Spoilers decloaking off the port bow!
Unlike some other sci-fi shows of the past and present, "Star Trek: Discovery" on CBS All Access credits different writers and directors with different episodes. And while it could be said that this approach offers a little variation, it can definitely be said that it also can make a show feel messy, inconsistent and unbalanced and tragically, that's exactly what's happening to "Discovery."
This week's episode, entitled "The Sanctuary" couldn't be any further away, at the opposite end of the spectrum, from last week's installment and while a minimal amount of fluctuation can retain believability, that's not what's happened here. This, third season, has both the highest score we've ever given an episode, and the lowest as well.
This episode is directed by Jonathan Frakes and his more lighthearted touch is evident almost immediately. It would've worked so much better as an episode four, for example, but after the road we went down last week, the snap-back to the fun, filler format is enough to give you whiplash.
We open with Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) attempting to give Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) an examination following her weird flashbacks that we've seen a little bit of in the last few episodes. Georgiou is every bit as annoying as you'd expect, although we suspect this is less to do with Yeoh and more likely that the writers just don't know how to shape her character. Culber, who is a staggeringly underused character, doesn't take any of her cheek and keeps her in check. Apparently, Georgiou is suffering from some sort of brain dysfunction that will eventually reduce her to a quivering, wasted piece of jelly and we can't wait for that.
Meanwhile, Book (David Ajala) has tracked down Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) in the corridors of the Discovery to explain that his "brother" Kyheem (Ache Hernandez) has sent word that something is afoot on Book's homeworld of Kwejian and it involves Osyraa and the Emerald Chain. They go to see Admiral Vance (Oded Fehr), who has settled nicely into his reluctant-at-first-but-ultimately-convincible police-chief role.
Book explains: "When the burn hit, damage to sub-space shifted our moon's orbit causing tidal changes. Sea locusts came out of the oceans and ate our harvest. Millions were starving." And then the Emerald Chain came along. They apparently offered a form of repellant that was a humane way to get them back into the sea, but the people of his world had to give up their trance worms in exchange. And now Osyraa is back. Vance approves the mission as long as they don't use force of any kind.
We cut to Hunhau, the Emerald Chain salvage planet, that we were first introduced to in the episode "Scavengers" (S03, E06) a couple of weeks back and the Orion Tolo (Noah Averbach-Katz) is having to explain the prisoner escape to Osyraa herself (Janet Kidder). Needless to say, he doesn't do a very good job and she feeds him to a trance worm. Roll opening credits.
What follows is a scene that is typical Frakes as Captain Saru (Doug Jones) and his newly appointed X.O. (although she's acting more like a yeoman than a first officer) Ensign Tilly (Mary Wiseman), walk through the corridors of the Discovery discussing ship matters until they get the subject of what Saru's catchphrase should be. It's quite funny actually, but by being so amusing, it contributes to making this episode so drastically different from the preceding one. Tilly offers three suggestions: "hit it," but apparently that's what Captain Pike used to say, "execute" and "manifest," but no one likes that third one. Our suggestions include "punch it," "chocks away" and "let's light this candle."
If you recall, Capt. Styles (James B. Sikking) in "The Search for Spock" used "execute" and of course Capt. Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) in "The Next Generation" used "engage" whereas Capt. Kirk (William Shatner) and indeed most other Starfleet captains that we've seen in the past would simply rely on the actual order given.
They're on their way to Engineering to hear Lt. Stamets (Anthony Rapp) share his findings from crossreferencing the black box data against the SB-19 data the crew acquired last week. Turns out, Stamets and Adira (Blu del Barrio) have found an origin point for "the burn" the Verubin Nebula. It also turns out that there's a transmission emanating from this point and when the effects of magnetic and long-distance distortion are compensated for it sounds like music. In fact, it's the same haunting theme that's been a reoccurring theme in this season. It's a bit like the music that the Cylons-who-didn't-know-they-were-Cylons began hearing towards the end of Season 4 of "Battlestar Galactica."
