The latest episode of Star Trek: Discovery, “An Obol For Charon” had some very strong character moments that ultimately made it worthwhile for me, but the story was little more than a pastiche of Treks past; particularly, the great misunderstood space thing that was just trying to say ‘hello.’
**** SPACE SPHERE-SIZE SPOILERS AHEAD!!****
Pike’s first officer from the USS Enterprise, “Number One” (Rebecca Romijn, recreating the role played by the late Majel Barrett Roddenberry in “The Cage”) beams aboard the Discovery to catch up with her Captain, Christopher Pike (Anson Mount), temporarily assigned to Discovery. The two enjoy a burger and fries in the mess hall (I admire a lady who appreciates a good burger!), and discuss the rumors surrounding their missing comrade Spock, who has reportedly killed several Starbase doctors and has stolen a vessel, headed out to mysterious signals with which he is obsessed.
Number One doesn’t believe that Spock is capable of such an act, and neither does the Enterprise act (since this takes place before Star Trek TOS, I’m assuming he’s innocent?). Pike assures her they’ll track his stolen vessel and get to the bottom of this. She will return to the Enterprise to complete repairs, as the Enterprise was rendered inoperable by the phenomena Discovery is currently investigating.
During a briefing, Commander Saru (Doug Jones) appears to be battling some sort of cold. A Saurian crew member Linus (David Benjamin Tomlinson) offers his sympathies, as he recently got over a cold himself. During the briefing it becomes clear that Saru is in worse shape than he’s letting on. Meanwhile, Commander Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green) and Pike confer about Spock and her reluctance to face her brother, given their history (which is, once again, not explained… this ‘unspeakable’ thing is getting really old). Suddenly, Burnham and Pike find themselves speaking in Klingon as something appears to be wrong with ship internal communications…
Discovery is then violently pulled out of warp, and encounters a giant red sphere; the sphere appears to be holding them in place, and is bombarding the ship’s systems. It is also causing the ship’s universal translators to malfunction, turning the multi-species/multilingual Discovery crew into a 23rd century Tower of Babel. Saru, speaking nearly a hundred Federation languages, acts as a communications conduit between the ship and the crew until the UTs are restored on the bridge. Once restored, the crew are effectively able to communicate in ‘Federation Standard’ (what sounds like American English to the audience). Burnham, and the increasingly ill Saru leave the bridge to try to restore communications to the rest of the ship.
Meanwhile in Engineering, Ensign Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and Commander Stamets (Anthony Rapp) are trying to learn about the blob-creature (aka “May”) pulled from Tilly in the previous episode. They are then interrupted by refreshingly blunt engineer Jet Reno (Tig Notaro) who was rescued from the USS Hiawatha recently and has been serving on Discovery ever since. She and Stamets have a fun little spat over the merits of good ol’ warp drive versus his even faster ‘spore jump’ drive. She argues that warp is more reliable, he argues that the spores are renewable.
The blob creature eventually escapes its confines during the ship’s malfunctions and re-attaches itself to Tilly. The ever-frank Reno offers to simply cut it off, but Stamets realizes that it is linked to her somehow in a kind of symbiosis.
Meanwhile, Saru is taken to sickbay where he reveals to Burnham that he is dying. He recognizes this unmistakable condition of his species when they are facing their ‘culling’ (see: Discovery Short Trek, “The Brightest Star”), and he is convinced he is going through the symptoms. Recognizing that he is not dead yet, he vows to stay on active duty as long as possible.
Brainstorming, Saru begins to recognize that the flashes of UV light he sees (Kelpians see in a broader visual spectrum than we poor humans) are actually the giant red sphere attempting to communicate with them. And, as seen a million times in Star Trek, the sphere’s attempts to communicate are unintentionally causing harm.
Saru and Burnham get to the bridge and convince Pike to lower the shields and allow the ancient sphere to complete its vast 100,000 year info-dump into the Discovery’s computer core. Once the download is complete, the ship’s systems are soon restored and the sphere, at the end of its life cycle, is destroyed in a brilliant flare. To quote 2001: A Space Odyssey, “It’s origin, and purpose, still a total mystery…”
Nearly at the end of his own life, Saru and Burnham go to his quarters, which is covered in greenery and flora that reflect his agrarian life on his home planet. Saru asks that Michael take a knife from his dresser and cut off the ‘threat ganglia’ from his neck. As a tearful Burnham attempts to comply, the ganglia simply fall off (!).
