Star Trek: Discovery Season 2, Episode 9 – Debuted Thursday, March 14th
Written by Michelle Paradise
Directed by Jonathan Frakes
“Project Daedalus” is a strong —yet sometimes frustrating—episode that delivers on a number of major fronts that have been building, some even since the first season. With a good mix of character development, action, suspense, and emotion the episode keeps up with the improvements implemented in the second season. While some moments feel forced, they are ably carried by strong performances, notably from series lead Sonequa Martin-Green and Airiam actress Hannah Cheesman.
[WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW]
To Tell the Truth
“Project Daedalus” begins with the USS Discovery trying to be inconspicuous while in orbit over some unknown planet. The ship has been deemed a fugitive vessel by Starfleet for harboring Spock, who is still wanted for murder, and for visiting the forbidden planet Talos IV. Admiral Cornwell rendezvouses with the ship on a secret mission of her own. Not there to pick sides over Pike’s Section 31 beef, her focus is to interrogate Spock, who briefs her on the Red Angel’s warning that all sentient life is going to be wiped out. After giving him the 23rd-century version of a lie-detector test—which is amazingly revealed to be “100% accurate”—she believes he at least thinks he is telling the truth. However, the surveillance footage of him phasering his way out of a Starfleet psych ward is hard for her to ignore.
Cornwell eventually reveals she also has issues with Section 31, but her beef is with the Vulcan at the top, Admiral Patar, who was introduced in the previous episode. Turns out Patar is a Vulcan logic extremist and has cut off all communication with Starfleet. The top brass has grown to rely heavily on Section 31’s “Control” computer system that offers strategic analysis. Pike takes up Cornwell’s mission to head to Section 31’s secret base to arrest Patar and regain control … of Control. One person who might be able to help sort all this out would be Section 31 agent (but not such a bad guy when you really get to know him) Ash Tyler, but Pike issues orders for him to not appear in this episode. He also orders Burnham to a B-plot to get to the bottom of why the Red Angel is so obsessed with Spock.
What’s My Line?
A major subplot for this episode is the long-anticipated backstory of Lt. Commander Airiam. Setting up the technical framing device of how Airiam has to manually choose what memories to archive or delete, we see through her eyes how she used to be entirely human and happily married. We also witness how she cherishes simple everyday memories of hanging with her pals on board Discovery, and see her palling around with Tilly, Owo, Detmer, Rhys, and of course, Burnham.
The origin story of how she went from human to cybernetically augmented was left to inference, with indications that it was the result of injuries sustained following a shuttle accident that killed her husband. To add overdramatic insult to injury, it happened right after their honeymoon. She now keeps a vial of sand from the beach location of her last memory of him. All the writing for Airiam here lays it on fast—and a bit thick—but Hannah Cheesman steps up to the plate in this episode, which moves Airiam up to the front burner for the first time.
Airiam even shows she has a sense of humor, teasing Tilly that memories with her are “always the first to go.” Sylvia razzes Airiam back by calling her a “half robot” (adding to the comedy, Tilly says “robot” the way Zoidberg does on Futurama). Even though it is now established that these two have been besties all along, Tilly is slow to recognize that there is something off with her friend, which we know is the result of her being infected with a virus from that futurized squid-probe a couple of episodes ago. Someone who does notice that Airiam is acting a bit wonky is security chief Nhan, who gets asked by Airiam about her need for a breathing apparatus. Um, obvious much? Airiam also seems to be aware that she isn’t entirely herself, and asks Tilly to stay close.
Spock and Burnham have been tasked to dig into the mystery of the Red Angel and its connection to the seven signals, but are unable to work out if the Angel is responsible for them or only following them around. Spock thinks the Angel simply traveled through time to warn him—and only him—of the coming danger, no big whoop. Burnham thinks there is more to it. Her efforts to learn more end up revealing little about the Red Angel but dig up a whole lot of family baggage.
Hints of Spock’s feelings come early in the episode as he coldly corrects Admiral Cornwell, noting his relation to Burnham is “not by blood.” He also lands a sick burn regarding her spartan personal quarters, telling her “It is quite an accomplishment to be mundane.” But as she prods him more, his Vulcan control unwinds. Instead of centering his logic, her proposed game of three-dimensional chess results in a shouting match with each accusing the other of arrogance. Spock is especially triggered when Burnham drags Sarek’s judgmental nature into the mix, bringing all the Vulcan daddy issues bubbling to the surface, with Spock quipping: “I disappoint him. He disappoints me. The sun sets and a new day begins.”
