Can Star Trek: Discovery not destroy my soul every week?
While the show has done its best job of keeping tension and emotions high, this week’s episode, “Project Daedalus,” is the season’s saddest and most intense yet. At the same time, it was also a masterclass of how to write a great death. As we’ve seen already multiple times, Season 2 has made it a point to show up Season 1 in terms of characterization, storyline, and overall depth of meaning, and this week’s sad death continues that trend. Here’s how this tragedy is evidence of this season’s rise to Star Trek prominence, as well as how the death highlights another tragedy – underutilizing an awesome character until it’s too late.
I don’t usually give a spoiler warning with these recaps, but if you are reading this and you haven’t watched this week’s episode, don’t read further because you will find out who dies. Okay? The recap begins now.
It’s with a heavy heart that we have to say goodbye to our favorite cyborg, Airiam. Airiam sacrificed herself for the greater good during an away mission with Michael and Nhan (Rachael Ancheril) to infiltrate Section 31, reset Section 31’s threat-assessment system Control, and arrest Admiral Patar (Tara Nicodemo). But not only do they realize that Patar and the other Section 31 admirals are dead, Spock was framed, and that they’ve been interacting with holograms this whole time, Airiam realizes she’s been compromised by the very system they’re trying to restore. Understanding that she must kill herself to save her crew and prevent Control from doing any more damage, she asks Michael to fling her out into space.
Overall, this episode acted as a little Airiam character study, since we got to see more of her life before she became a cybernetic being. Apparently, before her life in her new body, she was coming back from an elopement. The day should have been the happiest of her life, but she was hurt in a horrible starship accident; while she barely survived, her husband died, and she was forced to live in a new cybernetic form.
While her new form provides her with imperviousness to most human ailments, she is not immune to technological ones, as is the case with Section 31’s threat assessment system Control. The problem with Airiam seemed to occur right after Discovery was able to dismantle that futuristic probe that nearly killed Tyler and Pike in the tear in space-time. Whatever was in that probe found its way inside of Airiam and took over her body. That leads us to where we are now, with Airiam supplying Control with information from that dying star against her will. As Michael realizes, Control wants to use the star’s wealth of information about the universe’s various beings for one reason: to become sentient. If that happens, it could destroy all life in the universe and make the Red Angel’s premonition a reality.
How to Write a Death
We haven’t had much personalization of Airiam until this episode, and that’s something I’m going to get into at length later in this recap. But first, it’s necessary to say how well the show handled Airiam’s death and really made it something that made sense for the story and successfully pulled at the heartstrings.
Despite the fact that we never got much one-on-one with Airiam, I feel like a lot of us who are fans of the show still feel some sense of comfort by seeing Airiam on the screen. I think this happens to most Star Trek fans when they become used to seeing a certain bridge crew episode after episode. They become almost like news anchors – touchstones of familiarity and safety. A Star Trek bridge crew hardly ever changes, so when it does, it can be a very jarring experience and remind people that nothing is ever actually set in stone.
With that said, it was nice to actually get to know Airiam in this episode. We could see just how integral she is to the crew and how much they consider her a friend. I wish we could have gone through her memories a lot earlier, or seen more interaction with her and her crew members in other episodes. But seeing Airiam’s life and death is both a positive and negative for this episode.
First, let me point out the positive. The writing team really put their weight into this to make sure Airiam’s death was done honorably and respectfully. They were able to give the character a full arc, a complete hero’s moment in the spotlight. They were able to make us, the viewers, latch onto Airiam and not want to believe what we knew was coming. Usually, the Discovery crew can figure a way out of most predicaments, but this time, not even Michael’s wild persistence could alter the fact that the crew would have to give up one of their own to save themselves and (hopefully) save the universe. And, even better, the preview for next week shows that they are actually going to give Airiam a proper funeral. Can we say the same for how the show handled Culber’s death in Season 1?
This is the reason why I feel like this season is doing all it can to distinguish itself from last season. Whereas Culber was unceremoniously killed and his death lent nothing to the story except shock value, Airiam’s death had a legitimate reason for happening. Yes, it helped move the story along, since she name-dropped Project Daedalus, a thing our crew is going to have to understand if they plan on altering the future, but it also showcased Airiam as pure Starfleet material: a genuine, selfless person who would rather sacrifice herself than put her crew and the entire universe in danger.
However, while I love how the show handled Airiam’s death, I have to ask if her characterization came way too late for it to make a difference to some fans.
How Well Do We Know Airiam?
As I’ve stated plenty of times before, we haven’t gotten to know Airiam very well until this episode. I’m sure some might wonder if her death could have been even more effective if we were familiar with her past and struggles before now. Up until now, I think a lot of people still thought she was a complete robot and not a cybernetic human. We’ve also never seen her emote as much as she has in this episode; it would have been nice to see her range of emotions before now, because I’m sure some felt like seeing her emote was out of character. Certainly, seeing her have an off-screen friendship with Tilly is something new. But as viewers, we’re supposed to buy the fact that a lot of stuff between Airiam and the other crew members happens all the time.
Can we honestly do that? I guess that’s going to be left to the individual. I can halfway buy it, but I’m still like, “I wish I’d seen some of this beforehand.” Case in point: We’ve seen Rhys emote more in Season 1 than Airiam has in both seasons, and Rhys barely even talked last season.
Despite Airiam’s characterization being filled in at the last second, there is one thing we need to remember: while death happens in the Star Trek universe, a death of a major character is hardly ever final. We’ve seen it before with Spock, then with Alternate Timeline Kirk (aka Chris Pine in the new Star Trek films), and now with Culber. I’d be surprised if we don’t see Airiam come back in some shape or form, especially since she’s downloaded all of her memories into the Discovery.
Hannah Cheesman, who played Airiam this season, told SyFy that she hopes Airiam can come back, since she views Airaim as a proto-Data. “My dream though is this…they do use her memories and bring her back. But she’s somehow more humanoid and I don’t have to wear the prosthetics,” she said. This could be possible, since Airiam’s cyborg body is less technologically-savvy than Data’s, who is much more humanoid in appearance. Perhaps Airiam 2.0 could be on the way.
But there’s one other thing that could be on the way: The Borg.
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