Once again I find myself wondering what Mr Dalton has been smoking, because he quite liked episode 4. Sure, there were some “themes” and stuff, but other than that episode 4 really struggled.
The episode title is An Obol for Charon. Charon is, of course, a reference to the mythical ferryman who carries the dead across the river Styx to the afterlife, an obol being the small unit of ancient Greek currency that the dead give him in payment. Based on this title you might think we’re going to have a discussion about death, one’s journey through life towards it and one’s legacy. These things are mentioned, certainly, but the episode isn’t about any of that. Nope, it’s about the pointless pursuit of Spock. Again. Everything else happens in the few minutes that are not devoted to this endless quest. As a result, the scenes dealing with these enormous and worthy topics are rushed past our eyes so fast that if you blinked, you’d miss them, all so we can get back to The Quest for Spock.
You know Spock, right? He’s the guy this show is all about, but whom we have yet to actually meet! Instead of Spock we have met Spock’s dad, Spock’s mum, Spock’s retcon adopted sister, the Mary Sue engineer Jett Reno, the red shirt science officer Connolly, a blob of sentient fungus (!) and this week’s comic relief. The comic relief’s name is Linus, which rhymes with “sinus” because, you know, that’s funny. And he makes a point of telling us he has six nasal canals which, you know, makes the fact that he sneezed on Connolly in episode 1 funnier, right?
You didn’t laugh?
Cool. Neither did I.
So, basically, Linus is the kind of alien a five-year-old would invent. And it gets worse because in this episode he doesn’t even get any characterisation. He’s just a plot device whose purpose is to remind the viewer that there is a thing called the Universal Translator and that, occassionally, it gets something wrong and doesn’t translate him, correctly.
This primes us for when Discovery, in pursuit of Spock’s shuttle, crosses paths with an object referred to only as The Sphere. This is actually one of the better opportunities this show has created to demonstrate its credentials as Star Trek. Our intrepid crew encounters a mysterious and powerful alien presence in deep space. At first, it seems to be a strange natural phenomenon until our heroes realise it’s organic and reacting to their presence. They conclude that it’s hostile and are about to retaliate. But they realise that their own limited human perceptions are colouring their judgement and that, to truly understand the unknown they must embrace the possibility of intelligences and motives that are not human. And thus, they perceive the alien’s actions in a new light, deduce its motives, come to an understanding of themselves within the context of the universe, and gain a measure of enlightenment. End credits. Job done. Star Trek, in the bag. Grumpy review transformed into Glowing review! Hurrah!
But the moment passed because there’s no time for any of this Trek stuff. We’ve got to find Spock! (Imagine me saying that as a small child having a tantrum, bouncing up and down, waving my tiny fists and going red in the face.) Stop doing that interesting stuff! We’ve got to find Spock!
And thus, this Grumpy review was born, instead.
Anyway, having been flagged up by Linus as a dodgy piece of kit, the Universal Translator promptly malfunctions and starts translating everything everyone says, and everything displayed on screens, into random languages, 90% of which are recognisably human, with only one alien language…
Hmm, maybe the Federation has more in common with the Terran Empire than we first thought… but that’s the subject of another essay…
Meanwhile, the UT problem quickly renders the ship and crew helpless.
I like this idea; as far as I know, the UT has never failed quite so spectacularly on any other Star Trek show, before. Sure, there have been minor glitches, but in general this dictionary definition of the “plot device” has not received the attention it deserves, possibly until now. I especially liked the fact that the glitch affected all the computer displays in a very logical and believable extension of the UT’s function aboard the ship as a fundamentally important technology.
So, what’s the answer? Turn if off and on again, of course! But even as they do this, it turns out that Saru is dying. Quite quickly. In fact, he only started to feel symptoms that morning, but they’ve worsened now to the point where he’s convinced he’s suffering a terminal condition unique to his species, and one that is irreversible… Yeah, you know what’s coming. I won’t insult your intelligence by pointing it out.
Unlike Michael Burnham! There is hardly anything that happens in this episode that doesn’t get called out, pointed at and described in detail by Burnham for our benefit. For some reason, An Obol for Charon treats us like utter morons with no ability to recognise important moments or powerful emotions without Michael Burnham pointing at them and yelling into our faces that This Is Important, or You Should Feel Sad Now!
