Monday, March 18, 2019

Project Daedalus

Star Trek: Discovery is undeniably the most action-oriented of all Star Trek series to date. To some extent, the previous series weren't actiony out of necessity, the budgetary and technological limitations of their times forcing a more dialogue centered approach. Discovery does still try to be Star Trek, mixing in the big ideas and introspection where it can. But sometimes, the blend isn't entirely successful. So it was for me with the newest episode, "Project Daedalus."

Admiral Cornwell arrives aboard the Discovery in secret. Though she isn't immediately ready to believe in Spock's innocence, she's distrusting of Section 31. Their analytical computer, Control, has stopped accepting input from her and other Starfleet admirals, and she wants Discovery to go there and find out why. It's a dangerous journey that leads to an alarming revelation.

There's plenty in this episode that I thought was quite good -- though that material was all rather front-loaded. It's nice to have Cornwell back, and interacting with a very different captain than in season 1. Cornwell is among the more interesting Admiral characters Star Trek has had over the years; she's different because of her medical background, and Discovery's writers continue to use her in a way that highlights this.

The sibling rivalry between Michael and Spock was excellent. Some might say Spock was pushed too far into emotion this episode, but I thought the character was used perfectly. No one knows how to push your buttons quite like a sibling. Michael and Spock were both pushing on each other in a way that felt very personal and very real. It was Ethan Peck's first real chance to do something substantial in the role of Spock. He rose to the occasion, and Sonequa Martin-Green played wonderfully off of him.

But once Discovery arrived at Section 31's base, the well-built machine of this episode began to come apart for me. The series is sometimes so determined to maintain a breathless pace that it doesn't even slow down to drop in a line or two of explanatory dialogue that would patch fairly glaring plot holes. Running the mine field gauntlet was an interesting scenario, but you feel like the crew of any previous Star Trek series would have found another way around the problem -- jamming the mines with interference, masking the ship's passage somehow, something. Hell, you want the action solution? Hang back at a distance and use weapons to detonate the mines. (Pike had clearly expressed his disdain for Section 31 even having the mines, so what's a little destruction of Starfleet property?)

Boarding the base itself was a fun and moody bit of horror, featuring frozen bodies hovering in zero-g and atmospheric lighting. But then came a climactic series of showdowns and revelations that fell completely flat for me. (And it gets extra SPOILERY from here.)

How did a "logic extremist" even rise to such a position of authority in Starfleet in the first place? That feels like something that really needs exploration, but we're not likely ever to get it.

Will the series really be able to do something with the Killer AI trope that hasn't already been done in several past Trek episodes, many sci-fi movies (including the first Star Trek movie), Doctor Who, and hell -- even The Orville?

When "hacked Airiam" rips out Nhan's breathing apparatus, why doesn't Nhan just close the helmet of the spacesuit she's wearing and pump in some atmosphere that's standard for her?

When Michael traps Airiam, why does she not go to check on Nhan?

Why can't Discovery just beam them back? Any of them? Nhan when she gets into trouble, or Airiam once she starts going crazy? Hold her in the pattern buffer, beam her straight into the brig -- something. Anything. (Seriously, I must have missed them explaining this. I cannot imagine they actually overlooked something so basic.)

I know we're all supposed to feel for the death of Airiam, but they waited until this episode to even make much of a character out of her. And the fact that they suddenly hit us with such transparent melancholy as her "weekly memory purge" made it pretty predictable what was going to happen to her by the end of the episode. It felt especially false to wedge in a sudden friendship with Tilly we never saw evidence of before now. Indeed, when Michael first came aboard Discovery in season one, Tilly told her (and us) quite explicitly that she had no other friends on the ship. So it feels as though we really ought to have seen the developing friendship between Tilly and Airiam before the sudden calculation that it was needed for emotional heft.

I was really loving this episode in the first half, and then felt like it completely threw all that away in the second. The result is an installment really hard for me to sum up in one rating. If I think more about what I liked, it feels like a B+ episode. If I think more about the last 15 minutes, it feels like a C+ at best. It may come down to hindsight, and how I feel later about the season as a whole. Right now, after a few mid-season episodes that have left me feeling less charitable to the series, I think I'm going to call this one a B-.

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