Star Trek: Discovery has featured a surprisingly high number of commanding officers over its first four seasons, but only one captain is the show’s true leader. Part of the novelty of Discovery‘s original premise was that it would be the first Star Trek show where the captain was not the main character. Instead, the show would be told primarily from the perspective of Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), a former Starfleet commander who was tried and convicted of mutiny at the outset of the Federation-Klingon War in the mid-23rd century.
That approach opened up the show to try some new narrative tricks with the captain of the USS Discovery. The ship’s captain’s chair would go on to be inhabited by a number of different characters including Mirror Universe tricksters, misguided admirals, and even legitimate Star Trek icons. After the ship and its crew jumped to the far-flung future of the 32nd century, it became clear who the ship’s commanding officer was destined to be. Here’s a breakdown of everyone who’s served as captain of the Discovery.
7. The Missing Discovery Captain
After the conclusion of the Federation-Klingon War, Discovery’s crew were honored for their role in ending the conflict at Starfleet Command on Earth. After the ceremony, Discovery was ordered to Vulcan, where they would deliver Vulcan Ambassador Sarek (James Frain) and rendezvous with their new captain. That never happened, as Discovery received a distress call en route and changed course. That distress call came from the heavily damaged USS Enterprise, who’s own commanding officer, Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) would temporarily take command of Discovery to investigate the Red Angel mystery. Discovery would jump to the 32nd century before ever meeting the captain presumably stranded on Vulcan.
6. Captain Gabriel Lorca
Initially presented as a man hardened and traumatized by the events of the Federation-Klingon War, Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) turned out to be a much more nefarious character. Lorca was a refugee from the Mirror Universe who had replaced his Prime timeline counterpart years earlier. He manipulated and exploited the crew of the Discovery with the sole aim of overthrowing the Mirror Universe Terran Emperor, Phillipa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). Lorca was ultimately killed and his plan thwarted, but his underhanded maneuverings shook the trust of Discovery’s crew until it was restored by Lorca’s successor, the inherently noble Captain Pike.
5. Captain Phillipa Georgiou (Mirror Universe)
A prime example of humanity’s desperation in the last phases of the war with the Klingons, Starfleet Command signed off on an absolutely horrific plan to plant a bomb at the heart of Qo’noS, the Klingon homeworld, that would render the planet uninhabitable. The idea came from the Mirror Universe version of Philippa Georgiou, who had recently escaped death by relocating to the Prime timeline. Starfleet even helped Georgiou to masquerade as the deceased Prime timeline version of the character so she could lead the mission. Realizing the plan would mean abandoning the principles Starfleet was founded on, the Discovery crew threatened a mass mutiny. Georgiou’s awful captaincy would be short-lived.
4. Vice Admiral Katrina Cornwell
Vice Admiral Katrina Cornwell (Jayne Brook) was a good person pushed to extreme actions by the horrors of war. She took temporary command of the Discovery after its return from the Mirror Universe and was instrumental in approving Georgiou’s to destroy the Klingon homeworld. When Burnham and the rest of the Discovery crew refused to essentially commit genocide, Cornwell relented, and a new, less destructive plan was enacted. Despite her lapse in judgment, Cornwell went out a hero, sacrificing herself to prevent a torpedo detonation from destroying the USS Enterprise in its battle against the rogue Section 31 artificial intelligence Control.
3. Captain Saru
The Kelpien officer Saru (Doug Jones) was one of the most reliable members of Discovery’s crew. He was Lorca’s first officer during season 1, and he served in essentially the same capacity under Captain Pike, with the latter acknowledging the ship belonged to Saru more than it did to him. Saru was the obvious and unanimous choice to become Discovery’s captain when the ship made the leap to the 32nd century. Captain Saru served with distinction, even if he occasionally butted heads with his independent first officer, Commander Michael Burnham. He departed Discovery at the conclusion of season 3 to return to Kaminar with Su’Kal (Bill Irwin), the Kelpien who inadvertently caused the Burn.
2. Captain Christopher Pike
Widely known as the ill-fated commanding officer of the USS Enterprise before Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) took the chair in Star Trek: The Original Series, Captain Christopher Pike was exactly what Discovery season 2 needed. After being duped by the Mirror Universe version of Gabriel Lorca, Pike immediately eased tensions on the Discovery with his laid back charm and earnest embrace of Starfleet idealism. Pike was a natural leader who earned the trust and respect of Discovery’s crew before they jumped to the 32nd century.
It’s easy to forget how much criticism was lobbed at Discovery season 1. Most Star Trek shows take a season or two to find their creative footing, but Discovery season 1 had such massive problems of tone and narrative that it felt as if the show may have been beyond repair. Pike’s arrival changed all of that almost immediately, and while Discovery was never really his story, it’s no surprise that he got his own spinoff, the wildly popular Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. Once little more than the answer to a trivia question, Discovery made Captain Pike a Star Trek icon in his own right.
1. Captain Michael Burnham
Discovery is, at its heart, the story of Michael Burnham. Her journey from upstart first officer, to convicted mutineer, to humbled bridge officer and all the way to captain of the Discovery is the show’s defining arc. Burnham’s evolution has been one of the show’s few constants, as she’s come to view the crew of the Discovery as the closest thing she has to family, and they in turn implicitly trust her leadership.
Burnham showed she was the right person for the job in Discovery season 4, carefully navigating not only the direct effects of the Dark Matter Anomaly and first contact with Species 10-C, but also the political fallout from the crisis that engulfed Starfleet. At this point it would be a legitimate shock if anyone else ever captained the ship. Star Trek: Discovery has always been about Michael Burnham’s journey to the captain’s chair, fulfilling her Starfleet destiny.
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