Star Trek: Discovery – Season 2 Episode 9
Star Trek: Discovery takes the crew to Section 31 headquarters and pushes the corrupted Airiam plot to the front.
This show has an interesting approach to characters in the context of the Star Trek franchise. Previous entries have focused on the bridge crew with each of them having a defined role on the ship and having their character grow out from there. Discovery takes a different approach with the main characters not filling the traditional roles within the crew. It’s an approach that largely works though it makes the Discovery feel less like a community because there’s less focus on how the crew function as a team. It is in there but it’s far from the focus.
Season 2 has tried to fix that to some degree with the recurring bridge crew characters having more lines and small character details being revealed at different points though they are still far from developed characters. Airiam has always been interesting based entirely on her unique look. It immediately conjures up questions around who or what she is so it’s good to finally have an episode focused fleshing her out. It was recently established that she is now a threat to the crew after being corrupted by the future probe and this episode explores what that actually means for her as well as the rest of the crew.
The script does an amazing job delivering important details about Airiam in a really efficient way. She is shown going through her memories deciding what to keep and what to delete. The memories she decides to keep all contain the crew and depict her as being part of a close group of friends containing Detmer, Owosekun, Rhys, Tilly and Burnham. Even though most of them aren’t developed characters in their own right these memories work brilliantly as they show a natural group of friends that are very comfortable around one another and clearly enjoy their time together. Moments of authenticity like this really help establish that the Discovery does have a sense of community to it making it feel more like a real work place where friendships grow out of proximity and shared interests. Being out in deep space could be a very lonely existence if relationships aren’t forged and these characters have clearly formed a group dynamic that works for each of them.
Airiam’s past has a great deal of tragedy to it as shown through her favourite memory of her Honeymoon just before an accident resulted in the cybernetic enhancements she now has. This reinforces the importance of keeping the memories that showcase companionship as it offsets the loss she has experienced. Keeping a vial of sand from the beach she and her husband were on during their Honeymoon prior to the accident is telling as to how important remembering the past is to her. These are relatively small details but enrich her character so much.
Her interactions with Tilly also tell us a lot about Airiam. She’s quite positive despite all she has been through and has a believable back and forth with Tilly who fully accepts everything she is and is very comfortable around her. Their banter is really endearing with Airiam teasing Tilly about memories of her being the first to go. This tells us that Airiam has accepted what has happened to her and doesn’t let that negatively impact the way she lives her life. Once again small details help in understanding the character and making her feel like much more than the plot device she might otherwise be seen as.
Airiam has a very specific purpose in this episode and without the work done to make her feel like a developed character the impact would have been significantly lessened. In order for the episode to work on an emotional level the work had to be put in to make Airiam stand out. Taking steps to establish her humanity helps to sell that there is a conflict between that and her cybernetic augmentation thanks to the corruption by the probe. There’s a great moment where she asks Tilly to stand next to her at all times because she’s aware that there is some sort of a problem that she is powerless to do anything about. Having someone else notice it is what she needs in order to be stopped and she trusts that Tilly will be best placed to pick up on it if she keeps an eye on what she’s doing.
Unfortunately that doesn’t happen and Airiam ends up being the main threat on an away mission that has to be stopped. This results in a fairly cool wire work fight sequence between Burnham and Airiam but the real meat is in the emotional conflict that plays out. Burnham and Airiam are close friends so the prospect of having to kill her for the good of the mission as well as the ship is understandably difficult for her. She refused to accept it as the only solution and frantically works to find another way because the thought of losing a friend is difficult for her to accept. Pike tries to absolve her of the emotional responsibility by ordering her to flush Airiam out of the airlock but Burnham still can’t bring herself to do it. Eventually Commander Nhan (Rachael Ancheril) shoulders that responsibility therefore ending the threat and, unfortunately, Airiam’s life.
Airiam’s final moments are powerfully handled. Hannah Cheesman’s performance as Airiam struggles to hold onto her humanity in order to be lucid enough to make the necessary sacrifice to ensure the safety of her friends is excellent. The desperation in her distorted voice comes through clearly as does the strong connection she feels towards her friends. Tilly’s attempt to appeal to her on a personal level once the corruption has taken over her makes great use of the friendship that clearly exists between them. All of this amounts to a really tragic death for Airiam that feels both earned an impactful. Even though she was only the focus of a single episode enough work was done to make her death mean something and it’s clear that it will have a lasting impact on the crew. There is also the detail of her memories being downloaded into Discovery’s memory which could offer some comfort in that she isn’t completely gone though I hope this won’t be used to cheapen her death by downloading her memories into a new body in order to resurrect her. I don’t think that will be the case though it would give Spock something to keep in mind for future reference.
