Star Trek: Discovery 2.09 – “Project Daedalus”

We learn more about Airiam and Section 31, and it’s mostly great.

Overall, I think “Project Daedalus” was an outstanding episode. It was gripping, advanced the plot and gave us insight into a range of characters.

I have just one complaint, and you can probably guess what it is: the pacing.

Airiam we hardly knew ye

“Focus on a background character only to kill her off” is a classic method of storytelling in television. It’s practically cliche.

But it dates back to the age of more episodic TV — when a series is planned as carefully, and as far in advance as Discovery, surely Airiam’s story could have been better integrated into earlier episodes. Not necessarily her history, which didn’t need to be made explicit until now, but her friendships with Tilly, Airiam and Detmer, her connections with Rhys and Michael. Those, we should have seen earlier.

It’s not quite telling rather than showing, but they’re definitely doing both, and rather too late. I was certainly teary by the time the credits rolled, but Airiam’s closeness to Tilly — mutual adoration! — felt a tiny bit pastede on yay. It felt like the writing was relying on the audience’s affection for and identification with Tilly to patch over the weak points.

I have no problem with the content of what we saw, mind. I loved it all — I just wish these relationships had been established a bit sooner.

Nevertheless

All the stuff we learned about Airiam was really interesting. She’s not an artificial lifeform, but a human who was cybernetically augmented following a serious accident.

We’ve seen a bunch of people in Discovery with implants and augmentations: most prominently Detmer, but we also caught a glimpse of a guy with a primitive VISOR early this season, and I think there have been others. What’s notable about all of them is that it’s a rare example of technological implants being used to treat injury and disability without a tedious narrative about beeeeeeeeing lessssss huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuman.

Airiam is the most radical example, but it turns out she’s not unique — over the weekend, an observant Redditor spotted a similar-looking humanoid in Star Trek III. And though there is serious tragedy in her past, and pretty serious limitations to her augmentations — upgrade that lady’s hard drive! — Airiam isn’t treated as an object of pity. As depictions of disability go, this is … actually pretty good.

Now we just need an in-universe explanation for why such technology seems to have been mostly abandoned by the 24th century. And I have theories, which sort of tie into the events of “Project Daedalus”.

Alexa play Despacito

I don’t have or want an Alexa, or a Google Home, or an Apple HomePod — mainly because I don’t need one, but also because I keep picturing that episode of Deep Space 9 where they accidentally reactivate the old Cardassian security system and the whole station turns against them.

But I do have an iPhone, which is probably listening to all my conversations, and when my ratty old analogue watch dies, I’m going to replace it with an Apple Watch. When the machines are going to rise up against, they’ll succeed because we invited them into our homes.

(Siri sometimes gives me sass. It’s … concerning.)

Your average digital assistant is probably just a decade or so away from being about as sophisticated as the Enterprise-D’s computer. It’s not the first time that real technology has outstripped science fiction, and it won’t be the last, but if you’re dealing with a franchise as old as Star Trek, which aims at a mostly consistent canon, sometimes it doesn’t hurt to address the discrepancies.

I have to admit that I’m not the type of viewer who lies awake at night fretting because Discovery has holographic comms a century before the “new technology” is introduced in DS9, or because computers seem considerably more advanced than those depicted in the 1960s. I’m not into retrofuturism, and I’m definitely not married to the TOS aesthetic.

(Confessions of a bad Trekkie: I don’t even like the TOS uniforms. Not just the miniskirts. Any of them. They’re ugly and they look silly.)

But I like it when things come together, and I suspect that the Control plotline is going to explain why holographic and artificial intelligence technology appears to stagnate for a century, and why questions around the personhood of artificial life forms are still being debated in the 24th century.

Control is an artificial intelligence on the verge of achieving consciousness. And unfortunately, like the Microsoft chatbot who learned racism at the hands of trolls, it’s had some pretty bad lessons in How To Person. It’s a threat assessment system, in the hands of a ruthless intelligence service, and fed information by an admiralty that’s prosecuting a war.

