“An Obol for Charon”
Star Trek: Discovery Season 2, Episode 4 – Debuted Thursday, February 7th
Teleplay by Alan McElroy & Andrew Colville; Story by Jordon Nardino & Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts
Directed by Lee Rose
Returning to some classic Star Trek storytelling, “An Obol for Charon” mixes mystery, emotion and a bit of fun. While some of the storylines for the season are addressed, the episode does an adequate job of focusing on the new science fiction element of the week, as well as delivering a lot of character development, especially for Saru and Michael Burnham. Top-notch performances from the cast, especially with touching paired moments played by Sonequa Martin-Green and Doug Jones as well as Anthony Rapp and Mary Wiseman. The fourth episode swings thing back up after a more mixed third entry and continues the general improvements seen in Discovery’s second season.
Welcome aboard, Number One
The episode opens with the anticipated series debut of Rebecca Romijn beaming in as Number One, Pike’s first officer from the USS Enterprise and a role originally played in TOS’ “The Cage” by Majel Barrett. She is there to give him a briefing on the damaged ship which is in spacedock and doesn’t appear in the episode. More importantly, she is also there to give Pike a more clandestine briefing on her inquiries into what’s up with Spock, who we learned was accused of murder in the last episode, when he escaped a Starfleet psych clinic on Starbase 5.
Romijn and Mount show good chemistry in the brief sequence, with this Number One much more cordial than the more rigid and logical version seen in “The Cage.” This Number One orders food in the mess like it’s a Shake Shack, and shows she has some kind of connection with Pike as she warns of intrigue with Spock’s case and how Starfleet is handling it. They both smell something fishy going on and she implores him to “be careful.” My money is still on Section 31 setting Spock up, but all of that will have to wait for another episode as Number One has to leave to make room for the rest of the plot.
Number One’s big contribution to the main events of the episode is to deliver Spock’s course away from Starbase 5, which becomes the chase for the episode. The search for Spock is back on, but Michael Burnham is concerned she is not the right person for the job, still weighed down by guilt over the thing they haven’t yet told us she did to him when they were kids. Michael thinks Pike is the one to save her brother, saying, “He is lost captain. You are better suited to help him.”
Saru and the Big Red One
The Red Angel plot arc of the season makes a brief appearance early on in a classic Trek conference table scene, which included rare off-bridge sightings of Rhys, Owosekun and Detmer. Burnham continues to show her side of the science versus faith argument, talking about how she is trying to link the angel figures to known alien species with avian characteristics, but so far there are no matches.
Also at the table is Linus, the Saurian used for snotty comic relief in the season opener, who is mainly there as expositional foreshadowing, talking about his “lingual clicks and pops” which the universal translator struggles with. This time the snotty character is Saru, who should definitely be taking a sick day. Linus can empathize, hitting the “Season Two Contemporary Dialogue” option on the universal translator to tell us all how his cold “sucked.”
With just a dollop of Red Angel, the real plot of the episode kicks in as the ship is pulled out of warp by a big giant glowing red sphere thing. It’s a good old-fashioned space anomaly, which has pulled them into a “multiphasic stasis field” which is run through Pike’s homespun analogy machine to reveal they are trapped “like a damn fly in a web,” and he hates spiders.
The sphere is emitting something that is wreaking havoc, specifically on the universal translator, which Linus already showed us can be touchy. Now the ship becomes a Tower of Babel, with everyone speaking different languages that are either not being translated or being mistranslated. It’s a bit of fun hearing the team trying to solve the problem and talking over each other in Klingon, Arabic, Italian, Mandarin, Spanish, French, and many others. Luckily the crew has someone on board who knows more than 90 of them. Saru – now fully channeling his inner crotchety old man – chides the crew for not learning any languages.
After Saru gets a temporary fix for the universal translator, his condition worsens and he admits it is no cold. He is suffering from a terminal Kelpien condition called the “vaharai,” which he thinks has been triggered by the sphere. Saru is going through the final stages of life–the ones that traditionally lead to Kelpiens being readied to be culled for slaughter by the Ba’ul, the predator species on his homeworld of Kaminar. His inflamed ganglia are the big clue to the condition, which are causing him great pain and he sees no hope for himself, saying “I am a slave to my biology.” Oddly when he proclaims “death is inevitable” Dr. Pollard has nothing to say, leaving it to Michael Burnham to argue there must be options. (Where’s Dr. McCoy when you need him? Or Phlox, Crusher, Pulaski, Bashir, or the EMH, none of whom would have accepted the fatal self-diagnosis quite so easily.)
