Season 2, Episode 4: ‘An Obol for Charon’
The most famous death scene in “Star Trek” history — one that transcended the franchise — was undoubtedly Spock’s demise at the end of the 1982 film “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” It was momentous for multiple reasons: First, the death forced Kirk to actually confront the no-win scenario. Second — and perhaps most important — they actually killed off Spock. They offed a beloved character, shocking audiences and making the final scene (“I have been — and always shall be — your friend”) all the more meaningful.
Those were real stakes.
Compare that to this week’s baffling episode, “An Obol for Charon,” directed by Lee Rose, which took us through this ridiculous charade of making it seem as if Saru would actually die — complete with a death bed scene and what were essentially Kelpien last rites — only to violate the audience’s trust but having it all be for naught. What was the point of wasting Doug Jones’s excellent performance portraying a dying man when he wasn’t actually dying?
Jones has been an underused standout on “Discovery” since the pilot. Aside from his role in a “Short Trek” episode between seasons, we rarely see any character development with Saru over the course of the show. So even if the writers did kill him off in this episode, it would have been an unnecessary waste of a character. (This wouldn’t be the first time “Discovery” did this, having killed off Michelle Yeoh’s Good Georgiou and Jason Isaacs’s Lorca prematurely.)
The grand conclusion of Saru’s near-death experience, which comes after the Discovery encounters a spherical being who wants to download its knowledge before dying, is that Saru feels more in control of himself rather than feeling governed by fear as Kelpiens typically are. This feels cheap. Instead of having Saru become a better person through conquering obstacles, “An Obol For Charon” gave him a disease.
And when did Saru and Burnham get so close? Why is Burnham crying next to Saru’s Not-So-Deathbed? We rarely see these two together by themselves. In fact, when Burnham was released from prison to serve on the Discovery again, Saru was visibly angry (as angry as he gets) that Burnham was allowed to serve again and openly said he didn’t trust her. Over the next several episodes, they got comfortable as co-workers, but seemingly nothing more. It was another contrived relationship that made the episode frustrating.
(If you want a an example of a Trek episode that better handles the prospect of a key crew member’s death, go watch “Ethics,” an episode in the fifth season of “The Next Generation.” A cargo bay container falls on Worf, paralyzing him and leaving him to beg Riker to help him commit suicide. It is compelling character development, even as audience members know deep down that Worf is probably not going to die. )
The best parts of the episode came early, when the Discovery crew was having a simple meeting. These kind of lighthearted exchanges between crew members are much needed breaks from the general gloom and doom of “Discovery,” and it’s nice to see senior officers sharing a positive rapport.
We don’t make much progress with discovering (sorry!) who the angelic figure is that has so vexed Burnham, Spock and, you know, the rest of the universe. Spock is on the run and the Discovery, until it got waylaid by the spherical alien, was hot on his trail. It is unclear to me what Starfleet thinks the Discovery is doing. Remember, Pike is not supposed to know the location of the shuttle Spock stole. Pike has that information because his first officer, No. 1, essentially smuggled it to him.
Starfleet purportedly also has other ships looking for Spock. Won’t they know that Discovery is up to something?
Oh, and Tilly is kidnapped by that giant fungus-like alien that Discovery was keeping locked up. This story line has been tough to follow because we don’t know what the alien’s intentions are or what the fascination is with Tilly in particular. We know that the spore drive has somehow disrupted life for those aliens, but the endgame isn’t clear. This has the makings of another wasted story line: To see Tilly develop because she has an alien that possesses her rather than seeing her succeed on her own, again, seems like contrived character development.
Overall, it’s the second episode in which the season’s primary story line doesn’t move forward. That’s fine with me, of course. A lot of historic “Trek” episodes don’t have much to do with the central conflict. But this one felt like an unnecessary diversion from the more interesting mystery being solved by Pike and Burnham.