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Now, back to our scheduled feature.
I believe it was William Shakespeare who said:
“Brevity is the soul of wit.”
Well, I would like to offer a complimentary notion:
“Restraint is the heart of genius.”
What does that mean?
Allow me to explain.
As this is another long article, I’ve added an abstract (AKA a synopsis, a summary, or a TL:DR) below. The rest of the article follows it.
‘An Obol For Charon’ contains many interesting story ideas, many of which have been explored in previous Star Trek series. Sadly, it packs too many of these concepts in, such that no one story arc receives adequate focus. This lack of narrative focus leads not only to many significant plot holes, but also to several crucial oversights in the relationships between characters.
Chaos By Parts
My initial review of ‘An Obol For Charon’, the fourth episode of the second season of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’, was going to be a breakdown of each of the many subplots of the episode, exploring each one separately. It seemed like a sensible way to tackle the chaos of such a busy episode, barely 50 minutes long.
But then I realised that what I want to talk about is the chaos. Not the in-universe chaos, as the ship shuts down and everything goes wrong, but the narrative chaos, caused by inexpert hands duct-taping six contrasting narratives into a big, quivering, unstable blob that wants to collapse under its own weight like a beached whale.
In a previous article, I commented on the similarities between ‘New Eden’ and TNG’s ‘Q Who’. I try very, very hard not to compare DISCO to other Trek series in terms of aesthetics, technology, canon and the like because those things just aren’t as important to me as the stories themselves. But when DISCO itself invokes the comparison, I’ll take it and run with it.
‘An Obol For Charon’ is, on the surface, directly comparable to TNG’s ‘Disaster’ – in both episodes, the ship (Discovery, Enterprise) is rendered helpless by some cosmic phenomenon and chaos ensues, leaving the crew separated, imperilled, and without access to any of the technology they would usually rely on to help them out.
‘Charon’ is also directly comparable to TNG’s ‘Ethics’ – in both episodes, a character (Saru, Worf) is left with some kind of debilitating and incurable medical condition to which their cultural response is suicide, and they must request the assistance of other crew to help them kill themselves.
‘Charon’ is ALSO reasonably comparable to DS9’s ‘Heart of Stone’, in which a character (Tilly, Kira) is trapped by a strange, lumpy lifeform and another character must find a way to save them, whilst cut off from any help or medical assistance.
This plotline itself invokes elements of both of the TNG episodes ‘Evolution’ and ‘Force of Nature’, where, respectively: the crew channel the communications of an alien race through a “possessed” crew member (Tilly for the JahSepp and Data for the Nanites) in order to negotiate a kind of truce; and where the crew discover that their heretofore vital engine technology is unknowingly causing environmental damage which is affecting an alien race.
In addition to these narratives, we also have the meta-plot of the Red Bursts and the Red Angel, the meta-subplot of Spock’s escape, and the meta-sub-subplot of the rift between Burnham and Spock preventing them from reuniting.
Finally, we have the A-plot of this episode, which is a massive, quivering, unstable blob that wants to die, but not before it sends someone its internet search history. This borrows elements from TNG’s ‘Tin man’ and ‘The Inner Light’, the first about a massive, living vessel seeking to die, and the second about a an ancient probe forcibly passing on the history and cultural legacy of to the first ship it encounters.
Got all that?
Good! Now let’s talk about why it doesn’t work.
‘Disaster’ is probably not one of the finest episodes of TNG, but it’s far from the worst, and manages to be memorable thanks to some fun and touching moments throughout.
Structurally, ‘Disaster’ is essentially a collection of B-plots. There isn’t really an “A-plot” – that being, a story arc which serves as the main focus of the episode, and that’s actually fine.
The Enterprise randomly strikes two quantum filaments – a kind of string that is cosmic but that is definitely not a cosmic string.
This occurs at the end of the four-minute opening teaser, following a sequence of scenes in which we see the crew in “status quo” – the unborn Molly O’Brien is torturing Keiko by kicking, Beverly is torturing Geordi by begging him to sing, and three children are torturing Picard by existing.
Everyone is separated off into little groups: Beverly and Geordi are in a cargo bay; Riker, Data and Worf are with Keiko in Ten Forward; Troi and O’Brien are on the bridge; and Picard is in a turbolift with the three children – for those of you not aware, Jean Luc Picard hates children as much as Michael Burnham hates making sensible decisions.
The Enterprise is hit with the filaments, and the following things happen:
- Worf is left in charge of Ten Forward, which has become a makeshift medical bay, and must assist Keiko as she goes into labour.
