“Under the Cloak of War”
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 2, Episode 8 – Debuted Thursday, July 27, 2023
Written by Davy Perez
Directed by Jeff Byrd
A dark war story pivots the tone into a serious exploration of character and morality.
WARNING: Spoilers below!
“Trust me, I know Klingons”
The Enterprise has been tasked with escorting an important Federation ambassador from the Prospero system to Starbase 12, which would be routine except this diplomat is “special”… he’s a Klingon. While Pike and most of his Enterprise crew didn’t fight in the recent Klingon War, some did, and the arrival of the affable Dak’Rah, son of Ra’Ul, immediately raises the anxiety level onboard. This is played out on the bridge with newly minted Ensign Uhura seeing only how the ambassador’s acts spread the message of unity, while hardened war veteran Ortegas is distrustful, only seeing the former General’s brutal reputation and nickname: the Butcher of J’Gal. The argument is interrupted when the Klingon arrives on the bridge to cut the tension by complimenting the ship and its crew. In the bar, Spock shows his newfound interest in all things Klingon by trying to replicate some raktajino, only to serve it way too hot, burning the ambassador’s hand. The sight of Rah in sickbay hits Dr. M’Benga like a punch, reminding us he is a veteran of J’Gal. Christine covers as the doctor backs into his office to have a panic attack that brings back a flood of bad memories… It’s going to be a flashback kind of episode.
Years ago on J’Gal, a fresh-faced Christine Chapel arrives at a Starfleet forward medical base, finding it under attack and under-resourced as the frazzled CMO appoints her head nurse to replace the one who just died. Soon enough, the ubiquitous warnings of “incoming transport” begin as waves of the wounded beam in, including an Ensign Alvarado with internal injuries that can’t be fixed due to the lack of an organ regenerator. This is when she meets Dr. Joseph M’Benga, who demands she clear the pad to make room for those who can be saved—but her empathy gets the doctor to implement a transporter trick to store Alvarado in the buffer to be dealt with later. Back in their Enterprise sickbay, the pair now has to deal with Pike, who has orders to make Rah “feel welcome,” which includes making sure war vets play nice with him. The doctor and nurse agree to a welcome dinner, refusing to give Rah the satisfaction of chasing them away from the captain’s table. But their shared “we got this” calming mantra only triggers another flashback to a bloody surgery on J’Gal when Christine had to learn how to manually pump a heart with her hands to save a dying Ensign Inman. This pair has been through hell; how bad can a dinner be?
“Let’s pretend the war doesn’t bother us.”
Outside the captain’s quarters, M’Benga finds a pacing Ortegas and talks her into going in, proposing that maybe Rah has really reformed. Together, they agree to put on their “Starfleet face”—plus Pike made jambalaya. The Klingon is keeping Pike, Una, and Uhura entertained with funny diplomacy stories as a stewing Christine watches from the sidelines. Spock offers to help, jumping in to change the topic of the conversation. Rah seems genuine talking about how the Federation saved his life after J’Gal as he comes to realize M’Benga was there too, but the doctor is not calmed by talk of “difficult times.” Ortegas goes to the heart of it, asking if the stories are true that Rah killed his own lieutenants before escaping. She presses on, talking about Klingon battle cries she heard before seeing all her friends killed. Una orders the pilot to leave, and Christine follows to check on her. Spock follows but is no help. “J’Gal is not a statistic.” She needs space from him, he doesn’t get it: war “will never make sense.” Sensing more trouble, Pike suggests M’Benga check on Ortegas too. On his way out, Rah physically stops the doctor with a firm grip to brazenly requesting a sparring session. Joseph sternly says he will check his schedule and leaves before there is another veteran eruption. Well, that dinner could have gone better.