All we learn about the Red Angel through this is that it has “challenged” Spock’s perception of reality. He may be out of the psychiatric hospital, but he is still clearly broken, as he takes it out on his foster sister, getting hurtful and very personal. He rejects her guilt over the death of her parents. Spock grabs at her holding the responsibility for Vulcan extremists targeting their family, taking that burden for himself for being a “half-human abomination.” This all seems out of character, but Spock acknowledges that, relishing how he can now enjoy expressing emotion, even if it is anger. The Martin-Green/Peck chemistry continues to impress as a pair who are just starting their dynamic.
With no interesting sciencey stuff to do to help the main plot, Stamets ends up being shoehorned in as a sort of referee for the Burnham/Spock grudge match. As he struggles to track down the fault in the sabotaged spore drive circuit-by-circuit—where’s Jett Reno when you really need her?—Stamets bears witness to the sparring Sarek family siblings, who are doing their important galaxy-saving work in Stamets’ spore lab and not Burnham’s own shiny new science lab. When Burnham goes off to deal with the Section 31 base, Stamets is left with Spock, who gets to show off one of his “many talents” as he helps restore power to the lab. Bonding over hyperspanners, the two relative strangers inexplicably start giving each other relationship advice. The actors are skilled enough to make it work, but it was still pretty odd.
Getting to the Section 31 base is not going to be easy, as it’s protected by an illegal minefield, the existence of which sparks an awkward argument between Pike and Cornwell regarding the principles of Starfleet and his accusations that she kept him out of the war due to his beliefs. She calms things down by sharing that she believes he and the USS Enterprise represent the best Starfleet has to offer, but all of this leaves the bridge crew averting their eyes with “I hate it when mom and dad fight” looks.
Cornwell has a route to get through the minefield, but as the old military axiom goes: No plan survives contact with the enemy. The mines head towards the ship to “slice the hull like cheese”—because what is Star Trek without a good analogy? This huge ship then begins to try to navigate through a field of tiny, highly maneuverable spinning razors of death, and if that wasn’t bad enough, Airiam is doing some serious multitasking by helping out the mines while she is doing some kind of download. That can’t be good news. Nhan keeps giving the augmented human the evil Barzan eye, but she never puts the pieces together. Not until Burnham suggests adding a total random element to their evasive patterns do they successfully work their way through, although why no one suggested shooting at the mines remains a mystery.
You Bet Your Life
With the trip through the field leaving the ship immobilized, Admiral Patar finally returns their calls to gloat as only a Vulcan can do. She informs Pike and Cornwell that Starfleet ordered the attack on the Discovery, so maybe General Order 7 is in place and the Federation is skipping past the whole due process thing and getting right to the executions. However, death for treason will have to wait as they are ordered to sit tight until a Section 31 ship arrives to board them.
As Pike and Cornwell are not the sitting-around-waiting-to-be-put-in-prison types, a landing party is prepped to finish the mission to reboot the Control system. (Sidenote: Regardless of what the ship manifest says, Michael Burnham has been Pike’s defacto first officer all season long. At least this time Saru was initially ordered to lead the party, but he demurred to pursue his own investigation, leaving the job to Burnham.) Accompanying Michael is Nhan, with Airiam volunteering to join the party. What could possibly go wrong?
Director Jonathan Frakes does a good job of changing the mood to a horror vibe as the party tours the dark, airless and gravity-less station, helped along by spooky sound design and floating frozen blood effects; the aftermath of some kind of fight. The tension is maintained even though we know where the monster is, with the only question being when will Airiam break bad.
Much of the season’s arc starts to literally fall into place as they find the corpsicles of the four admirals who are supposed to be in charge of Section 31, which drop to the ground once power is restored. These are the same admirals who were talking to Leland last week, including Patar who was just monologuing with Cornwell and Pike a few minutes ago. If they have been dead for weeks, who has been doing all that badmiraling? Well, Inspector Saru—remember he stayed behind to do some investigating—has one word for you: holograms. It was hologram admirals last week. It was a hologram Patar talking to Pike this week. Oh yeah, and that incriminating footage of Spock’s murderous escape? You guessed it. Holograms.
