Star Trek Discovery pays “An Obol to Charon” and gets back on form

After last week’s messy return to much of what made season 1 so annoying, Star Trek Discovery comes roaring back with “An Obol to Charon”. For my take on previous Star Trek Discovery episodes, go here.

“An Obol to Charon” features yet another reiteration of two classic Star Trek tropes, namely the encounter with a threatening cosmic phenomenon (or is it?) and “everything on the entire ship is breaking down and the crew must make do without tech”. However, though the basic tropes are well worn, “An Obol to Charon” manages to do something original with them and also uses them to develop and illuminate the relationships between the characters.

Warning! Spoilers behind the cut!

The episode opens with the Discovery still hunting for Spock, who is on the run after breaking out of a mental hospital and killing three doctors in the process – or so Starfleet claims. Number One, Pike’s first officer aboard the Enterprise (who is now played by Rebecca Romijn, but still hasn’t acquired an actual name), shows up to give Pike an update about Spock and his last known whereabouts in exchange for a cheeseburger. The Discovery immediately sets off in pursuit, but instead of Spock (whom I suspect we won’t see until the season finale, given the pace at which the search for him is progressing), the Discovery finds – surprise – a mysterious cosmic phenomenon (TM). Though this mysterious cosmic phenomenon (TM) is not the Red Angel whom the Discovery has been chasing these past few episodes, but a gigantic glowing orb, which pulls the Discovery out of warp speed and then infects the ship with a virus that causes every single system on board to break down.

Now massive shipwide system failures are nothing new for Star Trek – Starfleet vessels seem to experience them about as often as they encounter mysterious cosmic phenomena (TM) with holodecks particularly prone to malfunctioning. What sets this massive shipwide failure apart from others we’ve seen during 53 years of Star Trek history, is that the virus transmitted by the glowing orb mainly attacks the Discovery‘s communication system. First of all, the automatic doors get jammed, trapping Starfleet personnel in their respective sections of the ship. Then, the universal translator goes completely haywire and starts translating everybody’s words into random languages, making communication impossible and linguists’ hearts leap with joy. By the way, the implication that the Discovery crew (and presumably every other Starfleet crew we’ve ever seen) are really speaking a multitude of languages and we only hear them speaking in English (or German or whatever), because that’s what the universal translator spits out for us, is certainly interesting.

Since the Federation has universal translators, language learning isn’t really a priority for Starfleet personnel. And hence they rely on the universal translator so completely that they are utterly lost without it. But luckily, one Discovery crewmember has made language learning a priority and that’s Saru who speaks 94 languages and is pretty much the only one on board who is able to translate the dialogues between the various crewmembers.

Unfortunately, Saru isn’t feeling well. Initially, he believes he caught a cold from the sniffling alien crewmember (apparently the character’s name is Linus and his species has six sinuses) last seen in the first episode of season 2. But it quickly turns out that Saru has caught something much worse and is actually dying.

Here “An Obol for Charon” not just lives up to its title, which is a reference to the coin with which you pay Charon the ferryman when he takes you across the river Styx into the Greek underworld, it also hearkens back to a Saru focussed Short Treks mini-episode named “The Brightest Star”. Now I haven’t seen the Short Treks mini-episodes, because they are not easy to watch outside the US. But apparently “The Brightest Star” delves a bit into the biology of Saru’s species, the Kelpians. We’ve been told before that Kelpians are considered livestock, basically alien cows or pigs, and are farmed by an advanced alien race called the Ba’ul. When a Kelpian approaches the end of their life, they exhibit symptoms similar to Saru’s. Then they are either harvested – and presumably eaten (and honestly, what is it with this weird “Let’s eat Saru” obsession in Star Trek Discovery?) – by the Ba’ul or they go inevitably mad.

However, there are no Ba’ul handy to harvest Saru and the only other Kelpian eater we know of, the evil mirror universe Philippa Georgiou, is too busy strutting around her Section 31 ship in sexy black leather outfits and seducing Ash Tyler (Come on, you know that she will do that) to drop by and relieve Saru of his suffering. Therefore, Saru asks Michael to euthanise him, when the time comes. He also asks her to catalog his personal journals and deliver them to his sister and the rest of his people, so they can learn about his adventures one day. Cause it turns out that the Kelpians are a pre-warp civilisation (and you can bet the Ba’ul will make very sure they remain so – after all, they don’t want their cattle to go travelling around the galaxy) and Saru is the only one who managed to make contact with Starfleet, which also explains why we have never seen any Kelpians before.

