I’ll buy that for a drachma! An Obol For Charon (S2E04) buys us Star Trek: Discovery’s best episode to date
“An Obol For Charon” begins, as have all season two’s episodes with a Spock-tease as Number One (Rebecca Romijn) visits her Captain to provide an update on her investigations into the unfolding mysteries surrounding Spock’s bizarre behaviour since the red bursts occurred and also grab something to eat. It’s a fun and intriguing preamble to the episode proper which effectively ramps up the sense of conspiracy without overdoing it and provides yet another tantalising glimpse into life aboard the Enterprise.
It’s also a chance for the series to slip in another bit of unnecessary fan service as the series continues to awkwardly ret-ret-con some of its more conspicuous anachronisms as he orders the holographic communications system removed from the Enterprise for good. Then again, the implication that holographic communication turned out to be a fad which fell out of fashion actually feels like the most credible and realistic explanation possible, like holographic communication was the 23rd century equivalent of Google Glass.
The episode doesn’t waste any time in getting going, though – literally. Poor Number One must have had to scoff down her burger and high-tail it back to the transporter room because less than two minutes after Pike leaves her in the mess hall, the Discovery is at warp and hot on the trail of Spock’s warp signature. But the chase doesn’t last long before the ship runs right into yet another classic Trek trope: a vast mysterious space organism that plucks them out of warp and holds them in a multiphasic stasis field. Meanwhile, Tilly and Stamets are still investigating the mycelial blob creature ‘May’ in an attempt to find out what it wants. And, as if that wasn’t enough, Saru has a cold.
Of course, it turns out to be much more than a cold during the course of this episode, another story crammed with as much Trekky goodness as the writers can fit in. There’s a continuing effort to flesh out more of the bridge crew’s personalities although it might be an idea to stop introducing or reintroducing so many new ones at once and someone needs to tell Linus that, six nasal cavities or not, sneezing on a fellow crewmember isn’t acceptable.
Having snatched the ship out of warp, the sphere’s next action is to introduce a computer virus through the comms system, knocking out the universal translator. The complete collapse of the universal translator is a fun and long-overdue Trek moment that gives us a good glimpse at how it works. The sudden disruption to the ship’s systems also gives rise to another beloved trek trope, a subset of the crew trapped in a part of the ship. So, with Saru, Burnham, Pike and the Discovery ensemble dealing with the sphere, Tilly and Stamets find themselves trapped in the spore drive chamber with self-described gearhead and spore sceptic Jet Reno (Tig Notaro). I barely had a moment to process the subtle knowledge drop that Stamets is apparently not Discovery’s chief engineer after all before I realised I didn’t care because Stamets and Reno are my new favourite Star Trek pairing. I know bringing Reno back would be a good idea, but pairing her brash, sardonic attitude with Stamets’ earnest sobriety is absolutely delightful. There’s a wonderfully anarchic family vibe to the trio of Stamets, Tilly and Reno that really sparks.
I spent a lot of time last season (justifiably) criticizing “Star Trek: Discovery” for dutifully telling a single story stultifyingly slowly but I had no idea that the series would rediscover the joie de periplé by telling as many stories as possible in the space of an episode. If this and “Point Of Light” are anything to go by, “Star Trek: Discovery” is at its best when it serves up a smorgasbord of stories and ideas rather than doggedly flogging a single series arc.
Spock on the run! A space anomaly trapping the ship! Crew members trapped with a hostile alien creature! A crew member with a terminal disease! Each one of these stories gets enough attention to be satisfying in its own right and while the structure may be a bit ungainly, the pacing makes up for it as the episode powers along without underserving the characters or performances. Sonequa Martin-Green and Doug Jones are terrific in this episode, really bringing some depth to their characters and, retrospectively, making the least impactful “Short Trek” now one of the most portentous.
The episode only fully resolves two of its four plots: the Search for Spock although touched on several times throughout the episode is a narrative can kicked down the road once more left for next week, at least, to resolve while Tilly’s fungal infection ends on something of a cliff-hanger but its clear to see Discovery has successfully pivoted back to the core values of “Star Trek”: to explore strange new worlds – the sphere, seek out new life – Saru’s emergence out the other end of the assumed-terminal phase of his species’ lifecycle puts him in fascinatingly uncharted territory – and new civilisations as Stamets’ belatedly realises that there are more things in the mycelial network than were dreamt of in his philosophy.
“Star Trek: Discovery” may be backpedalling furiously on some of the things which made it strange and unique but in slightly reversing course, it’s found a new way forward that seems to be more successfully marrying the past and the future to create something new.