Section 31’s Control has been a very naughty computer program, having been on a killing spree all season long and then framing Spock along the way for good measure. And even though it was Nhan picking up on clues from Airiam’s possession earlier on, it is Tilly who puts the pieces together. Control wanted Airiam on the station as she is carrying all the data about artificial intelligence that was collected from that ancient big red sphere thing back in episode four. We knew that database plot point was coming back like a bad penny. Control wants that AI data so it can evolve into full consciousness and pull a galactic Skynet. This is the devastation that the Red Angel warned Spock about.
With the jig up, Airiam’s switch finally gets set to evil. She easily renders Nhan helpless by pulling out that breathing apparatus she was so interested in earlier—begging the question: shouldn’t they develop a more robust system for Barzan, especially for those working security? Airiam then turns her sights on Michael and starts tossing her around that station like a rejected action figure. While Burnham’s training helps her hold her own, she is no match for Airiam. Thankfully the show pulls back from another Super-Michael moment, although she is able to create a temporary stalemate by trapping the out-of-control augmented human in an airlock.
Burnham can’t physically overpower Airiam, or force her way to the computer to stop Airiam from uploading the data. The Discovery bridge team can’t come up with a technical solution, and, as Tilly notes, “I definitely can’t hack Airiam.” With brains and brawn coming up short, all that was left was the heart, and that’s what Tilly turns to next, appealing to the true Airiam’s feelings. Tilly reminds her of the memories of her friends on the ship she has saved and cherished, even after making room for all that AI data.
The appeal works and the real Airiam breaks through, but not enough to stop the infected part of her that is determined to kill Burnham and give Control what it wants. In another highly charged Star Trek characters-through-glass scene, Airiam begs Burnham to open the airlock and kill her. Pike orders her to do it. Spock implores her to do it. Everyone but Michael has accepted it is the only way, but she continues to futilely fight on until time runs out and she finally accepts the lesson Spock was trying to impart: she can’t save everyone. It’s a beautifully painful moment, shot and performed perfectly by Sonequa Martin-Green and Hannah Cheesman. But Airiam has to ruin the moment by saying, “It wanted me to kill you. Everything is because of you.” Airiam does have one last gift for her friends, giving them the clue that their next stop should be to seek out “Project Daedalus.” Before she can say anything more, Nhan saves Michael from the responsibility of yet another death, opening the airlock.
With the crew tearfully watching, Airiam’s final moments were reliving that archived memory of her lost husband, as her light slowly fades away. This terminal scene is played off with dignity, fading to black with no music, just the sound of the waves on that honeymoon beach. Heartbreaking.
We hardly knew ye
Even before she appeared in Star Trek: Discovery, Airiam has intrigued fans. Born from a concept sketch by creature designer Neville Page, executive producer and director Akiva Goldsman fell for what he called “plate face,” putting the cybernetic character originally played by Sarah Mitich on the bridge of the USS Discovery for her debut in the third episode of the series. In those early days, the creatives behind the show didn’t even know what she was, with the description evolving from robot to alien to enhanced human. But by the end of the first season, fans were clamoring for more and the powers that be recognized that. The first sign of this was how (Mirror) Airiam played a significant role in the second Discovery comic book mini-series, released last summer.
For the second season, Airiam was clearly on the list of things that were working. The producers decided to enhance her, starting with a redesign and recasting of the character, and Hannah Cheesman stepped into the role of the upgraded “Airiam 2.5.” Throughout the new season, we have seen Airiam get more lines and even show up off the bridge. However, it wasn’t until this ninth episode that the writers really dug in and gave the character a much-desired origin story, along with introducing her close friendships, especially one with Tilly. All of this was wonderful; however in the context of the ultimate plan for the character—namely to be sacrificed—this big push was too much all at once. That said, killing off a beloved character is a bold move for the show and one that makes good on Discovery’s aspirations to raise the stakes and play with the big boys like Game of Thrones.
While “An Obol for Charon” did give Airiam some computer stuff to do related to the big sphere’s database, her personality still remained mostly a blank slate. That and subsequent episodes were missed opportunities to start fleshing out the character, bit by bit, as they led up to this fateful episode. The final moments of “Project Daedalus” would have landed with more impact, if the emotions the characters were showing felt more earned. Characters have died on this show before and no one batted an eye—remember the mourning over Connor, Landry, or Connolly? Neither do I.
