After the retro-fun of returning to Talos IV in “If Memory Serves”, Star Trek: Discovery takes yet another detour into edgy Trek with “Project Daedalus”; an installment that has some nice character moments, yet bumps its head on the ceiling of its own serialized format, leaving an incomplete episode that still delivers some thrilling action and nice character moments. The episode is written by newly announced showrunner Michelle Paradise, and is directed by the always-welcome Jonathan Frakes (Next Gen’s own “Commander Riker” and director of “First Contact”).
****SPACE-MINE SPOILERS AHEAD!!****
This week’s episode opens with the welcome return of Admiral Cornwell (Jayne Brooks), whose shuttle lands aboard the ‘fugitive’ starship Discovery. The ship is, as evidence would suggest, being framed by the nefarious Starfleet Black Ops group known as Section 31.
The admiral gives the crew a roadmap to a secret undisclosed space station (and former penal colony) that now serves as an unofficial Section 31 HQ.
Along the way, we finally get to know cybernetically-enhanced crewmember Airiam (Hanna Cheesman), who frankly up until now, has been little more than a walking talking prop, but apparently she was everyone’s BFF behind the scenes (okay, um…sure). A couple of episodes ago, Airiam was hacked (during the rescue of Pike’s shuttle over Saru’s homeworld) when mysterious red dots appeared in her eyes and she began acting somewhat… strangely (hard to tell for a character we barely knew before that episode).
Cornwell begins an interrogation of Spock (Ethan Peck) regarding his escape from the starbase mental hospital and his insistence that he didn’t kill his attending doctors. She learns he is being truthful, despite clear visual logs indicating otherwise.
Later, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green) tries to expand on the newfound understanding she and her brother had by the end of “If Memory Serves” (the series’ best episode to date), but their three-dimensional chess match quickly devolves into a familiar-familial argument, and Spock smashes the board to bits. The upward tick in their relationship rapidly dissipates. Spock is once again alienated from Michael. For reference, in TOS three-dimensional chess was Spock’s favorite way to relax and problem solve… that it brings him no solace here speaks to his current mental state.
En route to the base, we see some mysterious activity afoot as Airiam deletes a large chunk of her personal memory in order to download some clandestine files into her cybernetic memory. Tilly (Mary Wiseman) interrupts, and the two talk. We also glimpse Airiam’s life as a human before a shuttle accident (apparently?) turned her into the robotic/bionic being we see today, giving her gleaming, elegant android-like appearance a certain tragic bent. This is the first time we really learn anything about Airiam. She and Tilly seem very close (at least more than hinted at previously). Airiam later questions crew member Nhan (Rachel Ancheril) about the breathing apparatus the alien Barzon native needs to live in human atmosphere. Nhan is rightfully suspicious…
As the ship nears the space station, the crew learns it is surrounded by mines, which are normally outlawed but were allowed during the recent Klingon war. Cornwell uses an ends-justifies-the-means argument, but Pike is unconvinced. She tells Pike that his former starship, the Enterprise, was kept away from the war so that the best of Starfleet’s ideals and principles would survive if things went south. Pike is a bit flattered, realizing that his objections to the mines only proves her point.
The mines are attracted to shields, so they have to approach the base without them. Navigating a course provided by the admiral, helmsman Detmer (Emily Coutts) encounters new trouble when an incoming wave of ‘slicing mines’ (think flying buzzsaws) come at the ship. Pike orders the shields up (which don’t seem to attract the regular mines, for some reason), and the ship gets pummeled.
Michael suggests treating the mine’s programming as a game, and they use random maneuvers to trick the defenses. It works, and they get a visual greeting from the station from Vulcan admiral Petar (Tara Nicodemo), whom we saw in a holoconference in last week’s “If Memory Serves.” The Vulcan tells the rightly pissed off crew that the attack from the mines came on Starfleet’s orders. Cornwell objects, and is told that her authority is no longer recognized either.
Getting unusual readings from the station, Pike sends a landing party of Burnham, Nhan and a curiously volunteering Airiam. The arrive in spacesuits, as life-support and gravity are down. Touring the station, they find floating, frozen corpses…one of which is Admiral Petar, who has been dead for the last two weeks, at least.
This revelation comes as no surprise to Kelpian first officer Saru (Doug Jones) who realizes that it fits with a inconsistent multi-spectral scans of the admiral’s last communication. It, like the doctored video of Spock’s deadly escape from the starbase mental ward, is a hologram.
Things go from bad to worse as Tilly soon realizes that Airiam has apparently deleted many of her memories of her finite storage to upload a large new file from the dying sphere encountered (in “An Obol For Charon”) a few weeks ago; the new file contained everything the sphere knew about cybernetics. This information, amassed over thousands of years, would allow a user (in this case the defense computer aboard the station) to become a deadly, unstoppable force… one that could multiply and eventually eliminate all sentient life in the galaxy, the exact apocalypse that Spock saw in his Red Angel vision (note: the elimination of all sentient life forms in the galaxy reminded me very much of the recent “Identity” two-parter from “The Orville”).
Pike discretely contacts Burnham and Nhan, warning them that Airiam has been compromised and must be kept away from the Control computer. Too late. Airiam nearly kills Burnham in an intense round of spacesuited combat, and she also rips out one of Nhan’s breathing tubes before Burnham is able isolate her in an airlock.
Tilly makes a final, desperate appeal to her friend Airiam’s humanity, and Airiam hears her… enough for her to warn her shipmates that she can’t stop herself. Pike and a tearful Airiam reach the same conclusion; to prevent the compromised commander from spreading her campaign of biological obliteration further into the galaxy, Burnham has to flush Airiam from the airlock into space before she can do more harm. Burnham complies. Airiam is killed.. to save her comrades, and possibly the entire galaxy from the threat that Spock has seen in his vision.