The nature of the sphere sparks another debate with Pike and Burnham. They speculate it is some kind of mix of technology and a space-borne lifeform, but the captain is pragmatic, seeing the virus it sent over as an attack. Burnham relies on her Vulcan logic to deduce the damage may not be intentional. On his literal deathbed, Saru breaks the tie, suggesting a solution. With a stiff upper lip that would garner him a commission in Her Majesty’s Navy, Saru limps off to solve the problem using “digital antibodies.”
We get some nice quiet scenes with Martin-Green and Doug Jones, as Saru opens up in a way we have not seen before on the show. He shows embarrassment for the nature of Kelpiens to “submit” and admits he has feared revealing his true self. As a dying wish, he wants Burnham to catalog his personal logs to be shared with the Kelpiens once the Federation lifts the General Order One restrictions on contact with his people.
Inspired by Stamets’ solution to the weirdness going on in his lab (more on that later) Burnham sparks the notion that the sphere is actually trying to communicate, which is confirmed by Saru who realizes the ultraviolet light being broadcast is the sphere’s way of saying hello. And it needs help because, like Saru, it is dying. In a time-honored Star Trek twist, we can now empathize with the threat. With shades of V’Ger, Tin Man, and the Whale Probe, the sphere was just being misunderstood.
The trick now is to get Pike to buy into the theory. All he sees is a big dangerous glowing orb damaging the ship and risking the pursuit of Spock, whose trail is going cold. The captain is ready to photon torpedo his way out of the problem when Saru and Michael burst onto the bridge dramatically, which seems to happen a lot on the USS Discovery. Saru’s theory is that the sphere just wants to be remembered if only they would let it talk. In a dynamic that is getting repeated in each episode – and wearing a bit thin – it is up to Michael Burnham to sway Pike from the book and, ironically, take a leap of faith by dropping the shields and making a connection with the scary red sphere.
Of course, Saru’s plan works. The ship is flooded with information up to the moment the sphere explodes, and in its final act, it protects the Discovery by reversing the polarity of the stasis field. Yes, it actually reversed the polarity. Classic. Burnham is astonished, declaring “its final act was to save us, so we can tell its story,” just as Saru wants her to do with his story. And in even more good news, the sphere’s data download also included telemetry on where Spock is going, so they didn’t miss their window after all. It’s a good bet the 100,000-year-old sphere’s communications dump contains all sorts of useful stuff that will be called up later in the season and maybe even beyond.
Even though the crisis has been averted, Saru’s condition has not changed. There’s a moving moment when the crew comes to attention as he leaves the bridge for what looks to be his last time. Things now get even more intense with Saru and Michael as he readies himself for death in his quarters, which are a botanical tribute to his homeworld of Kaminar. Saru asks Michael to sever his painful swollen threat ganglia, ending his suffering. The scene is fraught with emotion, with the usually cool Michael breaking down into tears. The season’s theme of family returns as these often bickering rivals, both of whom have been separated from their true sibling, admit they have become surrogate brother and sister to each other. While the writing was a bit forced and perhaps overly sentimental for the dynamic that has been established between these two characters, Martin-Green and Jones sold it.
After Saru convinces Burnham to mend the rift with Spock, she readies herself to end Saru’s pain. Turns out it she doesn’t have to, as his ganglia unexpectedly fall off and suddenly Saru is back in tip-top shape. In fact, he seems better than ever, explaining the fear that had been the governing principle of his life is gone and he feels a new sense of “power.” Once again Dr. Pollard seems unfazed by all these odd goings-on with Saru’s transforming condition and she declares him ready for duty. The Kelpien is now filled with a new purpose, to expose the lie of the “Great Balance” of Kaminar, the only problem being his homeworld is protected by General Order One. Solving that dilemma is left for a future episode.
Meanwhile, in engineering
“An Obol for Charon” was focused mostly on the big threat to the ship and what it was doing to poor Saru, but there was a three-character mini-drama going on in Stamets’ lab – or four if you count the fungus blob. Stamets believes the fungus entity they pulled out of Tilly in the previous episode is sentient, coming from the mycelial network which he considers to be an “incubator” for life. Tilly is convinced it doesn’t mean anyone harm. And then Tig Notaro’s Jett Reno jumps in, adding her acerbic wit to this philosophical debate, as she is just freaked out by it.
