“Project Daedalus”: A shocking, gripping—and quite frankly, rather infuriating—emotional gut-punch of an episode. Star Trek: Discovery has been firing on all nacelles this year, raising the bar with every episode, and this week was no exception. Read on to find out why I found it so good and yet so maddening, but beware: Major Spoiler Ahead.
Still with me? All right, let’s dig in.
What an amazing and intense episode! “Project Daedalus”, the first script for the show by Michelle Paradise, grabs hold of you from the very first scene and doesn’t let go for 52 minutes. We finally get some background on Airiam; Spock and Michael have a sibling spat, and Pike and Cornwell debate the ethics of Section 31. I know, none of that sounds particularly gripping, but the writing, the direction, and the acting took us to unexpected emotional places with high levels of suspense. Admiral Cornwell (played by Jayne Brook) returns to Discovery on the down low to enlist the crew’s help in taking out Admiral Patar (Tara Nicodemo), an extremist in charge of Section 31 (basically Starfleet’s CIA) who is on the warpath to find and arrest Spock for a triple murder he supposedly committed. Up until now she has been adamant that Discovery and 31 work together to solve the season’s big mystery; the identity of the Red Angel. But that seems to be at an end now as the crew learns that Patar and the rest of the council are dead, and have been so for at least two weeks. The individuals they’ve been communicating with during that time are holographic reproductions. There is compromise at the highest levels. Meanwhile, we finally get our first bit of interaction between Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Spock (Ethan Peck), and unsurprisingly, it’s volatile. One suspects, based on Spock never mentioning a sister in any subsequent series, that they will not reconcile at the end of this. I do want there to be at least one proper scene this season with the whole family together—Spock, Burnham, Sarek (James Frain) and Amanda (Mia Kirshner). There is so much ground there to cover.
While those two facets of the episode were thoroughly engaging, the heart of the story was Airiam. Who, you ask? You know, Airiam—the robot lady who was nothing more than background scenery the entire first season, but who got some increased screentime (and even some dialogue) this season. In last week’s episode, she was essentially hacked and her functions taken over—by whom or what, we didn’t know, but we knew that it would come to a head in this week’s episode.
Ever since Airiam caught our attention in the first season’s third episode (“Context is for Kings”) she’s been the source of much fan speculation. Who is she? What is she? Is she a precursor of Data? Is she an alien? Where did she come from? What does she do? Frustratingly, that season gave us absolutely nothing. She just mostly hung around in the background, with a closeup here and there. This season, she’s mostly been shown in Data-like roles: solving encryption, analyzing data, troubleshooting systems, etc. This has been the case with all of the secondary bridge characters, with Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo) and Detmer (Emily Coutts) in particular becoming more prominent participants in bridge dynamics. But we still knew nothing at all about any of them. Who are these people outside of their 8-hour bridge shifts? Who were they before Starfleet?
Along comes “Project Daedalus” and suddenly we’re loaded with information about Airiam. We learn that she was an average human woman who had just eloped with her boyfriend. After their wedding, their shuttle home went down, the inference being that her new husband was killed and that she was rebuilt through technological augmentation. We learn that her storage capacity is a little bit limited, so once a week she rifles through the memories she has accumulated and organizes them—deleting unnecessary ones and archiving the ones that she wants to keep. She keeps all the memories of Tilly, because let’s be honest, who wouldn’t? She keeps memories of her time with her friends, like she, Tilly, Owo and Detmer playing kadis-kot (a game that was first introduced in Star Trek: Voyager) and having a laugh. She keeps a memory of she and Rhys (Patrick Kwok-Choon) kickboxing. More importantly, we learn that she’s not simply a machine. She has feelings, and a sense of humor. She loves her friends, and she seems to have a special bond with Tilly (Mary Wiseman).
And then they kill her.
Where were scenes like these before now? Why haven’t we seen any hint of friendship between these people before? We know that they’re friends, because the first time we hear Owosekun called by her nickname “Owo,” it’s Tilly who does it in a scene where she’s talking to Burnham. From this episode we see that Tilly and Airiam clearly cared for each other a lot, so why couldn’t we have seen even 30 seconds of that before now? I’ve been craving this kind of backstory for all of the secondary characters. We finally get something of substance on Airiam and it’s in the episode where she dies? So if we get this kind of info dump on Owo or Detmer or Rhys or Bryce, should we just assume that they’ll be dead by the end of that episode?
The real trouble with this last-minute info dump is that it raises so many more questions: What caused Airiam’s shuttle to go down? Where did it crash? Why did they rebuild her like this? Did she make that decision or was she so badly damaged that her family had to decide for her? How does she feel about continued life as an “augmented human”?
Whatever gained control of her was forcing her to do awful things, putting her friends and her crew-mates in danger. She has downloaded all of her memories—all the things that make her human—into the ship’s computer and has replaced all that with information gained from an ancient sphere the ship encountered a few episodes ago, which she now smuggles onto the Section 31 platform to be uploaded to their computers. She’s been reprogrammed to kill her friends if they threaten her mission.
But here’s Tilly to save the day! Airiam can’t be stopped. She is relentless, and strong, and fast. But “Project Daedalus” employs that most sci-fi of conflict resolutions: Tilly opens a channel to Airiam and talks to her. She reminds her of who she really is. She helps Airiam break through her programming, if just for a moment, to regain herself. She tells Burnham to open the airlock and eject her into space. “I will unlock this door, I will kill you, finish my mission, and I will destroy Discovery … and all aboard will die.” Ejecting her into space is the only way she can be stopped. Tilly sends some of Airiam’s memory files to her to help her remember herself. And it should have worked. It always works. But this time it doesn’t. Airiam gets spaced. The final shot, of Airiam’s body floating in space, icing over, and her functions shutting down while replaying her memory of her and her fiance, is staggering.
It’s very much to Michelle Paradise’s credit that she managed to take a character we knew nothing about and not only made us feel like we know her, but also gave us a connection to her and made us care about her—all work that should have been in prior episodes—before offing her. (Similarly, “Paradise” shouldn’t have had to have Airiam ask security chief Nhan (Rachael Ancheril) to clarify what race she is and what function her facial implants perform just for the audience’s benefit of understanding a later scene. That should have been established before now.) Hannah Cheesman did a beautiful job of bringing life (ironically) to Airiam in the final hour. As always, Jonathan Frakes’ direction was impeccable, imbuing every scene with great energy; one of his best touches is his extreme close-ups on Spock and Burnham as they have their sibling showdown. I loved this episode so much; it was intense and beautiful and was a true edge-of-the-seat experience, but it really left me frustrated as well.
Have we seen the last of Airiam? Well, her funeral is in next week’s episode (“The Red Angel” by Anthony Maranville and Chris Silvestri, March 21st on CBS All Access), and her memories are still stored in Discovery‘s computers…and I have a feeling I know how this is going to play into the season’s story arc, so I don’t think Airiam is as gone as they want us to believe. Here’s hoping, anyway.