"An Obol for Charon" is perhaps the most classic take on classic Trek yet from Discovery. After last week's "Point of Light" seemed to go in about 15 directions at once in its pursuit of various serial subplots, "Obol" is very disciplined in focusing on the exploration aspects of Trek within the confines of a ship-in-peril premise and a tighter — if familiar — plot and structure. The result is a very solid outing, particularly with its late revelations, but one that is somewhat held back by some quirks in execution.
One quirk in execution is a trend I'm noticing this season, which is Burnham's Extreme Empathy Face. (BEEF acronym and trademark denied.) Sonequa Martin-Green's performance seems to divide viewers. I've mostly found her to be fine, but I've noticed a lot more overt emotion this season as the Big Awful Secret surrounding Spock is mostly played with pained looks as Burnham explains — or doesn't explain; more like hints around — the cause of this huge rift and resulting emotional turmoil. Every time the topic of Spock comes up, Burnham seems to be on the verge of going to pieces. It's a similar thing here when Saru starts to get sick. These are the sorts of moments that benefit from being downplayed. In the case of the Spock thing, as I've already mentioned, the whole thing just feels like it's building up so much that there's a huge risk of it simply fizzling out.
"Obol" presents us with the whereabouts of Spock's shuttle (following his breakout from the psych ward where he allegedly killed three of his doctors), which Discovery chases before the episode takes a left turn into a standalone alien encounter when the ship is faced with a huge, mysterious sphere that wreaks havoc on the ship's systems, starting with the universal translator. I've never been a fan of trying to address the universal translator within the plot — the whole thing is best thought of as a fantasy device unless you assume it's wired directly into everyone's brain somehow — but there's something fun about Burnham and Pike breaking into Klingon in mid-sentence and then Saru having to save the day with his linguistic expertise. It sure beats explosions and flying sparks.
The sphere provides a good alien lifeform mystery (and ultimately a very Trekkian one) and its design is intriguing. What are its intentions? Even if the intentions aren't hostile, it's still causing problems with the ship's systems and prompting the need for a lot of problem-solving for our crew. Meanwhile, Saru gets sick and reveals that he is undergoing the Kelpien vahar'ai, the point where Kelpiens are supposed to sacrifice themselves to their planet's predator species and will otherwise die a painful death of biologically induced madness. These two things might be connected.
The B-plot involves the captured alien lifeform from the mycelium network which had previously assumed the identity of Tilly's friend May. It escapes its containment chamber and promptly tries to absorb Tilly and take over her body. Again, communication (or miscommunication) may be the key here; the alien tells Stamets that Discovery's jumps are causing harm to the beings inside the spore realm, and I'm interested in learning more about what that means. This aspect of the plot is not resolved by the end of the episode, but the structure of the storytelling works so much better than "Point of Light" because everything just has more time to breathe. There's a way you can do both standalone and serialized simultaneously, and "Obol" finds that balance.
I asked for more Tig Notaro in my review last week, and that ask has been answered. I got perhaps more, and less, than I'd bargained for. Notaro plays Jet Reno as a one-note sarcasm machine (the script offers little else) that pushes right up to the edge of annoying without making me actively dislike her. After her effectiveness in "Brother," I'd hoped for more from this character than a string of overly scripted one-liners, so let's hope this improves. (Admittedly, some of the one-liners are decent, but they are too clearly cleverly overwritten.) On the other hand, Stamets and Tilly make for a hugely effective and likable pairing, with Stamets' bedside manner providing a nice support to Tilly's vulnerability. The writers are onto something here, and Anthony Rapp and Mary Wiseman both make the most of it.
But the core of this story is really Saru. He's integral to resolving the mystery of the sphere, of course, but I was far more interested in his Kelpien backstory and the new implications of what happens here. His decline into apparent death is so earnestly played and milked for pathos that it seemed for a brief moment like the writers might actually go through with it, even though my brain knew killing off the show's best character was simply not going to happen. The Saru/Burnham scenes work well because they reveal things about both characters. For Saru, they reveal how much it took him out of his element to join Starfleet in the first place. And when his ganglia simply fall out rather than killing him — removing the fear that has defined his entire existence — it indicates a new direction for the character that could be transformative not just for him, but his entire people. For Burnham, Saru on his deathbed elicits a promise (which she intends to keep even though he survives) to continue trying to pursue a dialogue with Spock even though she's certain he doesn't want it. The good Trek stories have good character cores, and "Obol" has a few.
The resolution of the alien sphere plot is workmanlike and effective, if hardly groundbreaking. I like the idea of this thing being a galactic old soul trying to impart its wisdom before dying, if only it could figure out how to communicate it. (It's this very communication that's causing all the problems.) Pike calls it the galactic equivalent of sea scrolls, containing millenniums of collected knowledge. What might we learn from it?
"An Obol for Charon" is a re-correction from last week's disjointed un-re-calibration — so that makes it an un-un-re-calibration, I guess? I'm hoping this season can stay a little more consistent so I don't run out of prefixes.
Some other thoughts:
- The pursuit of Spock's shuttle is interrupted here, but promises to resume at once. At this point, I'm thinking this season should've been called Star Trek Discovery II: The Search for Spock.
- The last time Saru's fear was removed from him, in "Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum," he turned against his crewmates. I don't expect that again, but I do wonder if Saru's new life without fear will come with unexpected consequences, psychological or otherwise.
- The episode introduces Pike's first officer, referred to only as Number One (and played by Rebecca Romijn). This is essentially a cameo that re-establishes a character not seen since "The Cage"/"The Menagerie," and I expect there's more forthcoming.
- The Enterprise was disabled by its new holo-communicators, which Pike hated anyway. I really don't need the aesthetic tech inconsistencies between this show and TOS explained to me. I accept them as a matter of 50 years separating television production values. I don't care.
- Someone aptly pointed out that Tilly ends up in the Upside Down at the end of this episode. And, yeah, that's pretty much dead-on. It even looks the same.
- Stamets drills into Tilly's temple to install the neural device, but he just slightly drills the surface as to not bore a hole through her skull and make the scene too unpleasant to watch. But then I wonder to myself — why is the drill needed at all? I guess the neutral device can transmit through a skull, but not all the way through a skull. Those extra millimeters really make a difference, huh?
- I believe this the first episode of Discovery to be rated TV-PG by CBS. This felt appropriate given the episode's more traditional content and approach.