Pretty much every other episode of Star Trek is a good “Hey, everything’s broken?” or “We encountered a thing and everything’s broken?” type of episode. On the latest Discovery, basically five of those episodes happened at once — but after pulling themselves out of multiple wringers, the crew might be in better form than ever. Mostly.
“An Obol for Charon”—a reference to the ancient Greek custom of placing a coin in the mouth of a dead person, so that they may tip Charon, ferryman to the underworld, and get safe passage across the river Styx—is really a merging of two classic kinds of Trek stories.
The first is the “Oh god, everything’s broken” kind of story I mentioned already. But the other—and the cause of everything being broken — is the old “mysterious entity could mean harm to the crew but is actually benign” classic: a gigantic, superheating organic orb that rips the Discovery out of warp while it tracks down Spock, who’s on the run after last week’s family drama.
Soon enough, the orb uploads a virus to Discovery’s computer systems, and basically, everything goes spectacularly wrong — doors stop working, the universal translator breaks down, life support starts going haywire, power conduits overload. You name it, it breaks. Once again, this isn’t actually a new thing on Star Trek. From malfunctioning holodecks to failing power systems, ships going haywire is an occurrence with a frankly startling level of regularity—to the point that dealing with said problems never really feels like that much of a threat.
But what makes “Obol” stand out is that it really, really hits home just how big Starfleet starships really are — and how, in reality, if even the most basic problem with a computer system or the translator affected a ship with a crew of hundreds of different species and nationalities, things would be way more disastrous than someone on the bridge tutting at a faulty viewscreen or something.
With the translator spewing everyone’s speech into different languages every few seconds, communication between the bridge crew and the rest of the ship’s sections becomes immediately impossible. With doors jamming, no one can move in and out of their respective sections to either fix things or go fix things elsewhere. It’s frenzied and disorienting in a way these sorts of technical malfunctions have never really been presented in Star Trek before — lending a level of hectic tension and threat to the proceedings.
That tension is also compounded by the fact that, underneath the disaster of the Discovery’s systems going haywire, “Obol” throws two more plotlines into the mix, as if things weren’t already sucky enough for the Discovery crew this episode.
First, down in engineering, the “May” organism extracted from Tilly last week breaks loose and latches onto her again, revealing that the reason she’s bonded with Tilly is to attempt to force Discovery to stop making spore jumps which are damaging its mycelial home (oh look, a second excuse to not use the spore drive!). It leaves Stamets — and a suddenly returning Jett Reno — attempting to save her while being trapped in Engineering with only basic medical supplies.
The other is a bit more immediately grave: The vibrations the orb is constantly giving off have seemingly triggered a biological process in Saru that affects all Kelpiens, that basically prepares them for either fearful hysteria or death at the hands of the predator species on their homeworld.
Without the latter to solve the problem, Saru basically either has to accept going mad or killing himself, as per the customs back on Kaminar.
It’s a whole lot, in an episode that is already doing a whole damn lot. But as Saru’s condition worsens, “Obol” slows down a bit and lets the storyline with the Orb being and Saru’s impending death dovetail into some really intriguing mirrors. As he and Michael race to translate whatever the Orb is trying to communicate through its computer virus, we’re treated to a heartbreaking exchange where Saru struggles with the regrets that he could never return home and see his sister, choosing to entrust Michael with maintaining all of his meticulous Starfleet logs after his death to honour his memory and one day return it to Kaminar.
Aside from metaphorically plunging a dagger into Michael’s heart, that grim thought leads to the two realising the orb is basically trying to do the same (pass on its recorded knowledge), letting them save the day by convincing Captain Pike to lower Discovery’s shields and accept the message as a peaceful act instead of assuming hostility. Dying, millennia-old giant orb creatures: not as bad as you’d been lead to believe!
But while the Discovery gets back to normal, Saru doesn’t, even with the orb gone, and it’s here that “Obol” really begins to shine on a character level. Saru asks Michael to be the one that kills him before his body is driven into hysteria, taking a ceremonial knife to his fear-sensing ganglia as an act of mercy, and it pretty much breaks Michael in a way nothing else she’s been through on the show so far has (which has already been a whole hell of a lot).
It’s a brilliant bit of acting from Sonequa Martin-Green — we see those protective, Vulcan-y barriers Michael’s had around herself all this time just completely crumble away when she finds herself incapable of killing the man she sees as the brother she never had after forcing herself to push Spock away as a child.
