“Project Daedalus” is the first installment written by Michelle Paradise, who will be the new co-showrunner in the future, and after watching the episode I have some reservations. The episode’s plot is deceptively straightforward. The A-story involves Admiral Cornwell coming to Discovery because Section 31 appears to have gone rogue by locking out Starfleet Command’s access to the tactical threat assessment system dubbed Control. She first evaluates Spock to ascertain his guilt and then takes her request to Pike, who readily agrees.
The B-story concerns more emotional matters. We get a look into Airiam’s history in the form of Airiam watching her own message friends and family about her elopement with the man in the transmission. Apparently, Airiam has limited storage capacity for memory, so she must go through her memories every week and purge them, which begs the question as to how long these cybernetic enhancements will remain viable. Spock and Burnham are still squabbling, even to the extent that Stamets kicks them out of his section of Engineering to go snipe at each other elsewhere. Their sniping remains unproductive, so the plot turns back to the A-story with a strangely long sequence involving the minefield around Section 31 headquarters. Once they successfully navigate the minefield and beam over to the station, Airiam turns on her compatriots, incapacitating Nhan and trying to kill Burnham. Tilly, still on board the Discovery, attempts to reason with Airiam and succeeds in freeing Airiam’s mind if not her body from Control’s manipulation. Airiam recognizes that she cannot regain control of her own body and that Control will force her to kill Burnham and destroy the Discovery, so she asks Burnham to open the airlock, killing her. Burnham can’t do it, despite a direct order from Pike, so Nhan recovers enough to do it for her. The episode ends with a replay of that same transmission just before a red warning indicates a system failure. Everything fades to black.
As I’m sure you noticed from the somewhat tortured synopsis, the episode is all over the place. We ended “If Memory Serves” with the Discovery as a fugitive vessel, so to have Admiral Cornwell reach out to Discovery is strange, no matter how much I may love the character. Furthermore, Pike’s near insubordination on the bridge on the issue of mines is awkward, and Cornwell undercuts him with a compliment. The Enterprise sat out the war so that the best of Starfleet would survive, and his tirade is the proof the admirals’ decision was correct. Y’all, while I agree that mines are terrible, I feel like Pike should be more up in arms about attempted genocide. Additionally, since when are mines illegal in the Federation? Miles O’Brien and Rom created self-replicating mines to prevent deployment of Dominion reinforcement in DS9’s “Call to Arms.”
Ethan Peck and Sonequa Martin-Green have great chemistry as they fight with each other. Burnham feels that Spock needs to shore up his logic, and Spock apparently needs to work through daddy issues and his own identity issues as the only Vulcan/Human hybrid. However, Spock makes a valid point when he accuses Burnham of unreasonably taking on so many burdens; she cannot fix everything, and he points out that doing so caused an actual war. Spock pulls no punches, and he comes off as cruel and unfair to Burnham. The script tries to redeem him a bit by pairing him with Stamets for a heart to heart. Stamets reminds Spock that Burnham loves him while Spock expresses to Stamets that Culber moving out of their joint quarters may not have anything to do with Culber’s feelings for Stamets but rather Culber’s feelings about himself. Both are correct, but at what point did Spock find out about Dr. Culber’s return from the dead? Did he get a tour of Discovery? “On this side, we have our spore drive. Here’s sickbay. That’s Dr. Culber who just returned from the dead…” Now, I sort of want to see that scene.
The real emotional beat of the episode is, of course, Airiam and her eventual death. Jonathan Frakes does a remarkable job with pacing and the overall direction of the episode, but the reality is that this is the first episode in which Airiam becomes a character. Sure, we’ve seen her do more throughout this season, but the show hasn’t given her enough screen-time for her death to be as impactful as Culber’s was back in season one. No matter how thickly the episode piles on the shmaltz with a tragic backstory and candid moments arguing over Kadis-kot, we just don’t have enough investment in Airiam for this episode to work as intended.
Mary Wiseman gives a fantastic, tearful performance on the Bridge as she tries to save Airiam through the power of friendship, and it helps. Hannah Cheesman (who replaced Sara Mitich this season) nails Airiam’s panic at the thought that Control might forcer her to harm her friends, and her performance equally helps redeem the episode. Martin-Green’s performance is fantastic as well, but no matter how wonderful these performances may be, they do not distract from the script’s failure to establish a need for Airiam’s ultimate sacrifice. At no point do we hear that Discovery’s transporters had malfunctioned or that Control was jamming the Discovery’s sensors. Why didn’t they just beam her from the airlock to the brig? Pike, Spock, and Airiam all just let her die, and the show just expects its viewers to accept her sacrifice as being noble rather than stupid.
Going back to Control, remember how I observed that the probe looked like it had been ripped out of the Matrix franchise? Apparently, the season’s big bad has been as well. Thanks to Mr. Saru’s MacGuffin-vision, we discover that the footage of Spock slaughtering the doctors was done with a hologram as have been all interactions with Admiral Patar, including from two weeks prior because Patar has been dead for two weeks. Control fabricated the holograms—though we have no real idea how—and hacked Airiam in order to secure all the information from the mysterious sphere encountered in “An Obol for Charon” on artificial intelligence. The crew deduces that Control wants to become sentient in order to wipe out all life in the galaxy, though I’m admittedly not certain how they make that leap. Now, I’m no computer science expert, but I feel that if Control has become aware enough that it desires sentience, it’s already on its way there. Way to go, Starfleet! By feeding all of your tactical data into this system, you’ve created Skynet! Hooray!
Where do we go from here? Apparently, Burnham is the answer and that she must find Project Daedalus, according to Airiam’s last words before Nhan conveniently gets the airlock open. We’re now opening bets that Burnham is somehow the Red Angel using Sphere data to come back and orchestrate the salvation of the Alpha Quadrant. Chosen One narratives don’t quite fit with Star Trek. That’s more a different “Star” franchise, so I hope I’m wrong. We’ll just have to keep watching.
Stray Observations from the Couch
1. I really thought Kadis-kot was a game Voyager brought back from the Delta Quadrant, appearing for the first time in the episode “Infinite Redress.” However, apparently, Tilly won regionals when she was ten.
2. I’m still a little grumpy regarding the design similarities between the probe and the Matrix machines. Was it a clue? Maybe, but still.
3. The show writers apparently have been reading their Star Trek novels. This entire plotline reminded me a bit of Section 31-Control, only played out with Discovery characters rather than Dr. Bashir. You can find my review of the novel here.
4. I also wonder if this is somehow a nod to the Enterprise episode of the same name.
5. Lastly, this ship needs a counselor like whoa.
6. Pike’s suspicions regarding Tyler are stupid. His dislike of Tyler notwithstanding, what kind of Section 31 operative would use his own codes to send shady transmissions? I hope this is a set up for a larger gambit.