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Josh Reviews Star Trek: Discovery “Project Daedalus” and “The Red Angel”

Here are my thoughts on the most recent two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery season two.

Episode 9: “Project Daedalus” — The set-up of this episode is just terrible and had me repeatedly rolling my eyes.  But then, out of nowhere, the last fifteen-to-twenty minutes turn into a rollicking good time with great suspense and action and a surprisingly moving ending.  This is Discovery at its best and at its worst.

What’s bad?  Where to begin.  Star Trek: Discovery has demonstrated a complete misunderstanding of Section 31 since the beginning, and things just get worse and worse in the opening of this episode.  Admiral Cornwell reveals that “Control” is a computer system into which Starfleet admirals feed information and from which they get strategic recommendations.  Cornwell describes this system as critical to the successful running and defense of the Federation.  Oy!  I didn’t love the suggestion in David Mack’s novel Section 31: Control that the secretive Section 31 was run by an A.I., though I admit to being tickled that this idea from the books has made it into onscreen canon.  But in the books, the existence of this A.I. was a tightly-kept secret, even from most 31 operatives.  Here, Cornwell describes the entire Federation admiralty taking advice/orders from this A.I. system, which feels colossally stupid.  And now they’re shocked that this A.I. has become sentient (or is… trying to become sentient?  The episode is vague on that point) and is causing problems??  Do the Terminator films not exist in the Star Trek universe?  And then Cornwell tells us that Section 31 is headed up by a Vulcan Admiral who is a “logic extremist,” which the show has established as violent terrorists.  How does it make any sense that a Starfleet admiral is a terrorist?  None of this makes any sense and it’s all very silly, and just serves to make the leaders of Starfleet look extremely dumb.  (Maybe the show-runners think that “logic extremists” are something other than how I’m defining them?  I allow this possibility only because, as I have complained about before, the show has been annoyingly vague about who these people are, despite their having a critical role to play in Burnham’s backstory and in her schism with Spock — because we learned that Burnham fled Sarek and Amanda’s home because she feared that these logic extremists would return to attack there and would put Spock and his family in jeopardy.)

There are moments when I was interested in the tense Spock-Burnham exchanges (and I enjoyed that this played out over a game of 3-D chess, which we first met Spock and Kirk playing in Star Trek’s second pilot “Where No Man Has Gone Before”), but that enjoyment was continually overwhelmed by my unhappiness at how uncharacteristically unpleasant and emotional Spock was.  The show wants us to accept this because Spock hasn’t yet become the character we knew on the Original Series, but I can’t buy that Spock would ever be as cruel as he repeatedly is to Burnham.  He makes a point that I have long felt, that Burnham is being ridiculous by making everything about herself and that she plunges herself into work and duty to avoid her guilt over her past actions.  I love hearing Burnham called out on this.  And I appreciate the tragedy that both Spock AND Burnham blame themselves for putting their loved ones in jeopardy because they each feel that they were the targets of the “logic extremists”.  At first I felt that Spock was trying to help Burnham by assuaging her guilt, but the way the lines come out it feels more like Spock is twisting the knife to make her feel horrible.  I don’t like any of it.  (I also don’t love how this scene puts the audience on the side of Burnham and Sarek, with Spock’s being unreasonable and juvenile.  The backstory for Spock and Sarek as established in the Original Series episode “Journey to Babel” put our favor much more on the side of Spock, who was unreasonably snubbed by Sarek for decades because of his desire to go his own way and join Starfleet.  I am not opposed to fleshing out Sarek’s side of the argument, but to do so by making Spock look so bad is a mistake.)

The assault on the Section 31 space station makes little sense.  There are thousands of deadly mines, but the Discovery seems remarkably undamaged despite having scores of them detonate against the ship’s shields.  (These must be pretty weak mines.)  Discovery announces its presence, which is honorable but exceedingly foolish if they believe that section 31 is as dangerous and evil as they are saying.  But since Control actually WANTS Discovery to approach, so Airam can deliver the info from the Sphere, why does Control (apparently working in concert with Airam?) try to damage/destroy Discovery with the mines at all?

But once the landing party actually beams over to the space station, the episode turns around and suddenly we’re in a tense, exciting sequence that is creepy and feels very dangerous for our heroes.  Burnham and Nhan seem like they’re in real jeopardy, trapped on the station with a murderous Airiam.  I loved that whole sequence.  I enjoyed the slow burn of discovery of the frozen corpses and the revelation of what had happened, and Burrnham’s fight with Airiam is exciting.  It all builds to the emotional climax in which Airiam goes all Jean Grey on the blue area of the moon and briefly gains enough control of herself to beg Burnham to kill her.  The whole sequence is great: Tilly’s tearfully reminding Airam of her humanity; Airiam’s pleading with Burnham to do what must be done; and Burnham’s desperate refusal to kill Airiam and her frantic attempts to find another solution.  That it’s Nhan, who we thought was dead, who does the deed worked perfectly.  Sonequa Martin-Green’s stricken face, seen through the door window-pane, when she realizes what’s happened, was fantastic.  Great performances by the cast and terrific direction by Jonathan Frakes.

