Star Trek: Discovery moves puts Captain Lorca through a harrowing ordeal and reveals some compromising details about his dark past in the process.
As far as episode titles go, 'Choose You Pain' doesn't sound like your average Star Trek title, but after the first four episodes of Star Trek: Discovery it's not exactly surprising. Although derived from a line of dialogue in the episode itself, spoken by a pair of Klingon guards aboard a prison vessel holding Captain Lorca, newcomer Shazad Latif (Penny Dreadful) as Ash Tyler, and Rainn Wilson as Stark Trek: The Original Series' bearded villain Harry Mudd, the title is applicable to situations that go beyond Lorca's unpleasant (and more than a little convenient) situation that sees him fall into enemy hands just as the Discovery's super cool new warp drive makes it the toast of Starfleet. Those situations include Michael's continued efforts to ascend from her precipitous fall following the Battle at the Binary Stars; Stamets' choice to put himself in harm's way for the sake of the suffering tardigrade; Saru's own pain over the loss of Captain Georgiou; and the pain of having to listen to the show perform a forced double f-bomb, taking full advantage of Discovery's TV-MA rating on CBS All Access.
Gratuitous salty language aside, 'Choose Your Pain' continues Discovery's solid efforts so far and offers a good example of the show's ability to construct smaller arcs within the season's overarching narrative, all while still delivering episodic installments with relatively satisfying beginnings, middles, and ends. And while the series takes some short cuts to ensure the episode has all three (Lorca's rather opportune abduction by the Klingons, for example), the hour, like Lorca and everyone else onboard the Discovery, is only marginally bruised as a result. But while the characters are roughed up on the outside, Lorca's admission that he killed his former crew aboard the USS Buran, in what he viewed to be a necessary act, does far more to damage the character's reputation, while also shedding some light on his decision to bring Michael on board the Discovery.
Lorca's disclosure is in keeping with what little we already know about the captain, especially after his run-in with the Starfleet admiral early on when he was told the Discovery's missions would be put on hold. Lorca takes full advantage of the authority granted to him by his position and the war. So far this has led to his being the only survivor of the Buran and, later, affording Starfleet's first mutineer a second chance. But it's the former that seems to partially motivate the latter, and as far as Star Trek: Discovery's writers are concerned, that affords them an opportunity to introduce flawed, sometimes less-than-heroic characters and watch them do good (or not) little by little, as a means of walking back their pasts and changing their futures for the better.
While Michael has been working her way toward some sort of redemption, it's still unclear whether or not Lorca's traveling the same path. In light of his confession aboard the prison vessel, the captain's damaged eyes and preference to remain in the dark is no longer just a physical ailment that affords Jason Isaacs dynamic lighting in every scene, it's also an apt account of the character, especially as it pertains to his level of self-awareness and accountability. Storytelling is full of characters ostensibly blinded by a false sense of purpose, and that certainly seems to be a theme running through Discovery so far. It will be interesting to see just how long Lorca and Michael's paths continue to parallel one another, as it seems likely the latter's efforts to do good (as seen here by her efforts to save the tardigrade) will see the trajectory of their shared paths altered considerably.
So far, this is one of Discovery's core strengths: presenting flawed characters and proving them worthy of the audience's attention and interest, even if they initially provoke conflicting feelings. It's certainly true of Stamets, whose disagreeable personality could have actually been toned down a little when he was first introduced. He has since become a far more likeable character as he's warmed to Michael's presence and now that we've been introduced to more of the science officer's personal life. Similarly, Lorca is unlike the typical Star Trek captain in that his authority has stimulated more suspicion than inspiration – at least to those watching. And yet, there's something really likeable about the character that makes rooting for him possible. That's partially the result of his being played by an actor like Isaacs, but it's also due to his being put up against a brutal enemy like the Klingons – which explains but doesn't entirely justify the dicey plotting that sees him in the role of the victim and underdog before making his explosive confession.
That contrast won't always be there for the show to make use of, especially if Discovery succeeds in making the Klingons as compelling as it clearly thinks they are. Similarly, when the question of why Lorca survived while his crew perished is answered, the degree to which it's easy to like the captain may change dramatically. Hopefully that is the case, as it would bring an added dimension to the character and alleviate concerns that the show is relying too heavily on big reveals week-in and week-out that may eventually turn into stumbling. Right now, though, presenting new sides to its flawed characters has worked in the favor of Discovery, which is fitting considering the episode's eerie parting shot of Stamets' reflection in the mirror suggests that sort of dichotomy may well become a much bigger factor moving forward.
Star Trek: Discovery continues next Sunday with 'Lethe' @8:30pm on CBS All Access.