I mean. Murder is not the ideal path to consciousness, but you can’t blame it for being paranoid as well as aspirational.

Control is either also the intelligence behind the space squids from the future who are going to wipe out all life in the galaxy, or … well, somehow connected to it. Because it was the squidified future probe which infected Airiam with the virus that put her in the control of … you know.

This all seems quite bad! Control has murdered four admirals, and all the other officers we can assume were stationed at Section 31 HQ, is responsible for Airiam’s death, and has been singlehandedly running Section 31 for at least two weeks. Like, I respect its ambitions to achieve consciousness and personhood, but this is maybe not the way set about achieving those goals.

But, as I said, Control is just the product of the information fed into it. It doesn’t know how to be anything else.

Don’t you feel just a tiny bit bad for it?

Between Control’s shenanigans, the M-5 incident ten years later, and the use of holograms to impersonate and frame Starfleet officers, is it any wonder these technologies were put on ice for a century or so?

Back to that apple of discord

Turns out that the quartet of badmirals we saw last week were in fact illusions created by Control.

At first I was like, “Wow, Georgiou was already complaining about the AI having too much power, she’s gonna be so mad.”

But … well, someone at TrekCore has sharp eyes.

Please feel free to speculate wildly. I know I am.

“My little brother’s nearly twice my age…”

I don’t think I breathed during Spock and Michael’s chess game. It was that intense.

Spock is correct that Michael’s need to save people and take responsibility for the wellbeing of everyone around her stems from her guilt about her family’s death. It’s what makes her heroic, but it’s also her greatest weakness.

But Spock is also being a pissy little brat, and makes his point in the most hurtful way possible. It’s actually a relief when Michael finally cracks and starts shouting at him. Have we ever seen her angry before? Rage is a good look on her, and she has good reason for it. She should let it out some more.

Michael doing the older sister thing and channeling Sarek isn’t quite as cruel as Spock’s sarcasm, but it’s equally unproductive. They know how to hit each other’s buttons — as Spock maybe only realises when he sees Michael’s inability to let Airiam die, just a short time after he taunted her about her sense of responsibility for her parents’ deaths.

The other side of a locked door

I’ve seen a lot of criticism of Michael for being unable to follow the order to space Airiam. Because it’s 2019 and we are absolutely going to criticise a woman for being too emotional.

It’s true, of course, that Starfleet officers are trained at the Academy to make exactly this sort of choice. In fact, we see it twice in TNG, first with Wesley Crusher, and much later with Deanna Troi.

But Michael didn’t attend Starfleet Academy. She went to the Vulcan Science Academy, and when she wasn’t accepted into the Vulcan Expeditionary Force, Sarek parachuted her into Starfleet like a B-list celebrity buying a college education for their kid.

So she missed the training that’s tailored for the more emotional species, but she also didn’t get the early childhood foundation in logic and emotional control that Vulcan kids get. And she spent her adolescent years — the time humans learn to make mistakes and regulate their impulses and emotions — attempting to fake it as a Vulcan.

There’s a whole skillset that Michael lacks, and it can badly impair her judgement. We saw it in the very first episode, and we see it again — with less devastating consequences — here.

But this is one of Michael’s big arcs: despite her intelligence and empathy, she’s not going to be captain material until she finds a healthy balance between Vulcan control and human emotions. She’s constantly improving, but when she’s in this precise situation, right after Spock has exposed that raw wound, of course she’s backsliding.

Katrina Cornwell and MY HEART

I want you all to be proud of me: I made it 1,400 words before I started talking about Admiral Kat.

The interesting thing about Cornwell is that Star Trek generally doesn’t spend much time with admirals. In TNG, they were such an afterthought that it was three or four seasons before the production team settled on one consistent uniform for the admiralty.