- Troi and O’Brien are joined by Ro Laren in an isolated bridge, cut off from the rest of the ship and uncertain about the next steps to follow.
- Picard faces his own Kobayashi Maru, being trapped in a turbolift with a broken leg and three useless fucking children. Everyone thinks that ‘Chain of Command’ is the episode about Picard getting tortured, but this is actually the greatest torment he ever faced.
- Riker and Data set out to reach Engineering in order to regain control of the ship, but must find away around damaged corridors and passageways.
- Bev and Geordi are trapped in the cargo bay and discover a plasma fire, which is steadily poisoning them with radiation.
The key thing with all of those subplots is that they’re all actually pretty basic. Riker’s and Data’s journey is mostly just functional, and serves as the resolution to the overall peril, and Beverly and Geordi’s subplot is mostly just generic danger plot to give them something to do.
The other three stories are more interesting:
- Keiko’s labour is fairly standard, but it presents Worf a problem that he can’t fight, shoot or stab – if Beverly were around the issue would be solved.
- Troi struggles with the burdens of command, having to get the other officers into line and make difficult decisions. She really just needs a command officer like Riker or Picard around to sort the problem out.
- Picard has to find a way to stop the children from panicking or giving up or succumbing to fear – he needs Troi, someone who can reach the children on an emotional level and keep them calm.
And that’s basically it. None of these things would be major problems on any other day – they’re only challenging because of the complete failure of all of the ship’s systems. Without those issues: Geordi and Beverly could just beam out of the cargo bay; Data and Riker could just take the turbolift; an actual doctor could take care of Keiko rather than Worf; Troi could just get guidance from a more senior officer; and Picard could just
pistol-whip those little shits right in the face find someone, anyone, to take those children off his hands.
For the Worf, Picard and Troi stories, it’s just a chance to see our characters out of their comfort zones, facing new challenges that could be easily dealt with otherwise. And we even get nice little arcs out of it:
- Worf learns to embrace his softer, more sensitive side as he coaches Keiko through the birth of Molly.
- Troi gains confidence dealing with life-or-death decision-making, and asserting herself within the Starfleet hierarchy.
- Picard realises that children probably aren’t all that bad, and even comes to appreciate the hidden strength youth or whatever.
There’s an old joke about how unlucky each vessel bearing the name Enterprise must be. Every week the crew meets some new, terrible, or just plain weird phenomenon which fucks everything up, and it seems to happen like clockwork.
Well, Enterprise got nothin’ on Discovery. In this episode alone:
- The crew are on a mission to investigate a weird galaxy-wide phenomenon.
- Number One comes aboard to give Pike an update on the investigation into Spock, who is wanted for murder after allegedly losing his mind. Number One points out how fishy this investigation is.
- Burnham doesn’t want to meet Spock when they do find him, due to a previous falling out.
- The ship runs into a giant living entity which completely mangles the computer –
- – which leads to all of the crew speaking different languages because of a Universal Translator function.
- The only way to free the ship is to accept a massive download of 100,000 years’ worth of information, because the living entity wants to die, but not before it passes on its legacy.
- The encounter with the living entity causes one of the crew members to enter their own death cycle –
- – which requires another crew member to help them commit suicide.
- Three crew members get trapped in Engineering with no way to escape.
- The compartment is charged with 100GeV of energy (that’s about 0.000000016J, or roughly the kinetic energy of a grain of sand travelling a speed of 1 millimetre per second) and the people inside have to discharge it somehow.
- One of those trapped crew members becomes infected with an inter-dimensional fungal parasite.
- One of the others drills a hole into the infected crew member’s head with a cordless drill so that they can communicate with the infecting organism.
- The organism infected the crew member in order to force the ship to stop using its special engines, which are devastating the organism’s ecosystem.
That’s not even a list of events, that’s just a list of plot threads. Now, in a longer, multi-episode narrative like DISCO’s, you can get away with running parallel stories which take longer to resolve, so for clarity, I highlighted all of the stuff that’s introduced in this episode in red.
You’ll notice that’s nearly all of it.
What’s more, hardly any of these things are small problems. They’re all major issues which could warrant major exploration. Hell, most of them could be A-plots for a single episode.
Instead, we rush through each one without paying any level of notice to it. Here’s a few problems that are NOT adequately dealt with in the course of the episode (numbered correspondingly):
- We barely spend any time on the Red Angel / Red Burst phenomenon beyond a single scene in a conference room in which everybody makes clear that, after four episodes, they still have no idea of what they’re dealing with.
- Where did Number One come from? Did she leave the Enterprise and travel all this way to have a two-minute conversation with Pike, hand him a data pad, eat a Happy Meal and then leave again? Where did she go after she left?
