Star Trek Discovery An Obol for Charon

This latest Star Trek: Discovery episode, “An Obol for Charon,” was a real emotional doozy. This has got to be one of the best episodes of Discovery so far. While prior episodes have entertained while setting up the overall mystery of Red Angel, “An Obol for Charon” took a break from the story to give us everything Star Trek is all about.

Let’s get into what made this episode such a great summation of Star Trek’s mission statement.

Discovering new life

The problem for this episode is figuring out if a strange star-like sphere is friend or foe, or if it’s even alive. Turns out the star is sentient. But we don’t know if it’s a killing force until the final arc of the episode. Seeing how it’s blocking the Discovery from following Spock’s vessel, disrupted the universal communicator, shut down massive portions of the ship and is emitting serious energy, it seems like it’s clearly a bad deal.

However, Saru and Michael manage to convince Pike to not destroy the star. They discover that the star has been trying to communicate with them and relay its 100,000-year life story before it died, but its method of communication was overpowering the ship. The way Saru figures this out is through his own health; because of Saru’s empathy, the star was able to reach him. Sadly, it consequently set off Saru’s death cycle, but it was because of Saru’s biology that he was able to deduce the star’s true intentions.

This mission showcases what is at the core of Starfleet’s focus, which is to discover more about the universe and its lifeforms. In fact, Michael says as much, which convinces Pike to allow her and Saru to engage with the star. Watching Discovery allow the star to tell its story before it died reflects a lot of the emotional core of Star Trek, which is to welcome and respect all lifeforms, regardless of who or what they happen to be. This idea is at its most extreme with aliens and star-spheres, but it is definitely an idea the show wants all of its viewers to imbue into their own lives. This is why Star Trek has been so popular for so many decades.

A view of a positive future

Of course, not all life is benevolent. That parasite that’s been torturing Tilly has a reason for attaching itself to our resident emotionally-frazzled scientist. Tilly’s regret about how she may have mistreated May in life allowed the parasite to prey on Tilly, giving it a way to get inside the Discovery lab. May has a personal vendetta against Stamets, who has been using the mycelial network as a way to jump Discovery from planet to planet. Turns out that he’s been destroying the network’s ecosystem and she wants him to stop.

This moment provides an interesting counterpoint to Stamets’ earlier point about the mycelial spores being clean, efficient forms of energy. During that earlier conversation with Jett Reno, the engineer saved from the Hiawatha a couple episodes ago. Reno and Stamets had a bit of a verbal tiff about viable types of energy. Reno is still for what is the sci-fi equivalent of oil and coal, whereas Stamets is all about renewable energy. Interestingly, he talks about how humanity “nearly choked itself on pollution” before we finally woke up and put solar panels on everything, cleaning up the environment and our ways of life. This is a way more optimistic point of view on our future than what Deadly Class gave us just this week, in which one of the characters discussed how continued usage of fossil fuels could turn the world “into Mad Max.”

Of course, Deadly Class and Star Trek: Discovery are shows with two different views on life; Deadly Class is all about the animalistic, evil side of humanity and Star Trek’s various series are all about seeing humanity at its best and giving viewers a guideline to live up to. While there is a lot of horrible stuff humans have to atone for, I’d say that humanity seems to always want to do better, whether it happens sooner or later than we’d like it too. Deadly Class is one of my favorite shows this season, but it’s important for shows to provide us with optimistic, forward-thinking viewpoints of humanity, and Discovery definitely lived up to past Star Treks in that way.

However, the moment with Amy and Stamets shows that humanity’s actions, even actions with good intentions, can sometimes have negative effects on an ecosystem, whether it’s our own or, in the case of Amy, an ecosystem that belongs to other beings. When we do cause harm, the most we can do is what Stamets did, which is apologize and become determined to do better.

It is important to note that Stamets got lazy in using the mycelial network, and even that is a lesson we can take when it comes to how we approach fixing the environment. We can’t be lazy or complacent when it comes to developing new technologies that could make our lives better. We also have to weigh certain consequences as well; a solution could be helpful to us as humans could hurt other ecosystems. It’s important to be as conscious of our impact as possible, especially as we move forward into the future with better technologies to reduce our ecological footprints.

