*This post contains spoilers for both episodes, and for the first seasons of Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Short Treks
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – “Babel” (season 1, episode 5)
Teleplay by Michael McGreevey & Naren Shankar; story by Sally Caves & Ira Steven Behr; directed by Paul Lynch; first aired in 1993
The station is experiencing a whole lot of technical difficulties, from malfunctioning airlocks to bad coffee from the replicators, and Chief O’Brien has been burning the candle at both ends trying to deal with it all. Sure enough, he gets sick, but not from overwork or lack of sleep; a hidden device, left over from the Cardassian Occupation, has been activated by O’Brien’s repairs, and is spreading an aphasia-causing virus through the food replicators, first to O’Brien and, gradually, to everyone else. One by one, the station’s crew and residents become unable to understand anything that’s said to them, can speak only in random words, strung together meaninglessly … and will eventually die from the virus. Major Kira realizes the device was left as a trap for the Cardassians by a Bajoran resistance cell during the Occupation. She takes a runabout to Bajor, abducts a scientist who belonged to the resistance, and tells him – before succumbing to aphasia herself – that he’d better get working on the cure, because he’s infected now, too. Meanwhile, Constable Odo is the last member of the senior staff left standing, but he gets some unlikely help from his nemesis, Quark, as the two try to prevent a terrified, aphasic freighter captain from blowing up the station by flying his ship away while it’s still docked.
Star Trek: Discovery – “An Obol for Charon” (season 2, episode 4)
Teleplay by Alan McElroy & Andrew Colville; story by Jordon Nardino & Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts; directed by Lee Rose; first aired in 2019
Captain Pike’s first officer from the Enterprise, “Number One,” brings him new information on Spock’s whereabouts. Pike takes the Discovery in pursuit of his missing crew member’s shuttle, while Burnham is conflicted about the possibility of seeing her estranged adoptive brother again. Along the way, Discovery encounters a massive, ancient sphere in space, which stops the ship and causes its universal translator system to malfunction. The crew find themselves speaking random languages to each other, and must depend on Saru, who speaks 94 languages, to help them communicate with each other, and with the ship’s computer. But Saru has problems of his own. It seems that the sphere has triggered his “vahar’ai” – the end stage of the Kelpien life cycle. But he and Burnham realize that this is the sphere’s way of communicating that it’s in the end stage of its own life cycle, and wants to make “last contact” by passing on its hundred thousand years’ worth of knowledge to Discovery’s computer. With one crisis averted, Saru and Burnham say their touching farewells to each other … before Saru’s threat ganglia harmlessly fall off. His vahar’ai passes, leaving him in perfect health, but furious that his people have been tricked into thinking their vahar’ai is fatal. The Discovery continues after Spock’s shuttle, and Burnham’s experience with almost losing Saru has changed her mind about seeing Spock again. But the crew is short one person after all, with Tilly being pulled into the mycelial network by her mycelial parasite, despite the best efforts of Stamets and Jett Reno to save her.
Star Trek has always had a lot to say about communication. We can see this in Trek’s tradition of “diplomacy episodes,” starting with The Original Series’ “Journey to Babel,” an episode whose title, like that of the Deep Space Nine episode we’ll look at below, explicitly references a biblical story in which divine punishment prevents people from communicating in a common language. The “diplomacy episode” would go on to be a huge part of The Next Generation, where Jean-Luc Picard’s position as captain of the Federation’s flagship seems to make him a de facto diplomat; episodes like “The Big Goodbye” and “The Ensigns of Command” show him struggling with the intricacies of cross-cultural communication. And beyond matters of diplomacy, the importance of communication is a constant thematic concern throughout the different Trek TV series, whether it’s Vulcan diplomat Sarek struggling to communicate with his family in the above-mentioned “Journey to Babel” (and beyond), or Spock mind-melding with the monstrous-looking Horta to learn that it isn’t so monstrous in “The Devil in the Dark,” or the war-weary crew of the Defiant finding a sympathetic ear across time and space in DS9’s “The Sound of Her Voice.” Even the very structure of these shows is largely based around communication. As much as the franchise sells itself as being about exploration and adventure on “the final frontier,” we tend to see a lot more talking than adventuring in a typical episode of Trek, with solutions brainstormed in staff meetings more often than in the midst of action sequences, and with well-placed words solving far more problems than well-placed photon torpedoes. I’m sure this is at least partly rooted in budget concerns, given that later, better-funded series of Trek, like Discovery, have trended toward fewer staff meetings and more action set-pieces. But I don’t believe for a second that this reverence for communication is all about budgets – it’s just too consistent with Trek’s utopian themes not to be intentional.