In sickbay, with his strength returning, Saru realizes that he no longer feels the fear that is such a huge part of his species’ emotional makeup. He also realizes that all of his people are capable of reaching this same evolutionary step and that the ‘great culling’ is “a lie.” They don’t have to be killed as prey…all of his people can live without the fear that stalks them all of their lives.
Stamets and the crafty Reno finish adjusting a universal translator with a spore drive interface, and they plan to use it to communicate with “May” through Tilly, who will speaks in May’s voice. There is a wince-worthy moment as the isolated engine room (sealed off by the malfunctions) has no other way to attach a cortical stimulator to Tilly’s forehead other than Reno’s drill (!). Stamets tries to calm Tilly down by sharing a duet of David Bowie’s classic “Space Oddity” together (one of my favorite tunes as well). After some initial agony, they are successful, and the cortical device is attached.
Using Tilly’s voice, “May” reveals to Stamets that her species exists within the mycelium network, and that the spore drive intrusions into it are causing them harm. This is a blow to Stamets, who thought his spore drive was ecologically sound. He tries to bargain with the entity in exchange for Tilly’s life, but things take a worse turn as it seems to grow and envelop her; throwing her in the vast, inter-dimensional mycelium network…
—The old ‘it-was-only-trying-to-communicate’ cliche has been used so many times in Star Trek (TOS’ “Metamorphosis” TNG’s “Tin Man” “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” to name a few) that I’m surprised that it was dusted off yet again for this episode. There was even an episode of The Animated Series (Samuel Peoples’ “Beyond The Farthest Star”) which saw the Enterprise crew encountering a giant, living spaceship that was just…lonely. As intelligent as these space entities are, you’d think they would know when their attempts at simply communicating are harmful to other sentient life forms. Ugh.
—We also see the return of ‘using-a-crewman-to-act-as-conduit-for-an-alien-to-speak’ trope. This phenomenon is as old as the introduction of Spock’s famed Vulcan mind-meld in TOS’ “Dagger Of The Mind” (and many more since then) but was also used by non-Vulcans in such episodes as “The Lights Of Zetar” (which had a ‘possessed’ crewman speaking for energy beings that had taken over her body). We’ve also seen the android Data let other entities use his artificial body to speak in TNG’s “Evolution” and later on in “Masks.” It’s an interesting device for letting an actor play other characters within the same role, but in “Obol…” it feels more like ‘here we go again.’
—Nothing against the phenomenal Doug Jones (I’m a huge fan of his, long before Discovery), but Saru’s overly protracted ‘death’ scene in his quarters seemed to go on forever. Such suspense is a nonstarter, specially since the audience already knows he is not really going to die. That lack of tension belies the more honest emotion yielded from a character’s actual death, such as Tasha Yar in TNG, or Mr. Spock’s tear-worthy exit in “The Wrath Of Khan” (the character’s return for the sequel wasn’t yet assured at the time of filming). In the post-“Walking Dead”/”Game Of Thrones”-era, such timidity regarding a character’s fate feels a bit old-fashioned. While I love Doug Jones’ amazing performance as Saru, the long winter of his death felt a bit overdone.
The only revelation yielded from the protracted bluff of the character’s brush with death was that his species doesn’t have to live in fear, or be willingly killed in the culling. This is a ‘duh’ moment, since Saru’s being in Starfleet for the last seven years was LIVING PROOF of that. Why this is such a revelation to Saru when it’s so painfully obvious is never really made clear. Did he not, at any other time, think that perhaps any one of his people could enjoy the kind of life he has been living out among the stars?
—Anthony Rapp’s Stamets also has a painful moment of clumsy exposition as he tells Burnham (through a sealed-off transparent engine room door) about how he and Reno could use his spore drive doo-hickey to link to a translator and blah, blah, blah… Just DO IT already; this is television, not radio. It was cringe-worthy bit of technobabble exposition at its worst.
—Finally, the much ballyhooed return of the character of “Number One,” first played by the late Majel Barrett Roddenberry in the original pilot of Star Trek (“The Cage”), was little more than a glorified cameo. Props to actress Rebecca Romijn, who (like Anson Mount’s Pike) bears enough resemblance to the late Roddenberry’s version of the character to be credible (especially in that dark wig).
