SPOILERS AHEAD … AND GREAT LOSS AND THE SLIGHT HOPE OF SOMETHING TO BE GAINED …
It’s tempting to think of any great ideal of having few to no rough edges; after all, what is the point of all their bright, shiny goodness if ideals are shown to be just as bashed, bruised and imperfect as everything else in life?
But as Star Trek Discovery‘s latest episode, “Project Daedalus” reveals, sometimes you need some imperfections to keep something as wholly idealistic and visionary as the Federation humming along in all its squeaky-clean aspirational glory.
But how far do you take this, and as Captain Pike (Anson Mount) reasons at one point, when do you effectively sell your soul to the highest satanic bidder in a bid to save it?
It’s a thorny question and one that the episode doesn’t come close to answering, but then that’s not really the point of this thrilling and gut-wrenchingly moving addition to what is already a very fine second season for the show.
Rather what “Project Daedalus” sets out do is explore how far anyone needs go to safeguard the ideals of an institution they hold dear. It asks whether it is OK to effectively become a fugitive in order to save the very thing that you can see is having its very essence corroded.
The answer from Pike, Admiral Cornwell (Jayne Brook), who arrives by a very funkily-camouflaged shuttle that is more grunge galactic that standard Starfleet issue, and the entire crew of the Discovery is “Hell to the freaking yeah!”
While their mission to infiltrate Section 31’s super-secret base out in the back of galactic beyond is a ballsy one, considering it’s surrounded by mines (which the Federation doesn’t allow; technically, at least) and all kinds of technology no one in the peace, love and mung beans surrounds of Roddenberry’s ideal future coalition of planets should even have access to, their willingness to do what it takes to take back Control (literally; it’s the AI-system which powers Starfleet decision-making and no, before you ask, neither Maxwell Smart nor 99 are anywhere to be seen) is inspiring.
And – BIG SPOILER ALERT COMING UP – heartbreaking with Lt. Commander Airiam (Hannah Cheeseman) paying the ultimate price as the crew battles to stop Control, which has developed AI delusion of grandeur and wants all the data from the 100,000 year-old probe Discovery encountered a while back, from becoming a conscious life form exterminator of the highest order.
It’s Control, it turns out, which has dug its insidious software claws into Airiam who, against her will, is doing its bidding and who comes close, despite her best efforts to resist, to killing Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), and destroying Discovery and all its crew.
I say almost because before all that happens and the galaxy becomes home to an AI population of 1 and no conscious sentient creatures, Airiam, begging Burnham to do the unthinkable and flush out the airlock – she has disabled the cybernetic augmentation features which normally would keep her alive in open space – sacrifices herself.
Given how little we have seen of Airiam in action, this may not have left too much of an emotionally-scarring indentation on our hearts, but the writers took the time in the episode to give an elegantly-constructed peek at her backstory which includes footage of an un-augmented Airiam deeply in love and walking along the beach with her new husband.
It’s a scene full of bright promise and inestimable happiness that is snuffed just hours later when the shuttle they are taking to see family crashes, leaving, you presume, Airiam in such dire straits that cybernetic add-ons were the only way to keep her alive and ticking.
That beautiful, touching scene, and others that follow, including scenes of Airiam, Tilly (Mary Wiseman), Lt. Keyla Detmer (Emily Coutts) and Lt. Joann Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo) playing jovial games of Kadis-kot in the mess room, the bonds of friendship vital and clear for all to see, give us a profound sense of who Airiam is to such a well-executed degree that losing this little-explored (to date, anyway) character suddenly feel like an incomprehensible loss.
While you could argue they should have done more with her sooner, the reality is that Star Trek Discovery is an ensemble show and not everyone gets their moment in the narrative sun to shine.
That Airiam did, even if it was just before we had to tearfully bid her farewell, and that it meant so much, not just personally but in terms of the overall arc, underscores how well-written Discovery is this season and why watching has become so rewarding (to be fair, it already was in season 1 but the second season has definitely kicked things up a notch).
In the midst of all this existential musing and agonising, which go to the heart of what the Federation is and should be, and which only Deep Space Nine and The Next Generation have explored to any appreciable degree before it, Burnham had her own crisis of the soul as she battled to repair the fractured relationship between her and her brother Spock (Ethan Peck).
Over a game of 3D chess, symbolic because Spock was playing it as a solo game when the Red Angel first appeared to him, they attempt to work through the considerable issues before them.
Given how much time has elapsed since Burnham tried to run away from her new Vulcan family, telling Spock in the process that she thought he was weird and strange to get him to let her go (shattering both his love for his new adoptive sister and a nascent desire to explore and embrace his human half), it’s no wonder that they don’t succeed is sorting out all the sibling problems that beset them.
The game, and their conversation, ends acrimoniously, with Spock accusing her of carrying the emotional weight of the world on her shoulders (including the war with the Klingons and the death of her parents) and Burnham countering that Spock is refusing to take the time to work out why he is so angry, what really underlies his barely-concealed fury.
It’s a stand off of epically-familial proportions and it ends up in a messy stalemate just before Burnham is summoned to the bridge and has to go on a mission to Section 31’s body-strewn HQ, leaving both siblings, notably, Burnham, quite the worse for wear.
These sorts of small “e” emotional battles between two characters don’t always work against much bigger, more epic storylines such as the one that takes much of the narrative real estate in “Project Daedalus” but in this case, the two go together beautifully, gives us battles big and small that together carry one hell of an emotional sucker punch, which will no doubt have ramifications in the remaining episodes of this wholly-superlative second season.
Next week on Star Trek Discovery … “The Red Angel” reveals that Burnham is ready … but for what?