“An Obol for Charon” is a very bad episode of television. It continues an unfortunate trend on this season of Star Trek: Discovery, awkwardly clashing an episodic arc with the larger serialized narrative of this season.
The episodic plot is static, and pointless. Tilly (Mary Wiseman) is swallowed by a blob, escapes from the blob, gets re-swallowed by the same blob. Saru (Doug Jones) announces that he is dying, talks a lot about dying, does not die. At the beginning of the episode, the Discovery sets off to search for Spock, and at the end of the episode, the Discovery sets off to search for Spock.
The poor young half-Vulcan is infecting every scene of this show, like some kind of cosmic fungus. It’s become the Disco drinking game: Take a sip of Romulan ale every time someone says “Spock.” Discovery is chasing Spock’s warp signatures, and when that leads them on a collision course with a big exploding red thing, various characters worry that they are losing Spock’s warp signature. Special Guest Star Rebecca Romijn plays Special Guest Original Pilot Character Number One, and talks about Spock. Saru prepares to die, and his last words are about Spock. Michael (Sonequa Martin-Green) discovers our galaxy’s Dead Sea Scrolls, and that discovery teaches her an important lesson about her relationship with Spock. All is Spock, Spock is all.
“An Obol for Charon” has a few moments of fun, all of them featuring JETT RENO (Tig Notaro), who can fix anything with duct tape. Can she fix this show? Her spiky interaction with Stamets finally gave Anthony Rapp something to play besides fungal melancholy. (She calls his great scientist “a guy who thinks he can run his ship off mushrooms,” a self-aware line that implies some Discovery writer is quietly revolting against their own mythology.)
Apology time: I misspelled JETT RENO’s name when I wrote about the season premiere. I thought “Jet” was an awesome name because planes, but Notaro told Conan O’Brien that the name JETT is an homage to Joan Jett, which is incredible. And while every other Disco character overreacts to the latest crisis, JETT RENO plays it cool, like it’s just another space day on the space job. Tilly’s psionically connected to an interdimensional blobule? WHIIIIRRRR buzzes JETT RENO’S electric drill. It’s time, she suggests, to drill a hole in dear Tilly’s skull. JETT RENO doesn’t join in when Stamets and Tilly do a cranial perforation David Bowie singalong, but I credit her mere presence with bringing some oldschool glam these gray metallic walls.
I’m afraid this episode drilled a bit of a hole in my own skull. Doug Jones is always lovely as Saru, but all his dreamy talk of ganglia didn’t make you believe for one moment that the Kelpien would perish. The end of the episode implies that he’s developed some revolutionary fervor, a plot point you imagine the show will explore later. But you can’t build a whole episode around plot points to explore later, and “An Obol for Charon” completes Michael Burnham’s transformation from “Star of Her Show” to “Hype Man for Spock’s Impending Arrival.” She talks to Pike about the murder-y allegations against Spock. She hints yet again at “the mistakes that I’ve made” with Spock, please don’t be romance pleasepleaseplease no.
This episode’s teleplay was written by Andrew Colville and Alan McElroy, but the “story by” credit goes to Jordan Nardino, Gretchen J. Berg, and Aaron Harberts. We are apparently very close to the end of the filming period when Harberts and Berg were still showrunners, before their departure led to co-creator Alex Kurtzman stepping in.
Now, Discovery has always been a show with a lot of cooks in the kitchen. I’m loathe to blame anyone for a season that already feels like such a mess of creative motivations. (Be funny! Tell an epic war story! Spin Michelle Yeoh off! Have Spock but don’t have Spock! Lighten up! Dead baby!)
But “An Obol for Charon” suggests a show that palpably needs a major change. A few interesting plot potentials evaporate. The universal translator breaks, but then it immediately gets fixed on the bridge. The space blob doses Engineering with Psilocybin, but then Stamets reverse-doses himself and JETT RENO. Come on, can’t the acid trip last longer than thirty seconds? Meanwhile, Spock.
What Airiam Said This Week: “Negative, sir. We don’t have enough power to create the necessary hull capitation [gravitation? capitulation? unclear].”