Star Trek Discovery – Commander Airiam and Lieutenant Nilsson

In the 52 years we’ve been watching the Star Trek universe unfold before us we’ve seen a number of casting changes, from Captain Pike’s crew being replaced by Captain Kirk’s crew, to the hundreds of other replacements we’ve pretty much seen it all.

So why is this one different?

When Star Trek Discovery began its first season one of the most visibly interesting characters was Commander Airiam, a character whose origins and backstory didn’t seem to be completely fleshed out, early suggestions were that she was an android, something which seemed impossible knowing that Lt. Commander Data was the first android to serve in Starfleet, to an alien, to her ultimately true background of a cybernetically enhanced human.

Unfortunately, during the first season, she was little more than a living prop, sitting in the background, occasionally saying a few words, but with zero dimension, she didn’t really start to grow until the second season, where her presence was felt more and more as the season went on until episode 9, Project Daedalus where she would ultimately meet her demise in an episode centered largely around her.

Once we got to know Airiam a little better it became clear how great a character she could have been given the chance for her to have been explored over the remaining seasons of the series, she might have even had the potential to be one of the franchises best characters. But apparently, that’s not meant to be as her cybernetic systems were overrun by an advanced AI with dreams of galactic domination.

What makes it different?

We’ve seen potentially great characters killed off before, and no doubt we’ll see them killed off again, but with Airiam the strange part is actually in the actress who plays her.

Originally she was played by Sara Mitch during the first season she was replaced with no fanfare at the beginning of the second by fellow Canadian actress Hannah Cheeseman.

Then just into the second season, Sara Mitch appeared playing a new character, Lieutenant Nilsson, who is apparently a science officer considering her assisting Tilly with the capture of the asteroid fragment. Then following the death of Commander Airiam, Nilsson was assigned to her former station on the bridge, which was somewhat of an awkward scene that brings the actress full circle.

But what does it mean?

The producers of Star Trek Discovery have yet to address the changes, which is what’s now leading to fan speculation, some of which has included the possibility that Nilsson is an earlier or future version of Airiam, but since this clearly isn’t a well-veiled plan as the whole Ash Tyler / Voq actor shenanigans was, so the simplest explanation is most likely the truth.

It’s well known that the makeup process in shows like Star Trek can be an intensive one, so much so that some actors spend hours a day having their skin added and removed, and many have reactions to the process. It seems likely that Sara Mitch, whose face was entirely covered by makeup and prosthetics may have had such a reaction necessitating the removal of the makeup from her job.

If any of us had a medical reaction to materials we used at work our employer would be beholden to make a change or provide an alternative to us, I believe that’s what’s happened here, Sara becomes the prosthetic free Nilsson, and takes up her original role, and another actress is given a chance to shine for a season as a fantastic character who will no doubt be well remembered.

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When you put it in those terms, it’s kind of nice really.