The second season of Star Trek: Discovery proves, with ‘An Obol for Charon’, that it is morphing into a show determined to serve two masters.
On the one hand, there is the kind of consistent, serialised storytelling which caused such division with the show’s first season, thanks to the ongoing search for Spock (pun very much intended) and the mystery of the ‘Red Angel’. Yet on the other, show runner Alex Kurtzman seems desperately trying to heave Discovery more in line with the 1990’s peak of the franchise on TV while continuing to imbue the series with an updated, retro-1960’s aesthetic.
It is no coincidence the arrival of Number One (Rebecca Romijn), from The Original Series‘ initial pilot ‘The Cage’, coincides with an attempt to verbally reconcile the fact Discovery has holographic ship to ship communication and the USS Enterprise under Captain Kirk did not. Discovery is actively attempting to not just serve TOS heavily this season, it is doing precisely what the anal among Trek fans want the show to do; explain points of canon and continuity that are purely the result of a half-century production gap between two television series. It may be an off the cuff conversation between Pike and Number One, but it explains a lot about the new psychology of this series.
‘An Obol for Charon’ (a title which screams TOS in a similar way many Season One episodes did) is an episode built on balancing these two modes of storytelling and narrative decisions. Everything Burnham, Pike and the crew around them are doing remains driven by the mystery of Spock and the Red Angel, to the point the entire antagonism in this episode is predicated on a time-sensitive pursuit of our absent Vulcan commander, yet the story does what ‘Point of Light’ last week didn’t and suffered for as a result: attempt to tell a deliberately Star Trek-style plot in the middle of this serialisation.
We don’t end up with a story harkening as deliberately back to TOS as ‘New Eden’ a couple of episodes ago or one which is as seamlessly woven into the broader themes and ideas of the season. Rather we are gifted with a plot which feels more in line with The Next Generation or, particularly, Voyager than it does TOS; Discovery encountering a gigantic alien space form which sabotages the ship systems and forces engineers such as Stamets and scientists like Burnham to indulge in a level of technobabble to write themselves out of the problem which befits 90’s more than 60’s Trek.
The episode strangely tries to wrong foot you on more than one occasion. For a time, there is a sense that the alien lifeform grabs Discovery out of warping to reach Spock due to the strange alien presence which has been zapped out of Tilley and is directly linked to the spore drive, yet this doesn’t seem to be the case. Indeed, it is designed primarily as an allegorical device to explore Saru’s character, the death rites of the Kelpien species, and further strengthen his bond with Burnham while giving the character some cathartic journey of enlightenment. Yet writer Andrew Colville takes Saru so far down the road of natural passing away, it almost feels a cheat when he, inevitably, doesn’t.
Consequently, while on the face of it ‘An Obol for Charon’ appears to be a strong piece of Star Trek tapping into all the constituent elements which make a great Trek episode, it ends up feeling quite hollow. Does anyone *really* buy that Burnham and Saru love each other this much? They spent most of Season One at each other’s throats, indeed Saru (rightly) blamed Burnham for the death of Phillipa Georgiou, his mentor and oldest Starfleet friend, and Season Two has worked much harder developing a mentor/student vibe between Burnham and Pike than these two. Couple that with the fact Saru is often too brittle and arch to really engender himself as the loveable alien on deck as Spock or Data did, it was hard to feel as emotional about his possible demise as perhaps the writers imagined.
You also can’t help but feel Tilley is being a bit wasted with this symbiotic spore drive ongoing storyline, which seems to take one step forward and then two back. It allows for perhaps the most entertaining aspect of the episode – the verbal sparring between Stamets and the delightfully plain speaking Jett Reno (Tig Notaro) and for some admittedly on the nose sermonising from Stamets about the allegorical exploitation of dilithium mining as analogous to our own blasé actions in terms of 21stcentury climate change, but Tilley spends most of the time in a hazy daze – the catalyst for a storyline than the recipient of one.
It is, therefore, a fractured and fairly empty episode, if one that does entertain in places perfectly well. Discovery remains stuck between two narrative camps right now – locked into a narrative driven by Spock, a character we of course as an audience know incredibly well yet seems to be all-consuming Discovery’s own identity; and the desire to try and tell fairly conventional Star Trek stories around this new framework. The two don’t really fit right now and haven’t yet this season. ‘New Eden’ came the closest but the trick hasn’t yet been repeated.
Discovery remains filled with promise, loaded with fine characters and all the money is up there on the screen… but we’re nearly twenty episodes in, and where’s that *wow* episode? We’re still waiting for it.