Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Discovery, Season 2: Project Daedalus, Season 2
"Project Daedalus"
Airdate: March 14, 2019
24 of 29 produced
24 of 29 aired

Lieutenant Airiam (who?) has been infected with an AI computer virus. She is going to... download something? Will the Barzan woman (who?) be able to stop her in time?

Finally, our stalwart heroes get to do what is the best part of every Star Trek series - pointing phasers at things in a tense standoff!

I feel bad. I do not like this show. I wonder whether my vehemence has soured other people on something they could potentially enjoy. I know my sister has avoided watching because my reviews paint it as so bad. My wife Kelly has stopped watching (though she says it's because she thinks it sucks independently). I wonder whether I am preventing Kevin from enjoying it. I see comments on Facebook, and I think "What is it these people enjoyed about TNG?" Various online reviewers seem to fluctuate between lukewarm praise and outright rhapsodizing about the quality of this show. Am I through the looking glass? Have I suffered an organic brain episode? So, I am spinning my wheels trying to determine whether my own cranky sourpuss obstinacy is behind my dislike for the show. But you know what? This is just not good television. Let's dissect this episode in order to determine why. I think every episode of this show has suffered from at least three major issues: 1. Incoherent and lazy plotting; 2. Inconsistent characterization; 3. Lack of connection to the greater Trek universe.

Kevin: I have my issues with Discovery, though by and large I have enjoyed season 2 more than season 1, an admittedly low bar. I think I just detach a little more readily and watch the show for itself before doing the deeper Trek-related analysis. I agree that plotting is handled in a slapdash fashion and several episodes this season would have benefit from the time they spent on the arc being spent on the episode. The character work in this episode for example was great and if it were the payoff of several episodes that came before it, that would be even better.

Matthew: The Spock story is full of nonsense. Spock is trying to figure out why the Red Angel contacted him above all others to warn him about the "conclusion of our timeline" which involves the "destruction of all sentient life in the galaxy." (YAWN) There is a classic "Show don't tell" problem here. We have been told several times about this, but have seen none of it. It doesn't feel real. We saw a Matrix robot attack a shuttle last episode, but that was a disconnected element in that story which we have to see in a "Last Time" segment in order to make any connection here. And so, all told, this falls under Issue #1 above - lazy and incoherent plotting. We are being asked to care about and remember things which have not been adequately established on screen. If they have been established, it has only been in shouted lines of dialogue randomly interspersed throughout a dozen prior episodes. There are no characters to latch on to and care about. "Spock" doesn't look, act, or feel like the Spock we know, and he talks about things we haven't experienced as viewers. This also hits on Issue #3.

Kevin: To play Devil's Advocate here, there are other successful stories that don't stand up to much narrative scrutiny, particularly involving Spock. Let's take Star Trek IV for example. On paper "Whales have secretly communicated with aliens and they send a probe to find out what happened to them. We never meet them and there is no follow up in any way" could be described as a silly story. You could even drill down further with some fairly obvious plotholes. If the whales are sentient and capable of communication, shouldn't the probe notice the whales think it's 300 years ago? And wait ---- whales are irrefutably sentient now, not just nice and emotional, but apparently sentient. Okay...

So, if I wanted to, I could drill holes in Spock stories we loved, so why don't we? It's because Star Trek IV is not about the probe or even whales. It's about watching a close group of people, whose relationships have been given long organic development periods, try to save the day while being, if you'll excuse the pun, fish out of water. The narrative tension of the story has literally almost nothing to do with the probe or the whales. It adds some fun color, sure, but honestly, if the movie had started out with them accidentally going back in time or ordered back in time for undisclosed reasons and having to find a way back, the bulk, and the most pleasing parts of the movie remain almost exactly the same. Most science fiction or fantasy when you drill down probably has a core plot too complicated for its own good. The quality of the story depends on well you follow the fantastic system you've devised and much you make me care about the people involved.

This is all a long way of saying that Star Trek and Spock stories have relied on existential threats to provide impulse for the action, but they succeed where these don't because those stories do a better more consistent job of sketching the characters. And my problem with the Spock story generally remains that the writers want me to bring my nostalgia for Nimoy's Spock, but literally nothing else of my memories of him to this show. If Leonard Nimoy never existed and this were the first iteration, there is a total lack of character development here. This Spock is only a viable character if I remember the Spock that is to come and if I do that, a lot of the choices here feel incomprehensible.

