The more I watch Discovery, the clearer it becomes this is a series that wants me to feel something above all else. I'm not saying it doesn't also want me to think, or at least ponder its plots and puzzlements. But the creators of this show want me to experience it in a very immediate and visceral way, with scenes that are about emotions, conflict, camaraderie, action, peril, tension, and aesthetic and tactile conveyance. World building, problem solving, and intellectual debate are secondary.
The things I mentioned in the latter list are things I like about Trek. The things I mentioned in the former list are things I like about Trek that Discovery does more than any Trek series before it. Call me a hopeless optimist, but I like Discovery for what it is, even though I also long for some of the things it isn't.
In "Project Daedalus," we finally get an episode about Lt. Cmdr. Airiam (Hannah Cheeseman), which essentially builds an entire backstory and humanizes her character primarily to pave the road for her dramatic and emotional death at the end. This is a character, you might note, we didn't even know for certain was human when the episode began. But now we learn about her, we see her humanity fighting — sometimes unconsciously — against the programming that has taken control of her cybernetic being, and when she loses, we feel for a character we just got to know. This is a character we learn used to be fully human, before a terrible accident killed her husband and led to her being artificially augmented and rebuilt in a way not unlike Robocop. There's a poignancy to the way she goes through a weekly routine of deciding which of her memories to keep and which to delete — like combing through digital photos on a full hard drive in an effort to free up space.
You could read this character death as cynically manipulative and maybe have a point. But it's done so well I really can't complain. If the writers decided they had to kill Airiam, better to show us who she was and build that backstory into the story at hand rather than simply offing her as a glorified extra. Honestly, in purely economic terms, what writer Michelle Paradise and director Jonathan Frakes pull off here borders on miraculous. They made me care about the fate of a background character whom I knew nothing about, in the span of a single episode that also had a ton of other stuff going on.
On the other hand, this methodology again raises the question of why Discovery has an entire consistent cast of bridge characters played by the same actors (ironically, Airiam was the sole bridge actor recast in between seasons one and two, which was easy to hide under all the prosthetics), and yet usually treats them like furniture. I don't buy the excuse that 14 episodes isn't enough to develop smaller players. Of course it is. It's all about picking a scene here and there and just committing to saying something about them as people rather than using them purely as exposition delivery devices. Case in point: There's a memory Airiam reviews here that shows her eating lunch and laughing with her shipmates. I don't know that we've ever seen anyone laugh in the mess hall before. This literally takes seconds, but it's the sort of human detail that builds out a larger world of a living crew beyond the core characters. It can be accomplished with mere minutes over the course of several episodes.
Speaking of characters, we get a good scene between Spock and Michael playing 3D chess. It's a sharply written sequence of escalating passive-aggressive Vulcan rat-a-tat dialogue featuring bubbling emotion ready to boil over. It pays off with outbursts on both sides. The subtext of the scene plays like a meta-commentary on this series' own monomaniacal tendency to place Burnham at the omnipresent center of all action in this show. Spock takes Burnham to task for trying to "control everything" and "shoulder the burden alone" for all things, which feels like the writers analyzing their own typical handling of this character. Intriguing.
Aside from the subtext, this also works on its primary level, cutting to the heart of Burnham's well-intended but poorly-conceived decision to try to sever her relationship with her brother as children in order to "save" him from the logic extremists. These two argue over long-held differences, and do not succeed in finding any common ground. Ethan Peck is good at delivering a Vulcan intellectual front that's not trying much at all to mask the contempt behind it. And if it's perhaps a cliché that Spock always seems to get pissed off as a matter of delivering "rare" fireworks, Peck sells it. Peck feels perhaps less Spock-like than Zachary Quinto, who looked for specific notes in his performance to try to remind us of the of-course-incomparable Leonard Nimoy. Peck seems to have a different agenda entirely — to create a version of the character at a completely different stage in Spock's journey. It's solid work; I'm just not sure yet it's "Spock." Martin-Green is also good here, revealing her own loss of control amid failed attempts not to give in to her emotions as she fences with her brother.