I was so happy that this episode finally gave us a glimpse into Airiam and her backstory.  This should have happened a long time ago.  I was shocked that they killed her off.  On the one hand, this feels like a waste of what could have been a great character had the show taken the time to develop her.  On the other hand, this is an example of the show’s trying to be a more modern style of television in a post Game of Thrones world in which the viewer shouldn’t assume that any characters are safe.  Season one’s attempts to do this fell flat (the murder of Dr. Culber was a low point, and thankfully that development has been undone this season), but I am open to the show continuing to explore this and to be more adventurous in its storytelling.

Also:

* I like that Nhan was on to Airiam’s weirdness but her character would have been better served had she actually been able to do something with that info.  If she suspected something was off with Airiam and went along on the mission with the express purpose of keeping an eye on Airiam, why did she so easily agree with Burnham’s suggestion that she go off on her own when on the station, leaving Burnham alone with Airiam?

* Saru’s deduction that the image of the Vulcan Admiral, and also Spock in the video of him murdering the doctors at the psychiatric facility, were all holograms was so dumb.  First off, Saru’s basis for this was that the people didn’t change their body temperature in stressful situations — but these were both Vulcans!  I can easily imagine that Vulcans would be able to control their body’s physical reactions to stress.  And the idea that Saru could figure out in an instant that, oh, that Spock image was a hologram, despite the video apparently being so perfectly created by Section 31 that no one in all of Starfleet could detect that the image of Spock was a fake, just seems silly and unconvincing.  Also: do the writers even know what a hologram is?  I can accept that Control could fake an image of the Vulcan admiral on a view screen.  But how could Section 31 be able to create a hologram of Spock, with physical form enough to fight and kill those doctors, in a psychiatric facility light years away?  Holograms need something to PROJECT the images, and there were no hologram projectors in Spock’s cell.  (Star Trek: Voyager established that the EMH was eventually able to be a free-moving hologram, but only utilizing a device from the 29th century — thousands of years ahead of the events of Discovery.  Sigh.)

* Other things I liked: The confirmation that Nhan is a Barzan (from early TNG episodes); the light-up Starfleet insignia on the back of the away team’s gravity boots; the beautiful visual-effects shot of Discovery hiding under low power at the start of the episode and Admiral Cornwell’s interesting-looking shuttle; and Hannah Cheesman’s fine work in the spotlight as Airiam, R.I.P.

Episode 10: “The Red Angel” — After a run of mostly strong episodes here in Discovery season two, this one and the previous have, sadly, been a return to the mediocre in my opinion.  I like the general approach of this episode, with a number of character-building scenes in the first half before we get to the plot-heavy action/adventure ending with the crew’s attempt to capture the Red Angel.  But I didn’t think any of this worked all that well.  I don’t have much good to say about this episode.

So many of the character scenes in the episode’s first half, while interesting in theory, felt off in one way or another.  Take Emperor Georgiou’s weird exchange with Stamets and Culber.  There are funny beats in the scene — and Tilly’s scene-ending button, asking “what just happened here??” is VERY funny — and I like hearing Star Trek characters say the word “gay” out loud.  But why is the former Emperor of the Terran Empire messing around with these two officers?  Is she genuinely sexually attracted to Stamets, hoping to woo him with her remembrances of the bi-sexual Mirror Stamets?  Or is she, as I interpreted the scene, just playing with them in order to help heal the rift between Stamets and Culber?  In which case, why is she doing that?  Why does she care?  These last few episodes have attempted to rehabilitate Mirror Georgiou, portraying her as not all-evil and, in fact, caring about Burnham and others.  (She certainly seems very concerned about Burnham at the end of the episode, whereas I’d have expected this Mirror Universe character to be more dispassionate about the risk to Burnham’s life in order to achieve a larger goal.)  But because I don’t really believe this rehabilitation, all of these scenes with Georgiou acting sort of nice feel suspicious or off to me in a way I don’t think the showrunners intended.  Also — what exactly is Culber’s standing on the ship right now?  It’s surprising to see him strutting around in his civilian suit rather than a Starfleet uniform.  I can understand him not being rushed back to duty after his extraordinary experiences… but how long is this going to last?  Why is he allowed to stay on board a Starfleet starship if he is no longer a member of Starfleet?