- Burnham refuses to meet Spock because of the rift between them. Rather than introspecting and exploring her feelings on this, or how the rift occurred, she simply decides to see Spock because a dying Saru told her to.
- What is the nature of this living cosmic entity? What kind of creature is it? What is its purpose? Is it a vessel? Was it built, or did it evolve naturally? What does the existence of this kind of creature mean scientifically? Is it unique or are there more of them out there? How has it not been discovered before this episode?
- Can the Universal Translator really change the lip movements and intonations of the person who’s speaking? And why isn’t the solution to simply deactivate it across the ship so that everyone can at least understand what they themselves are saying?
- Why does the entity want / need to die? What is its motivation behind ending its own life? If its death cycle is out of its own control, then is there any way to save it?
- Saru starts dying because the entity triggers some sort of death process in Kelpien anatomy, and yet the first symptoms of this process occur at least several minutes before the Enterprise even sets out on a course that would intercept the entity – before Number One even sets foot aboard Discovey with the co-ordinates to which they are heading.
- Burnham has to help Saru kill himself, but although she get upset and they have several long conversations, at no point does she question the ethics of her actions, or indeed whether Saru can be saved. Saru says that that his death is certain, but nobody even doubts him – they all just take him for his word and allow him to continue dying.
- Reno, Stamets and Tilly, all highly-qualified engineers, get trapped in the Spore chamber and never seem to think of trying to get out – they make mention of the room being completely isolated, but even when Tilly has a fungus attached on her arm, drugging her with hallucinogenics, they never thing to just cut the door open to get her to sickbay – or even just find a way to get a doctor in with them.
- The compartment is charged with electricity, threatening to kill them all by incineration as a result of their oxygen igniting. To solve this, they improvise a technique to discharge the energy – which creates a massive blast and electrical bolt. Which would surely ignite the oxygen in the room, which is precisely what they’re trying to avoid.
- At the end of last episode, Stamets extracted the parasite from Tilly with the Dark Matter chamber. For some reason, that never emerges as another possibility, even though it seemed to work pretty well.
- The situation is so bad that Reno and Stamets decide to improvise brain surgery on Tilly by drilling a hole in her head. This entire scenario is so awful that I was laughing uncontrollably – Stamets’ delivery of the line “We’re gonna do this old school. We need to sterilise that drill bit,” is delivered with perfect comic timing. Even at this drastic stage, neither one of them considers even trying to get Tilly in front an actual doctor.
- Discovery‘s Spore Drive is wreaking havoc on an ecosystem in another dimension. What kind of havoc is it wreaking? Why would the organism emotionally manipulate Tilly and mess with her head so much just to “build up trust” in order to “persuade her to deliver [the] message” to Stamets instead of just telling Tilly what was going on? If it can read Tilly’s mind and memories so accurately, would it not be able to recognise her concern for alien life forms? If it understands Tilly well enough to know how to manipulate her sympathies, why would it then choose to appear as a ghost in order to build trust? Would it not be obvious that Tilly, indeed any human, would immediately mistrust visions of a dead person?
Narrative focus is important. Not just to stop assholes on the internet from pointing out plot holes in your story, but because it enables a deeper exploration and examination of the themes that your story covers.
There’s a single line in this episode that is really interesting to me, which is from Saru, regarding his own species:
Now, that’s a fascinating a concept – that the Kelpiens simply submit to death, that they lack the desperate drive for survival that exists in nearly all other species.
It’s an intriguing philosophy! And this is all the screen time it gets this episode. In the similar story ‘Ethics’, from TNG, Riker can’t bring himself to accept that Worf would seek to take his own life when he was physically handicapped, and that drove a lot of the debate of the episode.
To her credit, Burnham simply accepts that Saru is submitting to death, which makes her a considerate friend and which also fits her expertise as a Xenoanthropologist. But it also robs the storyline of the drama it needs! It would be a great point of conflict to see Burnham struggle to come to terms with Saru on this, unable, at first, to accept his perspective on his own situation.
On a similar note, at one point Burnham stops by Engineering to “see if we can find a way to boost power to shields.” She can’t get in, because the doors won’t open. Nobody suggests breaking through them, or finding some other way in or out. Then Stamets says something that helps Burnham realise the solution to the Catastrafuck Of The Week and the point is that:
Tilly is Burnham’s best friend.
However, Burnham shows barely more than cursory concern for Tilly’s plight because she has to go back to being concerned about Saru. Because this episode is a mess.
