Star Trek: Discovery
It happened. Time will tell, of course, but I’m pretty certain that this week’s episode has finally shown us Discovery’s DNA; what this show is going to be, both in the pantheon of Treks and as its own series. That the U.S.S. Discovery NCC-1031 is a science vessel has been a given from the start, but almost every episode to date has flown in the face of that designation, what with all the dimension-jumping and Klingon-battling. Until now, it was easy to forget that this (save perhaps Pike now) is a ship full of absolute nerds.
Evidently it took the (glorious) return of Tig Notaro’s Jett Reno and her unbelievably good scientist roasts to make me realize it’s not just Tilly and Stamets getting psyched about “the power of math, people” — relative to the rest of the Federation, the entire Disco crew is all Tillys. If the Enterprise and Voyager were Gryffindors, the Discovery is a Ravenclaw.* And this insane pacing (not to mention all the hard science that’s more rigorous than anything seen in Treks previous) is all part of the show’s earnest, eager-beaver science nerd persona. It all makes sense now! These are the biggest dorks of Starfleet, and this week we saw them in full-on geek mode as they rushed to solve a fistful of mysteries — all while feeling the biggest feelings.
As with “New Eden” a couple weeks ago, there’s a lot going on in “An Obol for Charon” (a reference to the coin one must pay the ferryman in Greek mythology to cross the river Styx into the underworld). But thankfully, this time its many threads are confined to the ship, and they work together to create a delightfully cacophonous new profile that actually does pull off the “what if Discovery but also The Next Generation?” experiment. At the heart of it all, we’ve got a new Crystalline Entity situation — a super-ancient molten space rock that’s also … alive? — infecting the ship like a virus and pushing its systems toward catastrophic shutdown. Meanwhile, Tilly has been hijacked and kidnapped by a vengeful mycelial alien, and Saru is dying. Everything is fine!
Discovery is able to track Spock’s warp signature thanks to the legendary Number One (now played by Mystiq — I mean Rebecca Romijn), who has joined Amanda Grayson in the illicit investigation of our elusive Vulcan pal’s alleged breakdown and murder spree. She pops in for some exposition about how Spock’s case has been escalated to a rare “Level 1,” but only momentarily, as the crew is late for its next appointment with certain death.
En route to intercepting Spock, the aforementioned “sphere” — 350 miles wide, a meld of living and non-living matter, roughly 100,000 years old, and fully about to explode — pulls the ship out of warp into a dead stop. It immediately infects its universal translator, and for a kooky minute or two, everyone is suddenly speaking 15 different languages, mostly human and some Klingon. Lucky Saru knows 94 languages, huh? Even while deathly ill with a “rhinovirus,” he manages to implement a stopgap so the team can converse in “Earth English” while they try to staunch the ship’s full-on breakdown.
Except surprise! Saru’s cold is not a cold — he’s been lying, for unacceptably silly reasons. It’s actually vahari, a uniquely Kelpien illness that is supposedly triggered when it’s time for them to be culled and slaughtered. Saru has always described his Kelpien threat ganglia as giving him the ability to “sense the coming of death,” making them the ultimate “empathic” appendage; now they’re reacting to the sphere, which is dying. Without much more explanation — why is this imminent death more likely to cause vahari than any other imminent death they’ve encountered, for example? — Saru says this is the writing on the wall; for Kelpiens, vahari means either slaughter (or in his case now, assisted suicide) or an Alzheimers-esque descent into madness. For Kelpiens, he explains, death is preferable.
There were, I’ll admit, two points here that were hard to believe in the context of such a brilliant crew. One, that genius xenobiologist Burnham wouldn’t immediately realize that the translator hacking and UV-light bursts (that only Saru can see, sure, but he complains quite loudly about it!) were all attempts to communicate. The other was the fact that, until now, no one had thought to challenge Saru’s fatalism about his own biology, given how often he excuses himself as being hard-wired “to submit.” Didn’t he have to pass some sort of physical to enter Starfleet? That would have been a great time to take some notes about Kelpien biology, in case he ever needed medical attention, no?
While Saru has been trying to hide his illness from everyone, they finally realize the sphere has been screaming about its own life this whole time, trying to convey its “legacy” — basically its memories — before it dies. (Insert Great Deku Tree and Mad Max Warboy jokes here.) The crew lowers shields to accept a hundred millennia worth of star information — “our galaxy’s Dead Sea Scrolls,” as Pike puts it.
Mission accomplished, Saru decides he’s going to die now, and everyone just sort of … lets him, including Burnham, whom he entreats in an extremely emotional deathbed scene to end his suffering by cutting off his ganglia. When she goes to do it, however, they shrivel up and fall off on their own! What’s this? Kelpien is evolving! Suddenly our one true captain is not only healed; his persistent low-grade anxiety has vanished along with the ganglia. Everything the Kelpiens take for granted about their own bodies, it seems, was brainwashing by their slavers, intended to keep them fearful and compliant. (Probably something somebody should have suggested to Saru as a possibility before he tried to put himself in his own grave, but what do I know?) On top of everything, the Prime Directive still applies to his species, so now he’s in a real existential pickle.
Meanwhile, the big ol’ fungus they pulled out of Tilly, whom we’ll just call “May” now, has been having a freaking blast rage-dosing everyone in engineering. First, it gloms back onto Tilly (sedating her with some sort of toxin in the process) while she, Stamets, and Reno are trying to free themselves Using Science™ after the sphere’s virus puts them in lockdown. To get May to let go, they have to drill a hole in Tilly’s head so it can use her as a conduit to speak. It tells them it’s part of a race called the Ja-set that live in the mycelial network, and whose ecosystem the Discovery’s spore-drive-jumping has irreparably destroyed; now they’re not only angry, it seems like they’re looking to get even, using Tilly as an instrument in their revenge. Stamets and Reno manage to cut her free only momentarily before May sends shroom spores into the air and sucks the ensign back into the network (?!) while the two senior officers are busy tripping balls.
Neatly, the sphere’s dying actions were (a) to save the Discovery from the blowback of its explosion, and (b) to give them Spock’s new heading, since they chose to lose him in order to help it. Now we’re all back on track, a little bolder, a little wiser, and fully emptied of emotional bandwidth. A successful procedural episode of this evolving, hyperactive dork show, if I do say so myself.
Personal Log, Supplemental:
• At first I wasn’t sure about whether I was feeling Number One, but then I realized that’s exactly what shows like this need: slightly terrifying yet effective women in Starfleet command who don’t give a shit about being likable.
• Clever, if heavy-handed, bit of retrofitting there with Pike deciding to “disable” all hologram communicators on the Enterprise, on account of whatever is wrong with it, in favor of the “outdated” on-screen comms we see in the original series.
• Stamets and Tilly singing Bowie as they drill into her skull got me so verklempt that I have nothing else to say about it.
• Abundance of solid jokes this week, including Linus the sneezing alien officer from the premiere, whose native tongue is still giving the universal translator trouble, and of course, Reno’s deadpan ethering of Stamets and his spore soapbox. Given how wrong he seems to have been about the spores as a renewable resource, lines like “Oh yeah? Do they come with house dressing?” packed an extra punch.
•Speaking of Lt. Paul Stamets, did you know he was named for a real-life, currently-alive mycologist? Apparently this was revealed on the second segment of “After Trek,” which I do not watch. Check out this fun-guy!
* Sorry, sorry, I’m trying to remove it.