Star Trek: Discovery 2.04: “An Obol for Charon”

Discovery takes on a classic TNG episode and makes it its own.

I’m deeply intrigued by the strong textual links between season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery and season 3 of Star Trek: The Next Generation. For example:

  • Commander Nahn is a Barzan, a pre-warp species (who were nevertheless in contact with the Federation and other powers) which appeared in “The Price”
  • The writers of “New Eden” had “Who Watches the Watchers” in mind
  • “Point of Light” is all about Klingon politics, and making great personal sacrifices for the good of the Empire
  • “An Obol for Charon” has almost the same premise as “Tin Man” – an ancient space-dwelling entity makes contact as it nears death

If the season ends with someone being assimilated, I’m gonna flip a table. (Possibly with glee, though, I’m open to all kinds of possibilities.)

I’m quite torn about these links, because while season 3 was when TNG came into its own, in some ways this feels like a step back for Discovery. But I’m also optimistic that the writers are finding a balance, because despite the similar premises, “An Obol for Charon” could only be a Discovery episode.

Lemme get some quick complaints out of the way first

I really enjoyed “An Obol for Charon”, and I think it’s a really strong episode, but I do have notes.

Mostly about the arc pacing, which I think is going to be Discovery‘s eternal weakness. It feels like we’re not making progress on the Red Bursts mystery, and Michael is continually having the same conversation about Spock, just with different people.

Here, she starts out having concluded that Amanda is right, it’s best if she isn’t the one to pursue him — but Pike has other plans, so this character development for Michael is effectively negated.

It feels like we’re spinning our wheels, as if the arc has been put on hold while the writers move other pieces — the Klingons last week, Saru and the mycelial mystery this week — into place. I can hear the gears click. The frequent reminders from Pike and Owosekun that they need to escape the Mysterious Sphere before they lose Spock’s signal felt like they were addressed to the audience: “Don’t forget, we’re searching for Spock.”

(A search which has by now taken up more viewing time than the actual movie.)

Having said all this, I suspect it will be less frustrating to viewers who wait until the season is over and then binge — Linus’s remark about having had a cold “last week” (“and it sucked”) suggests that very little time has passed since Pike took command. A month for the viewer, but a very busy week for the characters.

Plot 1: Saru

He claims to have woken up with a cold, but it’s actually (da DUM) the Vahar’ai, a disease which signals the end of a Kelpien’s life: they are either harvested by the Ba’ul, the species which preys upon them, or they go insane and die.

Saru struggles to do his duty, and is the first to realise that the sphere is trying to communicate its knowledge and experiences before its life ends. Then, having saved the ship, he sets out to commit ritual suicide by asking Michael to cut off his ganglia. Which … is a whole separate TNG episode, but Disco thankfully skips the hamfisted assisted suicide debate.

Instead, Saru’s ganglia whither up and fall out, which … honestly, I’d be a lot more freaked out in Michael’s position, but I guess she’s had A Day.

I have some questions!

  • Is it normal for Kelpiens to commit ritual suicide if the Ba’ul aren’t around for the harvest?
  • Why did Saru’s ganglia fall out? Is this a normal part of the process, or something the sphere has triggered?
  • How will this change Saru’s personality going forward?
  • Is it possible that the Ba’ul are Kelpiens who have survived the Vahar’ai and lost their ganglia?
  • Are they truly predators, or is this the natural next stage in Kelpien development?
  • Is Saru going to become a beautiful butterfly?
  • Is it ethical for Michael to stick his discarded ganglia in some Tupperware for Georgiou to snack on?

I suspect most of these questions will be answered in future episodes, and Saru will struggle with his oath to Starfleet and desire to uphold General Order One (which will someday be known as the Prime Directive) versus his need to save his people, or at least tell them that they’ve been terribly misinformed.

And I’m very into that, because I have, ummmmmmmmm, serious reservations about the Prime Directive, and debates about it are rarely this personal.

On the other hand, I’ve come to love Saru as he is, and I don’t want his new fearlessness to make him, well, a jerk. Much was made this week about his great capacity for empathy — and in a neat nod to contemporary politics, he’s not just a member of a pre-warp species, but a refugee who was accepted into the Federation and Starfleet — and I would be terribly sad if he lost that, even for a moment.

Plot 2: Tilly and May

May has been extracted from Tilly and, in her CGI blob form, safely confined in the engineering lab … until the sphere knocks Discovery’s systems offline and frees her. She attaches herself to Tilly, and only then do Tilly and Stamets go, “Hey, maybe we should try to communicate with May and see what she wants?”

I love these two, but I don’t blame Jett Reno for assuming they’re, you know, a bit slow. As I think I said last week, this is another point where it feels like plot developments were deliberately delayed for Reasons.

But at least it’s moving now! And Tilly and Stamets are trapped in the lab with Jett, who is sensible, practical, not averse to a bit of DIY surgery, and prefers her pizzas without mushroom.

Have I mentioned that I love her?

May’s message turns out to be pretty straightforward: she represents a species which lives within the mycelial network, and their ecosystem is being destroyed by Discovery’s jumps.