Still, for all the attention Trek gives to the importance of communicating across cultural and ideological lines, it spends remarkably little time dealing with how difficult interspecies communication might be on a mundane, technical level. This is both surprising and understandable from a fictional universe centered around a Federation of Planets, in which communication with alien species is an integral part of the premise. It’s surprising, because if we ever encountered alien life in the real world, I’d have to think that learning to communicate with them would be both a top priority and a tough problem to solve (a reality that’s explored in interesting ways in the novel Embassytown by China Mieville, or the film Arrival and the novella it’s based on, Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life). But it’s also understandable, because Star Trek has always been more interested in the soft science fiction of how we could get along with aliens than in the hard sci-fi of how we might literally talk to them. The soft sci-fi solution of the universal translator reflects this priority, and is usually allowed to operate more or less as magic, often seeming to work even on languages the Federation has presumably never encountered before, as when we meet species from the far-off Gamma and Delta Quadrants in Deep Space 9 and Voyager. It’s only rarely acknowledged that the universal translator might have any limitations at all, with the most notable example being my personal favorite episode in all of Trek, The Next Generation’s “Darmok,” in which it translates an alien’s words just fine … but the arrangement of those words doesn’t seem to make sense.
We see a more extreme example of the same situation in Deep Space Nine’s “Babel,” though here the failure to communicate is caused by a virus, and is diagnosed as aphasia (an existing condition in the real world, though I don’t know how accurately it’s portrayed here). “Babel” comes very early in DS9’s first season, at a time when the show is still establishing a premise very different from the Star Trek that came before it, and the image of the station as the biblical Babel – a place whose inhabitants are made unable to understand each other – is an interesting one. It helps to establish the setting as a relatively chaotic place where people of different cultures and backgrounds are constantly, messily crossing paths with each other, setting the station apart from the calm, orderly Enterprise of The Next Generation, where everyone could be counted on to work together towards a shared purpose. And besides establishing the dynamics among the station’s residents at large, the series is also still establishing the dynamics between its main characters at this point. This is another good reason to focus this episode on the difficulty of communication, since that difficulty will be a fact of life on the station, to some degree or another, going forward.
Like DS9’s setting, its character dynamics are a sharp point of contrast with the series it spun off from. Where TNG is famously (or infamously) reluctant to show its main characters in serious conflict with each other, DS9 gives its lead Starfleet commander a first officer who isn’t even in Starfleet, and who has both her own institutional loyalties, and her own ethical lines she is and isn’t willing to cross. Like virtually all of the first-season episodes and side-plots to focus on Major Kira (including the best episode of the season, and one of the best of the series overall, “Duet”), “Babel” highlights her past as a resistance fighter (or terrorist, as this pre-9/11 series was still willing to call a character it wanted us to sympathize with). Not only do we see that she has an understanding of the tactics of the resistance cell which planted the virus-spreading device, but we also see how she has internalized those tactics herself, and how far she is willing to go as a result; Sisko may not be the most by-the-book Starfleet officer, but even he wouldn’t go so far as to motivate someone to find a cure for a deadly virus by actually infecting them with it (not this early in the series, at least). Another very non-TNG-friendly character dynamic on DS9 is the grudgingly respectful antagonism between Odo, head of security, and Quark, bar owner and low-key kingpin of crime. As it does for Kira, “Babel” does a good job of further establishing these characters, and showing us which lines they are and aren’t willing to cross. Odo takes law and order seriously, and enjoys making Quark squirm, but he stops short of cruelty, and won’t tolerate it from others, like the angry bar patron who tries to drown Quark in sub-par soup. And while Quark’s underhandedness is shown to do real damage – the quick spread of the virus is largely due to his hijacking of a repaired replicator for his bar – he also actively helps Odo to save the station. Not only do we see that there’s more to these two characters than is obvious on the surface, I think they see that about each other, and this helps to establish a believable, if grudging, respect between the two of them.