Back to J’Gal in the past: M’Benga deals with special ops team leader Va’Al Trask, who has a mission to take down General Dah’Rah and he wants Joseph to join him, knowing before he was a doctor he was a combat “ghost” with the record for hand-to-hand kills. M’Benga prefers saving lives now and also refuses to mix up a batch of “Protocol 12” super serum, ignoring the Andorian officer’s plea to give his team an edge. Ensign Inman is on the mend and M’Benga shows his bedside manner as he helps the young officer remember why they all joined Starfleet. “We have to fight so the people we love can have a chance to live in peace.” Unfortunately, the doctor later sees this inspiring moment worked too well when he finds Inman prepping to join Trask on what he knows is a suicide mission. “I’m a soldier, Doc. This is what I do.” …In case you hadn’t guessed it, he was wearing red.
“We save lives.”
Rah gets his Mok’bara session as he and M’Benga spar on the mat and over the war. M’Benga sees that Rah wants to move beyond J’Gal. As he proves he still has a lot of Klingon warrior left in him during their sparring, the ambassador tries to convince the doctor to work with him to show other vets how former enemies can work together. M’Benga picks up on Ortegas’ questioning and the former general says he killed his top three lieutenants, but only after they ordered the killing of civilians. The doctor gets the upper hand, ends the session with “wars change people.” Back in his quarters, he tries to wash away the pain in the sonic shower only to be pulled back into his J’Gal memories. The attacks had intensified to include civilians and even children, forcing M’Benga to purge Alvarado from the transporter buffer to make room for more wounded to beam in. Trask’s mission was a disaster as he and his entire team were wiped out, including poor Ensign Inman. The doctor has had enough; he grabs a Klingon knife from Trask’s corpse. The colony is evacuating but he tells Christine he will finish the mission to take out the general, giving her some super serum in case the Klingons get through. The hardened nurse says goodbye with “make them pay.” She gets it.
Una decides it’s time to get Rah off the ship for the sake of crew morale, offering Pike a quicker route to Starbase 12. The captain reluctantly agrees, lamenting his crew isn’t living up to Federation ideals. Knowing he has little time left, Rah seeks M’Benga out in sickbay and pushes the doctor to take up his offer. The doctor begs the Klingon to leave him alone until he erupts, revealing he knows Rah gave the order to kill civilians and it was Joseph, not Rah, who killed those three lieutenants. Joseph is the actual Butcher of J’Gal. and he has had enough of this “saint” anointed in the blood of his own hands. Rah justifies himself, saying the Federation needs the lie to allow him to do his good work. M’Benga opens a box from J’Gal, and inside is the knife from that fateful final night. The two begin to struggle… and it ends with the knife in Rah’s chest. Cut to Chapel telling Pike how Rah attacked the doctor, pointing to the Butcher of J’Gal’s blood (and DNA)-soaked knife as proof. La’an backs her up. Pike tells M’Benga there will be an inquiry as a formality, but Chris, his friend, is ready to back him up if there is more to the story he might want to share. After some back and forth over justice and due process, Joseph tells his friend, “I didn’t start the fight. But I’m glad he’s dead.” The doctor returns to his work fixing a problematic biobed, resigned to how “Some things break in a way that can never be repaired. Only managed.” Dark.
War is hell
After last week’s hilarious animation crossover, Strange New Worlds takes its biggest tonal pivot yet with a dark and gritty war story that challenges the characters and even the ideals of the Federation. Picking up on the hints from the first episode of the season, Babs Olusanmokun and Jess Bush delivered raw performances revealing the origins of their unbreakable bond forged in the fire of the desolate battle-torn moon J’Gal. This episode also revealed the divide within the crew between the Klingon War vets and those who were not witnesses to that brutality, like Captain Pike and the USS Enterprise along with Una and Spock. Melissa Navia and Celia Rose Gooding helped sell this divide with Ortegas’ cynicism in conflict with Uhura’s idealism. Some shortcuts were made to create some of these contrasts, including relegating Pike to the background, seemingly helpless in the face of dubious orders from Starfleet to force the war vets to interact with the former Klingon general. While it’s always welcome for a Star Trek series to take on some of the utopian ideals of the franchise with echoes of the great DS9 episode “In the Pale Moonlight,” here Pike comes off as overly naïve to the realities of war.