Stamets explains that it's the same music that Dr. Attis (Jake Epstein) was humming to his Barzan family on the USS Tikhov although how Stamets knows this is unclear since he wasn't in the away team that boarded that ship. It's also the music that Gray Tal (Ian Alexander) was playing on the cello. Saru, using his super Kelpien sense of sound, picks up on low frequency noise which they remodulate in order to isolate the original signal or something and lo and behold, they detect a Federation distress beacon, which means there's a ship lost in there. And since federation distress signals usually have a message of some kind, Adira is tasked with writing an algorithm to find it.
So, is it the USS Discovery that we saw in the "Short Trek" episode "Calypso?" And if so, how can it be the NCC-1031 from a future date, since the Discovery has now undergone an extensive refit? Or maybe even the USS Buran, since we still think Cpt. Lorca is involved in all of this somehow.
The Discovery heads to Kwejian and upon arrival scanners detect a heavy cruiser class starship; Saru's orders are for Book and Burnham to take Book's ship which doesn't seem to have a name and investigate. Crazy tinfoil hat theory Grudge could be part of Book's ship, a little like Rommie and Andromeda in the show "Andromeda" that, along with "Star Trek," was also created by Gene Roddenberry.
In sickbay, in the meantime, Georgiou is working hard on trying to be the worst patient imaginable. Once under general anesthetic, Culber can begin his atomic-level scan, however, Georgiou is in danger of having a cerebral episode. Then some crazy stuff starts happening. Her face and body appear to begin disintegrating at an atomic level and she wakes up screaming "San!" As she leaves, she sneakily withholds one of the little wireless sensors that was attached to her forehead, presumably to analyze herself later. And interestingly, Memory Alpha has San down as a character, played by Jhaleil Swaby, so we assume this is the poor individual covered in blood in her flashbacks.
On the surface of Kwejian, Book and Burnham are on their own as the planet's defense system within the area known as "the sanctuary" renders orbital trackers and transporters useless. Kyheem appears and we learn that Book's name was once Tareckx. Turns out Osyraa wants the Andorian "criminal" known as Ryn (Ian Lake) that Book rescued from Hunhau. Hernandez brings a nice, Spanish accent and an Antonio Banderas-style delivery to "Discovery" and it fits in well and suits his character. Once back at his house, Kyheem and Book go back and forth about who retained their principles and who didn't.
Meanwhile, in orbit above the planet, Osyraa herself has arrived in her heavy cruiser called the Viridian and she engages Saru in a good old-fashioned game of bluff and bluster. Unfortunately, the whole Ryn-reason why the Discovery must confront the quadrant's public enemy number one feels contrived. Incidentally, we don't even know which quadrant this is all taking place in.
Kyheem wants to give Ryn up to Osyraa to save Kwejian, the sanctuary and the trance worms in essence, the whole, I'm-fighting-you-even-though-I'm-really-a-good-guy-just-trying-to-do-the-right-thing routine. Osyraa's ship enters the atmosphere so she can beam down into Kyheem's house, but Book and Burnham don't notice, 'cause they're er, in a different part of the house. Then she starts shooting photon torpedoes at the surface to burn the forests of the sanctuary and force Kyheem to do her bidding.
The back and forth is handled well, nicely cutting between simultaneous heated discussions on the planet's surface and on the Discovery, and even the dialogue isn't terrible, it's the story behind it all that lets the side down. Finally, Saru confronts Ryn and demands to know why he's so important, but the Andorian refuses to spill the beans.
While all this is going on, Georgiou is attempting to hack into the medical sensor she swiped earlier, but she barely gets a glimpse of the data before Culber catches her red-handed. He suggests they go somewhere quieter to talk, but that's the last we hear of it, for this episode.
Now we have a countdown-style climax as it's only a matter of time before the Viridian's bombardment of the planet's surface destroys the sanctuary's defense system er, even though photon torpedoes are detonating all around Book and Burnham as they dodge the explosions for some exciting outdoor action. Risking breaking his word to Vance, Saru has gone to red alert and is preparing to get into the fight, but Tilly comes up with the idea to fire on Osyraa's ship from a non-Federation ship it's Book's.