But aside from Odo and Quark coming to something of an understanding while no one else can communicate, there isn’t much going on thematically in this episode. “Babel” is pretty well-done, especially compared to some of its fellow first-season episodes of Deep Space Nine. But like some of those other early outings, this episode often feels awkwardly generic, like a placeholder episode of “miscellaneous Star Trek” while the series was still figuring out its own distinctive voice. This is a normal enough process for any new TV show to go through, and “Babel” is already fleshing out elements of DS9’s setting and characters in the ways mentioned above, which are the parts of the episode I enjoyed most while re-watching it. And the aphasia virus is certainly an interesting idea, but the episode doesn’t really do anything interesting with it, or link it to any larger themes. The device planted by the Bajoran resistance could have spread any incapacitating illness without changing the plot at all, as far as I can tell; if there’s a reason why the resistance cell would have wanted to inflict aphasia, specifically, on their Cardassian occupiers, that reason is never mentioned, or even hinted at, in the episode. And for that matter, the idea that the resistance would strike at the Cardassians with a super-contagious virus – instead of planting your more traditional bomb, or even just rigging the replicators to simply poison the food – starts to fall apart as soon as you stop to think about it. As Sisko stresses to Kira, the aphasia virus could have wreaked havoc on Bajor if anyone from the station had landed there before dying, and that seems like the sort of thing Bajoran freedom fighters would have wanted to avoid. Overall, the aphasia virus ends up feeling like a clever idea that sat on a whiteboard in the writers’ room of The Next Generation – or even The Original Series – until it was awkwardly grafted onto this episode of DS9.
Discovery’s “An Obol for Charon” starts with a similar premise to that of “Babel.” The crew of the Discovery, like the residents of Deep Space Nine, are rendered unable to communicate with each other, though here the problem is caused by a malfunction of the universal translator, and what the crew members are saying to each other does make sense – it’s just in a seemingly random assortment of languages, human and otherwise (which we, the audience, can understand through subtitles, if we don’t happen to speak Arabic, or Mandarin, or Klingon). The mechanics of this are a little unclear, but it seems to me that whatever language a given crew member is actually speaking, the ship’s onboard universal translator replaces their speech with a random translation, in such a way that no one else can hear the language they’re actually speaking (as opposed to the way we’ve seen communicators used for translation in Discovery and Short Treks before, where it was made clear to us that both parties could hear both languages as the translation happened in real time). This is an interesting glimpse at how the universal translator works, and puts a new spin on how important that technology is to Starfleet and the Federation – not just for diplomacy, but for the basic, day-to-day operation of starships, space stations, and what have you. We’re primed to think about this early on, when the translator has difficulty with Linus the Saurian’s language, but when the translators fully malfunction, we’re also reminded that even the human members of a starship’s crew might well be speaking any number of different languages; I don’t think we’ve ever been told that Starfleet has an official language, and such a thing would seem to fly in the face of the Federation’s multiculturalism. Like the aphasia virus in “Babel,” it’s a simple but intriguing problem to base an episode around … but unlike “Babel,” “An Obol for Charon” is able to connect this problem very clearly (maybe sometimes even too clearly) to its themes, and to the series’ ongoing character development.