There were some flaws to this sequence. It was never explained why Airiam couldn’t simply be beamed back to Discovery and put in the brig until someone could figure out how to get rid of the corruption. Even if it was somehow impossible to beam her out while she was on the station it would surely be possible once she was blown out the airlock. This happened to Tyler last season and he’s likely nowhere near as resilient as Airiam is so the lack of explanation on either of these points is somewhat lazy.
Another issue is with Commander Nhan who acts as an example of the problems Discovery has with characterisation. She’s on a secondment from the Enterprise at this point and joins the other underdeveloped bridge officers that permeate the show. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem under normal circumstances but the episode clearly shows her being suspicious of Airiam early on and conducting her own sneaky investigation as time goes on. It’s unclear why she chose not to bring her suspicions to Pike or anyone else as doing so would have highlighted the problem and prevented the climax from taking pace. There is no reason for her to keep this to herself no matter how circumstantial her evidence might be.
Nhan’s lack of development robs Airiam’s death of some of its weight as having her be the one to blow her out of the airlock has less impact than Burnham having to do it. Yes it stops Burnham from having another death on her conscience to some degree -even though she will likely still feel responsible- but it also means that the emotional connection is lessened as Nhan is a glorified extra who takes on a particular role in certain scenes. If some effort had went into giving her a character since she was brought aboard Discovery then this might be more meaningful but as it sits her usage in this episode is problematic.
The main plot involves Admiral Cornwell sneaking aboard Discovery to enlist the crew to help her have her command code unblocked from Control; the central hub of Section 31 and a number of Starfleet operations. There’s a cool sequence involving Discovery negotiating a mine field which shows Pike’s ability to pull the crew together to solve problems as they all shout out random evasive manoeuvre patterns in order to confuse the A.I. with chaotic decisions rendering it unable to predict their next move. Once again an engaging action sequence involving the ship is created without it being a simple space battle. It’s both creative and exciting while also being rooted in the characters.
Pike objects to the minefield as it is apparently illegal under Federation law to make use of mines for some reason. Admiral Cornwell points out that protocol goes out of the window during the time of War and Pike counters that by asking her if the Enterprise was sidelined out of fear that Pike would keep reminding her of the values she is supposed to uphold. Cornwell tells him that the Enterprise was sidelined because it represents the best of Starfleet and that had to be preserved if the War was lost. Pike’s reaction in this scenario proves that she was right to do so which continues the theme of Pike representing Starfleet and the Federation at its best.
It seems that the Control A.I. has become corrupted in some way as evidenced by it killing all of those stationed on the facility and staging holographic hoaxes in order to do things like frame Spock for murder. How this has happened is unclear but there is a strong implication that there is some form of intervention from the future and there is a clear connection to the probe that corrupted Airiam since she was tasked with sending information back to Control. Her sleeper mission in this episode was to deliver all of the dead Sphere‘s information on artificial intelligence to Control which suggests that it is looking to evolve very quickly. It isn’t explicitly stated but it appears that the A.I. has gained sentience and has its own agenda of some sort involving manipulating events in order to reach a very specific outcome. This doesn’t absolve Section 31 of their morally questionable decisions as those are still definitely made by people but it does suggest that they are equally as deceived as anyone else. Since this episode is more about the emotional impact of Airiam’s loss the narrative possibilities aren’t explored but it’s clear that it will be dealt with at a later point.
I find the questions surrounding this really intriguing. Has the A.I. gained sentience? How did this happen? What is it’s connection to the future probe and the overall threat against sentient life in the galaxy? What did Airiam mean when she said that it was all about Michael Burnham? This is the sort of mystery development that I enjoy as it asks a lot of fascinating questions that feed into one another. My theory that the Red Angel will turn out to be a future Michael Burnham seems to be gaining traction based on what this episode teases.
Spock being on Discovery allows for the exploration of his complex dynamic with Burnham. They try to remain on task in order to work on the Red Angel mystery but there’s so much tension between them that they fail to work together effectively. Analysing the available data opens up the possibility that the Red Angel doesn’t have anything to do with the Red Bursts and may only be following them in the same way Discovery is. This opens up the possibility of a third party being at work outside of the Red Angel and the unknown antagonists looking to destroy the galaxy which is intriguing on the surface but may not go anywhere interesting. Throwing out this possibility is a quick way to establish that Spock’s input is valuable and reshapes thinking in different ways.
Burnham tries to help Spock refocus his logical thinking through a game of 3 Dimensional Chess but it only serves to exacerbate Spock’s frustrations. She points out that he’s not behaving logically judging by the decisions he makes in his moves. He is behaving irrationally looking to inject chaos into the game because he resents Burnham and her efforts to help him. His analysis of Burnham is that she constantly tries to solve situations that she couldn’t possibly solve. He references the death of her parents at the hands of Klingons after she asked them to take her to witness a star going supernova. She blames herself for this because it was her that wanted the trip though rationally there’s no way she could have predicted this. As a child there was nothing she could have done to stop her parents from being killed either as she stood no chance against the Klingons that killed them. Spock’s summation of this even it brutal and impactful as he connects that to her desire to help him now. A time travelling entity warped his entire perception of reality so he doesn’t see how anyone, much less Burnham, could do anything to help him with that. He also references her running away to protect Spock, Sarek and Amanda from Logic Extremists as being pointless because they hated him rather than her.
