So the first good news is that even though a couple of characters speak Klingon in “An Obol For Charon,” no actual Klingons appear in the episode. After last week (thanks, Alasdair!) that’s a relief. The other good news is that Jet Reno is back! God bless her. And she’s immediately at odds with Stamets, which is a fun dynamic; everyone on Discovery is exceedingly friendly these days, so a little workplace friction could make for good times.
As for the actual episode, it more or less works the same way “New Eden” did, structuring the hour around a pretty classic Trek premise (in this case, a giant inexplicable space blob) while throwing in several nods to ongoing storylines. But while it suffers from the same problems “New Eden” did, it’s ultimately more effective because it centers a decent amount of the action on a single character. Saru enters into the supposed final stage of his life cycle, triggered by the giant inexplicable space blob, and we learn a lot more about him, ostensibly because he’s going to die. He doesn’t die, and the realization that it’s possible to survive the supposedly terminal “end stage” suggests some pretty important implications for his race as a whole.
I’m usually not a big plan of “regular character has apparent terminal illness that everyone mourns over until an unexpected reprieve” plots; I find them overly manipulative, like having a parent tell you your dog died before “remembering” he’s just out sleeping in the garage. It gives actors an excuse to emote like crazy, which both Doug Jones and Sonequa Martin-Green take advantage of. The latter works especially hard in their “final” scene together, and while I admire her commitment, it’s hard for me not to resent what, again, feels like manipulation. Of course seeing an actress as strong as Martin-Green tearing up is going to get under my skin. Of course the possibility of losing one of the show’s best characters (who, we are reminded this week, is exceptionally clever and hard-working without ever needing draw attention to himself) is going to upset me. But to what end?
The fact that I ultimately came away from this storyline feeling relatively positive about it comes from two reasons: for one, Discovery has made it clear that it’s willing to kill over characters when it deems fit, and while offling Saru so early in the second season (and for such basically arbitrary reasons) would’ve been a bad narrative decision, I at least believed that it was possible the show would go through with it. One of the big problems of something like, say, Star Trek: The Next Generation trying to pull this off is that there’s never any real tension. First season aside, no member of the central ensemble ever dies on TNG (at least, not on the show), and pretending otherwise just seems silly.
So, I was definitely worried about Saru, which at least meant the scenes with him planning out his own demise weren’t boring. More importantly (and speaking better of the writing as a whole), the implications are what really matter here. The near-death wasn’t a dramatic cul-de-sac. It led to an important discovery about the Kelpians (namely, that the whole “biological death phase” was a lie), one that could very well lead to him trying to recontact his people. The fact that that discovery could be a bad thing—that it could lead to Saru’s becoming a bit too confident, or could even just be a sign that he’s lost his mind as he feared he would if left alive—just makes it all the more exciting.
The rest of the episode’s storylines aren’t quite so promising. The gigantic space orb is another example of the show’s Cliff Notes approach to classic Trek, introducing a big exciting concept and then barely engaging with it, only to have everything resolve in a way that’s supposed to be inspiring and hopeful but just ends up feeling generic. It turns out the orb, which is very, very old, is dying, and wants to impart everything it knows to the Discovery before it passes. Accepting this information means taking a leap of faith, which Pike does at Saru and Burnham’s urging, and then everything works out fine. The orb even gives them data on where Spock’s shuttle is heading, so no time lost, really.
I mean, that’s basically fine, and fits with Trek’s generally more optimistic view of the universe, but the orb has no personality whatsoever, and most of this feels super generic, like someone just plugged “generic sci-fi space plot B” into a screenwriting program. The most interesting bit, apart from Saru’s illness, is that the orb uses a virus to try and communicate—and the virus inadvertently screws up every Universal Translator on the ship. That’s a great hook! Suddenly everyone is speaking a dozen different languages, and Saru is the only crewmember with the knowledge to translate them all. But he’s not feeling so well, which means…
Well, in terms of the giant space orb plot, it means very little. Again the show introduces a potentially excellent conflict, only to resolve it almost immediately. Saru translates for a few minutes, and then they fix the translators. Hell, the only section of the ship we see that isn’t the bridge is engineering, which is somehow magically exempt from the crisis. It’s bizarre. You can argue that the episode is more interested in other threats (Saru, Tilly and her weird spore drive space blob thing), but why the need to have so much going on at once? The few moments we get of people just doing their jobs and chatting here are quite pleasant; slowing down to focus one or two threats at a time, instead of needing to constantly have everything going off at once, would be lovely.
Speaking of Tilly, well, like I said: it’s fun watching Jet and Stamets argue with each other. And it sounds like this is going to be an excuse to ditch the spore drive in the future, which at least brings us back into regular continuity. But I’m not sure it makes sense to tell this particularly story in this episode. It’s almost entirely disconnected from the main plot, to the point that when Stamets lets everyone on the bridge know that Tilly’s fine (spoiler: she isn’t), I half-expected someone to say “Who?”
I’m also not convinced they sold the immediacy of the crisis well enough to justify pivoting to “let’s drill a hole in her head with an actual power drill,” but hey, I’m not an engineer. (It’s also possible her life was in immediate danger at that point, and they were still locked away from the rest of the ship. Although even then, why not just beam her out of the room to a place with actual medical equipment?) Suffice to say, enough in “Charon” worked to make it easier to roll with the sillier bits. And hey, I can’t stress this enough: no Klingons.
- I’m sure most of you are clever enough to google this without me, but an obol was a coin in ancient Greece, and Charon was the guy who ferried newly dead souls across the river Styx. So it’s about death, see?
- The episode treats the orb passing its information along as a triumph, but there’s something sad to me about the fact that it never conveys anything specifically about itself to the Discovery. It’s just a data trove, like if they’d stumbled over a really impressive satellite. And maybe that’s all it was, but it makes the whole storyline even less interesting.
- “It’s final act was to save us!” I mean, sure, but it’s penultimate act was to put you in danger in the first place so…
- “I had a cold last week. It sucked.” (pause) “Sorry—six nasal passages?” -Linus (I like Linus. I also like that this gag made a point of reminding us of the existence of the universal translators.)
- Rebecca Romijin makes her debut as Pike’s Number One in the episode’s opening scene. She’s good, although the scene doesn’t last long enough to really get into much.