s the “steward of the Sanctuary,” which implies he could be there on his own. But there’s no sign of life beyond Kahim’s sexy little leather-couched bachelor pad. What would such a high-security stronghold be guarding, if not people? (Trance worms: all poached! Crops: all blighted!) Are Kahim and Booker (whose given name, hilariously, was T’Rex) the only empaths on the planet? Aren’t their powers a feature of their species? And if that’s the case, why, in over a century of problem-solving, was it so impossible for the Kwejian people to come together to create the mass communication network needed to ask the sea locusts nicely to go home? And if empathic powers aren’t a feature of their species, why are Kahim and the Artist Formerly Known as T’Rex special?
But mostly: where is everybody?
If we had gotten answers to these questions at some point, maybe this episode would have been more fun. It certainly has the parts for it. First, it’s a Jonathan Frakes-directed episode, which usually bodes well. Osyraa, who it turns out is just Gangster Elphaba, feeds her Meatsack Nephew to a trance worm. Adira comes out to Stamets, and by extension Culber, as nonbinary, firmly stating their pronouns! Detmer gets her groove back by “going rogue” with Book’s ship, taking Ryn and Grudge along to torpedo-bomb Osyraa’s cruiser weaponry into retreat. Culber and Georgiou trade some genuinely funny dialogue as the former wrestles the latter into letting him diagnose her brain condition. (“If I had time, I’d poison your children.” “If I had time, I’d have children!”) And most importantly, Stamets and Adira have finally pinpointed the origin of the Burn to an unusually chaotic Verubin nebula and a neighboring neutron star, which are sending a signal that features both that magic universal melody Michael identified and a Federation distress beacon!
Even the simple concept of Michael going home to meet Book’s family should be a fun premise, especially since it ends with Book deciding he wants to join the Discovery crew. (Though I think they could have drawn out this decision-making process over a few episodes — dude is clearly stubborn as hell, so it is kind of odd that he saw them at work a couple times and then said SIGN ME UP without so much as an internal struggle.) Maybe it’s because every third plot point felt like a reach, futzed to get to the cool parts without really earning it. Maybe it’s simply because it had to follow last week’s blockbuster. Whatever the case, I came out of “Sanctuary” feeling … fine. Just fine! They can’t all be iconic, I suppose. (Indeed, there are plenty of episodes, across every show in the franchise, that I know I’ve seen, but have no recollection of whatsoever.)
One thing is clear: The Discovery crew is about to be in big trouble. Vance is in fool-me-twice territory: He declined to discipline anybody on behalf of Starfleet when Michael went AWOL, which apparently sent the message, however subliminally, that theirs is the Ship Allowed to Disobey Direct Orders, Because It Usually Works Out Fine in the End. So when he agrees to allow the ship to transport Book back to Kwejian and remain as observers only, it seems even Saru has come to take that as more of a suggestion than a hard-and-fast order. I love Tilly dearly, but her idea to send Detmer and Ryn in Book’s ship to avoid firing from a Federation vessel on the Emerald Chain’s flagship is, frankly, stupid. (Especially when your captain then gets back on the horn immediately to gloat about it!) Who is this bit of subterfuge for? As if the queenpin of an interplanetary organized crime syndicate — one who has murdered her own brother and nephew to maintain control — would be a sucker for technicalities and choose not to see this as an act of war. As if Vance will look the other way, even though they incited war. Nobody will see this encounter as anything but Discovery’s doing, so this faux-rogue mission only served two people: Detmer in her personal growth, and the J.J. Abrams fan who has been dying to see them take on a Star Destroyer.
Which isn’t to say it wouldn’t have happened anyway, at some point. As Vance notes before he greenlights their mission, the Emerald Chain has been having the time of its life while the Federation is in retreat, “turn[ing] Prime Directive violations into an art form.” Their tactics are smart, if repugnant: find a pre-warp society with a resource you want and a devastating problem to be solved, then arrive right on time with their solution, indebting them to you eternally, lest the problem return in your absence. That’s what started a century ago to Kwejian, home to the incredibly valuable trance worms. It all started when the Burn shifted subspace, which knocked one of their moons off its usual orbit, which created tidal changes that sent little bioluminescent balloon creatures called sea locusts further inland, where they devoured all of his people’s crops and created a horrible famine. Then, 15 years ago (I think?), in waltzes Osyraa with a “repellent,” which she gave them in return for full access to the trance worm population for selling offworld as an exotic delicacy. This is how Book fell out with his family: his father and grandfather made the deal with the devil, and he decided he couldn’t in good conscience stand by and watch the Chain enslave and degrade his home and people. (The timeline on this feels a little wonky — does that mean the Chain let them suffer for 85 years? If anyone can clarify this for me, I’m all ears.)
