Star Trek Discovery Uncovers a Conspiracy in “Project Daedalus”

Today’s Star Trek Discovery review will be somewhat abbreviated, because I’m still pretty sick and showing very little sign of improvement. For my takes on previous episode of Star Trek Discovery, go here BTW. And if you want some insight into the costume design of Star Trek Discovery and the ideas behind it, Gavia Baker-Whitelaw has a great interview with Discovery costume designer Gersha Phillips at The Daily Dot.

Warning: Spoilers behind the cut!

“Project Daedalus”, the latest episode of Star Trek Discovery, starts off with Admiral Cornwell (maybe we should start calling her Admiral Exposition, because her main function seems to be to deliver exposition) showing up aboard the Discovery, barely noticing Spock (who’s still wanted for murder, after all), to inform Pike that something is seriously wrong with Section 31, Starfleet’s black ops division. My reaction to this was laughter, followed by a coughing attack, because – duh – she’s only noticing that now. Cause something has been very wrong with Section 31 from the moment they were introduced on. And at Discovery‘s point in the timeline, one thing that is definitely very wrong with Section 31 is that Mirror Georgiou is in the process of taking it over and turning it into hell knows what.

Admiral Cornwell also reveals that Starfleet has outsourced its tactical decision making to a super-advanced AI named Control, which is conveniently housed at Section 31’s headquarters. Apparently, this seemed like a good idea at the time, cause hey, what can possibly go wrong? But now something has gone wrong and so Admiral Cornwell asks Pike to fly the Discovery directly to Section 31’s headquarters at an abandoned prison colony (more evidence of the not very enlightened justice system of the Federation), because when you fear your black ops division has gone even further off course than usual and that your decision making super-AI seems to have gone rogue as well, the best thing to do is obviously to barge right in with a starship.

Once the Discovery reaches the Section 31 HQ, after an exciting trip through a space minefield, a landing party consisting of Michael, the new female security chief who is apparently named Commander Nhan and Lieutenant Airiam, the cyborg crewmember who unbeknowst to everybody was possessed by some kind of malevolent computer virus from the future two episodes ago and has been sabotaging the ship since then, beam down and find the Section 31 HQ deserted, all personnel dead (my heart bleeds for them… – not) and Control gone rogue. Oh yes, and the communications received from Section 31 personnel on the base were all holographic fakes.

Now the fact that the true villain is not the shadowy Section 31, but the rogue AI Control is probably supposed to be a shocking twist(TM), but it doesn’t actually shock anybody, because it was so bleedingly obvious where this story was headed, as soon as Admiral Cornwell announced, “Oh, and by the way, we outsourced all our decision making to a highly advanced AI, which seemed like a really good idea at the time.” I mean, have Admiral Cornwell and the rest of the Starfleet leadership have ever seen Star Trek, which had plenty of “civilisation controlling computer goes rogue and has to be destroyed” episodes even during the Original Series such as “The Return of the Archons” and “A Taste of Armageddon”. Not to mention Terminator, 2001 – A Space Odyssey, Logan’s Run, the Imperial Radch trilogy, all of which apparently don’t exist in the Star Trek universe.

No sooner have Michael and Nhan discovered the not-so-shocking truth, that Airiam finally reveals her true colours. Because the mutated space probe from the future that infected her is also linked to Control (of course, it is) as is the future of an extinction war between artificial intelligences and organic lifeforms that the Red Angel is trying to warn Spock and everybody else about. Torn between her human and cyborg bits, Airiam attacks Michael and Nhan and pretty much wipes the floor with them. In fact, it almost seems as if she’s killed Nhan for a moment, but once more Nhan proves herself to be the redshirt who lives.

Inbetween attacking Michael and Nhan, Airiam’s human half occasionally regains enough control to beg them to kill her, because she does not want to live on as Control’s plaything. Pike reluctantly orders Michael to do it, but Michael can’t, because she doesn’t want to be responsible for the death of yet another crewmate. Nhan, however, can and blows Airiam out of the airlock, while Tilly distracts her with a replay of a happy memory. With her last words, Airiam tells Michael that everything is connected to her, for of course it is, and that the Discovery must find Project Daedalus, just in case you’d wondered about that episode title.

And just like that, Lieutenant Airiam, who has been in most, if not all episodes of Star Trek Discovery so far, is gone. To lose a longstanding regular character should at the very least give you misty eyes, but Airiam’s tragic death falls tragically flat, because Airiam was barely a character. For most of her tenure on the show, Airiam was a cool make-up effect, a background extra. In many scenes, you could have replaced her with a crashtest dummy and it wouldn’t have changed anything. And in fact, the actress who plays Airiam was replaced – Sarah Mitich played her in season 1, while Hannah Cheeseman plays her in season 2 – and hardly anybody noticed.

“Project Daedalus” struggles to give Airiam a bit more character and backstory. And so we learn that she was once a regular issue human being who was caught in a shuttle crash (dangerous things, these shuttles. They seem to crash all the time). The shuttle crash killed her husband and left Airiam so severely injured that Starfleet rebuilt her as their own version of the Six-Million-Dollar Man. The episode conveniently ignores the ethics of this – is it okay to turn a human being into something not very human, presumably without their consent, to save their life? And so Airiam just exists. We learn that her memory capacity is limited and that she must regularly delete or download memories to make room for new ones (which is how Tilly is able to distract Airiam with happy memories). We also learn that Airiam is friends with Tilly (well, who isn’t friends with Tilly, considering Tilly is the most sociable and friendly person around) and fellow cyborg Detmer. Talking of which, as Gavia Baker-Whitelaw points out in her review, Star Trek Discovery has a lot more female regulars than Star Trek shows used to have and regularly passes the Bechdel test with flying colours.