Staying with Dr. Culber, I enjoyed the content of his scene with Admiral Cornwell.  But that scene was undermined by the sheer ridiculousness of Culber’s interrupting this very busy, high-ranking officer in order to talk about his feelings!  That didn’t make any sense to me (despite the lip-service paid to Cornwell’s background as a therapist).  Were the writers just trying to find more for Cornwell to do in the episode?  This scene would have made a lot more sense to me had it been about Culber talking to one of his former friends/colleagues on Discovery — perhaps Saru.

I loved the funeral for Airiam that opened the episode.  That was heartfelt and moving.  I appreciated the time taken to explore the loss of a character, rather than rushing ahead full speed to the next adventure.  It was nice that most of the rest of the ensemble each got a moment in this sequence.  The visual effects of the shuttlebay were great.  What didn’t work?  Two small moments that really bugged me.  First, the shot of the empty Discovery bridge and a shot of a screen on “autopilot.”  The idea that not a single officer was left on the Discovery bridge was ridiculous.  Just show a shot of unnamed officers on duty, watching the funeral on the view screen.  Or don’t cut to the bridge at all.  It wasn’t needed, and it invites the viewer to think about how silly it is that a starship would ever leave itself so vulnerable with no crew-members on duty on the bridge.  Second, I did not like seeing Lt. Nilsson (I had to look up her name online), the new character played by Sara Mitich (who played Airiam in season one), take Airiam’s station at the end of the episode.  I appreciate that the Discovery team wanted to continue employing this actress.  But having a woman who looks so much like Airiam replace Airiam felt like Discovery’s undoing Airiam’s death too soon.  This show wants to be like Game of Thrones, killing off characters in a way Trek has never done before.  But these deaths lose their impact because time and again Discovery finds a way to undo the deaths.  Georgiou was killed off but returned as her Mirror Universe counterpart.  Dr. Culber was killed off but resurrected.  Now Airam was killed and by the end of the episode is already replaced with someone who looks just like her.  Sheesh.

Everything that has happened on Discovery so far, since the beginning of season one, has been a tad too much about Burnham herself to suit my liking.  I could accept and understand that in season one, which was framed more as the personal journey of this character than any previous Star Trek season had been.  Here in season two, I was happy that, at first, that the rest of the ensemble were being given more of a chance to shine.  I did not like how, at the end of the previous episode, Airiam told Burnham that it was all about her, nor did I enjoy the revelation in this episode that it was Burnham herself, from the future, who was the Red Angel.  Why does everything important happening across the galaxy have to connect so directly to Burnham?  This revelation also led to my asking all sorts of time-travel logic questions.  Most importantly: if the Red Angel was really Burnham from the future, then wouldn’t future-Burnham have remembered the events of this episode, and known that this was all a ruse, an attempt to trap her?  (The revelation in the final seconds that the Red Angel was not Burnham herself, but rather her mother, answers that question — though I still wonder why no one on Discovery was asking this question while they were coming up with their plan.)

Then there was all the business of Leland’s revelations that not only were Burnham’s parents the ones who designed the Red Angel time travel suit, but also that Leland’s carelessness was responsible for their deaths.  I like that the show is giving Sonequa Martin-Green lots of dramatic material to play, and boy is she terrific in those scenes.  But again, why does everything happening have to connect so directly to Burnham and her past?  It stretches credulity.  It also further muddles Burnham’s backstory, which the show has never clarified to the degree it should have.  How does Burnhams’ parents being killed by Klingons after the time-travel technology they’d developed connect with the threat of the Vulcan “logic extremists” who Burnham was scared of (and which led to her schism with Spock that’s been such a major story-point this season)?

Which brings me to this week’s “this show should not be a prequel” complaint: it’s absurd that Section 31, in the years before the Original Series, could construct a suit that could successfully travel through time.  That is way too advanced tech for this era of Trek.  And don’t even get me started on the silliness of the “time crystal” that apparently powers the suit.  Urgh.  Leland mentions being embroiled in a “temporal arms race” with the Klingons, which is the second time Discovery seems to be connecting to the “temporal Cold War” of Enterprise.  Is this intentional??

Blurg.  Not much to my liking here.  I am hoping things get more interesting in the next episode when we hopefully learn more about who the Red Angel ACTUALLY is and what she’s been up to.

Here are the links to my reviews of Star Trek: Discovery season two so far:

Episode 1 “Brother” & Episode 2 “New Eden”

Episode 3 “Point of Light” & Episode 4 “An Obol for Charon”

Episode 5 “Saints of Imperfection”

Episode 6 “The Sound of Thunder”

Episode 7 “Light and Shadows” & Episode 8 “If Memory Serves”

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