Unfortunately, the scenes between she and Pike could’ve just as easily been deleted scenes on the blu-ray set’s bonus features, and it wouldn’t have mattered one iota to the story at hand. She just reaffirms what others’ disbelief regarding Spock. What did we learn about her character? Well, the lady likes a good burger. Beyond that? Not much. Hope to see more of her.
Things I liked.
—More Tig Notaro’s “Jet Reno” please! I love Reno’s ‘anything can be fixed with duct tape and a good drill’ philosophy; I wish I were one-tenth as handy around my own house as she is in engineering. Reno’s earthy, sardonic dry wit is the perfect contrast to Anthony Rapp’s more esoteric Stamets. She’s the Oscar to his Felix. Loved it when they were coming down from the mushroom high together, too! So much raw potential here. This was the smartest casting choice of season two.
—Returning Saurian character ‘Linus’ (David Benjamin Tomlinson) is a genuine scene-stealer. While he arguably would feel more at home aboard the Orville, his appearance abroad Discovery is most welcome. It’s just too bad that his brief appearances tend to overshadow other longtime characters, such as Lt. Detmer and Lt. Owosekun, both of whom have a little more to do this season, but are still largely ciphers rather than characters. Linus is the Morn (“Deep Space Nine”) of this series.
—We finally get an idea, via Tilly’s blob-meld, of why the phenomenal ‘renewable energy’ spore drive is never used again in later Star Treks that take place after Discovery; the mycelial network itself harbors life (in this case, the space-blob called May), and that the ship’s jumps into the network might be causing that life irreparable harm. This explanation makes a lot of sense, and it was the best thing yielded from the blob-meld, and the further victimization of the otherwise terrific Tilly.
—Sonequa Martin Green’s Michael Burnham was (finally) given a lot more warmth in her scenes with Saru, and that went a long way towards the character truly being the star of this show. SMG always had the acting chops to lead this series, but so many questionable choices for her character always kept her a bit at arm’s length for me. I really want to love her, because the performer playing her is so gifted, but then we see Michael inciting mutiny, starting a devastating war with the Klingons, falling for a murderous Klingon sleeper agent, and now…possibly having an abusive history of some kind (?) with her foster brother, Spock. At least in “Obol…” she was allowed to let her innate kindness and goodness shine through. And the emotional fireworks of her scenes with Saru in his quarters were worth the needlessly protracted death-not-death scene. Here’s hoping whatever problems she has with Spock aren’t her fault.
Space Turbulence Ahead?
As a longtime fan of Star Trek since the 1970s, I really want to love and embrace Discovery, and there have been a few that have been quite enjoyable so far. However, despite the cinematic production values of each installment, as well as some great moments of the characters, I’m not quite as in love with the series as I’d like to be.
Many of the bridge characters remain painfully underdeveloped (I damn near forget their names every week), the long story arcs (to date) haven’t been nearly as emotionally satisfying as individual installments of Star Trek series past (or even the current Trek-surrogate, “The Orville”; which has been utterly delightful, week after week). Season one was intriguing, and brought some good ideas and characters to the table, but it also reeked of troubled development. Season two has started off much stronger (“Brother” was a breath of fresh air), but is also falling into some of the troubled patterns of Season one.
While I’m not yet regretting my CBS-All Access membership (though I do wish the streaming itself was more reliable), I sincerely hope that Star Trek mines more of that family-feeling among its characters as well as the confident, nicely contained storytelling of Star Trek’s past. As it is, Discovery is a good show, but not yet a great show. I realize that even The Next Generation took a couple of seasons to warm up, but the difference is that we weren’t paying to see it on a monthly basis, either. It was broadcast over the airwaves for free. That makes a significant difference. With fewer episodes per season to concentrate on (about half of TNG’s 26 episode seasons), and far more grandiose production budgets, Discovery should be Star Trek at its apex.
Star Trek: Discovery certainly boasts some gorgeous production values and delicious cinematic eye candy for CBS-AA subscribers, but the shaky storytelling, a few underdeveloped characters, and some questionable character choices leave me hoping that the series doesn’t suffer the same fate as the unjustly cancelled “Enterprise.”
Discovery offers much as-yet-unrealized potential, but to paraphrase Q in The Next Generation (“Q Who”), “It’s time to see if they can dance.”