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Star Trek: Discovery gets better the more it widens its horizons

Illustration for article titled iStar Trek: Discovery/i gets better the more it widens its horizons
Photo: Michael Gibson/CBS
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I’m noticing a pattern in my season three Discovery reviews: I tend to enjoy the show more when it widens its focus past Michael to bring in the full ensemble. Building character relationships helps the show’s world-building (something it still weirdly struggles with, even after three seasons), which in turns leads to more interesting conflicts and more compelling stakes. At its worst, the show often feels like just a collection of big moments, jumping from highlight to highlight without bothering to build the context or depth to give them meaning beyond their most obvious signifiers—the special effects light show and dramatic music and tearful actors all tell us we should care, but Discovery often struggles with showing why.

Thankfully, the show has been improving on this aspect of itself in fits and starts for much of its run, with a lot of work happening in season three to make for a more cohesive, more distinct series. “The Sanctuary” isn’t a classic, but it’s well-directed (thank you as always, Mr. Frakes), does a good job balancing several stories, and has an earned, exciting climax against a gratifyingly loathsome villain. I’m not sure the show’s need to underline each emotional beat is ever going to sit comfortably with me, but I can at least appreciate it more when it doesn’t use those beats as an excuse to throw internal logic and common sense out the window.

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Let’s start with the small stuff first: Adira comes out as non-binary to Stamets. The scene is quick enough that it could be relegated to Stray Observations, but I think it’s worth noting here, as I’ve been skeptical about how the show was going to handle its transgender and non-binary characters. The whole thing goes by in a couple of lines. After the latest development in the Burn saga, Adira mentions that Stamets keeps using “she” when referring to them. Adira isn’t comfortable with that, and wants to be referred to as they or them. Stamets accepts this without question, and everyone moves on with their lives.

There are shows where this could, and should, have been a major issue. But it just wouldn’t make sense if anyone on Discovery got worked up over an issue of gender or sexuality that’s already relatively common in our present day world. I’m sure it’s possible to imagine a future where we regress somehow, or where civilization splinters into various reactionary groups, and I’m also sure it would be possible to show an alien race in Discovery’s universe that wouldn’t understand this concept. But aboard Discovery, any more effort to make this dramatic or tense or anything more than a simple moment of clarification and honesty, would’ve felt forced and unnecessary. I’ll be curious to see how others with more experiencing writing about gender take this, but, at least for me, it works pretty much perfectly.

As for the bulk of the episode: “The Sanctuary” kicks off with Book getting a message asking him to go back home. The planet of Kwejian is in trouble; said trouble looks to be related in some way to Osira and the Emerald Chain we’ve been hearing so much about lately. Because the Chain is a Federation concern, Vance sends all of Discovery along with Book to investigate, which means at least this time, Michael is able to get through the whole episode without violating direct orders. (The one order she might have violated—Saru calling her back to the ship when Osira arrives—she never actually gets, so we’ll call that a win.) While Michael and Book beam down to the planet, Saru deals with Rin, the antenna-less Andoria introduced in last week’s episode, while facing down a demanding Osira and a potential interstellar diplomatic crisis. Tilly is firmly in Number One role, providing able support. Meanwhile, Culber is trying to figure out just what the hell is going on with Georgiou, and Detmer gets her time to shine when the whole thing blows up in a space battle.

All of this is varying degrees of fun. Book’s strained relationship with a former close friend (he calls him “brother” although they aren’t biologically related) is a brief glimpse into the character’s backstory, revealing a troubled past that’s still echoing into the present. The details are unusual, but the form—a buddy from Book’s former life of crime tries to sell him out, but they have a fist fight and get over it—is familiar enough that it never becomes confusing, and for once, Michael gets to be involved without entirely dominating the proceedings. As a villain, Osira is easy to hate; she’s introduced feeding her nephew to a trance worm, and things only get worse from there. She survives the hour, and given the build up, I expect she’ll be returning soon to menace our heroes, which is a good thing; it feels like it’s been a while since Discovery has had a consistent foe.

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There are a lot of smart touches throughout. It’s a bit cutesy, but I liked the gag of Saru trying to find just the right command phrase to use on the bridge; Saru’s been doing such a solid job as captain that it’s nice to remember that he’s not the most socially engaged character on the show, and it’s a good meta joke that doesn’t cross the line into being overly self-conscious. On the more serious side of things, I dug how Tilly’s clever plan to attack Osira’s ship, the Viridian, without violating diplomatic law doesn’t seem to actually work. Saru can’t openly attack the ship when it starts firing on the planet’s defenses because it would mean breaking the fragile truce between the Chain and the Federation. Tilly suggests having a member of the crew borrow Book’s ship for an “unauthorized” assault. This works in that it stops the Viridian from wrecking the sanctuary, but Osira threatens harsh consequences at the end for all of the Federation. That makes sense—Tilly’s plan was just a smoke screen, and there’s no reason for Osira to buy into it unless she wanted to maintain diplomatic relations herself. But I always appreciate it when a clever plan fails because it assumes everyone is playing by the same rules.

I’m less fond of Georgiou and Culber’s sparring. Georgiou as character has her moments, but her constantly abrasive personality is getting less interesting as it remains consistent, and it’s still weird to see a monstrous dictator rehabbed into “the sarcastic one.” Her aggression towards Culber, which is basically her way of lashing out at an internal issue she can’t control (as well as her usual refusal to allow anyone to suggest she might need others to care for her), makes for a snappy conflict, but the more depth you try and give Georgiou, the more you have to question the value of keeping her around.

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Oh, another nice thing: Detmer got to be a badass. The sequence of her fighting the Viridian in Book’s ship is good, and I’m glad Rin got some more screen time; I’m not sure her speech to him about being brave really works if you think about it more than thirty seconds (for one thing, Rin is the only one ot ever stand up to Osira? How would you know?), but Detmer has been slightly out of focus for so long that any chance she gets to be more than just a name with a cool facial prosthetic is welcome.

I think that’s more or less everything? We also have a brief Burn update: through the power of science, Adira and Stamets have found the system where the Burn originated. There’s a signal coming from that system that sounds like music—a familiar tune that keeps popping up at various points in the season. A little more work, and that music becomes a distress signal from a Federation ship. Which is probably going to be a big deal. All in all, this got us one step closer to the season’s major storyline; cleared the hurdle of dealing with potentially complicated issue of identity; and found time to tell a few good stories without short-changing them.

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Stray observations

  • It’s very endearing to see Stamets and Culber talking about Adira together.
  • Another Linus joke: apparently he’s shedding. (Linus’s role in the show is reminding me a little of Morn from Deep Space Nine, although Linus has also had a few lines.)
  • The reason Osira wanted Rin so badly? He’s the only one who knows that the Emerald Chain is running out of dilithium.
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