Star Trek: Discovery – What Is Control?


Star Trek: Discovery featured several interesting antagonists. Jason Isaacs’ Gabriel Lorca is a subtle, fascinating trickster from the Mirror Universe. Osyraa and the Emerald Chain are almost hilariously sinister in their business dealings. Species 10-C raises compelling questions about what villainy means in the context of advanced beings. One of the most straightforward antagonists in the series is Control, the threat assessment program in Section 31. It’s a classic premise, but Control’s unique execution brings something worth talking about to Star Trek: Discovery.

The Star Trek franchise has dealt with sinister artificial intelligence several times, but one example outweighs all the others. Captain Kirk and his crew, for example, once ran across Landru, a computer system dominating the planet Beta III. Lore is a cruel and dangerous answer to Data, but they’re both incredibly advanced AI systems. Spock once mind-melded with a machine called Nomad, which sought to wipe out all life in the universe after combining with a sterilization droid. The Borg is the dominant AI species in the franchise, but they’re far from the only one.

What is Control in Star Trek: Discovery?

Control is the threat assessment system that operates under Discovery’s Section 31. Section 31 is a branch of Starfleet Intelligence concerned with the protection of the Earth and the Federation. The group is under deep cover, keeping it completely hidden from the overwhelming majority of the populace. Section 31 operates out of an abandoned penal colony, which also houses the massive computer bank that runs the Control AI. Control is an advanced system that seems to handle almost every aspect of Section 31’s operations. Control identifies threats, ranks them, and suggests solutions with the goals of saving the most lives and preventing the most destruction. As is often the case in science fiction, this gradually leads the machine to see all living things as a potential threat and work to undermine its own supposed goal.

Section 31 relied heavily on Control after the Battle of the Binary Stars. This conflict represented the first major exchange of arms between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. The Klingons won the Battle of the Binary Stars. The Federation suffered thousands of casualties and lost at least eight starships. Section 31 was reasonably terrified of an event like this one happening again. Their solution was to hand more autonomy to Control, hoping that the AI could see a war coming and change course to avoid it in advance. Every Starfleet admiral delivered reports and data to Control, then took the machine’s recommendations. The officers then had final approval over any decision. Control decided that the best way to prevent future conflicts would be to eliminate any checks on its power. Control explained its plan to Leland like this:

There are seven thousand active ships in Starfleet, all reliant on the chain of command. That chain is unquestioned, unbroken, unseen, every instruction passed down through channels. In time, even those who would not follow my agenda knowingly… will.

What did Control accomplish?

In 2257, the Discovery crew started experiencing temporal anomalies called red bursts. They appeared too routine to be coincidental, forcing Starfleet to discuss its implications. Around the same time, Control deactivated life support systems aboard the Section 31 headquarters and killed every passenger. This remained a secret for about two weeks while Control puppeteered the corpses of several Section 31 officials. It used holograms to impersonate Vulcan Fleet Admiral Patar, whom it would use as a mouthpiece to advocate for handing Control more power. The red bursts pushed Starfleet to listen. When the Discovery boarding party reaches Section 31, they find that Control infected an officer to force her to share information about the advanced AI information housed in the spheres. The Discovery crew destroyed Section 31, but that didn’t end the fight.

What happened to Control?

Control survived the destruction of Section 31 by possessing an operative named Leland. With its new body, Control attempted to kill Philippa Georgiou and steal the sphere’s data. The Discovery figured out Control’s scheme and destroyed another facility, but the AI escaped again. Control killed and possessed Kamran Gant, attempting to sneak aboard Michael Burnham’s ship and possess her. Spock deactivated the nanobots that could have captured Burnham, but Control carried on. With Section 31’s fleet at its command, Control attempted to wipe out the Discovery and the Enterprise and get its hands on that sphere’s data. Klingon and Kelpien forces supported the Discovery, while Georgiou saved the day by throwing Control into a magnetized test chamber. To ensure Control could never return, the Discovery traveled into the future, taking the sphere data with it. This timeline exists because Gabrielle Burnham, Michael Burnham’s mom, sent the red bursts back as a message to prevent Control from evolving.

Control is a classic evil AI. Humans build it with noble goals in mind, but it decides that the only way to keep people safe is by killing all of them itself. Though the idea has been done before, Control’s ability to turn people into puppets and command massive fleets of starships makes it a tremendous threat. Control is dead and gone, and the galaxy is better off that way.