Having principles is well and good, but clearly not a luxury that Kahim, as the “brother” who stayed behind, could afford. (They say they’re not really related, but Kahim does refer to Book’s father and grandfather as though they’re his, too.) If I thought my only options were being owned by the mafia or watching my children starve, I’m pretty sure I’d choose the mafia, too — especially if my brother had up and abandoned me, quashing any hope of finding a third option together. In any case, it really sounds like Book did to his family what Michael did to Saru two episodes ago: he made a choice, leaving Kahim with none.
The problem with the Chain, of course, is that it’s a slippery slope: Osyraa was the one who told Kahim to call Book, knowing that he’d either know where Ryn was or serve as good hostage material to draw Ryn out. As we learn by the end, Ryn the Andorian is the only person who ever challenged Osyraa, and he’s also the only person other than Osyraa who knows they’re running out of dilithium, making him a liability of which she cannot afford to lose control. (How did he learn this, exactly? It’s unclear.) But Cleveland Booker won’t return anyone to slavery, much less a friend. He must be an older brother, because his influence seems to be having an effect already: Kahim tries to refuse Osyraa when she calls later, but she’s an impatient godfather, and starts bombing the Sanctuary, threatening to raze the whole forest if he doesn’t give Book up. He catches up to Book and Michael a second time while the couple are out “trying to repair” pieces of the Sanctuary’s defense system as they’re bombed by Osyraa’s photon torpedoes. (This is another odd tidbit that feels like it was written to force some more exciting action — what could they have repaired out there, exactly? She’s all but nuking them from orbit!) The brothers fight, but when Book finally surrenders and calls Kahim’s bluff, he can’t give him up.
His choice is rewarded instantly, as Detmer takes out the last of Osyraa’s weapons above seconds later. This clears the way for Michael to rig up an exceedingly simple solution to the sea locust problem: like on Kaminar when they used the Ba’ul panopticon towers to trigger mass vahar’ai, they isolate and amplify the electromagnetic field generated by the sea locusts to make it easier for Kahim and Book together to do their empath thing and ask the sea locusts to please leave. It works, obviously. And the fact that it works impresses them both enough that the brothers reconcile and Book decides he wants to join Starfleet. Even Ryn, who started the episode making some very rude assumptions about the Federation, seems to be realizing he’s been fed propaganda his whole life.
Meanwhile, while everyone else has been off bombing stuff and starting wars, Adira has studied the blade — just kidding, they created an algorithm that can decrypt the encoded message within the Federation distress beacon. Here’s hoping they get a pizza party or something for their trouble when we find out who exactly is trapped in the nebula next week. (Provided it’s not, like, Spock again.)
Personal Log, Supplemental
• After much complaining and spermatozoa cosplay and redlining on an incredibly cool diagnostic table, we now know Georgiou’s degenerative brain illness might be fatal. Could it have something to do with what David Cronenberg the Terran Enthusiast was saying about the two universes drifting apart?
• And how did Michael find out Georgiou didn’t actually kill her mother? Did the Terran Enthusiast have that information and share his files, or something?
• Osyraa is a pretty good monologuer as far as villains go. One thing she says to Saru when they’re “negotiating,” about how “The Federation can’t even hold itself accountable for the mess it’s made or the blood on its hands,” reminded me of all the stuff Ni’Var president T’Rina didn’t say last week about the Federation’s crimes. Can it really all just be about the Burn, or is there some other atrocity waiting to be uncovered? (Aside from the stuff we know, of course, such as not helping the Romulans when their planet was being destroyed.)
• If, like me, you sensed some latent chemistry between Ryn and Tilly, you aren’t crazy: Noah Averbach-Katz and Mary Wiseman are married IRL!!
• I could watch a whole episode of Michael talking to Kahim’s son Lito. Just the most precious, pure little friendship.
• Saru’s trial-and-error search for a catchphrase is funny, not only because a “let’s go” would suffice, but also because the terrible options Tilly brings him all seem to have been focus-grouped by … engineers. “‘Hit it,’ only different from how Pike says it”? “Manifest”?? Surely we can get the communications team on this.
• I’m positively thrilled that Adira’s gender identity has been addressed — and that it’s a challenge that is now discrete from their challenges as a Trill host. A representation that was once just a series of metaphors can now be explored in both metaphorical and literal ways: Adira is coming out, and Adira’s dead boyfriend stopped talking to them, and Adira is struggling to manage all the previous hosts in their head. We all contain multitudes, especially Adira; let the kid work out both of their identities.
• Now, that doesn’t mean Stamets following Adira around, even off-duty, doling out wisdom like a self-satisfied camp counselor, isn’t getting kind of tiresome. I know a generational queer mentorship thing is exciting, but like, be cool, dude. They’ll seek you out when they need you.
• I miss Reno. Where is Reno? Bring back Reno. Stamets is due for a good roasting.