When you think of Star Trek, certain things come to mind. The future, definitely. Technology more advanced (depending at this point on which series you’re watching) than our own. People from all across the galaxy living and working together. Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. Adventure. Exploration. Problem-solving. All of that is true. But Star Trek, at its very best, is about communication, understanding, and building bridges. It’s at its best, and shows the best of what we can be, when it presents us with a life-form so different, so advanced, that it forces us to reevaluate our understanding of the universe, about what life can be and how to interface with it. We have to learn a new way to communicate. And those tenets are at the very heart of “An Obol for Charon,” an episode that explores differences of perspective, values, and comprehension.
On its way to intercept Spock’s shuttle, Discovery is stopped dead in its tracks by a massive sphere, which releases a “virus” into the ship. This triggers systems failures across the board, including corrupting the universal translator and making communication amongst the crew impossible. Captain Pike (Anson Mount) attacks this problem, unsurprisingly, as most would—a hostile force that has disabled his ship, putting his crew’s lives in danger, and the threat must be destroyed if escape proves impossible. Most adept in this situation is Commander Saru (Doug Jones), an alien who has learned 94 Federation languages. In time, Saru realizes that the crew has grossly misunderstood the sphere’s intentions. It isn’t threatening them—it’s reaching out to them. The “attack” on the universal translator, and even regular bursts of ultraviolet light that Saru keeps seeing, have in fact been attempts at communication. The sphere is dying, Saru surmises, and its attempts to pass along the knowledge that it had accumulated over the past 200,000 years has inadvertently threatened the ship. The answer proves not to become more defensive, to become more rigid, or to pull away, but rather to open up, let the other in, to trust. It is the most Star Trek of ideas.
What brings Saru to the realization about the sphere’s intent is that he seems to be dying, he assumes, brought on by the encounter with the sphere. The death process of his people—known as Vaharai—is part of the Great Balance, the central belief of Kelpiens that a time comes for every individual to surrender him- or herself to their predators (the Ba’ul) in a culling, a process we first witnessed in the mini-episode “The Brightest Star” which preceded the debut of Season 2. But, separated from his home and his people, Saru learns that the process is indeed not the inevitable end of life that his people have long believed, which raises questions, both for him and for the audience. How did the arrangement with the Ba’ul come about? Why do the Ba’ul harvest Kelpiens at all? Are they cut down at exactly that time of their life because the Ba’ul fear the next stage of the Kelpien life cycle? How will this change affect Saru? Will he remain essentially the same person? And what does it mean for the development of his race?
Elsewhere on the ship, Lieutenant Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and Ensign Tilly (Mary Wiseman) have their first encounter with Commander Jett Reno (Tig Notaro), a self-described gearhead from the USS Hiawatha who hitched a ride aboard Discovery in the first episode of the season. Their first meeting doesn’t exactly go swimmingly, with Reno and Stamets butting heads immediately. In her second appearance, Notaro continues to bring a great deal of feistiness and snark to Reno, elements sorely missing from Star Trek: Discovery in the first season and welcome additions in Season 2. The two come at problems—including each other—from very different perspectives, but circumstances force them to work together and learn to cooperate. Part of the divide is attitudinal—she’s an irreverent sharp-shooter and he’s a more buttoned-down kind of guy—but the difference is much more fundamental than that. He’s a wide-eyed idealist who espouses the virtues of the spore drive (“the future!”) and its clean, renewable energy source, and she relies on the tried and true dilithium and anti-matter (“they may be old-school, but they don’t let ya down”).
An interesting side-note: Two of the major complaints against Star Trek: Discovery have been 1) that none of the other Trek shows ever mentioned spore drive (which, if still in use, would have made Star Trek: Voyager a series of about two episodes, as a spore-enabled ship could have found Voyager rather quickly), and 2) that we see other technology in use on Federation ships that seems far more advanced than anything seen on the later shows, such as the holographic communications system. In “An Obol for Charon,” we see the groundwork laid out for an eventual bridging of the chasm: Captain Pike, already shown to be something of an old-fashioned guy, decries the use of the holographic system (an attitude we already witnessed last episode) and orders it ripped out of the Enterprise for good. As Pike will become fleet captain (as seen in Star Trek: The Original Series), we can surmise that he is responsible for the eventual doing away with the technology altogether. As for the spore drive, Stamets’ confrontation with the entity that has been plaguing Tilly for a few episodes gives us concrete moral reasons why the technology will very soon be abandoned, and reliance on good old-fashioned dilithium and anti-matter will become the standard and be developed further.
It’s in this confrontation that we see another example of the crew learning to communicate with something “other.” Stamets realizes that if they could ask Tilly’s harassing entity what it wants or needs, what its intentions are, then maybe they can come to some understanding with it. He comes up with a plan to use the mechanism by which he plugs into the spore drive to tap into Tilly’s central nervous system and talk to the being inhabiting her. In that moment, just as in the moment in which Pike stops seeing the sphere as an adversarial object, a roadblock, and starts seeing it as a potential life-form with intent and motivation, the best of humanity is displayed. Trying to understand. Building bridges. Seeking life instead of death, healing instead of destruction. That’s what Star Trek is all about.
“An Obol for Charon” also gives us the debut of Rebecca Romijn’s character, Number One, the first officer aboard the Enterprise (originally played in the ’60s by Majel Barrett), in a far-too-short scene; a lovely moment of bonding between Commander Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Saru; our first conference room scene with the whole bridge crew, including the first (in English, at least) lines of dialogue from Linus (David Benjamin Tomlinson), the Saurian science officer who has been lurking around all season; and a few more insights into Spock’s predicament. Very little time was spent on the Red Angel mystery and none at all on the seven red bursts across the galaxy.
Next week, on February 14, Star Trek: Discovery will take a mushroom trip into the Upside Down to rescue Tilly in “Saints of Imperfection” on CBS All Access.
- About the title: “Charon” in Greek mythology is the ferryman who transports souls across the river Styx into Hades. Ancient Greeks would place a coin—an obol—in the mouths of their dead to pay their loved one’s passage.
- Two 20th Century music references this week. The first: Upon being revived after being knocked out by a power surge, Reno mumbles about a “weird dream…I was playing drums for Prince…and there were doves and a beret…” Reno is my spirit animal.
- The second: As Stamets is about to drill into Tilly’s skull, he tries to distract and comfort her by singing her favorite song with her, which turns out to be “Space Oddity” by David Bowie. I guess Tilly is my spirit animal too. But I’ve long suspected that.