Redshirts, Red Angels, and Red Herrings — Star Trek: Discovery’s “Project Daedalus”

One of my least favorite tropes of dramatic fiction in general and the Star Trek franchise in particular is the Redshirt Phenomenon. I’ve discussed this particular practice elsewhere on this site, but the short version is: It’s the laziest of lazy writing, showing that a situation is dangerous by killing a character, but that character barely qualifies as such, as it’s generally an extra or a person we barely know and don’t really care about.

“Project Daedalus” manages to embrace, invert, and reject the Redshirt Phenomenon all at the same time, and I honestly still haven’t figured out how I feel about it.

Normally this would be obvious, but I’m going to put in a SPOILER WARNING here because I’m going to talk about the very ending of the episode.

Seriously, I’m SPOILING THE ENDING!

Really!

Okay?

Good.

Here we go…

Lieutenant Commander Airiam sacrifices herself to save the ship at the very end of the episode, and this feels very much like redshirting, mostly because until this week, we didn’t know a damn thing about Airiam. Hell, this year, she’s played by a different actor (Hannah Cheeseman replacing Sara Mitich), and that barely even registered, because she’s been a non-entity. Until this week, we had no idea if she was a robot, cyborg, android, Borg, replicant, synthetic, plant, or what-the-hell-ever.

This second season of Discovery has generally done a good job of giving the secondary characters a bit more personality. It’s been slow, with bits and pieces, but barely enough to move the needle on turning these people from glorified extras into characters. Truly, the only ones who feel more fleshed out are Owosekun and Detmer; Bruce, Rhys and Airiam are still pretty much glorified extras.

And this week we lose one of them. The good news is that we finally know what Airiam is: a human who was in a shuttle accident. Her husband lost his life in that same accident, but Airiam was saved by having much of her body replaced by cybernetic implants. We also learn that she has limited memory capacity but is capable of downloading and erasing selected memories to clear space.

This all would’ve great stuff to know before we lose the character. In a serialized drama like Discovery, there’s really no excuse for redshirting someone who’s been around a while. But it’s all a bit too-little-too-late, because while Airiam’s general presence all along makes her familiar, it’s not familiar enough for her death to have anywhere near the emotional resonance for the viewer that it has for the characters. Scripter Michelle Paradise (a co-executive producer of the show, who will be the new co-show-runner with Alex Kurtzman in season three) and director Jonathan Frakes (who does his usual excellent job, if getting a bit too cutesy with camera angles here and there) do the best they can to make the death meaningful, as does Cheeseman. But the effectiveness is sadly diluted. By trying to avoid one cliché, they indulged in another, by killing a character just as we get to know them or as they’re about to do something nice or about to get promoted or retire or some other damn thing.

They also inverted the trope, because I thought for sure that we were going to lose Nhan. Discovery’s track record for security chiefs is pretty lousy: first there was the spectacular incompetent promoted due to Lorca’s fondness for his counterpart in his own universe, then there was the guy who turned out to be a Klingon double agent. When Airiam rips off Nhan’s breathing apparatus, I thought for sure that we were going to lose her as well. In fact, Paradise and Frakes pulled a nice double-fake, as it sure looked like Nhan was dead, but then she managed to crawl to the airlock control and followed the order to open the airlock on Airiam that Burnham proved unable to follow.

I did like how that aspect was played. Burnham tried very hard to do whatever she could not to space her friend. The decision was not made lightly, not by Airiam who insisted on it as she was no longer in control of her body (and barely in control of her voice), not by Pike who very quietly gave Burnham the order to do it, and not by Burnham who could not bring herself to obey it. And it’s completely in character for Burnham to have difficulty with that, given that she had to stand there and watch her mentor die in front of her, an event that was sufficiently traumatic that it caused her to bring a despot over from the Mirror Universe because she looked just like that mentor. Not to mention sitting in a closet listening to her parents get killed by Klingons.

