Tonight’s Star Trek: Discovery made very clear what the major conflict of the rest of this season is going to be about. But in doing so, it seems to have sidestepped an altogether far more interesting conflict that’s already been brewing for most of the season.
A lot of “Project Daedalus” is about the perils of assuming the weight of a grand choice on yourself. For the Federation, or at least for Admiral Cornwell, it’s about realising that Starfleet handing over its tactical decision-making to an experimental A.I. that Section 31 houses at its base miiiiiight have been a teeny tiny bit of an extremely massive mistake.
For Captain Pike, it’s the sobering realisation that the Enterprise and his crew were kept out of the war with the Klingons to bear the burden of being Starfleet’s brightest should the war have gone wrong, at the cost of the organisation’s ideals elsewhere (like with, say, a highly ethically questionable secret branch that has now just become openly accepted by the rest of Starfleet command).
For Spock and Burnham, it’s the dueling weights of Spock’s complete befuddlement at being the one to hear the Red Angel’s warning about the dire future our heroes face, and Burnham’s desire to help him brush up against what he sees as her incessant desire to take every responsibility for every bad decision on herself, even when such a desire has burned bridges between the people she’s closest with (and caused even bigger problems beyond herself, like literally starting wars).
In the process, all of these characters are beginning to realise that in attempting to bear those weights themselves, consequences be damned, that the consequences are actually here to damn them now.
At least...it seems like they are, for a good chunk of the runtime of “Project Daedalus.” Admiral Cornwell comes aboard the Discovery with a stunning rogue mission: It’s time to reconcile Section 31's heinous actions with the rest of Starfleet and bring the organisation back in line, starting with a complete reset of the Control A.I. it’s safeguarding with an outstanding amount of lethal force.
Finally, someone not just accepting that Section 31 has to be part of Starfleet because they just went through a war where sacrificing Federation ideals became a lot easier to do! Weird that it’s the Admiral who very nearly did a genocide to end said war, but hey, at least someone is openly saying it now.
But it’s when the Discovery actually makes its way to Section 31 HQ and, one dangerous trip through an illegal minefield later, beams over Burnham, Nhan, and our poor unwitting saboteur Airiam to shut down Control, that we get the big twist of the episode. The Discovery’s real enemy isn’t Section 31 and the questionable Starfleet admirals that have aligned themselves with it. It’s Control itself, which has gone all HAL 9000, seemingly killed most of the crew left on board, and is creating falsified holographic communications to hide the fact that it’s an A.I. going rogue.
Now that this A.I. has control of Airiam’s cybernetic augmentations, she’s become its pawn in a bid to get even more powerful and bring about the cyber-organic war Spock’s visions warned of. And while that’s a hell of a bombshell—and it means we get both a very dramatic fight as the corrupted Airiam plows through poor Burnham and Nhan, and the tragedy of Airiam’s ultimate sacrifice, begging Burnham to eject her out the airlock before Control overwhelms her completely—it’s also a...weirdly disappointing one?
In many ways, it feels immediately like the same issue the first season had with the Mirror Universe. After setting up Captain Lorca as a morally compromised Starfleet officer changed by the stresses of war, and what the sacrifices he was willing to make meant for the soul of the Federation and Star Trek at large, it was revealed that instead he’s literally from the franchise’s entire universe of almost-comically-evil arseholes, undercutting any salient points the show had begun to challenge about Starfleet and the Federation’s fundamental tenents.
Swap Lorca with Discovery’s reinterpretation of a post-9/11 patriot act take on Section 31, and the Mirror Universe with your run-of-the-mill evil A.I., and you seemingly have what “Project Daedelus” sets up as the arc for the rest of this season.
I desperately, desperately hope that this isn’t the case, because scapegoating a lot of Section 31's sinister nature with the fact they got duped by an A.I. they attempted to control but couldn’t would seem to ignore the rest of the episode’s entire theme about the burdens of responsibility. We’d be on the road to a fight against an “easy” villain in the form of a blatantly sinister faceless machine, rather than confronting the faces we know — Leland, Georgiou, and even Tyler — about their presence in a structure that’s so utterly the antithesis of Starfleet’s loftiest ideals.
And maybe that’s the point, and another reason why Discovery is occasionally hampered by being a prequel to the vast majority of the Star Trek that came before it. Pike and his crew can’t really go toe-to-toe with Section 31, because we know it has to insidiously persist long enough in the shadows that it becomes Julian Bashir’s job to do that in Deep Space Nine.
Or, perhaps more cynically, we know they can’t because it’s about to get its very own TV show as part of Trek’s grander design. So instead, we’re left with the promise of that potential being sidestepped to put us on a collision course with a rogue A.I. storyline, ground that Trek has frequently trod time and time again in its past.
Again, a lot of what actually occurs in “Project Daedalus,” on a personal, micro scale, really works — the tragedy of Airiam’s sacrifice just as we’re getting to see this bridge crew interact as friends rather than just background officers, and the simmering, raw tensions of Spock and Burnham’s relationship cathartically exploding to the surface.
The action, whether it’s the Control-infected Airiam Terminator-ing her way through Burnam and Nhan or Detmer spinning the Discovery through the Section 31 minefield, feel like classic Trek setpieces we’ve not really got to see much of this season.
But, on the macro scale, what its twists represent—so far at least—can’t help but leave me a bit disappointed, and feeling an awful lot like we could be heading down a path of similar mistakes the first season made in its back half. Time will tell; we still have a good bit of the season left to see how this all plays out.
But between Section 31 and Control, there were two very different kinds of systems that Discovery could’ve really critiqued tonight—and it’s a little sad that it chose the more comfortably sinister one to chase, rather than the one that would’ve required further challenging the ideals Starfleet should hold dearest.
More prequel era-weirdness, but: If Starfleet had encountered an A.I. capable of creating holographic deepfakes in the 23rd century, you’d think that in the 24th they’d be a lot more concerned about fitting their most valuable flagships with giant holodecks?
On a similar note: how does a Logic Extremist like Patar, who hates the potential presence of humans in Vulcan society, ascend to the highest ranks of Starfleet!? Especially considering it was an open secret enough that Cornwell knew of it.
The minute we started getting Tragic Airiam Backstory, I knew she was going to bite the bullet (phaser bolt?) by the end of this episode. Which is sad, because finally they actually got to delve into not just her relationship with Tilly and the other bridge crew in a really sweet way, but the interesting idea of her robotic augmentations and how they actually worked. I wish we had more of that before it was just in service of making her death a bit sadder.
Speaking of that friendship though, a Kadis-kot mention! As a Voyager fan, that was a very cute shoutout that I appreciated.
Nhan attempting to sneakily watch Airiam on the bridge was honestly hilarious though, because...she’s just standing behind the bulkhead doing a really bad job of sneaking? Thank god the crew was dealing with being attacked by mines so no one would ask her what the hell she was doing!
Why do I get the feeling Project Daedalus will have something to do with Burnham’s parents? Between Airiam telling her it’s “all because of you,” Georgiou dropping hints about Leland being involved in their death, and all this Control/Section 31 stuff, and the flashbacks to young Michael this season, it feels like we’re on a collision course with her past becoming very relevant to the future Control’s A.I. wants.