Full spoilers follow for this episode.
This week’s Star Trek: Discovery episode, “An Obol for Charon,” indulges in not one but two classic Star Trek style plotlines — the trapped starship and the mysteriously sick crewmember — and while it all starts off with a bang, the segment unfortunately soon peters out to become a talky, somewhat unsatisfying installment.
Things kick off with Rebecca Romijn finally debuting as Number One, Pike’s executive officer from the Enterprise who of course was originally played by Majel Barrett all the way back in “The Cage.” The character has always been a figure of some interest for many Trekkies, and in her brief appearance here Romijn and the writers do a good enough job of expanding on Number One and her dynamic with Pike. She’s got a bit of a witty edge to her, and she likes cheeseburgers! She also, apparently, fully avails herself of the Discovery’s mess hall during a mere five-minute meeting with her superior officer. (More on that below.) It would be nice to see more of her in future episodes, and indeed of the original Enterprise crew too — where are you, Doctor Boyce?!
Number One has made the trip to Discovery to hand-deliver her findings on Spock, who is now a refugee from Starfleet and wanted for murder. Armed with this info, Pike now has a bead on Spock’s warp trail — he’s heading somewhere in a stolen ship — and orders the Discovery to pursue. But this presents a dilemma for Burnham, who suddenly realizes that perhaps the last thing Spock needs when Pike catches up to him is to find the sister who he hasn’t spoken to in years because of whatever bad s#!t went down between them back in the day.
The show’s continued insistence on teasing Spock without actually giving him to us is getting a little long in the tooth now, perhaps because this is the fourth week of it, or perhaps because the episode itself doesn’t come together as well as the previous segments. It makes sense that Burnham would have these misgivings, especially after Amanda’s reaction last week when she told her about the rift with Spock, and indeed, it gives Sonequa Martin-Green a good mini-arc for the week that she plays well. But we are all starting to get a case of Spock blue (green?) balls at this point.
The cause for the delay this week is a giant 100,000-year-old space entity that is part organic, part inorganic, and all trouble (at least at first). Trapping the Discovery and immediately scrambling the ship’s universal translator, the best moments of the episode follow as Burnham and Pike start spouting out Klingon, much to their surprise and confusion, and the entire bridge is in chaos as the crew are all shouting in different languages and no one can understand anyone. Welcome to the Tower of Babel, as Pike says (only not in English)!
The whole bridge cast gets to have a bit of fun here, with Emily Coutts’ Detmer perhaps taking the cake with her befuddled “I can’t read my console. Is this Arabic?” moment. How this would actually be happening is a bit less clear in Star Trek terms; shouldn’t humans like Pike and Burnham, say, still be speaking Federation Standard English to each other no matter what the computer is doing? But the ensuing confusion is terrific and a great dash of humor, as is Saru’s ability to quickly restore order to the bridge despite his compromised state.
Yep, he’s the sick crewmember, afflicted with a strange illness that is specific to his mysterious race. It’s all very “Amok Time,” except this condition is not about mating as it turns out but rather dying — the Kelpiens are hit with the sickness when it is time for them to be culled by their predator race. So either you get eaten by those guys, or you go mad and die from the illness. Quite a choice.
Doug Jones’ performance as the hurting Saru is well done, and the plot allows for him and Martin-Green to dig in on their characters’ brother-sister relationship even while tying into Burnham’s earlier trepidation about confronting her other brother figure, Spock. It also provides the show a welcome chance to comment on the immigration debate, which is a reminder that very often these days Star Trek just doesn’t need to cloak its ideas in sci-fi metaphor anymore. Saru’s life as an immigrant who sought, and found, a better life when he left his homeland is the story in and of itself, no half-white/half-black makeup or any other conceit needed.
And yet, the loss of Saru’s threat ganglia feels like another example of this season undoing some of last year’s big ideas. Additionally, the ancient phenomenon that’s the central threat of the episode, while ultimately benevolent — it’s a giant library, basically — doesn’t function all that well as a threat, perhaps because it’s a bit tough to get one’s head around.
There’s also the May storyline, which adds Tig Notaro’s Reno to the mix this week. Her banter with the sometimes equally cranky Stamets is pretty great — they’ve each met their match here — but the whole May thing has become a drag. It’s interesting that Stamets’ eco-friendly stance — apparently one of the reasons he began developing the spore drive in the first place — is now challenged by the knowledge that he may be harming lifeforms that live in the mycelial network. But the ongoing threat of the May creature is feeling increasingly blah and bogeyman-esque, and it seems there’s no end in sight.
Questions and Notes from the Q Continuum:
- About Number One and her cheeseburger: She hasn’t even had a bite of it yet and Pike heads to the ready room, where we can see outside the ship’s windows that the Discovery is at warp. So was Number One stuck onboard all episode, but just hanging in the mess hall? Of course, ultimately this is just a weird inconsistency — perhaps some dialogue was cut explaining that she had already left, or the visual effects outside the window are incorrect. But it does feel at times like there is too much of this sort of thing happening on the show.
- Did you catch Number One’s PADD? It’s very Original Series in its design!
- So wait. Did Pike blame the Enterprise’s technical problems on the holo-communicator? Confusing, and the show is really going too far to explain away that Season 1 tech at this point.
- There’s some other strange business happening in this episode, like how Commander Nhan from the Enterprise is just suddenly standing in the ready room during Burnham’s briefing. Also, has she joined the Disco crew for the time being? It seems like it, but we’re never really told why. Even the briefing itself seems a bit odd; they’re having it without Pike? And come to think of it, I don’t think we’ve ever even seen a Disco briefing like this before…
- Linus, the Saurian with the cold in “Brother,” gets a bigger part here, and even speaks (English) now! There’s a lot of tinkering with the supporting crew happening this season, though one has to wonder if adding more characters is going to be beneficial to expanding on folks like Detmer or Bryce.
- Tilly talking about her not-great childhood and the fact that she was perhaps not a good friend to the real May is another nice Mary Wiseman moment of many nice Mary Wiseman moments.
- So the Discovery does have a chief engineer, and it’s not Stamets!