In Star Trek: Discovery's latest episode, "Project Daedalus,” the series takes a shocking twist as a relatively minor character is suddenly the focus of the story. Though primarily a background crew member in Season 1, the cybernetically enhanced Commander Airiam has become a more prominent member of the crew of the USS Discovery this season. And now Airiam's actions in Episode 9 pivot the rest of the story of Season 2 in an entirely unexpected direction.
SYFY WIRE spoke to the woman behind Airiam, Hannah Cheesman, just before the big episode aired. Cheesman revealed how she personally helped shape the role, the challenges of being a cybernetically enhanced life form, and why she thinks of Airiam as a "precursor" to Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
**SPOILER WARNING: Massive spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery Season 2, Episode 9, "Project Daedalus," below!**
Robots, artificial life, and cybernetics have been a part of Star Trek since the original version of the series in 1966. In the classic episode "What Are Little Girls Made Of?", Kirk and Nurse Chapel encounter a mad scientist who has forgotten that he himself is an android, while a more advanced robot, centuries older, creeps around throwing people into ravines. As in most science fiction of the mid-20th century, the majority of robots and A.I. on the original Star Trek were things to be feared. Now, because it's a prequel to the original Trek, Star Trek: Discovery is explaining why Kirk and the crew feared artificial or cybernetically enhanced life forms so much.
In "Project Daedalus," a rogue A.I. program called "Control" tries to kill the crew of the Discovery, while the cybernetically enhanced crew member Commander Airiam is manipulated by an advanced secret computer program from the future. It's all a lot to take in, and as Cheesman reveals, she had no idea what was in store when she first auditioned to play Airiam in Season 2 of Discovery.
"I didn’t even know which role that I was auditioning for," Cheesman told SYFY WIRE. "I knew it was an android-esque character. Once I got the role, the team did the [makeup] fittings, because all prosthetics are very bespoke. But I did not know at the top of the season of what I was stepping into."
What Cheesman was stepping into was complicated, not only because "Project Daedalus" finds Airiam briefly turning against her shipmates, but also because Cheesman was not the first actress to play Airiam. In Season 1, the character was played by Sara Mitich, who still appears on Discovery as a crewmember named "Nilsson." (You saw Mitich in the season premiere in the shuttlebay, standing next to Tilly when they wrangled that asteroid.)
While Mitich's reasons for leaving the role aren't entirely clear, Cheesman does make it very clear that Season 1 Airiam and Season 2 Airiam are very much friends in real life.
"Before going to the set the first time, I had a very long conversation with Sara [Mitich]. She gave me the ins and outs of her take on the character. We spent half a day on set, where she and I stood by my station and she explained to me, this is where the Spore Drive is. This is what I do when we engage the Spore Drive. This is what this button does. I got to know her physical embodiment of the character."
Because both Mitich and Cheesman shared formal dance training, Cheesman feels that level of body control was essential to understanding the physicality of Airiam. As we learn at the start of this episode, Airiam isn't a robot, but rather was once fully human and after a near-fatal accident became a cybernetically enhanced human.
"This was never explained, and it may never be, but I think that the only thing that would keep her alive would be to be turned into a partially mechanized android type," said Cheesman. "And that she made the decision to continue living despite those losses. Not every detail is spelled out. It’s part of the actor's role within Star Trek to discover and decide these things. I feel quite an ownership and authorship to the character now."
In terms of Star Trek tradition, Cheesman is totally correct, actors on all the various Trek series have famously invented things about their characters that have become canon. As Ethan Peck recently pointed out, Leonard Nimoy invented the body control of Spock, the same way Cheesman created Airiam's movements. The point is, even though Cheesman's ideas about Airiam's feelings and backstory aren't fully revealed in this episode, the fact that she played the character that way essentially makes it canon.
"I have the good fortune of having grown up watching The Next Generation. And I understood that in some ways, because of the timeline, I am a predecessor to Data," Cheesman said. "And Data was one of my favorite characters on TNG. Brent Spiner had such a humor about him in that role. So I knew there was room to expand and make the character not just robotic."
Cheesman's comparison to Data is an interesting one, if only because of the shocking fate of Airiam in the new episode. After having her willpower taken away, Airiam forces Burnham to eject her into space before whatever unseen AI that is manipulating her takes hold again. It's a tense scene, and one in which Airiam gets to be the hero by letting Burnham kill her, essentially, before she can do more harm. But just before Airiam went on this mission, she offloaded her memories — Black Mirror-style — on the computer of the USS Discovery. In the film Star Trek: Nemesis, Data did something very similar before he died, too. So, because Tilly has all of Airiam's memories, could she come back? Cheesman isn't sure, but she knows how she wants Airiam to come back.
“I hope I come back. But I’m equally in the dark with the rest of the fans," Cheesman says. "My dream, though, is this — fans, feel free to support this! — they do use her memories and bring her back. But she’s somehow more humanoid and I don't have to wear the prosthetics. So, I would love to come back, but even if it’s like Airiam goes to her room and takes off her mask. So, her memories are there, and if we are what we've experienced, then she's alive."