Stamets and Reno are just academic oil and working-class water as they clash in an epic gruff-off, with Anthony Rapp tapping into the curmudgeon side of Stamets we haven’t seen much of since season one and Tig Notaro just amazingly being Tig Notaro. She jokes about a greenhouse flying the ship, and he calls her grease monkey. Fun stuff. The core of their argument is Stamets’ vision for the future of space travel, proclaiming Reno’s beloved antimatter and dilithium-driven warp drives as slow environmental scourges compared to the amazing spore drive. Jett is undeterred, declaring “I am uninsultable, especially by a guy that thinks he can run a ship on mushrooms that I pick off my pizza.” They could have done a whole episode with these two.
After things heat up with the big red sphere outside, Tilly, Stamets, and Reno are trapped in the lab which is threatening to cook them alive, so they must work together to science and engineer their way out of the problem. As expected, Reno and Stamets slowly come to at least see some value in each other’s ability, with lines like, “That’s actually not a stupid idea.” However, things get worse when the “May” blob escapes from its chamber and latches on to Tilly, secreting psilocybin that gets her as wasted as she was in that Orion strip club on Qo’noS in the season one finale.
While Stamets searches for a solution, Reno has helpful suggestions like, “I could cut it off, she wouldn’t even lose a freckle.” Stamets eventually decides to try to talk to the May blob (which was the insight that gave Burnham her “eureka” moment to talk to the red sphere). However, making a connection involves literally drilling a hole in Tilly’s head–yes, with an actual drill–for a neural interface. To calm Tilly down, there is a moment beautifully played by Wiseman and Rapp where they sing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Unlike some of the emotion of Burnham and Saru scenes, this all rang true and felt fully earned.
Things take a decidedly creepy turn when “May” the blob starts speaking through Tilly, Exorcist-style. She reveals she is a lifeform from a species called the JahSepp that “lived harmoniously” until someone started randomly intruding on their realm and ravaging their ecosystem. In an ironic twist following his lecturing about the clean, renewable miracle of tapping into the mycelial network, Stamets realizes she is talking about the USS Discovery’s spore drive, the result of his life’s work. He asks for forgiveness, saying he will do “whatever it takes” to fix the problem. But the entity refuses to release Tilly, saying it has “other plans.”
Soon enough Tilly gets entirely engulfed by the alien goo thing, which wraps her into a cocoon. They have to cut her out, and she spills onto the deck like a Louisiana license plate pouring out of a gutted shark. Stamets starts working on closing the door to the mycelial network forever, but May is not having it. She again releases psilocybin, which sends Stamets and Reno into a trip straight out of a Hunter S. Thompson movie. Once they even themselves out with some of the good stuff from a hypospray, Tilly is gone, sucked into a mycelial goo gateway of a cliffhanger.
One welcome element of this episode is how it dedicates so much attention to a single character, in this case, Saru. It was a turning point for The Next Generation when the show started to do more character-focused stories, something that carried through to subsequent Trek series. While Discovery has to support multiple storylines in each episode with a lot of attention given to the central character of Michael Burnham, giving other characters a special additional focus is always welcome and hopefully carries on through in more episodes.
When the titles for the early second season episodes were first revealed, we noted that “An Obol for Charon” implied death as it was a reference to the coin placed on the dead in Greek and Roman mythology so they could gain entry into the underworld. While no one actually died in the episode (unlike last week’s bloodier entry) there was a sort of death: The character of Saru that we have come to know has gone through what may be a radical change. He makes it clear that the fear, which has always been the driving principle of his nature, no longer dominates him, infusing him with a new purpose and sense of power. The book on Saru is titled Fear Itself, but apparently, now he is a new Kelpien.
Saru’s entire belief system, and that of his homeworld, have been entirely shattered and he is ready to return and spread the truth to his people. This is certainly an intriguing development, but also a bit ominous, especially if we remember how Saru acted the last time he felt unburdened by his fear in the season one episode “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum.” But is this change for Saru another item on the producers’ to-do list of things to “fix” for the second season? Is dumping Saru’s ganglia akin to the lighter tone, hair for Klingons, and other course corrections for the series? If so, is this fix necessary?
True, the notion of “sensing the coming of death” was a bit silly. However, Saru’s arc of working through his fear has been one of the more satisfying ones for the series. We have seen him rise up to the challenge, especially in the way he was able to take command after Lorca went full-on evil in the Mirror Universe. Saru’s fear and his ganglia have been there all along, but he has been able to grow and was not entirely defined by them. Now his ganglia have been sloughed off and he has gone through some kind of Kelpien menopause, becoming something new. The question remains: did he need to go through this chrysalis to put his old self behind? Only time will tell.