I swear, I was ready to push her out of an airlock.
If Discovery has one problem, it’s that it suffers from a phenomenon often observed in amateur authors who have yet to learn the subtleties of their craft. Amateur authors have a tendency to tell you, the reader, everything they think you need to know. It’s referred to as “author voice” because it’s like the author is leaning down over your shoulder and whispering into your ear as you read. “You should feel sad, now,” the author says, “because Saru is dying. That’s really sad. Be sad.”
What good authors do can be summarised fairly simply as show, don’t tell. Build a character by letting us watch him, struggle with him, cry with him, love with him, aspire with him. Then kill him. Do it simply. No fuss. We’ll bring the pain to the scene. You don’t need to tell us.
My god, the Discovery team really need to take this lesson on board. For example, Saru’s not-death scene could have been classy and respectable, but it was full of Burnham’s big puppy dog eyes (you know, for a kid raised on Vulcan, she’s very quick to tear up). And the moment the knife appeared I had a flashback to the TNG season 5 episode “Ethics” in which Worf, paralysed, asks Riker to help him commit suicide. That is one of the finest TNG episodes ever written, with a very good scene between Worf and Riker, one in which respect for the audience is not sacrificed on the altar of emotional sensationalism and badly directed over-acting. Unlike Saru’s not-death scene.
Show, don’t tell.
But Saru’s death scene did show me something I really liked. Saru’s quarters! Very cool. Especially the mossy mound he uses as a bed. It actually looks very comfortable.
Unfortunately, Saru with his shirt off looks exactly like an actor wearing a body prosthetic that looks exactly like what it is: a lump of latex. It also made Saru look far more muscular than he normally appears in his uniform. My first thought was when did Saru get so buff?
Burnham isn’t the only one who lectures the audience. The Mary Sue engineer Jett Reno turns up in Stametz’s “greenhouse” to annoy Stametz. She provokes him into a proper nerd rant by dissing his pet fungus project, which results in a lengthy lecture on environmentalism and its fictional future history leading up to Discovery’s present day. Unfortunately, this is another example of Discovery laying it on thick: another “author voice” problem. Since season 1 the idea that the damage the spore drive does to the mycelial network is an analogy for the damage we, in the present day, are doing to Earth through our use of fossil fuels, has been made painfully obvious. And I mean painfully.
We get it. Thank you. Please tone it down. It’s interferring with the story telling!
But Reno’s arrival in the greenhouse did, ultimately, lead to one of the more amusing scenes, when the sentient fungus known as May (no, not Theresa, although you’d be forgiven for making that mistake) released some sort of hallucinogenic airborne dust that got Reno and Stametz high long enough for May to swallow, engulf, or otherwise bodysnatch Tilly. That was funny. And it was refreshing to see two professionals behaving professionally to solve problems, instead of getting fixated on Spock (looking at you, Pike) or growing big wet puppy dog eyes (Burnham, just grow up).
Right at the end, we finally return to some sort of discussion of the central theme of the episode that is referenced in the title, but was quickly side tracked; that of how we approach death and what legacy we leave behind. Saru contemplates the fact that he has lived through a life stage that his people have always assumed was terminal, and that he has now shed his ganglia, the physical incarnation of his fear. However, he does not conclude that his death cycle was artificially stimulated by the weird emissions of the Sphere (whose weird emissions also nearly wrecked the ship, so they were pretty powerful). No, instead he gets all metaphysical and concludes that the “central organising belief” of his people must be wrong.
Ok, now what is Saru smoking?
He claims that he no longer feels fear, and that as a result he feels liberated and at the same time, has come to the realisation that his people’s beliefs, which lead them to sacrifice themselves as food to more powerful beings, are wrong.
Say that you have an accident and lose your sense of smell. Now, being unable to perceive scent, you sit in your hospital bed and conclude that the idea of smell is all a lie, and that the rest of humanity are somehow being conned into believing they can smell things like food and flowers, so that they will buy pastries and bouquets from powerful beings called chefs and gardeners.
None of this makes sense, and it’s obvious why: because it doesn’t have to. You, the audience, are just required to go along with it so that the writers can execute their Big Plan for Saru.