Matthew: The Section 31/Control story, which of course features heaping helpings of Issue #3 ("Section 31" is wholly inconsistent with prior mentions of Section 31 in the franchise), and is also a blazingly incoherent mess (#1), and completes the dum-dum trifecta with Issue #2 - Admiral Cornwell has been ping-ponging from motivation to motivation for this entire series. First she was a concerned former lover of Lorca's. Then she was a genocidal maniac bent on destroying the Klingon race. Then she got talked out of that in 30 seconds by Burnham. Then she was a hard-bitten war veteran who had ratified her past hard choices. Now she is rebelling against those same hard choices and helping our heroes. Apparently this Admiral Patar, who is in charge of Section 31, is also a "logic extremist?" WTF? The only dialogue we've been given about these people is that they attacked Burnham's parents or something. Why would someone who is known to be one of their number be 1. a Starfleet Admiral and 2. In charge of the fucking Stasi? This is lazy, incoherent, and completely unsupported by prior story work. I will say, though, the "logic extremist" plot thread did at least give us this gem of a line delivered by "Spock" to Burnham: "Your presence was beside the point." If anything truer has ever been written, I don't know what it is.

Kevin: My complaint here, beyond a general one of Section 31 being such an overt presence is a seismic tone shift for the series, is that this all really starts to suffer the 'small world' problem. Someone every single character has a profound relationship with every other character or plotline. It closes the world around Discovery in a way that I normally like to see the world Star Trek opened up.

Matthew: Anyway, the notion of a computer AI system gaining sentience and threatening our heroes, if a bit cliche, is still a potentially very interesting one. It's a classic trope that goes all the way back to "The Ultimate Computer" from TOS and "2001: A Space Odyssey. Good company! It's a pity, then, that is is given so little development. We're just asked to find it threatening because people say so in dialogue. I guess Airiam (who?) is taken over by the thing, but this idea is given so little development I would not penalize a viewer for having missed that connection entirely. Airiam, who has heretofore been just a vaguely robotic looking crewperson in the background, it hastily given a back story and friends, despite our never having seen any of this in prior episodes (Tilly, apparently, is extremely promiscuous, but also secretive, with her friendship. This marks her third BFF so far. Yet again, I am asked to care about a character when only the most pro forma work has been done to establish anything about her. And, however good the scenes were (decent, but still not very, there was still a lot of "tell don't show" writing), it was too little too late. When she got blown out the airlock, I felt nothing.

Kevin: I think the real loss here is the Airiam story. With a surprising deftness, they painted the outlines of a great story. Human who was injured in a shuttle accident was augmented to save her life, and apparently lost her partner in the process. The memory thing had some fun implications if you game it out. Humans have imperfect memory. We organically store the important ones and lose the rest. So while it may seem artificial to do so manually, it could be a part of how Airiam maintains a cognizable sense of self. Having a perfect transcript of everyday would be the unnatural thing and push her humanity farther away. I just wish we had gotten episodes of this over the last season and a half rather than an introduction and removal in a single hour. My general problem with the evil AI thing is that if the computer in charge of 31 wants to destroy all sentient life in the galaxy, it kind of already has the tools. It is a super secret computer with access to an arsenal. Just beam bombs into places from the cloaked ships you have access to. Even if I buy it as a threat, much like the plot in Star Trek Beyond, why bother with the artifact nonsense. You already have the means to accomplish this goal at your disposal.

