An ode to Airiam.
Full spoilers follow for this episode.
Oh, Airiam. We hardly knew you.
And now, we love you! Somehow, this episode’s writer Michelle Paradise, director Jonathan Frakes, and Airiam actress Hannah Cheesman managed to take what was, essentially, a glorified extra for the past season and a half and give her a fleshed-out back story and a character arc that ends tragically yet heroically, all in less than hour. It’s a fairly miraculous feat, and continues Discovery’s strong upward swing that began with last week’s visit to Talos IV.
Airiam is one of several bridge characters in Discovery who has served to give the ship (and show) a sense of continuity, always hard at work with the main cast but rarely getting more than a few lines of dialogue here or a reaction shot there. This group, which also includes helmsman Detmer, ops officer Owosekun, tactical officer Rhys, and communications officer Bryce, has gotten a bit more to do in Season 2, but this is the first time that one of them has really been treated as a full character. And man, in Airiam’s case it was worth the wait.
What makes the success of this story all the more surprising is the rather rote way that the “Airiam is infected by an evil force” thread has been playing out in recent episodes. We knew that she had been overcome by the future probe that is apparently the bane of the Red Angel, with Disco driving the point home with foreboding shots of the character as those red dots would blink in her eye, telegraphing that “oh no, Airiam is bad now!” It all felt like it could go the way the May story had proceeded earlier in the season, with a series of hints about the threat each week before a disappointing denouement.
But this hour is something far different. The cold open — which runs like 10 minutes, in true Discovery fashion! — establishes the bones and structure of “Project Daedalus,” with Admiral Cornwell rendezvousing with a now-renegade Discovery and determining that Spock is telling the truth and that a secret Section 31 base needs to be visited. But from there, the heart of the episode begins, as we finally learn the truth about Airiam: She’s an augmented or cyborg human who was gravely injured in an accident years before and transformed into the not-quite-human being that she is now. By the end of the episode, we will see just how human she actually is, however.
As Airiam works through her memories, deleting some to free up storage space the way you might junk crappy photos on your phone, we begin to learn how she is truly more than just a robot lady. She has relationships and feelings, choosing to archive certain memories involving her friends, the ones that are precious to her. Of course, her fondest memory is of her husband and her human self from right after they eloped… and right before he presumably died in the accident that would alter her forever.
This is offset by the fact that she is clearly being manipulated by the force within her, with a plan to do no good obviously underway. That she eventually asks for Tilly to stay with her while she works shows that Airiam can sense something is wrong, but can’t quite do anything about it. Meanwhile, newish security chief Nhan also suspects that Airiam is off. Which, eventually, will lead to something literally coming off… of Nhan’s face, when a berserker Airiam rips her breathing device from her skin onboard the Section 31 base!
It all comes to a head in that scene, as Frakes stages a Hong Kong-inspired fight scene with wirework and flying cyborgs that borders on going too far, but holds back just enough. By the time it’s Burnham and Airiam face to face through a windowed door, with Airiam begging her friend to airlock her before she can do some real harm, the stakes are high and so are the emotions for the characters and the viewer. That the show actually avoids copping out and kills Airiam in this moment is startling, and yet the entire episode is riding on it. If she had somehow survived, it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well.
And the final moments of Airiam drifting to the undiscovered country (yep, I went there) with that last, favorite memory of her husband playing out for her — the one that her friend Tilly had sent her in what was ultimately an act of compassion and not an attempt to save her lost friend — well… it doesn’t get better than that.
Questions and Notes from the Q Continuum:
- “Please tell everyone… I love them.”
- This episode seems oddly titled. “Project Daedalus” isn’t really revealed until the end, and it feels like it has more to do with Burnham than Airiam. Maybe they should’ve called the segment “The Robot Lady Dies and You’ll Be Sad.”
- Maybe I missed it, but why couldn’t the Disco beam everyone back to safety? Or even beam Airiam back once she was in space? Tyler survived similar circumstances last season, and he’s not even a cyborg.
- Why and how is a logic extremist a high-ranking Starfleet admiral?
- Before now, the producers of Discovery have been pretty publicly unclear about what Airiam actually was, calling her at different times a synthetic human, an augmented alien, and — eventually — an augmented human.
- Episode writer Michelle Paradise was recently announced as co-showrunner of Discovery Season 3. That seems like a good move, eh?
- Of course, there’s more going on in this episode, particularly Spock and Burnham’s continued exploration of their relationship. Things are not going well, and yet it’s clear that they both care for each other. We’ll revisit that in more detail next week, I expect.