But Saru is a trooper and so he keeps on trying to solve the puzzle of the mysterious glowing orb that has thoroughly messed up the Discovery up to the moment of his death. Saru’s dying wish to pass on his history and what he has learned as the only Kelpian ever to travel the stars finally puts Michael and Saru on the right trail, namely that the glowing orb is dying as well and just wants to pass on its knowledge to the nearest intelligence, which just happens to be the passing Discovery. Together, Michael and Saru persuade Pike to lower the shields and just let the orb finish its broadcast. So the orb uploads all its accumulated data (which conveniently also includes the location of Spock’s shuttle, since even glowy alien orbs know that Spock is of prime importance) into the Discovery‘s computer system and the shipwide systems malfunctions just cease and everyhing goes back to normal. As solutions to massive shipwide systems failures go, it’s a little too convenient, but than “An Obol for Charon” isn’t really about engineering problems aboard the Discovery.

Instead, “An Obol for Charon” is the Saru centric episode we’ve been waiting for since the start of season 2, if not since season 1. Because just as the Discovery‘s system failure is repaired, Saru’s final moment seems to have come. Together, Pike and Michael help the weakened Saru to his quarters (he sleeps on a bed of moss), where Michael holds his hand, tells Saru that he is like a brother to her and shares a tearful good-bye. Now this sudden closeness between Michael and Saru comes as something of a surprise, because for much of season 1, Saru and Michael didn’t seem to get along very well at all. And indeed, Saru’s constant passive aggressive behaviour towards Michael was a large part of the reason why I did not much like the character well past the halfpoint of season 1. But then, families do tend to quarrel and we also know that Michael is massively traumatised and comes from a messed up family background, because Sarek and Amanda are crappy parents. Coincidentally, the fact that Michael views Saru as her brother, even though the two of them were at odds for most of season 1, also reveals a lot about her relationship to Spock.

And besides, who cares that the sudden closeness between Saru and Michael doesn’t quite match what we’ve seen in season 1, when Saru’s dying scene is so beautifully acted by Doug Jones (who really should have gotten an Oscar nomination, if not an Oscar for The Shape of Water. And while you’re at it, give him an Emmy nomination for Star Trek Discovery) and Sonequa Martin-Green. Yes, it’s emotionally manipulative as hell and Doug Jones and Sonequa Martin-Green really gives those old tear ducts a good squeeze, but it’s also a great scene. And since Discovery has killed off series regulars before – Lorca, Dr. Culber, the real Philippa Georgiou, that annoying woman security chief who got eaten by the Tardigrade, Connor, the crewman who gets killed twice in two different universes – I was a bit worried that Saru might really die, especially since Doug Jones is very much in demand following the success of The Shape of Water.

But in true Star Trek manner – though I didn’t realise this as a kid and was worried and heartbroken every time Spock, Kirk, Bones, Scotty, Chekhov, Sulu, Uhura, etc… were in mortal peril (though Zack Handlen is mistaken, because a series regular – Tasha Yar – does die for good in The Next Generation) – Saru gets better. And so Michael grabs a knife and prepares to cut off Saru’s threat ganglia, which is apparently how you kill Kelpians (well, according to Evil Mirror Georgiou, the ganglia are the best part). However, just before Michael can make the fatal cut, the threat ganglia suddenly shrivel and fall off and Saru magically gets better. Plus, his constant sense of fear has vanished along with his threat ganglia and Saru is literally a new person, the first ever Kelpian to survive the terminal phase of his life and remain sane.

Okay, so Kelpian biology doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but then Star Trek has never been all that great with regard to biology. And besides, the most damning implication of Saru’s miraculous recovery from near death is that the Ba’ul have been lying to the Kelpians all that time – quel surprise – to keep their livestock calm, as they willingly go to their slaughter, which puts the Ba’ul near the top of my personal “worst Star Trek villains” list. Of course, the Prime Directive – pardon, General Order One – forbids Starfleet from doing anything about the Ba’ul’s exploitation of the Kelpians, but you can bet that Saru doesn’t give a damn about the Prime Directive in this case, especially not now that his everpresent fear is gone. So the question is, will Michael, habitual Starfleet mutineer, back him up? What about Stamets, Tilly, Pike?

