Photo: Michael Gibson (CBS)
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I went into “Project Deadalus” determined to keep an open mind. My reaction to last week’s episode was a legitimate one—I didn’t decide to get frustrated with the unnecessary call-backs and weird pacing just so I could yell about something for several paragraphs—but it can be easy to lean into a particular view of a show and start to see the worst in everything. It’s entirely possible that the problems I had obscured me from appreciating what was actually effective, and I’ll admit to struggling to see the show in the same light as its fans. I don’t think I’ll ever embrace this uncritically (if I do, I think I would be bad at my job?), but I can, at the very least, make an effort to not keep making the same complaints over and over again.

Turns out, this wasn’t really necessary. It’s possible I could’ve come out of this episode still bothered by the same things that always bother me, but while some of those frustrations remain (the show is still kind of lousy at building a sense of anything real outside of the Discovery), this is such an overall strong entry that I think I would’ve have loved this even if I’d come to it determined to hate it. “Project Deadalus” is much of what Discovery does best, from the big action set-pieces to the willingness to raise stakes, combined with some of the most satisfying character work the show has done in ages. Maybe ever. If this is how good the show can be when it actually focuses on its strengths, I’m willing to put up with the occasional ill-advised callback.

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Actually, “Project” provides a solid example of a really good callback: namely, a reference to a central theme or story idea from the original series that recontextualizes that concept into something new. We learn that Control, the artificial intelligence that’s behind Section 31 (and, apparently, pretty much all the Federation at this point), has gone rogue. Whether or not the system is being controlled by another party is a mystery for another time. But “civilization in the grip of an evil machine” was a standard plotline in the original Star Trek, and to see it brought back, only to have its origins in Starfleet’s own systems, is pretty neat.

Really, the whole storyline with Control is a good one. It moves fast: the episode starts with Admiral Cornwell arriving via shuttle to talk with Pike to warn him that something is very wrong with Section 31. She proposes heading straight the Section 31 headquarters, which, conveniently enough, is the address the secret messages we learned about last week were being sent to. Whether or not this is a little too convenient is up to the viewer to decide. It makes perfect logical sense, but, as with Pike’s decision to damn the torpedoes and head straight to the former space penal colony that Section 31 calls home without so much as a staff meeting, there’s little room to breathe. This, again, has always been part of Discovery’s M.O., perhap as a function of the reduced episode number in each season from earlier Trek shows, and the focus on serialization. It basically works here because there’s a strong enough emotional core to help gloss over any of the awkward bits.

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Much of that emotional core comes from the rapid-fire development (and ultimate dispatching) of one of the show’s more striking background characters: Airiam, the Six Million Dollar Woman. Apart from her visual design, we haven’t spent much time with Airiam before now, but for once, Discovery set its sights on a crew member and manages to make them just interesting enough to care about. It’s very neatly done, and a large part of the praise should go to Michelle Paradise’s excellent script. The whole episode is really a master class in maximizing impact in a limited amount of time. We get a handful of scenes with Airiam, but the broad strokes are enough to establish the pathos necessary to give her loss at the end of the hour real meaning. We learn that, because of her computer brain, she has to repeatedly go over her personal memories and decide which ones to delete and which ones to save. It’s a clever sci-fi touch that uses her visual design to nifty effect—and even better, it has multiple payoffs before the end.

Really, this is the sort thing the show has needed to do for ages. Instead of burning more time on Tyler (who, much to my relief, spent this hour off-screen and locked in his quarters), we need to know more about the people on the Discovery so that it’s possible root for them as more than just a concept. We don’t even need that much screentime. The episode still manages to give us a couple of strong action sequences, a creepy “everyone here is dead” space station sequence, and several scenes that deepen the relationship between Spock and Michael. Hell, we have a scene between Spock and Stamets that actually made me enjoy Stamets for once.

This is just good, good stuff, the kind of writing that gives actors a chance to really dig in, while ensuring that the Big Moments, when they happen, have a context and depth beyond their initial pizazz. It’s not all perfect—I’m not huge on the revelation that everything that’s going on is somehow connected to Michael, although it does explain why the Red Angel contacted Spock. But it just feels more like a show that’s telling a story for once, and not just a collection of shiny things arranged to good effect.

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About those Spock and Michael scenes: I was initially worried that the show was going to lean too hard into Michael having to teach her brother how to be a better Vulcan or something, but their fight over a 3D chess game is actually a lot more complicated and interesting than that. Both characters make good, if brutal, points about each other, and this is considerably more compelling than last week’s revelation that Spock is pissed because Michael was mean to him when he was eight. It feels like the sort of painful, awkward sniping that seemingly all siblings go through at some point, and does well by both characters. And, as with Airiam’s memory archiving, it also pays off later in the episode in the main story, giving Michael the inspiration to use random movements to “upset” Control’s attack protocols.

There are so many really excellent examples of setups and payoffs throughout the episode that you feel rewarded for paying attention to something you were already enjoying. The craft here is just superb, and for once, I find myself appreciate the entry the more I think about it, noticing nuances I missed on the first time through. Hell, this even uses “Tilly saves the day” in a satisfying fashion, both offering Airiam a chance to have a few final moments as herself and then immediately undercutting it by having those final moments fail to save her. For the first time since the Red Angel story was introduced, I find myself legitimately and fully engaged in what happens next. All it took was a story that remembered to take the time to make me care.

Stray observations

  • I like how all of Airiam’s memories are in first person except for the video she and her husband took on the day before the shuttle crash. It’s a small, subtle touch that’s both internally consistent and a nice way of reinforcing how alienated she must feel from her former life.
  • I’m not sure how Spock figured out the Stamets/Culber relationship so quickly, but it works.
  • Okay, I didn’t go too deep into the plot but: upon arriving at Section 31 headquarters, Michael, Airiam, and Commander Nahn discover everyone on board the station, including the Vulcan admiral who programmed Control, is dead. While under the control of, um, Control (which snagged her brain through the time traveling space probe), Airiam downloaded all the sphere’s info on artificial intelligence and was in the process of transferring that information when Tilly interrupts her with some happy memories, giving time for Nahn to shoot her out an airlock. There’s also a nifty fight sequence between Burnham and mind-controlled Airiam

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