Warning: This contains spoilers for Episode 9 of Star Trek: Discovery Season 2. Not caught up? See our spoiler-free review of Season 1’s opening episodes here.
Episode 9 of Disco Season 2 is something of a placeholder, as all the storytelling potential of Airiam’s possession by the enemy intelligence is squandered in a single episode – with the same going for Airiam herself.
The set-up is simple: with the Discovery and its crew officially fugitives from the Federation, Admiral Cornwell pops over on a shuttle to order them to infiltrate Section 31’s HQ. It is, of course, heavily defended by illegal space-mines, the utilisation of which outrages Pike. Cornwell’s response – “Sometimes, in war, the terrible choice is the only choice.” – and Pike’s counter argument is possibly the millionth time a US-made drama has provided such searing commentary on post-9/11 America. But, at least, it has an interesting twist, relevant to Pike and how he’s viewed by Star Fleet. They forced him to sit out the war “because, if we’d lost to the Klingons we wanted the best of Starfleet to survive”.
Section 31’s HQ is heavily shielded so no transporter beams can penetrate – which is essential for what is to come. An away team, consisting of Michael, security officer Nhan and Airiam, heads over and discovers that Admiral Patar and the other Section 31 head honchos who appeared on view screen are, in fact, dead, and have been for two weeks. It’s then that they discover Airiam’s true mission – she’s downloaded essential data from Discovery and is uploading it to the enemy. Locked in an airlock, battling to control herself, Airiam tells Michael that she hasn’t yet completed her mission and that Michael must blast her out into space. Michael does everything she can do disobey Pike’s direct order and – at the vital crunch point – it’s Nhan who does the deed.
Michael’s failure to make “the terrible choice” refers back not just to Cornwell’s pragmatism, but also to Michael earlier confrontation with Spock. As a game of 3D chess turns into a slanging match, Spock accuses Michael of blaming herself for everything so the burden stops her from having to confront the unimaginable grief of her parents’ murder. When it comes to killing Airiam, Michael just doesn’t want any more death on her shoulders.
Which brings us to Airiam. She’s barely been more than ‘robot girl in the background’ until now and, perversely, making us privy to her tragic backstory (shuttle crash on honeymoon) and her life on board Discovery, simultaneously makes her imminent death too obvious and feels like a waste of a decent character. Ultimately, Airiam is the Tasha Yar of Discovery – a tragic death of someone the crew knows and mourns, but whom the audience haven’t been given time to get to know. And maybe Airam isn’t dead yet – but that, too, would be lame. Dead should mean dead, or else death soon loses its dramatic sting.
Spock, too, continues to disappoint. Yes, he’s an angrier, disturbed version of the man he will become – in just 10 years – under James T Kirk, but Ethan Peck’s interpretation of Nimoy’s pitch-perfect performance is just way off the mark. We’ve seen Spock fighting against resurgent emotion before – most notably in Amok Time (1967) – and it’s nothing like this.
Also this episode, we get a hint of what the mysterious foe is – the Federation’s Control system itself, somehow sentient and destined, in the near future, to wipe out all sentient life in the Milky Way. Yes, it’s basically a galactic size Skynet, which is a pretty tired sci-fi trope. Here’s hoping that discovering how the Red Angel fits into all this is more pleasing – although with the revelation from Airiam to Michael that “everything is because of you” is another iteration of the well-trodden “You are The One” storyline.
Ah, well. At least it will be fun seeing this super arrogant Spock realising that the Red Angel chose him, not because he’s so darn special, but because he’s Michael’s sister. Although not, as he cruelly reminds her, “by blood”.
Star Trek: Discovery is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription. New episodes of Season 2 arrive weekly on Fridays, within 24 hours of their US release.