Enterprise gave us Admiral Forrest, who appeared in fourteen episodes; I’m still working my way slowly through that series, but I think he lays the foundations for Kat: unlike the ineffective, unreasonable, unstable or outright evil admirals of Trek tradition, Forrest is a sensible man who supports Archer and the Enterprise crew as far as politics and duty will allow.

Kat, on the other hand, walks a more complicated path. Like TNG’s admiralty, she’s often the face of questionable decisions — but unlike Admiral Necheyev, she’s not demonised for it. (This is partially because the audience culture has moved on: Necheyev was perceived as an icy bitch because she never quite connected with or appreciated Picard; Cornwell’s refusal to tolerate macho nonsense is met with respect, even among the dudebros of Reddit.)

It helps that she’s surprisingly fleshed out for a tertiary recurring character: she’s only appeared in nine episodes, but we know more about her than we do about, say, Hoshi Sato at the end of Enterprise‘s first season.

Some of this is probably luck — the character was intended to appear in three episodes and die at the end of “Lethe”, but the showrunners liked Jayne Brook enough to keep her. Much as I like the way women are written on Discovery, I’m not sure Kat would have been allowed to have casual sex with Lorca if she had been created as a long-term authority figure. (Or maybe I’m still having flashbacks to Kate Mulgrew’s notion that Janeway would lose her power if she had a sex life?)

Either way, whether through planning or happenstance — or a mixture of both — in Kat we have a character (female, over fifty) who is defined by both personal connections and professional authority, who is both idealistic and pragmatic, and who doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of her pragmatism. She’s complicated and unapologetic, and it’s wonderful.

None of which is to say that her choices are necessarily good ones. Pike is right to call her out for sacrificing principle for security — and he doesn’t even know about Operation: Blow Up Qo’noS A Bit. Or where “Captain Georgiou (retired)” is really from. I don’t think their exchange on the bridge is going to be the last word we hear on the subject.

What I especially enjoyed about this exchange is that Kat’s response to being called out — positioning Pike as the best of Starfleet and the Federation — strikes me as being both sincere and incredibly manipulative.

Like. We know Pike is that good. Back in season one, when Saru googled “most decorated captains”, Pike made the list. As captain in season two, he’s demonstrated his integrity and decency.

And the Constitution class ships were designed to fight harder and go farther than anything else in Starfleet — if the Federation fell, it makes sense that the Enterprise under Pike would be the choice to pick up the pieces, retrieve survivors and refugees and find a new place to rebuild.

But Kat’s not just winning the compliment duel — she’s shutting down an awkward conversation that’s taking place in front of people who know better than Pike just how many principles and lives she’ll sacrifice for the survival of the Federation. She’s boosting him up, but also saving face, and postponing this conflict to a time when she’s in a better position to manage it.

Other things

  • How does a logic extremist end up in Starfleet, let alone in a position of considerable authority? All the logic extremists we’ve encountered so far were terrorists — are there degrees of logic extremism? How does Kat even know about Admiral Patar’s political beliefs?
  • What I’m saying is, GIVE ADMIRAL PATAR A BACKSTORY YOU COWARDS.
  • I mean.
  • You know.
  • Spock’s insight into the Stamets/Culber relationship is another example of manipulation through honesty — even kindness. I mean, way to get Stamets off your back, dude. Congratulations on the emotional insight. If only he had shown a fraction as much tact with Michael.
  • (I saw viewers who were surprised to learn that Hugh still loves Paul? I … look, I realise that I tend to read far too much between the lines and infer things which aren’t really in the text, but I am deeply puzzled by people who need every detail carefully explained.)
  • I will pay money for a scene where Tilly and Spock interact, though.
  • It’s always nice to see Spock’s brain make an appearance.

Last call for Ditmar nominations

Ditmar nominations are open to “natural persons in fandom” until 24 March! Feel free to do the thing.

Author: Liz Barr

Words written. Opinions expressed.

One thought on “Star Trek: Discovery 2.09 – “Project Daedalus””

  1. I always liked Necheyev, more so as I got older – because surely every adult viewer can appreciate not liking your boss very much.

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