The catalyst for all of this exploration of war and its lingering effects is the character of Dak’Rah, with a nuanced performance from guest star Robert Wisdom, who keeps you guessing on his true motivations and history. Inspired by real-world examples of former enemies who switch sides like Wernher von Braun, Rah forces viewers (and the crew) to question the limits of forgiveness. Like Sisko tricking the Romulans in “Pale Moonlight” and (perhaps more on the nose) Data firing on Kivas Fajo in “The Most Toys,” this episode relishes in some of the best of Trek’s gray areas of character morality as we come to understand Dr. M’Benga better, including where he learned that transporter trick that kept his daughter alive through season 1. As for guest Clint Howard playing the medical base’s CMO, it’s always fun to see him pop up in Star Trek again, but his style really didn’t match the tone of the episode and seems like a wasted opportunity to use him in one of the lighter episodes.
The flashbacks to J’Gal were some of the bloodiest in the franchise, taking episodes like DS9’s “The Seige of AR-558” to an even more brutal level. Like that episode, “Under the Cloak of War” uses the vernacular of war movies to set the tone with the medical angle invoking the great series M*A*S*H without the jokes, but certainly channeling Hawkeye’s nihilism. This was enhanced by good production design and effects to sell the Battle of J’Gal, but these scenes were also bogged down by predictability as the episode overindulged in war movie tropes including the gung-ho guy who obviously isn’t going to make it. By the way, this emotional season, and especially this episode, has revealed that the USS Enterprise really needs a Father Mulcahy-like counselor to help these broken characters and their trauma.
Once again Strange New Worlds picked up the ball dropped by Discovery to do a real dive into the Klingon War—for fans of that show, it was nice to get some callbacks, like Ortegas talking about the savage reality of hearing T’Kuvma’s “tlhIngan maH. taHjaj” (“Remain Klingon”) battle cry. Ignoring the nonsense about how the Klingons shaved their heads during the war, the d’k tahg Klingon knife fight segments with Rah’s lieutenants were visceral and sold how M’Benga can barely keep it together when he comes face-to-face with the general, although Wisdom’s own Klingon makeup seemed a bit off, perhaps simplified to accommodate the guest star. But together with the season opener, it’s welcome for Strange New Worlds to embrace the Klingons and all the lore that comes with them.
The swing to this dark war story tests the limits of the show’s episodic design, especially sandwiched between last week’s comedy and next week’s musical episode. Yet “Under the Cloak of War” is still a solid episode that doesn’t shy away from moral questions as it adds new layers to familiar characters.
- This episode was originally scheduled for release on August 2 but moved up following the surprise early release of episode 7 on July 22.
- The “previously on” includes clips from the Discovery pilot “The Vulcan Hello.”
- Starts with Captain’s log, Stardate 1875.4. Also includes Chief Medical Officer’s logs, Stardates 1875.8 and 1877.5.
- The USS Kelcie Mae is a new type and rare single-nacelle Starfleet ship.
- Writer Davy Perez put himself into canon by naming the “Perez Accords.”
- Starbase 12 is located close to the Romulan Neutral Zone and has been often mentioned throughout Star Trek, firstly in TOS “Space Seed.”
- What Pike and the USS Enterprise were doing during the Klingon War is told in the 2019 novel Star Trek: Discovery: The Enterprise War.
- This is the first use of a boatswain’s whistle and the first appearance of Klingon raktijino in the series.
- The USS Enterprise bar has food (and drink) synthesizers built into the bar top. While functioning more like TNG era replicators, they make the same “ping” sound food synthesizers made in TOS.
- This is Clint Howard’s fifth role in Star Trek. His first was playing Balok in “The Corbomite Maneuver” when he was just 7 years old.
- M’Benga mentions biobed 2 hasn’t worked right since Gorn attack on Finibus III, from the season 1 episode “Memento Mori.”
- Earth’s moon Luna includes the city of New Angeles, which has shipyards.
More to come
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