Airiam’s death was treated with the same reverence as Culber’s, but the character was not nearly as realized. While the interest was high, in the end, it feels like an unfulfilled promise, and wouldn’t have if her personal moments with her crewmates had been scattered throughout the season rather than packed into her final episode. She deserved more for all this to have been worth it and for it to have felt more earned.
That being said, please no do-overs. We have already had one near-death fake-out this season (Saru) and a full-on resurrection (Culber). Sure, it is Star Trek and there are dozens of ways to bring the character back, but characters should be allowed to just die.
Did you guys ever watch the show?
Tonight’s episode had a number of dramatic moments and certainly moved things forward in a big way in terms of the overall arc of the season. We have a clearer idea now regarding the threat that the Red Angel is trying to prevent, and a big clue as to why Section 31 became departmenta non grata. It’s too early to say, but the whole “AIs are going to kill us all” threatens to head into derivative cliche and is ground covered before with V’Ger, Nomad, and more. But for now, there is enough there to keep interest and speculation high.
The episode was fairly linear and streamlined, not getting bogged down too much with the season one problem of trying to keep too many storyline plates spinning, which has crept into some of the episodes this season. However, “Project Daedalus” brought some of its own issues, some of which we really haven’t seen on the series, or at least to this extent.
While there were some nice character moments that fit organically with the show, such as the callback to Cornwell’s background in psychology or Saru showing off his famed empathy in some quiet beats with Burnham on the bridge after her blowup with Spock, there were many more that just didn’t feel genuine. Maybe the most noticeable one was Pike casually asking about what kind of “shitstorm” Cornwell got him into. Profanity is fine, but isn’t really Pike’s thing. Even more out of character is how he blew up at Cornwell on the bridge. The guy that has been playing by the book and lecturing Tyler on the chain of command is not the guy who goes full insubordinate on an Admiral in front of the crew. There was some good hammy Trek speechifying, but it should have been done in his ready room. And while we are on the subject of that fight, since when are mines outlawed by the Federation? They are defensive weapons, which were seen used by Starfleet in the more enlightened 24th century. You want to pick an ethics fight with Cornwell, let’s talk attempted genocide.
There are examples even beyond Spock giving out love life advice, like Tilly spazzing out on Cornwell, which seems to be a step back from her arc in which she has been steadier; now she’s acting like a parody of herself and seemingly throwing her “fugitive” crewmates under the bus. There were also some threads that seemed to go nowhere, like Nhan’s surveillance of Airiam. Also confusing was Admiral Patar’s reveal as a Vulcan extremist, given that we learned in season one’s “Lethe” that Vulcan extremists are terrorists. How did an extremist get so high up in Starfleet—or was this brand new information? It was all very confusing.
One thing I won’t critique is Ethan Peck and the characterization of Spock. Sure, he was acting out of character, but that was the point. Spock may have been helped by the Talosians, but he is still broken and hitting rock bottom. Admittedly, handing out love life advice to Stamets did feel forced. In the end, Spock’s arc will presumably bring him back to the Vulcan we know on TOS by the end, maybe even with a shave and haircut.
And then there are moments of head-scratching Star Trek tech, like why didn’t they use phasers, photons or tractor beams to deal with the mines? Having an enormous starship like the Disco try to outmaneuver tiny little speedy mines is like Jack Bauer getting info from a suspect by challenging him to a rap battle. And for Airiam’s death to seem like there was no other choice, it had to be clear there were no other options, like beaming her into the brig, either from the section 31 base or after she went out the airlock. Limiting various pieces of Trek tech with convenient malfunctions in order to serve the drama is common, but this episode didn’t even bother trying.
What all this adds up to is that it felt like screenwriter Michelle Paradise didn’t have a full grasp of the characters or the show. This was her first episode for the series, and these disconnects could show the strain the show was under following the firing of showrunners Aaron Harberts and Gretchen J. Berg, just as some of the others like executive producers Alex Kurtzman and James Duff started pulling double duty as the Picard show began development. These issues may have kept this episode from achieving the greatness it could have. A lot of the right parts are there, but much of the connective bits are not. Paradise shows dramatic promise, and hopefully, things get more settled as she has recently been tapped to be the co-showrunner for Discovery’s third season.