Whether that’s true or not is irrelevant as it serves to highlight that Spock sees her desire to accept burdens rather than process her grief in a healthy way as the root of the rift that exists between them. Burnham becomes very defensive at this suggestion and flips it back to encouraging Spock to understand where all of this anger is coming from but he thinks there is no distinct cause and is enjoying expressing his emotions possibly because it helps him deal with his lack of understanding of the mystery at hand. The scenes between Burnham and Spock are really well done with strong acting across the board. Ethan Peck doesn’t feel like the Spock fans will be familiar with but that’s entirely the point as circumstances have him feeling unlike himself. For new fans who might not be as familiar with Spock as a character and how he is “supposed” to act there is a fascinating new character being explored relative to Burnham through the lens of their familial relationship. It’s cleverly handled and brings something new to both sides of the fandom.
Spock shares most of his scenes with Burnham but has a really engaging conversation with Stamets as he helps repair a damaged component. Spock’s confidence comes across when he points out that he has many talents in a really casual way and his emotional intelligence is explored though his reading of the current state of the Stamets/Culber relationship. On one hand this does seem to contrast the many gags at Spock’s expense in numerous episodes of The Original Series where he clearly doesn’t understand the emotional reactions that are in front of him but I don’t see this as a contradiction as he is able to understand this situation because it’s very similar to his own. He suggests to Stamets that Culber’s reaction has nothing to do with how he feels about him and has everything to do with how he feels about himself. Spock is dealing with a similar enough personal issue as he has no idea why the Red Angel came to him over any other sentient being in the galaxy. In other words he’s special and has no idea why so can understand that Culber has no idea why he would be brought back. It’s a great moment that once again proves that Spock’s input is valuable in the context of the show and I look forward to seeing how he interacts with other characters.
An excellent episode that pushes a background character into the spotlight in a really powerful way and does strong work exploring the Spock/Burnham dynamic. Taking the time to develop Airiam as a character through her history and relationships with the crew worked really well in establishing her as a developed character in order to make her sacrifice impactful at the end. She is shown to have a realistic friendship with member of the crew shown through dialogue that feels natural for close friends to share. Her interactions with Tilly both early on and in her final moments reinforce this fact as well as fully establishing her humanity therefore making her loss feel even more significant. There are some flaws in the circumstances surrounding her death because of the lack of development for Commander Nhan who doesn’t report her suspicions to Pike for reasons that are completely unknown. Similarly having her be the one to blow Airiam out the airlock instead of Burnham robs the moment of some of its weight.
The main plot involving the suggestion of a sentient A.I. manipulating events and people for its own unknown purposes is an interesting addition to the ongoing mystery that doesn’t absolve Section 31 of morally questionable decisions but does make them victims of the same deception. The action sequence involving navigation of the minefield is really well done both on a visual level and as a showcase of Pike’s ability to bring the crew together. Pike’s conflict with Cornwell over the moral ambiguity of War further reinforces Pike as the gold standard of Federation ideals. Spock and Burnham’s dynamic is really engaging. There’s a lot for both of them to work though and Spock’s observation that Burnham has a tendency to accept burdens instead of processing her grief in a healthy way is really cutting and causes Burnham to flip the argument back around on Spock who admits that he enjoys expressing emotions even if it’s anger. Ethan Peck is a very different Spock to the one fans will be familiar with but that’s entirely the point as he is processing having his understanding of reality warped by an encounter with an entity from the future. His conversation with Stamets where he suggests that Culber left him because he’s uncertain how he feels about himself rather than Stamets works really well despite Spock’s famous lack of understanding of emotion because it’s exactly how he feels albeit in a different way. Spock’s input in this show so far proves valuable and I look forward to seeing how this impacts interactions with other members of the cast.
- taking time to develop Airiam as a fascinating character
- her natural interactions and believable friendships with other members of the crew
- an impactful and emotional death for her thanks to the strong work carried out
- compelling additions to the ongoing mystery
- reinforcing Pike as the gold standard of Starfleet and the Federation
- the turbulent Spock/Burnham dynamic
- Spock’s perspective on Burnham’s controlling nature as a deflection from dealing with her own grief
- Spock’s input into the Stamets/Culber relationship as a mirror for how he feels
- Commander Nhan being a poorly developed character
- no justifiable reason given for why Nhan doesn’t report her suspicions
- no reason given for why Airiam couldn’t be beamed back to Discovery
- Nhan being the one to blow Airiam out of the airlock feeling like a cop out
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