Sunday, 10 February 2019

TREK REVIEW: Discovery 2-4 - "An Obol for Charon"

One of the best episodes of Discovery so far, "An Obol for Charon" works as both a standalone episode in classic Trek style and as a chapter in the ongoing story of Discovery season two, filled with wonderful sci-fi ideas and packing some serious emotional punch.

The episode starts with the Enterprise's mysterious Number One beaming onto the Discovery to meet Pike. Played by Rebecca "Mystique" Romijn, taking on the part originally played by Majel Barrett in "The Cage" back in 1965 (not that it was broadcast until years later). Although Romijn's appearance is little more than a cameo, included purely so she can drop in some info on Spock's whereabouts, she puts her own stamp on the character. She's very different to Barrett's Number One, who was so stoic and restrained that fans have speculated she was a robot. The new Number One is hardly ebullient, she's got a bit more fun and personality to her than we saw before, but as with Pike, we're a few years on from "The Cage" and she may have let her hair down. In any case, we only see her interact with Pike, whom by now she knows very well. I hope we get to see a lot more of her further down the line.

The search for Spock continues, with Number One handing over the path of his shuttle and the Discovery in hot pursuit. This adds some urgency to the proceedings, and Michael's concern for her brother, along with the recoil from her meeting with Amanda last week, is a major element of the episode. Unlike some of the previous installments, though, Spock's absence isn't given so much screentime as before and doesn't twist the narrative out of shape.

No, most of this episode is given over to two sci-fi heavy storylines which see the crew deal with some mind-bending alien life forms. In pursuit of Spock, the Discovery is entrapped by a gigantic sphere of organic matter and energy, kilometres across and 100,000 years old. It immediately bombards the ship with a computer virus that sends the universal translator haywire. The UT going offline is a story that a couple of us have been wondering about for a while. It wouldn't make a lot of difference on TOS or Enterprise, where everyone seems to speak English, but imagine the chaos if everyone was untranslated on DS9? This isn't quite the same thing - the UT seems to be stuck on random, with Michael speaking Klingon, Detmer speaking Arabic and other such things - but it has a similar effect, with no one able to understand each other.

Thankfully, Saru speaks 94 languages and is able to rejig the computer long enough to get the bridge crew talking again. I kind of wish this had lasted longer - you really could get a whole episode out of the communication problems - but the focus on Saru is needed. Poor old Saru is very sick indeed, and it's not a cold as he first thinks. He has reached a stage of life that exists to prepare him to become prey to the Ba'ul, the predator race that farms the Kelpiens on his homeworld. The condition is debilitating and terminal, but Saru is tough enough and committed enough to keep working with Michael to save the ship. Saru's had some great moments in this season so far, but no real focus on the character, so to have a storyline revolve around him is overdue.

Between then, Michael and Saru realise that the alien entity is not attacking the ship, but is trying desperately to communicate with them. Not only that, but it's doing so because it's dying, and Saru's natural empathy for other beings has triggered his movement into his own terminal life stage. This is classic Trek, with a being that initially seems to be a threat turning out to actually have a motive that is not only peaceful, but surprisingly human. Once they manage to convince Pike to drop the shields, the alien downloads all its accumulated knowledge into the computer and bounces the ship away to safety. Saru, however, isn't out of the woods, and in a powerfully emotional scene, asks Michael to help him die. It honestly looked like he was going to kick it here, and that the vaunted trip to Kaminar would be for his funeral. Thankfully, he pulls through, with his threat ganglia falling away and seemingly pushing him into a new phase of his life, one not dominated by fear.

Meanwhile, in engineering, Stamets and Tilly are busy trying to contain the blobby alien fungus that's the former extracted from the latter. It's a weird critter, at some points thrashing around like an angry spook and at others looking like the Discovery effects team have resorted to the old "man-in-a-binbag" school of creature design. The attack to the ship's systems lets it loose so that it is able to latch back onto Tilly in an attempt to take her over again. Tig Notaro's character Jet Reno, the crabbiest member of Starfleet since Pulaski got out the wrong side of the bed, drops in just before the room is sealed off. There's some tremendous banter between Jet and Stamets, who have opposing views of science and progress but who make a remarkable team when they have to work together to save Tilly. I like that Jet thinks the spore drive is just as ridiculous as it really is.

Once they manage to communicate with Mushroom May, through Tilly by way of some last minute trepanation (they should have called him Spengler), Stamets finally realises that the Discovery's jumps through the mycelial network are killing the alien intelligences that live there. Clearly, this will finally give us a good reason to say goodbye to the spore drive forever, and no more hopping thousands of light years across the galaxy in two minutes. Before that, though, the alien engulfs Tilly in a genuinely unsettling moment, cocooning her in its fungal web. Although Stamets and Jett manage to get her out, the Mushroom May doses them and Tilly is absorbed back in, seemingly vanishing. Into mushroom space, I guess.

There's some wonderfully weird ideas in this episode, but it's the personal moments that make it work so well. I love the relationships that have grown between Saru and Michael, Tilly and Stamets, and Michael and Tilly (although this last one is, by necessity, given less time in this episode). Saru and Michael have gone from rivals to friends to family, and Michael's tearful goodbye at Saru's deathbed is heartbreaking. Just as moving is the quiet, sad rendition of "Space Oddity" that Tilly and Stamets share, when he asks her favourite song to distract her as he prepares to operate on her. It should be a gruesome moment but it manages to be really touching. It's the mix of emotional performance and sci-fi strangeness that makes this episode work so well.

Various bits I like: 

Pike telling Number One to rip the holo-emitters out and go back to viewscreens because the holograms cause too many problems. I guess the rest of Starfleet will follow suit in the next few years.

Linus the Saurian getting some lines about his sucky cold. Linus would comfortably fit into The Orville with just a change of uniform. His gripe about the universal translator is a deft way of reminding the viewer of its importance as well.

So many questions remain about the Kelpiens. Did they evolve this way, or did the Ba'ul engineer them? Who created the religion that holds them to the belief that they are biologically destined to be prey? If they're not eaten, do they simply come out the other side like Saru, or has he developed in a new direction since he's joined Starfleet and developed away from Kelpien society?

The sphere dumps 100,000 years worth of data into the Discovery computers, including information of all the civilisations it has encountered. We get one little snatch about "the war between the Quaternary Star Systems and the Roquarri Imperium," which tells us virtually nothing, but sounds cool. Pike suggests it will take Starfleet years to sort through the data. I wonder if all those ancient civilisations we hear about in TNG are gleaned from this data.

I'm kind of digging Lt. Nhan, who's now transferred to Disovery properly.

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