2 steps forward, 1 step back
With major developments in terms of season arc and character, “Project Daedalus” is a potentially great episode bogged down by falling into unnecessary tropes including Death in the Limelight, to Eureka moment, and sadly Idiot Plot. Also, the much-promised theme for the season feels like it has fallen by the wayside, with Spock giving a passing mention of “having faith” as the only barely noticed nod.
Jonathan Frakes maintained good pacing and played the important character moments just right. While he did indulge in some of the camera trickery that has been over-used this season, it was kept at a minimum. He was ably assisted by excellent production design, especially on the interior of the Section 31 station, which felt like a haunted house and not just an obviously redressed Disco hallway.
As an actors’ director, the place Frakes’ shined brightest was drawing out excellent performances, with this top-notch cast again being one of the the strongest parts of the show. Particularly high praise going to Sonequa Martin-Green, who had to go toe-to-toe with Ethan Peck’s Spock, hand-to-hand with evil Airiam and heart-to-heart with the real woman who had to sacrifice herself. Jayne Brook’s performance was also strong, carrying her own with Anson Mount’s Pike. While only given brief moments, Anthony Rapp and Doug Jones made them work. The grief from the crew at Airiam’s death was intense and gut-wrenching. And a very special highlight was Hannah Cheesman who really stepped up, adding who new dimensions to a character we have wanted to learn more about for so long. She will be missed, presumably.
“Project Daedalus” is a good episode that could have been better. And the second season continues to show promise with some things coming into focus and more mysteries left to intrigue.
Random thoughts, connections, easter eggs, and more
- The title of the episode was a bit of a fake-out as it was only revealed at the end that they need to seek out “Project Daedalus,” leaving open the question of what it means. Is it related to the Daedalus Project (from ENT “Daedalus“), or possibly the 22nd century Daedalus class starships, or simply a reference to the tragic Greek figure?
- This is Jonathan Frakes’ third time directing Discovery, tying for the lead with executive producer Olatunde Osunsanmi.
- The first television episode Frakes ever directed premiered 29 years ago this week: Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Offspring” on March 12, 1990.
- Admiral Cornwell’s shuttle has a striped paint scheme, which may be unique to her or possibly a special livery for Starfleet admirals. Her personal cruiser did not make an appearance.
- When explaining how he got past the psych ward guards, Spock says he used “what is colloquially termed a Vulcan nerve pinch,” which is a missed opportunity to give the famed technique its true Vulcan name.
- When she was 16, Tilly went through a “rebellious phase” which included some hacking. This backstory first appeared in the Tilly centric novel The Way to the Stars by Una McCormack.
- The location of the Section 31 headquarters was at coordinates 7-4-Mark-5.6, and was the site of a penal colony abandoned in the 22nd century.
- With two mentions in this episode, it is established the game Kadis-kot is played in the Alpha Quadrant in the 23rd century. Kadis-kot was introduced in Star Trek: Voyager and was popular with the crew of the USS Voyager in the 24th century. The VOY episode “Repentance” makes it appear the game originated in the Delta Quadrant as it shows Neelix playing the game with a member of a race native to the Delta Quadrant, although headcanon could assume Neelix taught the Benkaran the game.
- For the first time, it was explicitly stated that Lt. Cmdr. Nhan was a Barzan, introduced in the TNG episode “The Price,” in which they also used a special breathing apparatus.
- Pike again uses the catchphrase “Hit it,” introduced in Discovery. In TOS “The Cage” he used “engage,” but perhaps that has become too associated with TNG and Jean Luc-Picard.
- The design of Section 31’s base was somewhat reminiscent of the cloud city Stratos and the Melkotian buoy from TOS, as well as the Think Tank vessel from VOY.
- The boarding party scene was reminiscent of Star Trek VI when a team in similar gravity boots beam onto Chancellor Gorkon’s battlecruiser, which also had floating bodies and blood, although not frozen.
- The EV suits can broadcast visuals of what the wearer sees in real time, a no-brainer technology that every landing party and away team should have been using even back in the 22nd century.
- SaruAbilityWatch: Can sense emotions through observing changes in people’s ultraviolet heat signature.
Star Trek: Discovery is available exclusively in the USA on CBS All Access. It airs in Canada on Space and streams on CraveTV. It is available on Netflix everywhere else.