Jan 2, 2020
Star Trek: Discovery “An Obol for Charon”
Previously: Discovery was out to track down the source of “seven signals” that seem to foretell appearances of the Red Angel. Spock knew about the signals months before they were detected, which in some way led to him voluntarily committing himself to a psychiatric unit, where he allegedly murdered his doctors and is now on the run. Meanwhile, Tilly got infected by a sentient fungus that posed as her childhood friend May, so Stamets pulled a big blob out of her. So, you know, just a typical Thursday on the USS Discovery.
In the transporter room, Pike welcomes a special guest aboard Discovery: Number One, seen previously on TOS’s “The Cage”, played then by Majel Barrett and played now by Rebecca Romijn. She and Pike have some groanworthy prequel-esque dialogue, where Number One describes how the Enterprise’s chief engineer is trying to fix the ship’s numerous issues and Pike comments, “I don’t think Enterprise will ever have a chief engineer more in love with his ship!” Ugh.
And then it gets worse when Pike learns that the Enterprise’s holographic communications system is causing problems, and orders the whole thing ripped out, and declares that the Enterprise will only use viewscreens from now on. Ugh. This is why people hate prequels. Look, it was a dumb decision for this show to go with a comm system that was more advanced than what we saw on Deep Space Nine taking place 200 years later. But they dug this hole for themselves, and crowbarring in throwaway lines to explain away those decisions only makes them look dumber.
But the main reason for Number One’s visit is that she’s been tasked with investigating Starfleet’s claim that Spock killed his doctors, which she too doesn’t believe. She passes along information to Pike, which includes Spock’s warp trail coordinates which will allow them to track him down and get answers. And that’s the last we see of Number One in this episode. It’s basically just a cameo, but given who they cast, you can count on future appearances. And maybe next time, they’ll actually give her a name besides “Number One”.
The crew meets in Pike’s ready room for a Next Generation-style conference room scene, where Burnham briefs them all on the Red Angel. And during this meeting, we see that reptilian crew member again—the one who sneezed all over Connolly—and it seems his name is Linus and he’s a Saurian. When Saru says he woke up with a cold, Linus talks about how he had a cold, which “sucks”, because Saurians have “six nasal canals”. And then he excuses himself from the room so he can go back to The Orville where he belongs.
But it seems the “red bursts” mission has been put on hold, because Discovery is now heading for Spock’s warp trail. Suddenly, the ship gets pulled out of warp by a giant rocky sphere. Scans reveal it’s 100,000 years old and partly made of organic matter.
As they discuss what to do about it in Pike’s ready room, Burnham abruptly starts speaking in Klingon, complete with subtitles. And just when you think maybe she’s been a Voq-like sleeper agent this whole time, Pike starts speaking French.
As it turns out, the Universal Translator has been affected by the sphere, and everyone on the bridge is speaking in different languages. This is pretty much the highlight of the episode, even though it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and I should note that switching on the subtitles in the CBS All Access app only enhances the experience: Owosekun is speaking Norwegian, Detmer is now speaking in Andorian, Nhan (the engineering officer from the Enterprise, who’s joined the Discovery crew, I guess?) is speaking Italian, and the computer is speaking Wolof, a language from Senegal.
Their only solution is to call a sick Saru up to the bridge, because he knows 94 languages, and he’s able to fix things so that everyone who knows “Earth English” can communicate. Wait, I thought they were all speaking Federation Standard? But it’s a funny scene, even though I think I understand the Universal Translator even less than I did before watching it. There’s the suggestion that the UT translates the words displayed on consoles, and how does that work exactly?
Burnham and Saru discover that the “virus” that infected the Universal Translator is now spreading to other systems. This means the ship can’t get free of the sphere’s energy web, and if they don’t escape soon, they’ll lose Spock’s warp trail.
And then Saru’s cold turns out to be more serious. He collapses and gets brought to Sickbay where he’s examined by Dr. Pollard, who I guess is this show’s belated Chief Medical Officer. Saru reveals that he’s going through the “Vahar’ai”, previously mentioned in the Short Trek episode “The Brightest Star”. According to Saru, people in his species contract this disease when they’re ready to be “culled for slaughter” by the Ba’ul, and it’s terminal, and there is no cure.
Which doesn’t mesh at all with what we saw in the Short Trek episode. There, Saru constantly wondered if he would be “chosen” for the next “harvest”. If a disease precedes the culling, then why would he have to wonder? And really, there was no talk of a disease in “The Brightest Star” and no one involved in the “harvest” showed signs of having one, so it seems like a lot of this is just being made up on the fly.
Cut to the spore room in Engineering, which conveniently is not affected by the translator issues, where Stamets and Tilly have the big May-blob from last week locked up in the spore chamber. Enter Jett Reno, Tig Notaro’s engineer character who was rescued from the asteroid in the pilot. She’s all sassy and snarky, and she and Stamets have science nerd banter about how Stamets’ magic mushrooms are worthless compared to good old reliable dilithium and antimatter. And everything about this conversation is dire; the clumsy lines, the bad jokes, and especially the awkward way Notaro delivers them.
They get sealed inside the spore room due to the malfunctions, and Reno tries to use an energy beam to cut their way out, which backfires and knocks her out instead. And when she wakes up, she says she was dreaming that she was “playing drums for Prince, and there were doves and a parade!” Like, why? And if you’re going to throw in anachronistic pop culture references, at least make them funny. I can only assume one of the producers was a fan of Tig Notaro’s standup and thought it’d be cool to have her doing the same shtick here, but she’s just not a good fit for this show at all.