Matthew: Yet again we're given the sort of story blender treatment. Some of these story threads could be interesting, but never have we ever been given enough of any of them to develop the ideas, let the characters react organically to events, or make anything stick in the memory for longer than the episode takes to watch. It's really hard to summarize these episodes because so many threads are given thirty seconds apiece. So in that spirit, here are my remaining random observations:
  • Oh, great. Aggro Spock is back. I didn't get enough of that in Into Darkness.
  • Stamets is doing some shit in engineering for some reason. I guess Tyler "Sabotaged" it? Or someone? Why should I care again? I'm not being given enough information.
  • Why does the Barzan chick distrust Airiam at all? Total ass pull. (Kevin: I will jump in to say that they do show Airiam downloading something and stopping when Nhan walks in, so that could be shady, but I agree it is underdeveloped.)
  • What messages are they decrypting? I don't follow. (Kevin again: Yeah, did they mention this last week. I literally had no idea what they were decrypting...)
  • How does this cybernetic augmentation thread (Airiam, Detmer) fit with TOS? Oh yeah, it doesn't.
  • Was I supposed to be excited by that mine sequence? I was just confused.
  • Why is Airiam's door locked if the AI is controlling the station? 
  • Gee, I wish there had been a story about the humanity altering ability to save humans from death by augmenting them with robot bodies and computer brains. 
  • Aw, this heat signature shit is so much fucking garbage. Was Saru just watching shit in infrared? Have these people never heard of deep fakes?

Matthew: Ethan Peck has had three episodes now as "Spock." He does not feel like Spock. It's not as much of a caricature as Quinto's "Spock" was, it's just not even like any prior portrayal of Spock at all. He's douchey and aggro and conflicted and everything is on the surface. He is also pink, and looks totally human at all times.

Kevin: Peck is a fine actor performing the lines being asked of him, but I agree, there is no connective tissue to the Spock we see later. It doesn't even read as a young, immature, less in control Spock. It just reads as fundamentally different.

Matthew: Hannah Cheesman was fine as Airiam. Did you know she didn't play the character in the first season? Of course you didn't. That's because the character didn't matter in the slightest. And it's too bad, because if her relatively effective scenes in this episode had been developed over the past two years, I might have given the slightest shit about her.

Kevin: I watched her scenes like I was reading a short story. The sketches of her character were few, but bold and very effective. I really wish they had done the work on building a real organic relationship with the rest of the cast so the goodbye moment would work. And I did not know they changed actors. Hmm. Also, why does this lady get to be the Six Billion Dollar Woman and in a few years, Pike will only get a wheelchair capable of communicating in binary...

Matthew: This particular inconsistency aggravates the hell out of me.

Production Values

I'm so sick of space suits and phasers making repetitive trilling sounds. How many minutes of this episode were "intensified" by characters in space suits holding phasers that whined like they were going to explode? It's like someone watched a few episodes of Star Trek to understand the essence of the franchise before writing or directing Discovery, and their notepad reads "Phasers. Beaming places. Explosions. Tense standoffs." What the hell show were they watching? And I guess Airiam's stupid sound effect is there just in case we can't see she's a fucking cyborg?

Kevin: I don't really mind any of that. It's the mode of the day. It's a more action oriented show and 21st century action oriented shows have a palette of sights and sounds that define them like any other era. I'm not a huge fan either, but they don't offend me. I wouldn't even really notice them if there were some better story in front of them.

Matthew: I will stipulate to various sets and exterior shots looking nice. What I will never understand is this director's predilection for starting a scene with the camera upside down and whipping it around. Ooh, creative.

Kevin: The constant corkscrew shots have become the Homer Simpson star wipe of directorial choices.


Matthew: This episode was lazy, stupid gibberish with tiny nuggets of potential stories strewn about, wasted. It didn't progress the Big Dumb Plot at all, really, and it "developed" a story about a villain we don't care about (logic extremist admiral) and an organization that makes no sense ("Section 31"). "Spock" yet again reiterates the "stakes," while the episode shows us none. A complete throwaway character is hastily developed (somewhat effectively) in order to be sacrificed, in a wholly ineffective attempt at audience manipulation. I guess the nuggets of an AI story and the Airiam development are enough to keep it out of 1 territory. It's a 2 for me.

Kevin: I'll agree with the 2 only because Airiam is such a missed opportunity. They apparently have the ability to sketch a defined character with understandable motivations and a connection to the crew with a light and confident hand. Why the hell weren't they doing that the whole time? And why go to that work just to kill the character? It's so cheap. The rest of our problems I could put up with if the character work like this weren't handled so shoddily.


  1. It seems to me like maybe you've done me a huge favor by not encouraging me to watch this.

    1. This isn't even one of our better reviews. I think I was really frustrated with this one. Our latest one, Such Sweet Sorrow, does a better job of dissecting the turd that is Discovery.