However, that’s a question for another episode (though hopefully one that will be answered this season), because for now the Discovery is still engaged in the search for Spock (too bad that title is already taken) and after almost losing Saru, Michael is now more determined than ever to rescue her other non-biological alien brother. Besides, another crewmember goes missing as well in this episode’s B-plot. Because even though there is a lot happening in “An Obol for Charon”, the episode still finds time for a B-plot or rather the same B-plot Discovery has had for the past three episodes, namely Tilly’s ghostly encounter with May, the fungus spore ghost.

When the glowing orb causes the Discovery to malfunction, Stamets and Tilly find themselves trapped in the engineering section together with Jet Reno, the chief engineer of the USS Hiawatha, whom the Discovery rescued in the first episode of season 2. With the Hiawatha destroyed, Jet Reno apparently was transferred aboard the Discovery and works in engineering. This puts her on collision course with Stamets and the two of them do not get along with each other at all. Of course, I have the strong impression that Stamets does not get along with new people of any kind – see his early interactions with Michael – and now he has also lost his anchor Dr. Culber, too. And Jet Reno doesn’t really strike me as a people person either. Nonetheless, the sniping between Stamets and Reno is a delight, not least because Anthony Rapp and Tig Notaro are so very good in their roles. And yes, Jet Reno makes the obvious magic mushroom joke.

But the situation quickly gets serious, when “May”, the malevolent (or is she?) fungus spore ghost uses the chaos caused by the systems malfunctions to break out of stasis and attach herself to Tilly once more. Via the possessed Tilly, “May” tells Stamets that she is an emissary from a civilisation existing inside the spore network. However, each time the Discovery uses its spore drive, part of that spore network is destroyed, putting “May’s” civilisation at risk. This poses a massive dilemma to Stamets, because obviously it would be massively unethical, not to mention a violation of the Prime Directive/General Order One to continue using the spore drive. However, for the time being Stamets has a more pressing problem, because “May” is putting Tilly’s health and life at risk. Yes, Discovery doesn’t just give us one regular about the die this episode – no, it gives us two.

Saving Tilly requires Stamets to engage in some emergency trepanning with a power drill. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it leads to a sweet scene, where Tilly tells Stamets about her favourite song (“Space Oddity” by David Bowie) and Stamets sings it together with her. It’s truly a lovely moment and also gives Anthony Rapp the chance to show off his Broadway honed singing skills. Since Stamets is something of a genius, his emergency brain surgery succeeds and Tilly is safe… for now. Because at the end of the episode, “May” distracts Stamets and Reno by getting them high on mushroom spores, wraps Tilly in some kind of cocoon and apparently abducts her into the spore network. So the search for Spock must be interrupted in favour of the search for Tilly.

I strongly suspect that the Tilly and May, the fungus ghost, subplot, only exists to tie up one of the more annoying loose ends from season 1, namely the mystical magical mushroom drive, which has never been seen in Star Trek before or since, and to exorcise the last remains of the mess former showrunner Bryan Fuller left behind when he walked away/was fired from Star Trek Discovery after two episodes. And like pretty much anything connected to the magic mushroom drive, the Tilly/May/Stamets subplot is a mess. Nonetheless, the scenes of Tilly, Stamets and Reno trapped together and getting high, while singing David Bowie songs and performing emergency brain surgery with power tools (which is freakier and trippier than anything the Original Series dished up during the actual 1960s) are a joy to watch, because the actors are just so very good.

I’ve said before that Discovery‘s great strength are its characters and its stellar cast. And this episode used them to their best effect, which makes it the strongest season 2 episode (Camestros Felapton also ranks it accordingly) and one of the strongest episodes altogether. Every character got their moment – even supporting characters like Jet Reno (more of her, please), Number One (more of her as well, please) and Linus, the sneezing alien (more of him, too) got the chance to shine. It alsmost seems as if Star Trek Discovery finally knows what it wants to be, namely a character driven show, which takes classic Star Trek tropes and infuses them with a dose of psychedelic weirdness.

And as far as I’m concerned, that’s a show I’m very happy to watch.

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