Four times can't be a fluke.
Within the first four episodes of its second season Star Trek: Discovery has pulled a near-180, shrugging off its messy first season and warping into a much more focused and much better direction. It now feels appropriate to finally welcome Star Trek back to television with this week's episode, "An Obol for Charon."
A Familiar Face
Moving on from last week's Klingon-heavy family drama, Michael Burnham and Captain Pike refocus their attention on finding Spock. Help comes swiftly in the form of Number One, played by Rebecca Romijn. (For Star Trek veterans, the character is a shoutout to the original Star Trek's first officer only referred to as ".")
After hearing (and disbelieving) that Spock murdered 3 psychiatric crew members on star base 5, Number One looks deeper into the situation, revealing that Starfleet has classified the case. The plot thickens. Is it Section 31? The super secret Starfleet organization involved in all things shady? (After all, evil Philippa Georgiou returned last episode as part of the secret group). Or is it something else entirely?
Unfortunately, we don't find out this episode as Number One (she still doesn't get a name) exists stage left and the episode fractures into two concurrent plotlines.
The Big Ball of Doom
While chasing the warp signature of Spock's hijacked space shuttle, the Discovery is ripped out of warp by an inexplicable force. Looking like glowing red ball of angry about the size of a small moon, the alien ball holds the Discovery suspended in space. Burnham quickly uncovers that the sphere is actually a sentient being—though its motives are unknown.
Immediately, the ship's universal translator malfunctions, throwing out dozens of alien and foreign languages from Klingon to French. This foreign language mix-up was one of the best scenes of the episode, taking a peek and one of the hidden technologies of Star Trek that audiences often take for granted.
After fi the language mixup, Saru falls incredibly ill. His cold (as it's described in the episode's opening minutes) soon exacerbates into a full-blown medical emergency. Saru explains to Pike and Burnham that the physiological changes he is experiencing is a condition known as Vaharai, a moment in a Kelpian's life when they're to be selected for "harvest" by the Ba'ul, the predator species on the Kelpian homeworld. Saru must die or be driven insane by the Vaharai.
As Saru grows more ill, Pike and Burnham try to figure out what this unknown entity wants with Discovery. Pike's suggest that the problems wreaking havoc on Discovery, with malfunctioning communicators and life support systems, indicates that the unknown alien is a virus infecting the ship. Burnham disagrees, thinking that if it intended to kill the crew it would have done so already. She thinks it actually wants something from Discovery.
All the while Saru gets worse and worse, and soon reveals what ends up being a pseudo-last will and testament, telling Burnham that he wants her to use his journals to show his species what they're truly capable of. It's a moment between two characters that have had the most growth since the opening episode of the show. Aboard the USS Shenzhou, Saru had a front-row seat to one of the worst decisions Burnham had ever made, now in his most desperate hour, Burnham is the one standing by him. It's a moment not wholly earned (Season 1 could have done much more to foster this relationship), but it's a moment to build on going forward as the two characters continue their adventure across the galaxy.
With an unintended epiphany in engineering, Burnham realizes that the creature is trying to communicate with Discovery and in fact Saru's condition has been triggered by the creature's own pain. It turns out the big angry ball is a big dying ball. In a moment of trust (though with an explosive back-up plan solidly decided), Pike lowers the ship's shields and the entity unloads 100,000 years of experiences into the ship's computer, and then in a beautiful, violent moment, it pushes Discovery out of harm's way before exploding.
With the ship now free of the entity's grasp, Saru prepares to die. Asking Burnham to sever his ganglia, and thus ending his life, Saru prepares his final moments—only to shed his ganglia naturally and survive the ordeal. Without his ganglia, Saru no longer experiences the ever-present feeling of fear and it slowly dawns on him that The Great Balance—his species' tradition of sacrifice—is a complete lie, a fact that could completely refashion Kelpian society.
With Saru saved and the ship restored, Pike and Burnham set new coordinates for Spock's shuttle.
More Mycelial Mayhem
During all these troubles onboard the bridge, the engineering room experiences an almost wholly separate threat from the mycelial network, the fungus that powers the Discovery's unique method of transportation.
With these mycelial entity removed from Tilly in last week's episode, Paul Stamets along with newcomer Jet Reno flex their engineering muscles and dream up ideas on how to help Tilly out of her predicament. When the entity escapes and latches itself to Tilly's arm, things get much more dire.
After some quick thinking, Stamets decides to literally drill into Tilly's head in an effort to speak with the mycelial entity to figure out what it wants. That seems like it wouldn't work, but with some Star Trek technobabble thrown in, it magically makes sense. After taking control of Tilly completely, the entity explains that the Discovery's occasional jumps into the network are greatly damaging their reality. Unlike the big red globe hovering outside Discovery, this alien life form does not come in peace.
Stamets pleads with the foreign invader, but the creature says it has "other plans for Tilly" and encases her in some sort of gross alien cocoon. Although briefly saved from a grisly fate, the spore distracts Reno and Stamets long enough to (presumably) suck Tilly into the mycelial network.
This b-plot served its main purpose, pushing Burnham into conversation with the planet alien. The two mirrored each other nicely with themes of communication and death weaved throughout, and Stamets and Reno's budding rivalry (and amazing technobabble chops) created for some fun moments. But the dialogue, staging, and acting in this subplot were some of the weakest of the show. Reno brings some much needed levity to Discovery put still has awhile to go to get fully integrated with the crew, and Tilly and Stamets sometimes feel like—too much.
But overall, Discovery continues its search for Spock while making a pitstop to help an unknowable alien being in its final moments—all while building relationship among the officers and crew. At its core, it doesn't get much more Star Trek than that.
- I don't get why they rescued Reno in the first episode and then put her on the back-burner until now, but it was great to see Tig Notaro again.
- While the two main plots of this episode mirrored nicely, they felt slightly too disconnected from each other. Like, Tilly is near death several times and Burnham seems too busy to care.
- Linus and his six nasal cavities—love it.
- It's incredible how much better this season is at caring about the bridge crew. It makes you lament an entire season of lost time.
- The ticking clock of Spock's warp signature was a clever way to keep up excitement, though Burnham's clever work around seems a bit too convenient.
- With Discovery's second season mostly dealing with themes of religion and faith. Saru's discovery of his people's misplaced faith brings and extra-dimension to the conversation. Blind faith can perpetrate unspeakable horrors.
- With that being said, a Saru spinoff miniseries where he returns to liberate the Kelpian people? CBS? Are you listening?