4 out of 5 stars

After the disappointing “Point of Light“, Star Trek: Discovery thankfully returned to the intellectual spirit that fuelled “New Eden“, as both capture the essence of classic Trek. “An Obol for Charon” was another instalment where the writers did something befitting the franchise they’re working on, further Star Trek’s legacy of optimistic science fiction. It wasn’t quite as wonderful as it could have been, however, thanks to one of the three storylines being a little bizarre (although that one may benefit from hindsight), but it was great to tune into Star Trek and get exactly that.

This week, the USS Discovery came across an enormous alien sphere, which seemingly attacked them by releasing a virus into the ship’s computer systems. This has happened many before times in Star Trek, but I appreciated how “An Obol for Charon” did something unexpected by having the virus seriously affect the universal translator (UT). The scene where everyone on the Bridge was suddenly having to cope with screens of alien text, while everyone around them spoke in alien tongues (including the ship’s computer), was a marvellous moment of hilarious confusion. It’s surprising to consider no previous series has ever thought to have the UT go haywire like that, as it’s a piece of technology that mostly gets forgotten about. It was also clever how writers Alan McElroy and Andrew Coville foreshadowed the mess with bug-eyed alien Linus (David Benjamin Tomlinson) having issues with the UT while in the Ready Room, as the translator struggled with his Saurian language. The Short Trek episode “Runaway” also had a memorable translator glitch, which suggests the writers’ room has been discussing the UT for a while.

The only downside with stories like “An Obol for Charon” is that fans know what to expect from them, so it was obvious the sphere’s intentions weren’t as malign as they seemed. (Or if you know your ancient Greek and Roman customs, in this episode’s case.) A moment when Captain Pike (Anson Mount) was getting ready to shoot photon torpedoes at the sphere, just as Saru (Doug Jones) and Michael (Sonequa Martin-Green) arrived to try and convince him the alien doesn’t mean them any harm was… overfamiliar. One almost wanted to shake Pike, who clearly hasn’t read any Starfleet mission logs about situations like almost always being a case of miscommunication. Indeed, the alien sphere was dying and just wanted to communicate with Discovery using its mainframe, gifting them 100,000 years of information about its existence before it exploded.

The alien sphere’s “last contact” neatly paralleled what was happening with Saru this week, as the creature’s arrival triggered his species’ death throes. Suddenly and very unexpectedly, we were having to contemplate the premature death of a regular character like Saru! I didn’t get too emotionally invested in this matter because it did seem obvious that resolving the sphere’s mystery would heal Saru, but when that didn’t seem to come true… I did start to wonder if Discovery’s producers had managed to keep a big secret under wraps. Could it really be true that Doug Jones was going to leave the show, perhaps because the character wasn’t working for them? Is that why the Short Trek episode “The Brightest Star” dumped all his background on us so randomly.

The moment when he asked Michael to sever his ganglia, allowing him to die peacefully and without pain, was very touching, as they revealed their familial feelings for each other. It also seemed to be Star Trek promoting the idea of assisted suicide, essentially, which could stir some debate.

However, more interesting than having Saru leave the series early, his ganglia simply dried up and fell off before Michael could cut them with a knife. And Saru was suddenly a lot healthier than ever before, aware of his own strength and self in a fresh manner, and no longer innately fearful and on edge about things around him. It turns out that Kelpians have a natural lifecycle they don’t even know about, as they’ve all been brainwashed to either kill themselves or sacrifice themselves when they feel this “terminal” sickness come on. Saru has become the first Kelpian to transition into what may be their version of true adulthood now, and it does make sense their earlier years are spent being fearful or predators thanks to heightened senses.

What will Saru become now? Star Trek often has a character that evolves over the course of the series, but it’s usually a personal struggle to become more human (Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Doctor in Star Trek: Voyager), whereas Saru is on a path of self-discovery. He’s literally growing up and has no idea where his biology’s going to take him. It’ll be very interesting if Doug Jones slowly develops Saru into a very different character over time, in behaviour and perhaps even appearance. This makes him more of an Odo character from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

The least successful storyline wasn’t directly related to the sphere and continued the strangeness of the mycelial network. Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and Stamets (Anthony Rapp) were trapped inside Engineering because of the sphere damaging the ship’s systems, joined by sharp-tongued Jett Reno (Tig Notaro), making a welcome return from “Brother“. Her antagonism with Stamets was fun to watch, even if she’s another character who behaves too much like a contemporary woman for my tastes. I still don’t think the show needs have characters use phrases like “piss poor” as a means to make Star Trek feel less stiff and formal. Anyway, Tilly was once again infected by a blob from the mycelial network, but this time the situation was more grotesque and extreme with her body being consumed by a symbiote.

star trek: discovery - an obol for charon

I still find a lot of this confusing, if I’m honest. My best guess is there are aliens living inside the “spore network”, annoyed by the damage Discovery is doing to their environment with the ‘spore drive’, and they are communicating in ways that lean into fungi’s association with mind-altering drugs. So it appears as Tilly’s childhood friend because it can read her mind, or can release particles that can put Stamets and Jett into an altered state of consciousness. Space ‘shrooms, yo. By the end of the episode, Tilly had been “birthed” from the fungi just as the alien sphere died… only to then be sucked back into it and… oh, who knows where she’s gone. The mycelial network, presumably, somehow! I’m not sure much of this hangs together, even for Star Trek, but let’s see how things pan out. It might be Discovery’s version of Sisko and the wormhole aliens from Deep Space Nine, existing in a non-linear dimension.

Overall, “An Obol for Charon” did more of what I wanted from this second season of Discovery. The story was self-contained and very much a Star Trek standard, but without enough fresh twists and turns to make the journey interesting. It even kept one aspect of the season’s arc alive, as the crew were tracking Spock’s shuttle before getting embroiled in this adventure. Oh, I didn’t even mention the appearance of Pike’s “Number One” (Rebecca Romijn), the character first portrayed by Majel Barrett in Star Trek’s original pilot episode “The Cage”. That’s a fun nod to ground level Trek history, and I almost didn’t recognise Rebecca Romijn - best known for playing blue-skinned Mystique in the first three X-Men movies.

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