The final image shows Airiam floating into the void…savoring final moments of her life as a human being.
–Spock playing counselor to Stamets (Anthony Rapp) in engineering. Without meaning to, this throwaway moment became a favorite of mine for several reasons. The scene reminded me fondly of the interplay between Spock and McCoy in TOS. Even when going through intense personal issues, it is always easier for one to objectify the problems of others and offer advice. In this case, Spock coolly suggests that the problems Stamets is having with his resurrected lover Hugh (Wilson Cruz) may not necessarily be what Stamets believes. Ethan Phelps’ Spock very much channels the late Leonard Nimoy in his performance of this scene; even more so than his chess scene with Michael. This was Spock. It was a small bit that could’ve easily ended up as a deleted scene, but I’m very glad it was kept.
–Admiral Cornwell joins the fugitives. After making some seemingly hair-brained decisions in season one, it was nice to see Jayne Brook’s Cornwell not only back in action, but with her head fully in the game as well. Having her as Lorca’s lover diminished her character, but seeing her throw Pike’s moralizing back in his face so effortlessly was a pleasure to behold. They had nice chemistry together, better than she and Lorca.
–Anson Mount’s Pike. I am going to shed big, fat, gooey tears when this character and actor leaves the series. Pike is the single best thing to happen to Discovery ever (and yes, that includes Ethan Peck’s Spock).
–Burnham’s combat with Airiam. Wow! First, a spooky boarding sequence that felt like it was lifted from an ALIEN film, and then some intense, brutal fisticuffs between Burnham and the bionic Airiam. Sonequa Martin Green’s intensity was dialed up to 11 here, and it paid off. Every body blow (delivered and received) was felt, as SMG really gave it her all. Excitingly choreographed and well-shot. For once, we have a hand-to-hand combat scene where we can clearly see what is going on! I salute both Sonequa Martin Green and director Jonathan Frakes!
–The space minefield sequence was feature film quality spectacle, filled with much energy and excitement. Like the hand-to-hand combat aboard the station, the visuals are well executed, and the action is fairly easy to follow. Great stuff!
–Tilly as ship’s laughing stock. I love the character (I’m ’silly for Tilly’), and Mary Wiseman is adorable, but I wish they’d cut the nervous Chatty Cathy routine whenever she meets someone of authority. It was fine when she was a cadet, but it looks a bit ridiculous coming from a fully-commissioned ensign. We never saw Chekov fanboying over commodores like that.
–I’m also not too thrilled with the whole Section 31 conspiracy thing, and I’ll be glad when this wannabe “X-Files” dreariness is done and over with, so we can get back to the mystery of the Red Angel sans all of the spy-vs-spy stuff.
–Disappointing to see Spock and Burnham back at odds once again after their breakthrough in Talosian group therapy last week. During the chess game, Spock also seemed a lot more emo-Spock than last week. This was after he seemed to purge all of the angst back on Talos IV. He only seemed more like his ‘real’ self during his moment with Stamets in engineering. A disappointing step backward.
Airiam as a character was little more than a beautifully realized piece of walking set dressing for most of the series’ entire run (played by two people; Sarah Mitich in season one, and Hannah Cheesman in season two). Suddenly, in her final episode, her humanity is just bursting out all over the place… she makes jokes, she plays games, etc. It’s the tired cliche of playing up a supporting character right before they’re killed off, and that cliche telegraphs her fate long before Burnham was forced to airlock her.
Frankly, up until this segment, I wasn’t even sure if Airiam was an augmented human or alien. That’s how little attention her character was given until now. But in “Project Daedalus” Airiam is suddenly everyone’s bestie and soulmate. Her backstory and importance to the crew felt desperately shoehorned in to give her sacrifice a lot more emotion than it previously would’ve warranted. It half-worked. Finding out that her cybernetic augmentation was the result of a shuttle accident (that killed her fiance) gives her backstory an element of tragedy, but we should’ve learned all of this beforehand. Maybe we could’ve seen her backstory in a pre-season “Short Trek”… it would’ve made for a far more interesting Short Trek than that lame Harry Mudd segment. Such a connection would’ve given her death a lot more emotional potency rather than learning all of this character information at the (literal) zero hour.
Summing it up.
An episode that, like others this season, packs too much into a single installment without providing any kind of resolution. Serialized formats work for many other television shows (including Star Trek’s own “Deep Space Nine” 25 years ago), but it’s proving a bit more problematic with Disco, since the story’s goalposts seem to be in constant flux. One minute we’re singularly focused on finding Spock and solving the Red Angel mystery, the next we’re knee-deep in Section 31 cloak-and-dagger stuff. Now we learn that a walking prop of a crewman is also an involuntarily agent for a cybernetic uprising of some kind (!). It’s downright exhausting. These episodes are dense with information, but they’re less-than-satisfying at delivering stories. As “Deep Space Nine” ably proved decades ago, Star Trek can do serialized arcs while still providing singular stories. They’re not mutually exclusive.
Once again, the best moments come from the character interplay. Spock acting as counselor to Stamets regarding his relationship with Hugh, Burnham coming into her own as a hero, and the friend-sion between Pike and Admiral Cornwell. The action is no slouch either, as the sequences of the orbiting minefield and the boarding party battle with Airiam were very exciting as well.
Discovery is full of potential that several standout episodes of this year have generously mined (no pun intended). But then we have episodes like “Project Daedalus” that shoehorn in waaaay too much information, ultimately feeling a bit scattershot and unfocused. Seeing what the show can achieve at its best (“Sounds of Thunder” “If Memory Serves”) fills me with a hope that this season may yet exceed the sum of its parts.
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