Star Trek has had its share of controversy among its starship captains, from James T. Kirk's (William Shatner) penchant for risk-taking and disobeying orders to Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) tricking the Romulans into entering the Dominion War. With 'Lethe', the sixth episode of Star Trek: Discovery, we've entered a new frontier: a captain who is psychologically unfit for command and is discovered by his superior officer, but has grown adept at hiding his condition from his crew and fostering their loyalty. By the last shot of 'Lethe', with Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) brooding alone in his quarters facing his own reflection in a window, we're unsure what exactly to make of Discovery's commander, but it spells bad tidings for Starfleet and the Federation's war against the Klingons. Just how bad is the question.
More of Captain Lorca's backstory was revealed in the previous episode 'Choose Your Pain' when Lorca was captured and tortured by the Klingons. He has been afflicted by an eye injury since the war began, and we learned his painful sensitivity to light was caused in the incident that led to the destruction of his previous command, the U.S.S. Buran. Lorca destroyed the ship and sacrificed his entire crew rather than have any of them taken prisoner by the Klingons. By doing so, Lorca disregarded the longstanding naval tradition of the captain going down with his ship. Instead, Lorca was the sole survivor of the Buran tragedy, which seems suspicious. Yet his actions were seemingly rewarded with command of the U.S.S. Discovery, the most advanced ship in Starfleet and now their primary weapon against the Klingons.
Lorca was also gifted with an unprecedented amount of independence and leeway in his current command. He is allowed to use any means he sees fit to fight the war as well as recruit anyone he sees fit to join his crew. To say his choices have been controversial is an understatement, especially in the case of Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), whom he has basically "adopted". Burnham is Starfleet's first mutineer and is credited (for a lack of a better word) with starting the Klingon War. Rather than the life imprisonment she was sentenced to, Burnham is now a Science Specialist and bridge officer on board the Discovery by Lorca's decree. Lorca's decisions have not gone unnoticed; Starfleet Command ordered Discovery to withdraw from the front lines but Lorca disregarded those orders. Neither formal communications nor personal inquiries by Admiral Cornwell (Jayne Brook) have phased Lorca's resolve to keep doing whatever he thinks is best.
What's really going on with Discovery's controversial captain? Let's dive a little deeper.
IS LORCA CRAZY?
The advent of having counselors on board starships to help crew members cope with the myriad rigors of prolonged space travel won't canonically happen until the 24th century in Star Trek, but Captain Lorca is Exhibit A that Discovery desperately needs a ship's counselor. Only seven months into the war, we can already see the emotional damage many Starfleet Officers are suffering from. Traditionally, the Chief Medical Officer serves as an ersatz ship's counselor in this era of Star Trek - in the case of the Enterprise's Dr. Leonard McCoy, his counseling sessions usually involve a bottle of Saurian brandy - and we even see that sort of counseling when Admiral Cornwell visits with Lorca on board Discovery. They're old friends and they have a past sexual relationship. Lorca was quick to involve a bottle of whiskey in their counseling session as Cornwell tried to get to the bottom of 'her friend's' odd and upsetting behavior.
Cornwell's list of charges against Lorca is devastating. She is correct in noting that Lorca returned to the captain's chair like nothing ever happened after being held as a POW by the Klingons. He treats Discovery like it's "his own fiefdom," which Lorca does revel at with his choices, especially when it comes to choosing personnel. That Lorca has so much independent power is Starfleet Command's fault, but Lorca's decisions are questionable at best. Burnham, a mutineer, being back in uniform is just the start of it. His new Chief of Security, Lieutenant Ash Tyler, is a POW who, immediately after escaping seven months in Klingon captivity, is immediately granted a bridge position. Lorca says he checked out Tyler's history and was satisfied, but many fans suspect Tyler is in fact a Klingon incognito. Lorca wasn't on board Discovery when Lieutenant Paul Stamets began eugenics manipulation on himself as a replacement for the Tardigrade's role as navigator in the mycelial spore drive, but he has allowed Stamets to continue, despite the obvious odd behavior and wild change in personality Stamets now exhibits.