Kayti Burt

Mar 15, 2019

The latest Star Trek: Discovery episode has excellent character work and some game-changing plot developments. Spoilers ahead…

This review contains spoilers.

2.9 Project Daedalus

We’re living in a pop culture moment when our mainstream stories are better than ever at visually representing the most horrific of potential outcomes. This had led to a pattern of high-stakes storytelling that tends to desensitise the viewer to the worst eventualities.

Last week, when Spock informed us all that the future of all sentient life in the universe was at stake, intellectually, I knew that was bad… but, emotionally, I didn’t really feel much. This week, Discovery did a much better job at giving those stakes emotional weight. Losing all sentient life is still a high-stakes, high-concept problem that is too big for me to wrap my emotions around, but losing Airiam and possibly losing this Discovery family (which now includes the endearingly dickish Spock) that I have come to care about? Yeah, that’s not cool.

Project Daedalus has to get a bit narratively manipulative with the use of Airiam’s death, considering we never really got to know her. They do an impressively good job making us care about her within the course of an episode. We learn her tragic backstory: that she was on her way home from her elopement when the shuttle she was on crashed, killing her new husband and presumably leading to the need for her augmentations.

We learn about what Airiam’s routine on the ship looks like. She is part of a girl gang with Detmer, Tilly, and Owosekun, spending a lot of their off-duty time together. They tease, support, and accept each other—they make each other laugh. On a weekly basis, Airiam must file through her memories, choosing which memories to save and which to delete. It’s fascinating, and I’m sad we’re not going to get to know Airiam better and see more of this future and the Discovery through her unique lens.

Instead, Airiam dies a hero, asking Michael to airlock her into space in order to keep the foreign AI living inside of her and in charge of Starfleet Control from killing Michael, destroying the Discovery, and wiping out all sentient life in the universe. It’s the only choice for a moral person, but it’s also an incredibly brave one.

Personally, I was slightly distracted from the emotional beats in the climactic scene because I had so many questions about Commander Nhan. Was she dead? And more importantly: Why the heck did Michael not check this immediately? Later, we find out it is because Discovery wanted to surprise us with Nhan coming in at the last moment to be the one to airlock Airiam. It was jarring to watch a scene in which Michael valued one co-worker’s life so intensely, yet had seemingly forgotten about her other co-worker, potentially laying dying a few feet away.

Was anyone else disappointed that it wasn’t Michael who ultimately airlocked Airiam? If we knew Nhan a bit better or I had any confidence this show were going to give her more screen time, I would be fine with this twist. How it stands, however, it felt like a cop out, like the show didn’t want to have its main character kill their co-worker. Never mind that it would have been an incredible act of bravery and demonstration of will on Michael’s part, not to mention

Spock works a lot better here than he did last week because he is in a much more complex context. Don’t get me wrong—he’s still being a dick to Michael—but, because we are seeing him interact with characters who are not his family, we get a much more complete picture of who Discovery‘s Spock is. Michael and Spock’s bickering and then all-out arguing works much better in a context when they are not each other’s only allies on an alien planet and/or on the run from one of the most powerful institutions in the galaxy.

Here, they are in a version of home (at least Michael’s home) surrounded by a version of family, so it makes sense to me that they now have the safety and security to air some of their deepest grievances. They are both allowed to be flawed, arrogant, deeply complex characters who know how to hurt each other in ways that are unique to family and loved ones.

Though I side-eye any ‘Chosen One’ context, I can’t wait to see how Spock will react when he finds out that he is “special” because he is Michael’s brother (I know, Spock—not by blood). A recent episode of The Magicians—a show that, delightfully, never met a Star Trek reference it didn’t want to make—had one character struggling to categorise a woman’s life outside of the context of her relationship to her brother. He is suffering from a case of “white male protagonism,” as another character tells him. 

For what feels like the first time this season, Discovery isn’t suffering from a case of ‘white male protagonism’ when it comes to Spock, Michael, and their relationship to one another. Here, both characters’ motivations, complexities, and personhoods are equally represented in their scenes together—more alike than they know in the sense that they see the people they love so clearly, but are unable to see the traumas they are respectively still running from.

To go along with the excellent character work on display in this episode were some major, game-changing plot developments. It looks like this season’s big villain may be Skynet, or more accurately a power-hungry evolution of Starfleet Control, the AI tasked with maintaining contact with Starfleet vessels and managing their missions. From the looks of the graveyard that used to be the Section 31 headquarters, Control has been pulling the strings behind most of Starfleet’s recent decision-making, using Section 31 and holograms as ways to utilise Starfleet ships and officers to do its bidding. As its bidding is seemingly to destroy all sentient life, that is going to be an issue.

It’s a bit of a tired trope, not to mention a pretty pessimistic view of AI, but I’m glad that this twist puts some of Starfleet’s recent behaviour into a different context. Basically, Section 31 is still a majorly questionable Starfleet tool, but it hasn’t been the people at the top of Starfleet leadership who have been making some morally-disturbing decisions, but rather the artificial intelligence known as Control.

Where does this leave Discovery? Well, the ship is the galaxy’s only hope. As far as we know, they are the only ship in the galaxy who knows that Control has gone rogue and is in, um, control of Starfleet and Section 31. They are the only ship that knows what is at stake and what could happen if they don’t stop Control. They can expect to be forced to face off against all that Starfleet has to offer, as Control uses Discovery’s own institution against them. I’m in.

Read Kayti’s review of the previous episode, If Memory Serves, here.