STAR TREK DISCOVERY Review: 2.04 “An Obol for Charon”

This week, the “giant space-dwelling organism” trope gets checked off.

The structure of Discovery’s second season - or at least this early part of it - is pretty clear now. It’s a search for Spock, in order to best solve the riddle of the seven mysterious signals and the Red Angel, and each week a new obstacle gets thrown in the crew’s way. Those obstacles take the form of classic Star Trek tropes - and that’s no different in “An Obol For Charon,” which as its title suggests is all about death in its many forms.

Before the episode gets to its thesis statement, it introduces a new character, albeit briefly, in the form of Rebecca Romijn’s take on Number One. Originally played by the great Majel Barrett in Star Trek’s original pilot "The Cage" (i.e. the one with Captain Pike), Number One is Pike’s smart and hyper-effective executive officer, and she definitely knows her shit here. Arriving on Discovery to kick ass, eat burgers, and deliver Spock’s last known coordinates, she kicks off the episode’s plotline, before leaving for other jobs and other episodes. “People have a tendency to end up owing her favours,” says Pike of Number One. I look forward to seeing more of her as the season progresses.

Following Spock’s shuttle coordinates, Discovery gets ripped out of warp by a stasis field created by a huge, ancient, spherical, space-dwelling lifeform, which is where the episode truly begins. Huge and unknowable life forms are a staple of old Trek stories, as are situations where the ship is trapped in place, so we’re on familiar ground here. Until, that is, the sphere begins broadcasting odd signals, completely confusing the universal translator and other computer systems. The sight of seeing everyone on the bridge speaking a different language is briefly amusing, but the episode quickly (seriously - the pacing is nuts here) gets to the point: there’s a virus in the ship’s computer, the sphere put it there, and they’ll need to “cure” it to escape. There’s a ticking clock, too: the sphere’s heating up, and threatening to explode.

The sphere also sparks another classic Trek trope, in that Saru becomes deathly ill with a terminal condition unique to his species. It’s got echoes of pon farr, or Kes’ final episode on Voyager, but this “rhinovirus” has a different purpose. Introduced as a condition that heralds Kelpians’ readiness for harvesting at the hands of the predatory Ba’ul, it causes extreme pain to Saru, and flashes of UV light, which he can see, but he keeps working anyway. Luckily, he remains lucid enough to recognise those flashes as an attempt at communication by the sphere, which he believes to be dying. He’s right, of course, and Discovery drops its shields just long enough to download the sphere’s transmission before it explodes. It just wanted to be remembered, to pass on its knowledge, to have its story told - which speaks, I’m sure, to the fears many people have about death. 

As for Saru himself, he fully acquiesces to his imminent fate, and for a moment it seems like he actually might leave the show - which would be surprising, though not shocking, given Doug Jones’ regular creature work around Hollywood. But he doesn’t die, of course. In fact, he discovers it’s just a regular part of the Kelpian life cycle, in which their death-sensing, fear-inducing ganglia wither and fall out - and more importantly, he realises that his entire species’ self-image as prey animals is a lie. It’s as if all teenagers were told that puberty was a sign of imminent death, so they might as well end their lives anyway. Now, Saru is unburdened by fear, feeling empowered instead - a major character change, and one that could easily become terrifying as the show goes on and Saru makes bolder, perhaps more aggressive, decisions. A fascinating development, as Spock might say (but doesn’t).

Before he escapes death, Saru gets two rather good scenes of dialogue with Michael Burnham, for whom the whole episode serves as something of a motivator. Though the two haven’t been shown to be as close friends as the dialogue suggests, Jones’ and Sonequa Martin-Green’s performances ring true nonetheless. Saru’s tale of being a refugee, dreaming of something better, and joining Starfleet to pay Captain Georgiou’s kindness forward, is genuinely moving, especially when it’s contrasted with his belief he’s lost some of his Kelpian identity. He’s got a new family, though, and through them, he’s learned the truth about his old family - and apparently wishes to risk breaking General Order One to save them from the fate they’ve been conditioned into thinking is inevitable. All of this gets channeled into his faux-final request to Burnham: to mend her relationship with Spock. That additional perspective proves sufficient for Michael to change her mind regarding her brother: she will, indeed, meet with Spock, with the aim of patching up their differences. 

Meanwhile, in Engineering, the sphere sends an electrical surge through the circuitry, and Stamets, Tilly, and a returning Jet Reno have to figure out how to solve the problem. I’ll be honest: this section of the episode is paced so breathlessly that I could barely follow what was actually going on, but boy, it was definitely going on. Unfortunately, in their scramble, the quarantined spore blob gets loose, latching onto Tilly and secreting psilocybic juices into her. Using a combination of the high-tech spore drive interface and a low-tech trepanning of Tilly’s skull (because to Jet Reno, every problem is a screw), Stamets manages to speak with the blob, which speaks of the damage done by Discovery’s spore drive to the ecosystem in the mycelial network. We’d seen that last season, and Stamets attempts to apologise, but now the spores have a voice - and “other plans” for Tilly. Plans which apparently include absorbing her inside a kind of cocoon, which is accomplished by distracting Stamets and Reno by getting them high on magic mushroom spores. Not the show’s finest moments, but it works okay for a cliffhanger.

It’s very like Star Trek to centre an episode entirely around the philosophy and emotion behind dying, and very like Discovery to fill that episode with action so breakneck-paced it sometimes loses coherency. But somehow, even despite that pacing, “An Obol For Charon” ends up being one of the talkier episode of the show thus far, as characters discuss their existential worries with each other. Hell, the message explored via the sphere is one of communication over combat - as Trek a theme as you could imagine.

Next week, the latest speed bump on the road to Spock appears to be the disappearance of Tilly inside the mycelial network, which prompts a full-scale rescue mission. Here’s hoping for a full-blown Psychedelic Trek episode.

Stray observations:

  • A “Charon’s obol” is a coin placed on the mouth of a deceased person before burial - an offering to Hades’ ferryman.
  • This episode marks the first time, if I’m recalling correctly, that we’ve seen Saru shirtless. Hot diggity damn.
  • Stamets seems sad all the time, which he probably is. Maybe that’s why I like him so much.
  • This week’s awkward exposition belongs to Number One, summing up Spock’s wanted status in a stupendously clunky line.
  • The show further bends over backwards to explain the DSC-TOS tech discrepancy, as Pike orders all the holograms to be ripped out of the Enterprise.
  • Pike also comments that he doesn’t think the Enterprise will ever have a chief engineer more in love with the ship than his engineer Louvier. Lol.
  • Enterprise’s Commander Nhan gets a proper introduction this week, suggesting she’ll have some role to play going forward.
  • Likewise, the sphere’s 100,000 years of knowledge and experience will surely come into play as the season moves on.
  • Tig Notaro once again gets all the best lines, including “I’m a gearhead, not a farmer,” continuing yet another Trek tradition.
  • Reno and Stamets debate the merits of the spore drive as sustainable energy, through which we also learn that Earth solved its climate crisis “within a generation.” Sigh.
  • Tilly was a weird kid, and her favourite song is "Space Oddity." Checks out.
  • The look shared by the crew as they realise the - ahem - discovery they’ve made is absolutely wonderful.
  • “I had a cold last week, which sucked,” says Saurian lieutenant Linus. And he did!