Star Trek Discovery: An Obol for Charon

Discovery encounters a mysterious sphere which not only disables the ship, but seems to trigger some worrying symptoms in Saru. Meanwhile, Tilly, Stamets and Reno try to communicate with the mycelial life form that manifested itself as May.

Large mysterious objects in space are Star Trek’s bread and butter.For better or worse, the various incarnations of the Enterprise were always stopping to investigate them. Voyager’s Twisted even features a very similar plot to this episode – mysterious phenomenon seems to threaten the ship, but by the end all is well and a bunch of useful alien data has been left in the ship’s computer banks. I happily watched all those old episodes and enjoyed a fair few of them – so why did Discovery’s big red sphere story leave me cold?

It’s a point I’ve been mulling over for the last few days, and I’m not sure I’m any closer to a coherent answer. There are lot of things I like about Discovery, for sure, and yet when I think of it as part of the Star Trek canon, there’s just this unshakeable feeling of cognitive dissonance. The technology is too advanced and shiny for the TOS era; there are too many oversized monsters and chase scenes; there’s a grim darkness where there used to be naive optimism. Maybe this is what Star Trek for the modern world looks like, but I do find myself missing the brightly lit bridge of the Enterprise-D.

Anyway, alongside the sphere itself, there are several other threads to pick up on. First off is Saru, who finds himself entering a phase of life that, for Kelpiens on the homeworld, means it’s time to go off and be harvested by the Ba’ul. Saru is certain that his days are going to end in pain and suffering, but when he asks Burnham to put him out of his misery, something unusual happens – his threat ganglia shrivel up and fall off. Far from dying, it seems he has a new life to look forward, one free from the fear and anxiety that have been his constant companions (except that one time last season).

Meanwhile, in Engineering, the life form that appeared to Tilly as May has been confined, and the engineers are keen to learn how to talk to it. What follows feels like it owes a little too much to sci-fi monster franchises like Alien and Metroid, but it does give Tig Notaro a chance to shine again as Jett Reno. Her banter with Stamets is utterly show-stealing.

Notes and Observations

  • It’s amazing that I’ve managed to get this far into the review without crying out in joy that my wish to see Number One appear in this series has been granted. However, I must admit that once my initial happiness wore off, I was a little disappointed. In The Cage, we got the impression of Number One as this extremely smart and capable person, a consummate professional with a genius intellect. Yet in Discovery, this role is essentially already filled by Burnham, so how can Number One stand out as a distinct individual? For now, her defining feature seems to be “likes spicy food”.
  • Speaking of which, Number One makes the mistake of saying “habañero” instead of the correct “habanero”.
  • What does Saru’s transformation mean for the Kelpien species as a whole? We now know that, at the very least, the vahar’ai doesn’t have to be fatal, so there may be no need to mildly surrender to the Ba’ul when it happens. But what if there’s a deeper truth? Could it be that the Ba’ul themselves implanted the threat ganglia to keep the Kelpiens fearful and subservient? Or are the Ba’ul actually Kelpiens who have survived the vahar’ai and moved from prey to predator? Only time will tell.
  • A fair number of Saru’s 94 languages seem to be human languages. This might seem disproportionate, but given that Saru was rescued by Giorgiou, he might have made study of Earth and humanity a priority.

Technology Downgrades

  • If, as May claims, the use of the spore drive is horrifically damaging to the mycelial network, then clearly the morally correct thing to do is to shut it down and stop using that technology. That would conveniently explain why the spore drive isn’t used or even mentioned from TOS onwards.
  • Pike orders Number One to rip out the Enterprise’s holographic displays and revert to viewscreens. As we know, in other series Starfleet holographic communications are only ever seen on the Defiant when Sisko is pursuing Eddington in For the Uniform. It seems that while the technology is readily available throughout the late 23rd and 24th century, Starfleet captains just prefer the “old fashioned” viewscreen technology. Nice retcon.

Summary – An Obol for Charon: Discovery finds a giant sphere.

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