Thanks to the malfunctions, the May-blob escapes from the spore chamber and attaches to Tilly’s arm and won’t let go. And true to its mushroom-based nature, the organism is releasing a “psilocybin hallucinogen” into Tilly’s system for unknown reasons. Burnham shows up, but the room is still sealed off. As she talks to Stamets through the glass door, he gets the idea to attach a device to Tilly’s nervous system to allow the organism to speak through her. This also gives Burnham a eureka moment, and she decides that the “virus” in the ship’s systems is really the sphere trying to communicate with them.
She goes to Saru, who says he’s been seeing flashes of ultraviolet light, and he figures out that it’s a message from the sphere, which isn’t trying to make first contact, but rather “last contact”. It wants to pass on everything it knows, because it’s dying.
They bring this info to Pike, who’s resistant to the idea, because Discovery would have to lower its shields and face possible destruction to receive the sphere’s transmission. But Burnham convinces him, noting that the sphere has 100,000 years of knowledge stored up, which certainly will be of value to the Federation, though what are the odds of this vast trove of information ever being referenced again?
In the spore room, they have to drill a hole in Tilly’s head to attach the device, but they don’t have any medical equipment, so they have to use a power drill. Before the procedure, Stamets tries to distract Tilly by asking what her favorite song is, and the two start singing “Space Oddity” together, and cha-ching for David Bowie’s estate. Although I wonder how many people in their twenties nowadays would claim a 300 year old song as their “favorite”?
Stamets starts the drill, and remarkably, Tilly doesn’t react very much to a metal bit piercing her skull. I guess this could be an effect of the hallucinogen, but there’s really no blood, either.
They’re finally able to speak to the blob, which talks through Tilly but speaks in May’s voice and accent. And this whole scene plays like something out of a low-rent exorcism movie, with May-Tilly making sinister faces as she explains she’s a member of the “JahSepp” species, and she came here to find the “destructive alien presence” invading her realm. Stamets figures out that the spore jumps they’ve been doing are harming May’s species, but before he can do anything more, the blob totally covers Tilly’s body and encases her in a black cocoon.
Meanwhile on the bridge, the Discovery is able to receive all the sphere’s info, and then it self-destructs, right after reversing the polarity or something to push the ship clear of the explosion.
And now that the crisis is over, it’s time for Saru to face his own demise, and he wants Burnham to be there for him when it happens. He lies in his quarters shirtless, and damn, Saru’s arms are jacked.
He wants Burnham to use a “Kelpien knife” to cut off his threat ganglia, which will end his “suffering”. A tearful Burnham can’t bring herself to do it, and the two have a moment where she calls him her “family” and Saru says Burnham “replaced” the sister he had back home. And all this heartwarming stuff between Saru and Burnham is a stretch, considering Saru was openly hostile towards Burnham throughout most of last season, and even thought having her aboard Discovery was a grave threat. It’s possible they were close on the Shenzhou before she mutinied, but we’ve seen virtually no evidence on this show of the two having this deep love for each other. But other than that, it’s a nice, emotional scene.
Burnham goes to cut off the ganglia, but they fall off on their own. In Sickbay, Saru is told that the disease is gone, and he says feels better than ever, and the “fear” that was always with him is now gone. And now he realizes that everything his people were told about the “Great Balance” was a lie, and he can’t let his species go on believing in that lie. It took a disease to make him realize the whole “preying on an inferior species” thing was wrong?
In the spore room, they’re able to get Tilly out of that cocoon, and she’s all wet like a newborn. Stamets says they have to destroy the spore drive now, to avoid doing more harm to the beings who live in the mycelial network. So I’m guessing this will explain, finally, why the spore drive never gets used in the later-set Star Trek shows. I’m pretty sure that’s the idea, considering how they spent precious time explaining why the holographic communicator doesn’t get used in the future either.
But before Stamets can start taking apart the spore drive, the cocoon releases more psilocybin into the air, and Reno and Stamets’ eyes and mouth get distorted as they start hallucinating. Stamets is able to reach a medkit and inject himself and Reno with “impedrizine” to counteract the hallucinogen, but when he turns to inject Tilly, she’s gone. It seems she’s been pulled back into the cocoon, but this time she’s disappeared.
It looks like we’re back to the TOS/TNG Anomaly of the Week formula, in an episode that feels mostly like a remix of a whole bunch of other Star Trek episodes. “An Obol for Charon” has bits of pieces of TNG’s “Galaxy’s Child” and “Tin Man”, where the Enterprise encounters ancient space-based lifeforms and has to learn how to communicate with them. The way the lifeform “infects” the ship was obviously done before in plenty of other Trek episodes, but the one that immediately springs to mind is Voyager’s “Learning Curve” (the one with the infamous “Get this cheese to Sickbay” line). And the way the lifeform affects Saru in particular is similar to TNG’s “The Loss”, where space-based lifeforms cause Troi to lose her empathic powers, but worse than that, it’s a lot more like Voyager’s “Elogium”, where space-based lifeforms trigger Kes’ once-in-a-lifetime Ocampan mating drive.
I could go on and on pointing out all the Star Trek episodes that get sampled here, but I think it should be obvious what the major flaw is with trying to do an episodic Anomaly of the Week series: After hundreds of hours of filmed Trek, any “high concept” the writers could possibly come up with has certainly already been done to death. Discovery should be focusing less on the concepts and more on the characters, which are really all it has that makes it unique. Because other than the final scenes between Burnham and Saru, and the UT gag, this was a pretty forgettable episode, and I must admit the season so far has made me lose a lot of interest in this series.
Next time: Tilly’s been pulled into an alternate reality of trees and spores where she gets confronted by May. Discovery tries to save her, but the ship gets caught in some kind of big blue cosmic wave. And it looks like Georgiou and her Section 31 boss/coworker Leland will get involved somehow too.