What’s the plan? He’s going home to liberate his people. And the writers need to set him up with the power to do this, which involves divesting him of the physiological restraints that inhibit the rest of his race, and gifting him some sort of insight that will motivate him to lead the struggle for freedom from… whatever they’re called. I don’t know how to spell the name of these predators, as Saru describes them. Bow Uhl? I’m tempted to call them Bow Wows. With the waggy tails. Who like to nom on Kelp biscuits…
You see what I’m getting at. It’s all contrived. I’ve used that word several times to describe the plot lines we’ve seen so far in season 2. We can add contrived to author voice and show, don’t tell on the list of writing sins that Discovery commits. And at the top of this list is the biggest one. Story. You see, a good story tells itself. You just have to plug in a plot, which is just a sequence of related events, add a few characters, put a title on the page and do a spell check. There are two hard parts to writing: dreaming up a good story, and sitting down and making yourself write it out. Everything else is almost procedural, so long as you have a good story.
Good stories tell themselves. And this story doesn’t. We know this because the writers are forcing it, which results in all the flaws just described. And this episode is the very worst example yet… and we’re only four episodes in…
Put it this way: I’d pay Charon a million bloody obols to avoid having to watch this episode ever again.
And now, some really stupid things that happened, or were said, which made me stop and go WTF?
THE DOCTOR: upon examining Saru, “The pain would render the average humanoid unconscious.”
I don’t even know where to begin. This is one of the most unintelligent lines I’ve ever heard on Star Trek. If you want to say that Saru is suffering but that he’s really stoical about it, and is an all round ace dude who can deal with hard stuff with composure and dignity, well… you don’t have to! We know! We see it in his character and his actions! That’s the whole “show, don’t tell” thing! That’s why Saru is the most popular character on this show!
An adult human being wrote that line, and got paid for it. Jeez…
LOCATION: Sick bay. Two senior bridge officers (Burnham and Pike) are covered in fresh blood from a large open torso wound which they are ineffectually trying to bandage, whilst simultaneously debating the nature of the alien sphere. Meanwhile, the casualty writhes on the bed, apparently dying judging by the quantity of blood that is pouring out. As this happens, the doctor is waving a glowy thing over the casualty’s forehead. Over his forehead. Not his exploding chest wound. No, she leaves the sticky bit to the two unqualified officers, instead. And yet we have very clearly seen several other medical personnel in the background in the previous scene.
And if you think any of that makes sense, I want to know what you’re smoking, because dat’s some good shit!
LOCATION: A science lab, in which Burnham and Saru and examining sensor data from the Sphere. Burnham gets all frosty and tight-lipped. Saru notices, despite the fact that he’s in pain and dying. Yes, the dying man notices that Burnham is not happy. Poor Burnham. Poor healthy, not-dying Burnham.
SARU: “You are wondering why I kept this from you.”
(Why? Because he’s only known himself for a matter of minutes!)
BURNHAM: “You don’t have to bear it alone.”
(She says this as if he had known about it for years. He’s had a vague suspicion since breakfast, and only confirmed it at around lunch time!)
This strikes me as exactly what it is: contrived and artificial. Someone really wanted to write this kind of emotional dialogue between them, but the plot didn’t call for it. So what the hell, they stuck it in anyway!
BURNHAM emotes all the way through the episode, oozing like a wet sponge, telling us things which are obvious and do not need to be spelled out to us as though we were stupid.
BURNHAM to SARU, with big, wet puppy dog eyes: “You are the most empathic soul I have ever met.”
(No shit. He took time out from dying on his feet to notice that you were all tight-lipped and pissy that he didn’t spot his terminal condition ten seconds earlier and rush to tell you.)
BURNHAM to us, the AUDIENCE, after the Sphere finally explodes and dies, but somehow preserves the ship from the blast: “It’s final act was to save us so we could tell its story.”
(Duh! Kinda got that point from all the huge hints and clues and other statements of the obvious that preceded your statement of the obvious. This is just one level up from the doctor’s idiot remark in sickbay. Well done.)
It’s also a straight rip off from the TNG season 3 episode, Tin Man. Star Trek: Discovery, boldly re-discovering plot lines that Star Trek has used, before!
[The Grumpy Guest Review is always provided by Michael Victor Bowman, whom you may wish to check out, to abuse and amuse at www.lifedescribed.com. Or follow him on Twitter: @mvictorbowman.]