Thankfully, she doesn’t have to. As some parting gift, whatever the Orb’s vibrations did to accelerate Saru’s condition also leads to him actually surviving it long enough that his ganglia just…fall off, before Michael can ritually sever them. It’s an interesting comment that every other Kelpien just gives into the fear and promptly offers themselves up to die rather than enduring the process, albeit in an accelerated timeframe, as Saru did — one that has some fascinating parallels with Saru’s excellent Short Treks minisode.
But most importantly here, the trauma of even having to contemplate euthanizing Saru makes Michael realise that she can’t hide away from the chance to rebuild her relationship with Spock, regardless of the hurt that frayed their bond in the past. Look at these characters, being somewhat emotionally healthy and supporting each other through personal crises instead of bottling it all up! All it took was a big ol’ dying alien orb sending everything upside down and almost getting everyone on Discovery killed.
“An Obol for Charon” is an episode that is, at times, almost too densely busy for its own good—trying to balance three different plots aboard the ship, on top of the heightened threat of the entity, threatens to bring it all crashing down into a mess. But in the fires of the crucible created by the Orb’s virus, something that’s distinctly been said rather than shown in Discovery’s past is finally forged: a proper sense of friendship and camaraderie between the members of the crew.
The bridge crew all solemnly rising from their stations as Saru seemingly walks to his own death, Tilly and Stamets singing together as the latter prepares to literally drill a hole into her head and perform surgery to save her, Saru and Michael having to tearfully support each other in the face of Saru’s seemingly impending demise. These are moments of emotion between these characters that never really presented themselves in Discovery’s first season, where at best it felt like these people barely knew each other, and at worst, that we barely knew them.
With this season already going beyond—beyond here meaning that it actually gives the bridge crew lines of dialogue and actual banter with each other, the most basic form of “going beyond” possible—to make us truly care about this crew, it means emotional moments like this actually feel earned, instead of being pulled out of nowhere (looking at you, “we are Starfleet” moment in the season one finale).
Re-forging Saru and Michael’s relationship together in particular, and mirroring repairing that relationship with her “found family” brother, with Michael’s realisation that she needs to do the same with her adoptive brother, is a huge moment. Not just for the new direction it sets Saru in—free of the fear that’s literally governed his entire life for the first time—but also the path it puts Michael on, freeing her of some of the doubts she’s been holding since the start of the season that, initially, felt like they threatened to create drama for the sake of it, simply out of the fact she refused to be open about it with the people around her.
Maybe that these emotional beats managed to land at all means that Star Trek: Discovery has finally paid its obol to Charon now too — and earned safe passage to a new world. Except this is not some metaphorical path to Hades Discovery is on, at least any not more, but an exit from a dark and tempestuous place to one a bit brighter. The ride there might have been a bit bumpy at spots, but at least the path ahead looks like plainer sailing.
Oh hey look, Number One showed up for a bit! Considering her single scene was basically all we’d seen of Rebecca Romijn’s take on the original Number One of Star Trek’s first pilot in the trailers, I fear we won’t actually see her again any time soon. Which is a shame, she makes a good replicator burger order.
Making the seemingly throwaway line from the previous episode that Saru was that guy at Starfleet Academy — who bothered to learn as many Federation languages as he can—a key part of actually starting to solve problems with the translator in this episode was really clever.
MORE LINUS THE SAURIAN PLEASE. God bless him and his multiple sinuses. I kinda hope that the fact him getting a cold really sucks just becomes a running thing until, one day, Saurian snot saves the whole ship.
So, Tilly’s been transported into the mycelial network “forest” that Stamets was trapped in last season, right? Via…being put inside the May organism? Weird. Maybe she’ll bump into Culber while she’s there!
Because this show seems to suddenly be fascinated with pulling potentially disastrous outcomes out of seeming victories, the way Saru emphasises that he suddenly feels “powerful” after having his fear-ganglia fall off makes it seem like not every change about him surviving the Kelpien’s biological suicide is going to be for the best.
We’ll have to wait and see, but pairing that line with the fact he’s now burdened with the knowledge that his people don’t actually have to offer themselves up to their predators or go insane — and is restricted by the Prime Directive from going home and telling them that—seems it’s going to create turmoil ahead for Saru.