[REVIEW] STAR TREK: DISCOVERY 209 “Project Daedalus”: Goodbye, New Friend

Jonathan Frakes returns to the helm for Star Trek: Discovery‘s ninth second season episode “Project Daedalus,” an episode that contains some truly vital moments for the crew of the Discovery. While this installment certainly has plenty to offer fans, including major character development for some of our key players, the methodical nature of the episode’s A-plot may be divisive in the wake of last week’s straight-to-the-vein injection of fan service.

Warning: Spoilers ahead

Writer Michelle Paradise, who has been co-executive producer this season, opts for a Walking Dead-style approach to the biggest character moment in this episode — the death of Lt. Commander Airiam, the augmented human who we saw get “taken over” in some way in the last couple episodes. In The Walking Dead, many episodes opted for a slow burn character arc for an episode where a particular character dies (and it happens a lot in that show). Throughout the episode of their death, this character gets spotlighted so that the audience learns and feels more for him/her before their demise. The same can be said of Airiam here. We learn more about her than all of Discovery‘s run thus far; when she was still totally human, she was engaged to be married, but a shuttle accident took her fiance’s life and presumably forced her to get augmentation to survive her injuries. Besides this touching backstory, we also learn about her interactions with the crew, particularly her friendship with Tilly and Kayla Detmer, which we never saw before. While the look into Airiam’s life is appreciated here, seeing more of this in previous episodes would have helped sell the character’s death.

Spock and Michael Burnham
Spock and Michael Burnham (CBS)

That being said, actress Hannah Cheesman, who took over the character from Sara Mitich in season one, preforms admirably with what she is given to work with. Not a whole lot of emotion can be displayed through Airiam’s heavy makeup, but like the challenge facing Doug Jones as Saru, Cheesman is able to punctuate her movements and computerized voice with just enough inflection and emotion to sell her character. And she gets plenty of moments to do so, as again, this episode is a slow burn, a slower paced episode that is atypical of Discovery. After last week’s exciting bit of fan service, the momentum of the entire season is throttled, and it’s to this episode’s detriment.

Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham
Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham (CBS)

But what is here is quite important to the overall plot of the season. After navigating a tricky minefield (and after a wonderful bit of impromptu teamwork by most of the bridge crew), Airiam, along with Burnham and Nhan (Rachael Ancheril), are sent onboard Section 31 headquarters to try and get Control (the AI that does threat assessment for Section 31) working for Admiral Cornwell (Jayne Brook) again. This is an away team we’ve never seen in action before, and the major moments come between Brunham and Airiam in an adrenaline-fueled fight scene after it is revealed Airiam has betrayed the crew, and later, in Airiam’s goodbye.

Hannah Cheesman as Airiam
Hannah Cheesman as Airiam (CBS)

Airiam’s goodbye has a lot working for it, including a wonderful performance by Cheesman, who is able to emote convincingly through her makeup as she pleads for Burnham to send her out the airlock instead of possibly killing her. But here is where a major plot hole reveals itself: why could’t Discovery beam Airiam onboard (and then isolate her) when she was trapped in that airlock, or shortly after she was spaced? We’ve seen human characters be pulled from the vacuum before, and we know that Airiam was alive a minute or so after getting jettisoned. In any case, kudos to Frakes for ending the episode with a look at Airiam’s final and most treasured thoughts – a memory of her and her fiance before that shuttle accident.

Mary Wiseman as Sylvia Tilly
Mary Wiseman as Sylvia Tilly (CBS)

Now that we know more about Airiam and her journey from human to augment, and all the painful emotions in between, she seems like a prime contender for the expanded universe treatment, like a comic or novel. That also would have made her death more impactful for hardcore fans. 

While the episode may have been Airiam’s, major development spearheaded other happenings: Spock and Burnham. As the two appear to play a game of three dimensional chess, the underlying angst between the two characters’ emotions come to the forefront, and we see something rarely seen before: an angry Spock. Clearly, his experience with the Red Angel has altered his emotional equilibrium, and he says that for the first time, he wants to express emotions. This leads to some memorable lines that help explain Spock and his relationships, including the tenuous relationship with his father. He also lays into Burnham pretty hard, calling out her involvement in the Klingon War and the night her parents were killed. It isn’t unlike the devastating exchange the two had as children. While we can clearly see Leonard Nimoy’s influence on Peck as the younger actor plays a logical, cool-headed Spock, Peck has the chance here to add his own influence as the character showcases pent up emotion. With five episodes left, it will be interesting to see how the writers explain away Spock’s emotional prowess as he evolves (devolves?) into the “classic” Spock we see in TOS and beyond.

Ethan Peck as Spock
Ethan Peck as Spock (CBS)

Spock aside, the major plot takeaways from this episode is that Section 31 is trying to frame Spock for murder, which isn’t terribly surprising. But what is more surprising is that Control is trying to gain consciousness, the outcome of which Spock believes will lead to the end of all life in the galaxy. Artificial intelligence running rampant is not a new trope in science fiction – we see it in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Battlestar Galactica, Mass Effect, and more recently, The Orville, just to name a few that immediately come to mind –  but in today’s tech-focused world, the implications for allegory is timely. Isn’t that the greatest Star Trek tradition? However, Control continues to be an off-screen presence, making it hard for the audience to feel any attachment to the problem at hand. It would have been great if we actually saw the entity that is Control in this episode, but alas, the wait continues.

In the meantime, Airiam reveals in a tantalizingly minimum way that Burnham is at the “center” of the Red Angel mystery. What does that mean? Well, next week’s episode is titled “The Red Angel,” so it’s a good bet we’ll learn more then.

Stray thoughts:

  • Have we ever seen an all-woman away team before?
  • Nhan continues to be a background character through and through, except for her clear (and proven) suspicions regarding Airiam’s actions, so there still isn’t much to this character. One wonders if, with only five episodes left, the writers have other plans for Nhan, or if she is destined to be somewhat of a filler character. 
  • While it’s refreshing to see the extreme amount of detail and production values in the show’s many computer displays, it was nice to see the Yellow Alert icon return with its LCARS design. This isn’t the icon’s first appearance in the show, but it helps bridge the gap between Discovery’s production design and that of later Star Trek. 
  • Jonthan Frakes previously directed season one’s “Despite Yourself” and season two’s “New Eden,” along with 14 other Star Trek episodes and two Star Trek movies.  
  • The name in the episode’s title is from Greek mythology. Daedalus is the man who built the labyrinth for King Minos, and later built a pair of wings for him and his son, Icarus, who, as we all know, did not survive the flight. 

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