Space Oddity — Star Trek: Discovery’s “An Obol for Charon”

Three takeaways from the latest episode of Star Trek: Discovery:

1. The hell with the Picard series and the Section 31 series, I want the adventures of Number One starring Rebecca Romijn. She’s due for her own command anyhow. Get on that, CBS!
2. There are few things more conducive to making a subplot sing than to put Tig Notaro, Mary Wiseman, and Anthony Rapp in a locked room.
3. Doug Jones remains the rock star of Discovery.

Thanks to some unauthorized digging around by Number One (who apparently likes cheeseburgers with habanero sauce), they’ve managed to track down Spock’s shuttlecraft. Unfortunately, they’re snagged en route by a sphere that seems to attack the ship. Part of the damage to the ship includes engineering being locked off by systems failures, and the mycelial-network life form that attached itself to Tilly takes advantage of the chaos to take possession of Tilly.

Oh, and Saru’s dying.

Saru’s subplot ties directly to the Short Treks episode “The Brightest Star.” He’s undergoing the process that all Kelpiens undergo before being culled by the Ba’ul—and if, for whatever reason, they’re not culled, they go mad and die. He spends his dying hours trying to save the ship—but also learning more about the sphere.

This particular subplot is full of some of the worst clichés imaginable, but it works on two levels: one is Jones, who infuses Saru’s suffering with tremendous dignity and grace and, as Burnham puts it, empathy. But the other is that this isn’t just something like, for example, the last-minute revelation that Vulcans have an inner eyelid in “Operation: Annihilate,” which was introduced solely to give Spock a way to be restored to normal and never mentioned again. But the revelation that Saru’s ganglia are just supposed to fall off like that and that he is now, not mad, but no longer fearful, has major implications. The Ba’ul have been lying to the Kelpiens about a major biological function. It’s like telling caterpillars that they’re supposed to die when they go into a cocoon, never letting them know that they are to become butterflies and killing them before they can.

The tearful scenes between Saru and Burnham go on a bit too long, but it’s nice to see that the pair of them are fully back to the friendship we saw in “The Vulcan Hello,” having repaired the rift that Burnham’s mutinous actions caused that was the source of so much delicious tension between the two over the course of the first season. It also helps Burnham realize that she is obligated to be there for family, whether it’s agreeing to help Saru die, or being there for Spock when they finally track him down.

Screenshot: CBS

They don’t, of course, because apparently they’re gonna delay us seeing Ethan Peck as Spock as long as they possibly can. First they’re delayed by the sphere, and next week they’re going to be delayed by the results of the cliffhanger, as apparently Tilly has been kidnapped into the mycelial network and our heroes have to go in and get her.

But that’s next week. This week, we find out that Discovery’s copious use of the spore drive has led to incalculable damage within the network. (Yet one more awful legacy of the reign of the Mirror Universe version of Gabriel Lorca.) The spore that came through and has been communicating to Tilly by appearing as her childhood friend is trying to find out who’s responsible and stop them. Stamets is devastated, of course, and is ready to shut down the drive forever—until Tilly is kidnapped.

Prior to that, we get some magnificent banter between Stamets and Notaro’s Jett Reno, who’s still on board and now serving in engineering. In addition, Wiseman gives us some insight into Tilly’s childhood. (And of course her favorite song is “Space Oddity,” and of course Stamets knows the words, too. And yes, my wife and I sang along with them when they started singing it, and yay for a Star Trek show with the budget to actually get the rights to David Bowie songs, instead of subjecting us to the same twelve public domain songs over and over again.) Notaro and Rapp have their banter down cold, and it’s a delight, from Reno’s insistence that she can’t be insulted no matter how hard Stamets tries (and he does try), to the snotty comments about mushrooms, to Reno’s facility for fixing things with duct tape, to Stamets throwing Reno’s “house dressing” remark back at her. Plus this entire subplot has the three engineers throwing technobabble together at a great rate, in the finest tradition of Starfleet engineers who can, as a Vorta put it once, make rocks into replicators.

My favorite part of the episode, though, was the sphere messing with the universal translator, with everyone suddenly speaking in various different languages. It was hilarious and delightful, and everyone did a beautiful job language-hopping.

Best of all, though, is that we have two different alien life forms, both of whom seem hostile but who turn out to be tragic. The spore is trying to find out who’s been destroying their home, while the sphere just wants someone to remember it before it dies. Yes, we’ve seen this sort of thing before—“Arena,” “The Devil in the Dark,” “The Inner Light,” “Tin Man”—but it’s also very much a Star Trek story, because the best Trek tales are the ones where there are no monsters, just sentient beings trying to survive in a crazy universe.

Rebecca Romijn makes the first of what I hope is several appearances as Number One, Pike’s first officer, a role originated by Majel Barrett in “The Cage.” Romijn nails Barrett’s cadence from that failed pilot, while putting her own spin on it. I particularly appreciate that Pike and Number One—and, according to the latter, the entire Enterprise crew—wants to help Spock and will be there for him. (I’m also amused that they’re continuing Pike’s disdain for holographic communicators, insisting that the Enterprise get rid of them and go back to good old-fashioned viewscreens.)

This is an excellent standalone episode, but also one that lays out the ground for the future, from setting up why we don’t see the spore drive in any of the 30 seasons of television and ten movies that take place after this, to the repercussions of Saru’s revelation to Kelpiens in general and Saru in particular (I can’t imagine the transition from always fearful to not always fearful will be a smooth one), to the ongoing search for Spock. (Gee, what a great title…) I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing what happens next.

Keith R.A. DeCandido is at Farpoint 26 this weekend at the Hunt Valley Inn in Cockeysville, Maryland, just north of Baltimore as an author and musical guest. He’ll be debuting his new novel Mermaid Precinct at the con, and also will be performing with the Boogie Knights. Other guests include Star Trek actor Wallace Shawn (Grand Nagus Zek on Deep Space Nine), and fellow Trek fictioneers David Mack, Peter David, Michael Jan Friedman, Dave Galanter, Robert Greenberger, Aaron Rosenberg, Glenn Hauman, Steven H. Wilson, Kelli Fitzpatrick, Derek Tyler Attico, Howard Weinstein, and many more. Keith’s schedule can be found here.

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