That was just the latest emotional beating Burnham took in this episode, as she and Spock hash things out in her quarters over a game of three-dimensional chess. We see that Burnham’s tragic flaw—her insistence on taking on all burdens to herself, whether she actually should or not—goes back to her childhood. Spock points out that the logic extremists targeting Sarek would not be ameliorated by Burnham’s departure, as Spock’s very existence is what put the bull’s eye on them.

Screenshot: CBS

Ethan Peck and Sonequa Martin-Green play the scene beautifully, as these two hurt each other in ways that only siblings can. What I especially like is that Peck plays Spock as calm but with the emotions brimming near the surface, while Martin-Green plays Burnham both the same and differently, as her emotional outbursts are much closer to the surface, but her calm is also greater. I also like that Peck’s anger and bitterness gets turned up a notch when the subject of Sarek comes up.

In the end, we find out that we’ve got that old Trek standby, the A.I. gone mad. Control, the computer that manages Section 31, apparently wants to be a real boy, and is trying to become sentient. It has also killed the four admirals we saw communicating with Leland and Georgiou last week and created artificial images of them for communications.

The approach to Section 31’s headquarters includes the latest crowning moment of awesome for Anson Mount’s Christopher Pike, as he lectures Admiral Cornwell (a welcome return from Jayne Brook, who joins Discovery in their fugitive state in order to stop one of the admirals from taking over Section 31 and the Federation, though it turns out to have been Control all along) on 31’s use of illegal technology to defend their base. Pike accuses her of keeping Enterprise out of the war because they knew Pike would object to things like defending 31’s HQ with mines, and Cornwell calmly retorts that they kept them out of the war so that if the Federation fell, the best of them would still be left standing.

(The more I see of this season, the more I want them to do a spinoff, or at least a miniseries, on the Enterprise with Mount, Peck, and Rebecca Romijn starring. This is something I would have decried as a pointless exercise in retro storytelling until recently, but Mount is so damn good that I want more of him captaining a ship, and we already know that he goes back to Enterprise eventually.)

Most of the emotional beats hit in this episode, from Pike’s frustration with 31’s corrupting of Federation ideals, to Cornwell’s trying to live up to those ideals (interesting to see given her call for genocide in “Will You Take My Hand?”), to Tilly’s impassioned plea for Airiam to remember who she is (Airiam’s memory of Detmer refusing to play kadis-kot with Airiam or Tilly anymore is a high point of the episode, and not just because it references a game first seen on Voyager), to Stamets reminding Spock that Burnham risked everything to save him and that she loves him, to Spock explaining his own difficulties indirectly by telling Stamets that Culber probably moved out of his and Stamets’s shared quarters because Culber is having difficulty processing his emotions.

And hey, look, Saru helped save the day! He figures out that Spock is innocent of murder and that the image they saw of one of the admirals was fake with science!

Airiam’s last words were an indication that Burnham was important to whatever the heck is going on this season, and also that they have to find Project Daedalus, thus at last justifying the episode’s title in its final moments.

While next week does appear to be dealing with that, we also see Airiam’s funeral. It’s still not as much as it should be, but I hope that Airiam’s death will continue to have an impact on the crew, even if it doesn’t affect the viewers as much as it should. Airiam was their crewmate, and I want to see them mourning her, not forgetting her existence the way most Star Trek characters treat people who make the tragic mistake of dying while not listed in the opening credits.

Keith R.A. DeCandido is at Emerald City Comic-Con in Seattle this weekend. Also at the con are Star Trek actors George Takei, Jason Isaacs, Rainn Wilson, and Sonequa Martin-Green. Keith will mostly be at Bard’s Tower (Booth 1121 on the show floor of Level 4 of the convention center) selling and signing his books, and he’ll also be doing panels on Star Wars on Saturday at 3pm and on Star Trek (including discussion of Discovery) on Sunday at 2.45pm.

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