STAR TREK: DISCOVERY Review: 2.09 “Project Daedalus”

Lt.Cmdr Airiam gets her first - and probably last - featured appearance.

Apologies for the untimeliness of this review, readers. I've been recovering from surgery, and my hometown became the latest target of white-nationalist terrorism literally at the same time as I started watching the episode. It's been rough.

Discovery is on the run, hinting that we're heading into the third act of this mostly-great season. Also on the run is Admiral Cornwell, arriving via secret-squirrel shuttlecraft to hear Spock’s story. Spock’s story remains largely the same as ever - that the Red Angel contacted him to prevent a galactic apocalypse - and thanks to a glorified lie detector, Cornwell is able to confirm it (or at least that Spock believes it). But that’s not her real function in this episode; rather, she’s here to deliver a whole bunch of exposition to set up the arc that will likely guide the last stretch of the season. 

This introduction of the “logic extremist” Admiral in charge of a renegade Section 31 is somewhat clumsily shoehorned-in, a major leap from the uneasy peace between the agency and the rest of Starfleet established in earlier episodes. Cornwell also introduces the concept of “Control,” the computer system upon which Section 31 operates, which has been rejecting her commands and apparently manipulating Discovery remotely. It’s all a bit much to take in at once, and surely could have been teased out a little more gradually than this.

“Project Daedalus” is less concerned with the season arc, though, than it is with Airiam, the cyborg crewmember we’ve been waiting to see more of since the pilot back in 2017. This week’s ep makes up for lost time: we learn that Airiam, contrary to first appearances, is a fully-fledged, sentient individual, with relationships and hopes and dreams alongside her more mechanical attributes. She erases junk memories at the end of each day, saving only those worth keeping. She’s friends with Tilly. She was in love, once, back when she was more fleshy, and lost that love in a crash that presumably also led to her requiring the augmentations she has now.

Sadly, Airiam doesn’t get a hell of a lot of time to be herself, because the plot sees her internal computer systems being taken over by Control - as presaged last week - and being used as a conduit for its own needs. See, Control wants sentience, and can get information on how to acquire it from the data dump gleaned from the giant sphere a couple weeks ago. It can then wipe out all sentient life, setting up a potential cause for the apocalyptic dreams suffered by Spock. It’s already begun, in fact, having killed the aforementioned logic extremist, replaced her with a hologram, and framed Spock for murder. Airiam becomes Control’s avatar on board Discovery, and naturally things don’t go well.

Actress Hannah Cheesman does fine work through what seem to be highly restrictive prosthetics, communicating the internal struggle between Airiam’s true self and the computer program taking her over. It takes a while to come to any kind of explosive revelation, but the subtle-ish buildup works surprisingly well - especially when you consider how difficult it is to read intention and emotion on that robotic face.

Discovery, meanwhile, makes its way to Section 31’s refitted-prison headquarters, promptly coming into contact with the enormous (and illegal) minefield surrounding it. A terribly video-gamey sequence in which Discovery is pelted with mines of various applications (Blade mines! Blackout mines!) is mitigated somewhat - or is it? - by having every bridge crew member offer a different evasive pattern. Unfortunately, Airiam’s there too, feeding that information to Control, and the ship’s quickly brought to a standstill - so clearly, the next logical step is to send an away team onto the station.

It’s here that Airiam’s remote-control arc hits breaking point. After Control’s ruse is exposed, Airiam lashes out, commencing a fight sequence so full of wire-work that I had to laugh at the notion of Jonathan Frakes directing it (which he did). It’s not a great fight, but I suppose it’s very Star Trek in that regard - and the important part is what happens next, anyway: Airiam, stuck in an airlock, physically attempting to carry out Control’s orders, while vocally begging Burnham to blow her into space.

It’s this scene where the episode gets some true emotional traction, with both Tilly (on the ship) and Burnham (on the station) desperately trying to bring Airiam’s true self to the surface. Cheesman’s performance here, largely vocal, sells the character’s terror and Burnham refuses to allow her friend to die, but Commander Nhan - shorn of her breathing apparatus by Airiam’s attack - doesn’t. Airiam’s final moment consists of reliving her favourite memory, before dying (via a Terminator-esque ocular readout). It’s genuinely sad.

The rest of the episode is weirdly unsuccessful by comparison. Spock and Burnham go through some conflict that feels weirdly unmotivated, with Spock guilt-tripping Michael for the Klingon war, her parents’ death, and even her sparse interior decor. The subplot seems to serve solely to illustrate that Spock is emotional - angry, specifically - and it’s just a touch clunky. Just as clunky are the scenes featuring Stamets, searching for whatever’s causing trouble in the spore drive - setups for action in later episodes, surely, but pointless-feeling in this episode.

It’s surprising that Discovery took this long to do a story about artificial intelligence. While the episode itself turned out somewhat uneven, the larger implications are pretty interesting - that the system designed to run Section 31 becomes a kind of 23rd-century Skynet, and that Discovery could end up fighting an enemy that knows everything about the ship, its crew, and Starfleet as a whole. There are even more mystery-drops in the final scenes, with Airiam telling Burnham “everything is because of you!” and dropping hints at a “Project Daedalus” (whose presence in the episode, limited to this one line, makes the episode’s title a bit confusing).

Next week, we see Airiam’s burial, but other than that, it’s hard to tell what exactly is going on. We’ll surely get some clarification on Project Daedalus (a term that’s been used a couple times before in Star Trek canon), but for now, it’s a mystery.

Stray observations:

  • The addition of cyborgs to Discovery may seem odd on the surface, given that they’ve previously been represented by the Borg, but it makes sense given the fact that our future history seems guaranteed to involve technological augmentation. It’s Star Trek changing with the times and technology.
  • Tilly says “roe-bit”! The best way of pronouncing “robot.”
  • Something that’s always bothered me: if evasive patterns can be categorised with terms like “Beta 9,” surely they can be identified as they happen by anyone who knows those patterns. Right?
  • I totally believe Cornwell that the Enterprise was sidelined so the best of Starfleet could survive. Captain Pike seems to represent just that.
  • Will this AI storyline eventually connect with the Short Trek set a thousand years in the future, where Discovery’s computer has gained sentience?
  • Can Airiam be rebuilt from her saved memories somehow? Or will that database merely serve as her memorial?