So Ryn and Lt. Keyla Detmer (Emily Coutts) fly out of the shuttle bay and start attacking the Viridian. It's actually a nice aerial VFX sequence, probably one of the best so far in this season. It's not the same standard as "The Mandalorian," but that's because Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni have gone to extraordinary lengths to digitally recreate the look and feel once achieved by using models and it's beautiful. Dogfights haven't been a traditional mainstay in "Star Trek" and space battles like we saw at the end of Season two of "Discovery" clearly demonstrates a total lack of understanding of what actually makes a good space battle. So this is certainly a step in the right direction.
Book and Burnham get ambushed while they're outside by Kyheem's goons, who are quickly dispatched before Kyheem himself has a go. A brother vs. brother fight ensues as Book disarms him before throwing the gun on the ground making him choose whether or not to shoot him, but thankfully he makes the right decision. But in order to drive the sea locusts back into the ocean, which don't forget is what this is really all about, Book and his brother do that whole Arabic-sounding chant thing, utilizing their symbiotic relationship with the planet along with some help from the Discovery isolating and amplifying the electromagnetic connection between the sea's locusts all the insects go back to the sea where they belong.
Osyraa's ship stands down and she threatens Saru, saying the Federation will feel the full force of the Emerald Chain, but more importantly it seems that Saru has settled on "carry on" as his catchphrase. As everyone celebrates in the mess hall, Ryn tells a great story to Tilly as yet another former Federation-hating humanoid admits that they were wrong and now appreciates and welcomes its presence. Then he tells her that the Chain is running out of dilithium, which is possibly why she wanted him back so badly but we suspect there's more to it.
Finally, Book and Kyheem are the best of brothers once more and then .. while chatting in a cargo bay, Book lays it on Burnham he's seen what the Federation is doing and he wants in! YEAH BABY! Burnham plays it cool, but as she walks away, there's a smile on her face that is just beautiful. Not only does it mirror our own, but we're reminded of how wonderful it is and how much more we want to see Burnham not blubbing.
The seasonal story arc inches forward a little bit this week and each episode seems to still contain more filler material, so we do sincerely hope there isn't a sudden story tsunami towards the season finale. As we've mentioned, this episode is not terrible, it just feel awkward in its placement within this season.
We freely admit that we don't know the politics behind the scenes on the production of "Discovery," but everyone can see every week that there's an extraordinary number of producers (22 at last count) with variations on the job title that include consulting producer, supervising producer, co-executive producer and executive producer. And while some, like Eugene Roddenberry have very little actual involvement in the show, that does still seem like a lot. Is "Star Trek: Discovery" suffering from being top heavy? Are too many decision makers creating a situation where even the simplest of details are being mismanaged? We'll more than likely never know, but it's a question worth pondering.
To contrast, this second season of "The Mandalorian" has also had different directors, including Peyton Reed, Bryce Dallas Howard and Carl Weathers but every episode has been written by either Jon Favreau or Dave Filoni, the latter of whom has a uniquely strong connection to the "Star Wars" universe. Moreover, they both understand visual storytelling since one is an actor and the other is an animator. Filoni was the co-creator of Ahsoka Tano, so a lot of care and attention went into her first live-action appearance last week. And its not limited to this character or this episode, "The Mandalorian" is a labor of love for both Favreau and Filoni and it shows.
With the cinema industry struggling, it's safe to say that any future big-screen sci-fi projects are probably on hold. However, on the small screen "Star Wars" is thriving and we now have a Rogue One spinoff focusing on Diego Luna's Cassian Andor and the Obi-Wan Kenobi series with Ewan McGregor, a potential Boba Fett miniseries and possibly even an Ahsoka Tano spinoff. Clearly, the future of science fiction is on television, certainly the future of "Star Wars." And if CBS or any other studio for that matter wants to compete in the sci-fi arena, they're going to have to improve their product.
Rating: 7 out of 10
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