Saru is dying. Tilly is being poisoned by an inter-dimensional fungus. The whole ship is on its arse. Burnham doesn’t have time to be worried about Tilly. But she should, because this is one of the most important relationships between two characters in the show so far – the one that we, the audience, have been following since Season 1. But now Tilly’s just the latest entry on Burnham’s list of “Today’s Bullshit.”
To the point that once the cosmic machine entity has released its hold on Discovery, Burnham doesn’t hurry to Engineering to try to help Tilly – she walks Saru back to his quarters so he can take his shirt off and lie down on a bed of moss.
And when it then turns out that he’s fine as his condition just suddenly corrects itself, Burnham still doesn’t go to check on Tilly, but instead follows the now totally-fine Saru to sickbay to congratulate him on not being dead. Then Burnham still doesn’t go to check on Tilly, but instead heads to Pike’s ready room to tell him that she will, at least, decide to speak to Spock when they finally meet, and by this point Tilly has been dragged into a fungal cocoon and off into the Phantom Zone, and Reno is slapping the magic mushrooms out of Stamets as they trip balls.
By this point, the ship is working again, so there’s absolutely no need for Reno and Stamets to be dealing with Tilly’s situation alone. It just seems that nobody else can be arsed to come help – particularly not Burnham, who is off talking to Pike about her family issues.
This is all a result of the episode’s writers trying to cram so many storylines into one place that everything starts falling apart.
And I haven’t even come close to talking about the weird edits and scene transitions as Burnham just seems to teleport around the ship as needed, nor the complete abandoning of the Universal Translator problems which would themselves have been a great storyline.
Or indeed why Pike sees fit, during a period of crisis where the ship might be destroyed, to abandon the Bridge and visit Sickbay to get a status report, the very definition of an errand which could be left to pretty much anyone except the captain. Or why he then chooses to remain in Sickbay for a prolonged period to act as an unqualified nurse.
On the surface, this was a fun episode that seemed like a throwback to classic Trek. But again, as with all things ‘Discovery’, it doesn’t take much scrutiny before it starts to dissolve into abstraction and nonsense.
The wrtiers’ inability to restrain themselves is their own undoing, and it allows them to turn some fascinating story concepts into rushed, glossed-over narrative dead-ends. This episode should just have been about the massive cosmic entity and the effect that it’s dying had on Saru – it didn’t need all of the other gumpf, fluff and nonsense to make it interesting.
The only outstanding positive element of this episode was Jet Reno, who remained wonderful throughout. But sadly, she wasn’t enough to single-handedly turn everything around.
Okay, I’ve talked about all the serious, in-depth issues with the episode. Now for more nitpicking:
Burnham comments that the attack is “slow” and therefore “inefficient”, even though the entire ship was multi-spectrally fucko’d seconds after arrival and they’re now completely helpless. SEEMS PRETTY EFFICIENT TO ME.
Stamets asks Tilly to sing her favourite song, so she starts singing ‘Space Oddity’… half-way through. Like, in the middle of a verse. Presumably she knew how cramped the episode was, and so decided to just skip to the most dramatically fitting part of the song.
It really, really bothers me that Stamets claims the Federation is completely dispassionate about the problems caused by dilithium mining. Sure, this is a (really hamfisted) analogy for anthropogenic climate change, but you expect a nation of genius scientists to be a little more switched-on than that.
Reno says that the computer sealed the doors because of the power overload… even though the lightning bolts are shown, clearly, four times over, striking the control panels. Which is both weird for them to do that, and directly contradictory. Neither explanation explains why they can’t leave the room later, beyond the general systems malfunction, except that YOU’RE ENGINEERS, JUST FIND A WAY TO OPEN THE FUCKING DOORS, NUMB NUTS.
No, seriously, where the fuck did Number One come from and where did she go? Was Discovery really in transporter range of Spacedock where Enterprise is being repaired?
What the fuck is a “digital antibody” anyway? ‘Cause it sounds fucking stupid.
Why was the Spore Drive room completely unaffected by all of the ship’s malfunctions? Isn’t it an integral part of the ship? It makes sense that it’d be firewalled off, but then why aren’t other vital areas?
Linus the Saurian is an annoying fucking dweeb and it really bothers me that these futuristic space scientists talk like American teenagers. “That cold I had sucked.” Yeah, so do you, Linus, you god damn scaly-skinned piece of shit.
Pike was bound by his “oath and conscience” to honour the dying wishes of the mechanical entity – risking his ship and all of his crew getting ultra-fucked out of existence in the process. Fuck you, Pike.
Christ, I’m still barely done, but I’m nearly at 4000 words. This’ll have to do for now. Good night.