There is some nice character work here and Hannah Cheeseman does her best to make Airiam an actual person rather than just a make-up effect, but nonetheless it’s too little too late. Star Trek Discovery has taken steps to flesh out the bridge crew in season 2 and so far Joanne Owosekun (black woman with cornrows), Kayla Detmer (red-haired cyborg pilot) and now Lieutenant Airiam have gotten their moment in the spotlight, though Rhys (cute Asian guy) and Bryce (cute black guy) are still little more than background extras. And fleshing out a character only when you’re about to off them is an ancient cliché that we should really grow beyond. As Camestros Felapton points out, the rest of the bridge crew now live in mortal fear of suddenly gaining backstories. As it is, the tragic demise of Airiam makes me wonder whether the production team didn’t want to get rid of her, because effects make-up is expensive and the character is expendable.

All in all, “Project Daedalus” is full of nice character moments, which elevate the episode above its mundane and ultimately predictable plot. There is a lovely scene of Michael and Spock playing a game of three-dimensional chess, while engaging in some prime sibling squabbling. Spock rightfully calls Michael out on her martyr complex and tells her that not everything that goes wrong in the universe is automatically her fault. He also points out that Michael’s presence on Vulcan wasn’t what sicced the logic extremists on Sarek – the presence of Spock and Amanda was enough for that. And talking of Vulcan logic extremists, it seems one of them, Patar (or P’tah, since no one seems to know how the character’s name is spelled), is now a Starfleet Admiral in charge of Section 31. Since putting an alien extremist with ties to a known terrorist organisation in charge of your not-so-secret black ops division obviously also seemed like a good idea at the time.

Another nice moment is Stamets taking Spock aside to tell him that Michael loves him and has risked everything to help him and that he should maybe show some fucking gratitude. Spock, in turn, deduces what’s going on with Stamets and Dr. Culber and tells Stamets that Culber needs some time to process his emotions following his death and resurrection and that Stamets should give him that space. Mr. Spock, relationship counsellor. Now that’s not a role I had ever imagined for him.

Meanwhile, Saru figures out that Spock is innocent and that the evidence against him was faked with the same holographic techniques Control is using to fake messages from dead Section 31 personnel. It’s also quite obvious that Saru is doing this for Michael rather than for Spock, whom he barely knows. Ash Tyler, meanwhile, is still locked in the brig and so doesn’t even get to meet his sort-of brother-in-law Spock. I just hope someone remembered to bring him food.

Finally, Christopher Pike royally tears into Admiral Cornwell about Section 31 and how they are undermining Starfleet ideals and how all this isn’t what he signed up for and that he won’t stand for it. It’s a great moment and it made me love Pike, a character I was originally very ambivalent about, even more. It’s a pity Discovery cannot keep Pike beyond this season, because he’s great. He also seems determined to consistently channel not the blank slate he was named after, but Commander Cliff Alastair MacLane, greatest starship commander of them all. Because MacLane also yelled at unsympathetic and morally compromised superiors a lot.

Once again – and I know I say this almost every week – “Project Daedalus” is not exactly a bad episode of Star Trek Discovery. It zips along, there’s plenty of action, some nice character moments, a not-so-shocking twist(TM) and even a tragic death. The only problem is that the whole plot about the all-powerful AI gone rogue is such an ancient chestnut that even the Original Series only used it as the threat of week.

More and more, it also becomes clear that what makes Star Trek Discovery is the characters. Yes, the space action and occasional moral lessons (hey, it’s Star Trek) are a lot of fun, but what really keeps me watching, even when I’m sick and have to switch on subtitles, so I can understand the dialogue, because a ear infection took out most of my hearing, is that I want to know what happens to Michael, Saru, Tilly, Stamets, Culber, Ash, Pike, Spock, Nhan, Detmer, Owosekun, Airiam, Rhys, Bryce and all the rest.

Of course, the characters are what has kept Star Trek running for 53 years now and my least favourite Star Trek shows are inevitably the ones where I cannot remember the characters’ names. In that regard at least, Star Trek Discovery is on the right track.

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2 Responses to Star Trek Discovery Uncovers a Conspiracy in “Project Daedalus”

  1. Rick Moen says:

    I hope you and your family are staying warm and hydrated, Cora.

    Also, when I’ve had particularly nasty respiratory infections, takeaway deliveries of either hot-sour soup or pho noodle soup have been just the right medicine, particularly after adding a bit of chili oil (or sriracha sauce) to enhance the effect, not to mention that either is a lift to the spirits.

    On the matter of ‘rogue AI threatens everyone’ being one of Trek’s most-oft-retreaded plot lines, I remember the jest when Star Trek: The Motionless Picture appeared, that it should have been entitled Where Nomad Has Gone Before.

    All the Best,
    Rick M.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Rick.

      The local takeaway joints are mostly pizza or döner kebap places, but I had some “just add hot water” semi-fresh pho and tom yum soup from a local supermarket, which helped a lot. A stash of ramen noodles also comes in handy at time like this. Though by now, I am well enough for pasta with tomato sauce again. Good opportunity to use up those jars of tomato sauce in the pantry, too.

      Star Trek: The Motionless Picture basically borrows the plot of “The Changeling” and IMO does it worse than the original episode. Nothing wrong with time-honoured Star Trek plots, but if Discovery‘s big season arc turns out to be the sort of threat Kirk needed one episode to vanquish fifty years ago, it’s kind of depressing.

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