Speaking of control, that brings us to Section 31 and its strategic AI super-computer, Control, which appears to be giving an entire branch of Starfleet its orders. The plot brings Admiral Cornwell to the ship in a mission to travel to Section 31's secret base and investigate what looks like an operation gone rogue. Section 31's space station is protected by a minefield that threatens the ship, leading to the requisite starship peril sequence of tech speak and explosions. Meanwhile, the nature of Airiam's compromised state, simmering for a few episodes now, finally ramps up, to the suspicions of Security Chief Nhan (Rachael Ancheril), the second bench player this week to get bumped up to the starring lineup.
Eventually, an away team ends up on the lower decks of the space station in an attempt to possibly oust the Vulcan admiral and logic extremist who is apparently giving the orders. But when it turns out Control has killed all the people and seized the station for itself, and is sending out holographic communications pretending to be the flesh-and-blood in charge, the away team (Burnham, Airiam, Nhan) has to figure out how to stop the computer. Meanwhile, Airiam's secret agenda, which she isn't even fully aware of herself, is intending to upload the Knowledge Sphere's information about AIs to Control, which I guess it hopes to use to learn how to evolve itself into something greater.
This plot is tense and exciting in its admittedly derivative way — involving time travel, AIs run amok, and data transfers milked for scenes of amped-up suspense. It puts us in a situation that pits Airiam against her shipmates and forces a big choice that proves both tragic and revealing. At the end, even Airiam, now realizing how she has been compromised, is pleading to be allowed to die for the good of the mission to keep the knowledge she carries from being gained by Control. Burnham is forced to confront a choice — sacrificing a fellow officer — that she can't bring herself to carry out, because she's convinced she can find another way. She believes she can control and outsmart the situation, when there's simply no time to do so. It's a human response of desperation that overrides all the ingrained Vulcan logic she should, and fails to, fall back upon. (In the end, Nhan — not Burnham — sacrifices Airiam at the last moment.) This is a moment that underscores the strange paradox of Michael Burnham in a way that's more effective and more believable than the puzzling "Vulcan Hello" made in the very first episode. Thematically, this idea of control — something Burnham seems intent on enforcing upon the universe — is a character flaw that has reverberated through her life and led her to make a number of questionable decisions.
Some other thoughts:
- During the scene where Nhan gets her breathing apparatus removed and seems to be suffocating on the floor, the episode never cuts back to her, making it seem like Burnham is completely oblivious to her possible fate, or that the writers simply forgot about her (which they clearly didn't, given how the sequence plays out). This could've been fixed with a five-second shot of Burnham giving her the breathing apparatus, and then Nhan catching her breath on the floor, while Burnham continues to the airlock door to have the scene with Airiam. Nhan still could've come in unseen later to press the button, and the scene would've played essentially the same, except without the weird feeling that we're completely ignoring a dying character.
- The malware hacking of Airiam came from the future, which I guess means Control sent the cyberattack back in time in an attempt to create itself. Time travel's a bitch.
- Whether it's Skynet in The Terminator, the machines in The Matrix, or the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica, the AI will always, always rise up and try to destroy us. It's a constant in every sci-fi universe.
- Saying the ship is "upside down" in space is a dumb choice of words, as it implies there's a "right-side up." Why not say something like "The ship has suddenly inverted"?
- Strange how a story centered on Section 31 doesn't have Tyler, Georgiou, or Leland in it. It didn't need them, but it's still kind of strange.
- Speaking of minor players, I guess Jett Reno is just hanging out in her quarters these days, since she has only made two appearances (one good and one not) all season. I'm not clamoring to see her again after last time, but considering how much the Discovery press machine made of Tig Notaro, this seems strange. (Then again, the Discovery press machine makes way too much out of everything and is best ignored.)
- I enjoyed the back-and-forth between Stamets and Spock in engineering. This felt like some vintage barb exchange in the Spock/McCoy spirit, only different.
- "Project Daedalus" refers to something Airiam says to Burnham right before she flies out the airlock, which is that it's "all about you." I'm guessing this mysterious project is going to tie into the deaths of Burnham's parents (shown off-screen here in a flashback), secret dealings from the past that somehow involve Leland's role in all this, and perhaps the nature and identity of the Red Angel. Funny how the writers double down on the plot being all about Burnham in the very episode they made pains to comment on Burnham's role as center of the universe. Are they subverting their own subversiveness?