Paul is like, “Oh shit, that’s bad, let Tilly go and I’ll come up with a way to fix it.” But May has “other plans” for Tilly — I hope people aren’t so bigoted against giant fungus blobs that they’ve stopped shipping it — and, after a couple of attempts, cocoons her in a … bigger blob.

And then she’s gone.

I think.

(Netflix was very stop and start that night — it was quite frustrating, and I may have missed some things.)

Despite my frustration with the pacing, I had a lot of fun watching this storyline. It makes sense that Reno and Stamets would be at odds, and her reaction to the spore drive is quite similar to that of many fans who prefer their faster-than-light-travel to be powered by magic crystals rather than magic spores.

Jett didn’t get to interact directly with Tilly as much as I’d have liked, but in a way that’s good: there’s still plenty of room in the narrative for me to assume that Tilly is instantly infatuated with Jett. (What? I like age gaps.) Even if she did go from zero to LET’S DRILL A HOLE IN TILLY’S HEAD, which I personally would find offputting.

Performing impromptu trepanation on junior colleagues is frowned upon in most workplaces, especially without anaesthetic, but Discovery’s fun like that. One week a fungus has taken up residence in your nervous system, the next, your boss is waving a drill around and telling you to sing.

Bowie? Why not? Discovery has been pretty free with its references to 20th century music — Reno namechecks Prince — and while it’s a bit culturally parochial, the 20th century also marks the first period where original recordings of contemporary music could be made and preserved — in quality as good as or better than the initial release — and consumed by future generations. References to 21st century music would be a step too far, but I’ll take the 20th any day.

(Having said that, here is a concept for you — Lwaxana Troi: Lady Gaga fan.)

A subtle callback to a couple of episodes ago: Paul is visibly unhappy at the prospect of being ordered to use the spore drive. And next week? He gets to go into the mycelial network itself to rescue Tilly. (And, I assume, Hugh, something something Orpheus and Eurydice.)

3. Spock, but also Number One

We finally encounter Number One, the as-yet unnamed first officer of the Enterprise, who was played by Majel Barret in “The Cage”.

Here, Rebecca Romijn plays the part, and it’s worth noting that Discovery‘s take on the character is radically different from the original.

Back in the ’60s, Number One was logical and unemotional, aside from a private attraction to Pike. She was, in fact, essentially Michael Burnham, and I believe Bryan Fuller is on the record as saying Michael was inspired by Number One.

I was curious to see how the writers would handle two logical, stoic women in one series, and I’m a bit disappointed to see that the answer is, they won’t.

On the other hand, I like the personality they’ve given her — Romijn described her as a “brassy dame”, she makes connections and gets things done, and, as Pike says, people often end up owing her favours. This is all extremely cool, and I don’t want to get caught up being mad about a choice over which I had no say whatsoever, or grieving for a version of the character that barely existed. But I am a bit sad.

I’m impressed, though, at how vividly she was sketched, considering how briefly she appeared and how little she actually did. Which was turn up, eat a burger (with fries and habanero sauce, hold the food shaming) and tell Pike that (a) the level of classification on Spock’s case is super weird, and (b) regardless, she’s managed to track down the warp trail of his stolen shuttle.

Pure fan service, basically, and she doesn’t even get a name yet — but I’m okay with that! Because we’ve been assured she will return, and I think it’s good to give brand new viewers a chance to look her up and find out about her history in the franchise, instead of making them watch the rest of us squee when her name is finally revealed.

I mean. They are gonna give her a name, right?

Other observations

  • The emphasis on Saru’s capacity for empathy reminded me of the similar focus on Spock in “Brother”, and Michael’s insistence that, contrary to Sarek’s belief, Spock is deeply empathetic.
  • Michael has been reduced to tears twice so far this season. Which … I’m not complaining, Sonequa Martin-Green is brilliant at conveying emotion, but I’m reminded of season 2 of Alias, where Jennifer Garner wound up crying so often it started to become ridiculous. Women can, in fact, express emotions without their faces leaking.
  • It’s not that Michael’s tears haven’t been earned, I just think twice in two weeks was too much.
  • Things which still exist in the 23rd century: duct tape and chewing gum. And yes, Jett uses both in her work. Is it weird that it’s the chewing gum that strained my disbelief?
  • It’s the second time we’ve heard Stamets pronounce “fungi” with a soft “g”. I bet he pronounces “gif” as “jif”, too.
  • I’m a wee bit disappointed that Number One no longer has the electric blue nail polish she sported in the ’60s. I love having blue nails, and she is the reason why.
  • I could seriously go for a burger right now.
  • You can imagine my face when fans come up with elaborate explanations for Reno being familiar with Prince, but taking a Bowie reference for granted.



One thought on “Star Trek: Discovery 2.04: “An Obol for Charon””

  1. “Why did Saru’s ganglia fall out? Is this a normal part of the process, or something the sphere has triggered?”

    I was torn between “that’s a nice bit of assuming that we at home will work it out” and “but wait AM I correct in assuming this is just what eventually happens to Kelpians if you don’t murder them?”

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