We are now four episodes in and Spock remains a central character for the second season, and yet short of some flashbacks, he has yet to actually appear in the series. CBS made Spock a big part of their promotion for this season, including featuring him exclusively in a Super Bowl spot. We know that Ethan Peck will show up by the seventh episode, which may well be his Discovery debut as Spock. That means were are probably in for a few more Spock-less episodes, but this Spock teasing is getting a bit tiring. Hopefully, until he actually shows up, they can tone down all the talking about Spock, anguishing about Spock, searching for Spock, and generally being obsessed with Star Trek’s most famous Vulcan.
Worth paying the obol
Like the second episode of the season, “An Obol for Charon” was a nice return to a classic Star Trek scenario, in this case a ship face-to-face with a mysterious space anomaly. As we get deeper into the season, some of the problems with juggling too many storylines are creeping in. However, this episode was able to fight past those darker impulses for the most part, whereas last week’s struggled to keep all the plates spinning. And even though the notions of life or death hung over everything, there was still time to find some humor that worked organically with the story and didn’t stand out as comic-relief diversions.
Director Lee Rose keeps up the pacing, but with a calmer hand that lets the quiet moments have the time needed for their emotional impact. As with the second episode, it would have been nice to learn more about the mystery of the week, but the character payoffs were worth it. Doug Jones ably carried the episode, even though some of the places Saru’s story went were quite melodramatic. With strong performances, fun Trek tech, plenty of lore, and a lot of the feels, the fourth episode returns the momentum built in the first two, creating even more anticipation as we head into the mid-season.
Random thoughts, connections, easter eggs, and more
- Instead of using Trek terminology, Discovery’s transporter chief oddly used the more generic sci-fi phrase “teleporter incoming” to notify Pike that Number One was beaming in.
- Number One carries an electronic clipboard style PADD, akin to those seen on TOS.
- Saurians have six nasal canals.
- Saru salts his tea, something we learned he likes in season one.
- Referring to Enterprise’s chief engineer Louvier, Pike jokes the ship will never have another chief engineer “more in love with his ship,” in a big wink to future chief engineer Montgomery Scott, who will be willing to fight over the ship’s honor.
- Number One reveals that the USS Enterprise is the “only ship in the fleet” to have the cascade failure it suffered from as the season began, which Pike blames on the holographic display system — he quickly orders it removed from the Enterprise, another nod to how this season is trying to embrace more classic Trek.
- Fans have been hoping that Number One will be given a first name in on-screen canon, but her appearance in this episode was too brief to make time for it. Maybe later in the season.
- Detmer complains that her display is in Tau Cetian, referencing the Tau Ceti system, which is a real star system that has been mentioned many times in Trek lore.
- Reno says she was ordered by the USS Discovery’s chief engineer to help in Stamets’ lab. We have yet to meet this mysterious character.
- It has not been established clearly, but it continues to be implied that Dr. Pollard is the Chief Medical Officer. If not, the CMO does a good job of hiding.
- Learning that the ship’s drive is causing environmental damage was reminiscent of the TNG episode “Force of Nature” and more importantly, will likely explain why the spore drive technology did not survive into the TOS era and beyond.
- Commander Nhan (Rachael Ancheril) appears for the first time since the season opener, coming aboard with Number One and remaining behind, apparently now heading up security for the USS Discovery.
- Nhan also wears a new skirt with pants variant of the standard Discovery Starfleet uniform.
- Saru ability watch: he can see ultraviolet light.
- At one point, life support was stated to be at 47%, a number commonly used in Star Trek.
- Reno says she uses duct tape in some of her repairs, confirming the resilient adhesive survives into the 23rd century.
- The episode contains several references to “The Brightest Star,” which remains the only Star Trek: Short Treks episode referenced in season two so far.
- After Reno was knocked unconscious, she says she was dreaming about playing drums for Prince.
- Mary Wiseman and Anthony Rapp also sang David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” on the episode of Carpool Karaoke, which was released last Friday .
- After Saru was taken as a “refugee” from Kaminar, he was processed at Starbase 7.
- How exactly the universal translator works was not entirely clear but it is implied that various members of the crew speak in their native tongues and rely on it to translate; in fact, it was revealed that some in the crew do not even speak Federation Standard (aka English).
- Wilson Cruz does not appear in this episode. So far this season he has only appeared in a brief recording in the season premiere.
Star Trek: Discovery is available exclusively in the USA on CBS All Access. It airs in Canada on Space and streams on CraveTV. It is available on Netflix everywhere else. The second season debuted on All Access and Space on Thursday, January 17th, 2019, and on Netflix January 18, 2019.
Keep up with all the Star Trek: Discovery news at TrekMovie.