In fact, the universal translator malfunction is thematically connected to almost everything that happens in “An Obol for Charon,” across its many, many sub-plots. Most obviously, it allows Saru and his 94 languages to be a point of connection between people who can’t otherwise speak to each other – something he has been doing, we learn, ever since taking refuge in the Federation, and taking it upon himself to learn the languages of other refugees and Federation member species alike. The story he tells here, of his early days as a refugee and the empathy he felt immediately for all the new species he had only just met, is a near-perfect answer to the question of why new Star Trek is still necessary, so many decades on; if ever there was a time when we needed stories which humanize refugees and preach empathy, that time is now. Saru’s storyline alone would have been enough to make this an effective episode about the difficulty and importance of communication, but the episode doesn’t stop there. Her talk with Saru leads Michael Burnham to reassess her need to start speaking once again with her adoptive brother, Spock, creating a thematic link to the ongoing plot thread which is, at this point in the season, driving the plot from episode to episode. And yet another ongoing plot thread, Tilly’s encounter with the mycelial entity she calls May, also has something to say about communication in this episode, as Tilly, Stamets, and Jett Reno shift their approach from treating May as a parasite to be removed, to making contact with her to learn what she wants. It doesn’t work, ultimately, but I don’t think that takes away from the overall theme of the episode; communication doesn’t magically solve all problems, after all, and an advantage of linking all these sub-plots around the theme of communication is that it allows them to say different things about that theme.
“An Obol for Charon” makes a good showcase, I think, for Discovery’s strengths and its weaknesses at this point in its run. If I haven’t given it away yet, one weakness, to my tastes, is just how much plot, and how many sub-plots, it crams into each episode. Granted, I might be biased, given the mild frustration I feel when I try to write a brief summary of episodes like this one, which almost feel as if they were designed to be impossible to summarize briefly without leaving out anything important. But it’s especially in an episode like this – an episode with a lot going on thematically, not just a lot of plot – that I wish the various storylines were given more space to breathe, more time to sink in. And the breakneck pace of plotting probably adds to another weakness on display here: a tendency toward overly literal, on-the-nose dialogue. The thematic link between Saru’s deathbed regrets over leaving his sister on Kaminar, and Burnham’s estranged relationship with Spock, is already more than clear enough before Saru literally just tells Burnham to mend her relationship with Spock; their whole deathbed scene together, as wonderful a scene as it is, leans a bit too heavily on having the two characters say exactly what they’re feeling, instead of trusting the audience enough, or giving us enough time, to draw our own conclusions about what Burnham and Saru are feeling, based on the excellent performances by both Sonequa Martin-Green and Doug Jones (who continues to do an exceptional job of emoting through all that prosthetic makeup).
But those on-the-nose character interactions might also be a by-product of one of the strengths on display here: clarity. “An Obol for Charon” seems to know exactly what message it wants us to take away from it, and I’ll admit that as much as I appreciate subtle storytelling, there absolutely is a time and a place for hitting your audience over the head with what you want to say (and when what you want to say is “empathy is an important and admirable trait,” we are very much in that time and place right now). And where DS9’s “Babel” is still doing the necessary work of fleshing out its characters so early in the series, “An Obol for Charon” comes at a point when Discovery has pretty firmly established who these characters are, and what their relationships are to each other (even if I wish the series, as a whole, would spend more time on those relationships, and less time plowing through plot). This lends an added weight to all of its many sub-plots, even if each one gets less time and space than I’d like. The Tilly story, for one, should feel awkwardly out of place here, given that its events are almost entirely separate from everything else, but its character dynamics (and its charming trio of actors) make it one of the episode’s more striking emotional moments. The tenderness Stamets shows Tilly during her otherwise gruesome medical procedure wouldn’t be nearly as effective if it wasn’t paying off their evolving relationship throughout the series, and while Tig Notaro’s Jett Reno hasn’t had nearly as much screen time so far as I would like, her back-and-forth with Stamets manages to make her a meaningful part of these scenes almost immediately. And Saru’s own storyline here is the continuation, and in some ways the culmination, of his character development through the end of Discovery’s first-season Mirror Universe arc and in his own Short Trek, “The Brightest Star.” His heartfelt scenes with Burnham in this episode, as well, pay off a relationship which has been evolving in really interesting and genuinely touching ways throughout the series, as seen in “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum.” If you’re going to tease the audience with the possibility of a character’s death, you might as well do it in service of showing us how far that character has come, reminding us how integral a part of the show they are, and getting us excited for what’s to come for them … and “An Obol for Charon” certainly does that.
And we’ll see some of what’s to come for Saru next week, when we compare a couple of episodes that raise some controversial questions about the Prime Directive: The Original Series’ “A Taste of Armageddon” and Discovery’s “The Sound of Thunder”!