Star Trek #1480: Project Daedalus

CAPTAIN'S LOG: Commander Airiam is compromised during a mission to Section 31 HQ.

WHY WE LIKE IT: Finally learning about Airiam.

WHY WE DON'T: Almost too late.

REVIEW: I know some had been calling Commander Airiam Discovery's answer to Morn, an intriguing character that's always around but that remains a mystery through most or all of the series. The way Season 2 had been catering to some of the "little people" as Detmer calls them, I was sure we'd get to her sooner than later, especially since she was taken over by what I guess we can now call Control. This is that episode, but it's also sadly her swan song. We get to see what she was like before being cybernetically augmented. We see her routine, which involves purging non-essential memories from her at least partially synthetic brain. We see who she cares about in what she decides to keep, and I found myself immensely moved by the simple idea of keeping a memory of Burnham smiling at her and nothing more. This is how she retains skills and sustains relationships, no doubt. But she HAS been possessed, and though (her best friend?) Tilly invokes the trope of reminding a possessed friend of who they are, LITERALLY, it doesn't quite work and Control - a rogue Starfleet A.I. making sure it comes into being via its own future self - retains control of her body if not her mind and mouth. It all ends with a harrowing sequence in which Burnham is unable to obey either Airiam's pleas that she be sacrificed, or Captain Pike's orders, and Commander Nhan has to push the button that ejects Airiam into space. Airiam, a character we didn't know we loved until this very episode, is sent off with her best memory playing in her head, not a dry eye in the house. Burnham's shock is intense, and everyone gets a strong reaction shot besides. And while we don't really know the limits of her cybernetic body, it feels like it's a true end. You don't pull the silent (but for beach sounds) end credits unless you mean it.

This is an emotional episode even without Airiam's story, as it tracks the conflict between Burnham and Spock through several arguments. It reaches its peak when Burnham forces him to play chess so he can regain his sense of logic. He plays chaotically, a strategy I always pull on superior opponents, but it just plays for time, trust me Spock. It'll of course inspire a strategy to fool the computer villains, but it's about teaching Michael a lesson. He says she's full of self-importance, trying to shoulder the burden of his condition, just as she believed she was responsible for the Klingon war, or the logic extremists' attack Sarek's home, or even her biological parents' deaths. He leaves her emotionally devastated, and just then Pike calls her to the bridge. Her ironic laugh is perfect; Sonequa Martin-Green is so great in these moments. Though she puts on that Vulcan composure of hers, Saru still notices. It's nice to see he still has some empathy (which will help him figure out what's wrong at Section 31). There's further irony in the fact Spock tries to make Burnham reject her preconceptions, but as Stamets seems to say, Spock must do the same. Both of Sarek's children are arrogant in that way. While Spock decides he's an illogical choice to be the Red Angel's messenger, it really is something he's DECIDED. It's a time traveling being, Spock. Maybe it's about who (or where) you're GOING to be. Spock returns the favor by saying something insightful about Dr. Culber, but that may be this episode's one wrong turn. Not that Spock is necessarily wrong, but he just doesn't know these people. Why is he aware of Stamets and Culbers' troubles AT ALL?

There's also some nice tension between Admiral Cornwell and Captain Pike. He calls her out on Starfleet and Section 31 stepping over the line, but she shames him by admitting she considers him Starfleet's ideal. We can regret decisions made in the past, but we can't take them back, now let's work together to fix what we can. As was the case with Lorca, Cornwell seems to have a preexisting relationship with Pike, and I like to think she's a younger admiral who came up with these studs and simply took a desk job earlier. As a member of the admiralty AND a psychiatrist, she probably serves as mental health consultant for all the captains in the fleet, judging their fitness to command. In any case, it's nice to see she HASN'T been corrupted by Section 31 despite her appearance on their ship. In fact, Section 31 itself has been following treacherous orders for at least a short while, as it's proven Control usurped the forms of various admirals it has killed to implement its plans. Georgiou did condemn Leland for following a computer's orders earlier. She was more right than she probably knows. So Cornwell puts on a mission to reboot a computer, filled with cool outer space action, crazy blade mines, and mag-booted fighting. I'm not complaining. I wonder if Control is the reason TOS' computers seem so much more primitive than Discovery's. Just look at The Ultimate Computer again and at how the Enterprise crew mistrusts automation (or just Kirk's adversarial relationship to all computers). Could this be the result of mothballing A.I. advances because of the danger involved? Is this why Soong will build his androids in secret?

Before I leave you, some words about some other "little people" in the bridge crew, as they do get some play. The Barzan security chief Nhan proves her mettle when she survives Airiam's initial attack. I thought she was a goner for sure. Seeing her reach for her breathing apparatus while Burnham was fighting her synthetic friend added a lot to the scene's urgency. Detmer is the other stand-out. It could said of the original series (and even many of the movies) that Sulu was often relegated to looking at the screen and reaction. Detmer is in the same seat and does much the same, but she's an AMAZING reactor. Her little cheer for cybernetics, a kind of shout-out to differently-abled viewers, is one example. How she gets choked up when Airiam is in trouble is another. Detmer wears her feelings on her sleeve and adds a lot to the show's emotional texture.

LESSON: Software updates are the enemy.

My favorite in a good while. There was more I wanted to know about Airiam, but this short-cut to make us feel her loss works remarkably well.


Madeley said...

I actually like the bit where Spock gave Stamets advice. To me it felt like the Spock-iest he'd been in the series so far. He doesn't know them, but it's shows he's observant, and compassionate, demonstrating the kind of advice we're familiar with him providing to Kirk. It was nice to see in a show that's tended to show him as a bit of an unlikeable brat so far, which has been a little annoying for one of the most beloved characters in fiction.

De said...

Upon first watch, I was annoyed that we knew next to nothing about Airiam until now and that her relationships with her fellow crew felt shoehorned in. Then I remembered back to TNG's "Lower Decks" and how we still felt Sito's loss despite not really knowing her before (aside from being part of Nova Squadron in "The First Duty").

I'm glad I was wrong about Cornwell taking up with Section 31 out of revenge.


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