Empathy and personal power

The big emotion behind tonight’s episode was empathy, and if Doug Jones does what’s right, he’ll add this episode to his Emmys “For Your Consideration” reel, because he deserves all of the praise for injecting such heart into Saru.

Even though the main mission is to interact with the star, the episode’s focus was entirely on Saru’s journey as the first Kelpien to enter Starfleet. So much of his story resonates with viewers, particularly those who are considered minorities in America. From Saru’s journey as a refugee to his ascension through the ranks of Starfleet, Saru mentioned something that a lot of us POC can relate to: the feeling that you have to hide parts of yourself and your culture to assimilate.

Saru mentioned how he learned over 100 Federation languages, yet never spoke his own because he wanted to be seen as a Federation member and Starfleet officer first and Kelpien second. In short, he wanted to be seen for his merits and not typecast as a stereotypical Kelpien by his peers. I’m sure there are many of us who have had our own personal cultural ties we’ve wrestled with in some fashion, hoping that by hiding it or transforming it in some way, we could be accepted by the mainstream. Eventually, like Saru, we learn that assimilation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, since it eventually destroys the self. Adding your personal flavor to the collective is much more important, since it forces people to have to learn more about you – and they grow as people in the process.

Saru also learns something that I’ve been dealing with on a personal level: discovering personal power. Because the star awoke his Kelpien response to death, Saru believes he’s taking his final breaths, even down to asking Michael to cut off his ganglia to ease the dying process. However, they fall out on their own. Saru realizes that if Kelpiens can survive what was thought to be a dying process, then what function does the biological response actually have?

Saru is rightly disturbed that his culture, one that has been based around fear and death because of their prey status on his planet, has believed and maintained a lie. How many Kelpiens have wrongly died from this lie? Did they Baul create the lie? There are so many questions, especially the question of if Saru should even engage with his planet, even though he promised Original Georgiou to uphold the Starfleet order of letting societies play themselves out without interference. But despite all of this, Saru now feels a freedom from fear he’s never felt before. He feels, as he said, his own personal power. That’s a powerful feeling to have.

It’s interesting that Discovery chose to portray the very human process of self-discovery in this way. Oftentimes, finding your own power can feel like a daunting, and even death-defying task. It can be scary and it can push you to your limits. It’s almost as if Saru experienced what is spiritually called a “Dark Night of the Soul,” in which a person goes through what feels like a never-ending cycle of psychological trauma before their soul expands to a wider consciousness. I’ve definitely been on that kind of a journey as of late, and during the worst parts of it, I definitely felt alone, depressed, and scared of my own mind and experiences. However, I feel like I’m coming out of the other side with my own proverbial ganglia sloughing off. Saru realized he doesn’t need to depend on fear, and that’s part of what a human Dark Night is all about; letting go of past crutches and security blankets to embrace the new, more powerful self.

I can’t go without commending the stellar makeup effects team, which includes Glenn Hetrick and James McKinnon. Saru always looks amazing, but it was awe-inspiring to see how they applied real-world makeup effects over the fantasy effects to make Saru look sick. Maybe it’s just something that impressed only me, but I loved looking at Saru’s face this episode to decipher how they kept making Saru look sicker and sicker. They need to add this episode to their Emmy reels.

Extra note: Number One!

It was so cool to see Rebecca Romijn play Majel Roddenberry’s best character, Number One. The original Number One from the 1960s was part of the original pilot, but she was cut because NBC wasn’t sure how a woman in such a powerful role would be seen by the audience. Annoying. But finally, Discovery brought back Number One, reasserting her importance to the entire franchise. Let’s hope we get to see more of her this season.

This has been such an emotionally satisfying episode, and one that truly showcases what this franchise has been about since the beginning. I’m so glad this season is under new management, because finally, we’re getting a show that deserves to be called Star Trek.

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