The latest episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, “Under the Cloak of War,” was directed by Jeff Byrd, who has directed for the franchise before with the fourth season Discovery episode “Rosetta.” Byrd began his decades-long career as a protégé of Spike Lee, working as an intern and in the camera department on films like Mo’ Better Blues and Malcolm X and eventually moving up to directing music videos in the ’90s, then transitioning to feature films and television in 2000. He is a co-executive producer on the critically acclaimed Showtime series Yellowjackets but still keeps his hand in directing for other shows. TrekMovie had a chance to talk to Byrd about taking on this different kind of Star Trek episode.
This isn’t your first time with Trek, but it was a very different episode. Can you talk about any special prep you did?
Oh, I did all this special prep this time around. Strange New Worlds is so different than Discovery. I did special prep for Discovery, but for this one, it was a whole different one, especially since this was the dark episode. I love that this version was so dark and we’re able to really dig into what it’s like to have a Starfleet black ops team that goes out like SEAL Team Six and does some dirty deeds and then to know that M’Benga was part of it. And when I say dirty deeds, I mean dirty deeds for a good cause. Some people sometimes have to be taken out for fear of what they would do to the rest of the world, or, in this case, the galaxy. Of course, I did a lot of AR wall research prepping, but really it was about what black ops teams do, what is their mandate when they go out to take out a threat, and how they feel afterward. How they feel after when they come home, much like M’Benga having PTSD because you took a life. You took lives because you had to – because it was for the betterment of the world, but it still weighs on a human soul. And that’s what we see in this episode with a M’Benga.
When I talked to Jess [Bush] and Babs [Olusanmokun] before the season started they talked about this episode as a favorite and Jess praised you as a reason it worked because you were able to get them into such emotional places. Can you talk about how you got them into these vulnerable places?
Well, first of all, I love Jess Bush. She is amazing. She’s probably praising me because I praise her every chance I get. I think she’s the future and we are going to see a lot more of her in the world, in features and other things. But the reason why she was talking the way she did is because we all immersed ourselves. Myself, Babs, and Jess really immersed ourselves in what differently they can do as their characters. What differently can Chapel do? What differently can M’Benga do? And the beauty of it is, I think you hit upon, is it is so different than the rest of the show that they’re now able to go, “Okay, I can do some different things here. I can react a different way because I’m brand new.” We see Nurse Chapel fresh off the boat, beaming down into a war zone, and then being introduced to M’Benga. And “Who’s that guy?” telling her to do things and some things that are a little unethical, like saving a soldier inside the transporter.
It’s a part of triage which is also a lot of the research that they did. They did great research and would bring it back to me, and I would go “That’s great, let’s do that.” So you have that moment when you’ve got to clear him out of the transporter memory, that’s a part of triage, and that weighs on you when you have to leave someone to die because you cannot help them in a warzone. So any praise she gives to me and Babs gives to me, I give right back to them because they brought a lot to the table. They would show up on set every day with their phone and show me things they researched and say, “Can I do this thing, Jeff?” And Davy Perez the writer was amazing and would also co-sign that stuff with me. So me and the actors would try stuff and it was a great environment for them to try new things.
You mentioned research for this episode. Were there specific war movies or maybe Star Trek episodes you looked to for inspiration?
It’s interesting you bring that up because Davy Perez definitely looked at an OG Star Trek episode, and a Deep Space Nine episode…
I am going to guess for DS9 it was “The Siege of AR-558”
For The Original Series, I would guess the Vietnam War allegory “A Private Little War.”
Yes, the one where they are selling the weapons and keep upgrading. So a lot of those were brought into this script-wise and then realized by me on set visually. Obviously, there are comparisons in here to Apocalypse Now and there is a little Hamburger Hill in there, and even some Born on the Fourth of July. We discussed on set a lot of little easter eggs in there if you if you’re looking really closely at certain little moments. We wanted to make sure that we got some iconic moments and framing and different things of these iconic war films so that it feels familiar but it’s in a different time, obviously the future. We wanted to make sure you felt a little bit of it but were like, Oh yeah, but this is Star Trek so there is going to be a different twist to it, which of course there was.
This episode has fans talking about the moral gray areas and questionable actions, which brings up other episodes like “In the Pale Moonlight.” People still debate if Janeway is a murderer from “Tuvix.” So for this, what is the audience to take away from M’Benga’s choices, and those of Chapel as well?
The message there and what happened in there, it’s really about trust. How much does Captain Pike trust what Chapel is saying and what M’Benga is saying? It’s about the trust of your allies and your friends. And then in the back of your mind, you’ve got to think: are they lying to me? Just like you said about Captain Janeway. Was it self-defense? Was it not self-defense here for M’Benga? and is Chapel lying about it all? How much does she know? So now you have to either trust me and move on, or put me in the brig.
Can you talk about the choice to shoot Rah’s death scene with the opaque glass?
When we shot that scene, there were versions that we shot that I actually shot the fight scene in there and the death of Rah. I just wanted to make sure we had enough different versions so that when the executive producers saw it, they could pick what was best for our audience and our hearts. My whole goal in this episode was to immerse people in that world. And that’s why there are so many close-ups. I wanted to immerse people, so it’s not like your average Star Trek episode where we have the big vistas and the planet over there. We have some of those shots in there, but it’s really about getting in the heads M’Benga and Chapel and Rah. And to make it feel a little claustrophobic. It’s that tension building, I want out of here, I want out of the thing, but can’t get out. You can’t escape it. You’re here with us and figure out what you’re going to do in the end. Would you have killed him? Would you have done what was obviously done?
Speaking of Rah, it was great to see Robert Wisdom, I’ve been a fan since The Wire. Rah was a very different kind of Klingon. He kept us guessing about his motivations. Was that you, Robert, Davy? What are we supposed to take away, was Rah genuinely reformed or just a coward and opportunist?
I love that you asked that because that’s on purpose. I’ll give you the inside baseball stuff. The great Bob Wisdom, in his heart Rah had changed but Rah has obviously leanings towards his own life. But in his heart of hearts, Rah had changed, but also really wanted an ally in M’Benga. I think he saw in his mind, “This will help me get retribution for all the terrible stuff I’ve done and if I can get some Starfleet allies, that would be great, but still, I have a little bit in me of the Butcher of J’Gal.” For me and Davy when we were crafting it, my version was Rah was a little bit of a sellout in that regard. But he’s a sellout for the right reasons, meaning “I see what the damage my Klingon culture has done and I want to at least make amends to the bad side of it that has affected me and all the people I’ve killed in that regard.” So it was a little bit of that in there from me in my direction of Mr. Wisdom, and the way certain things were kind of manipulated in that way. And for Davy, it was all things. All things can be encompassed in one thing and in one being, which I love that too. I love the fact that everything is not all bad, everything is not all good.
New episodes from season 2 of Strange New Worlds drop weekly on Thursdays on Paramount+ in the U.S, the U.K., Australia, Latin America, Brazil, France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Season 2 is also available on SkyShowtime elsewhere in Europe. The second season will also be available to stream on Paramount+ in South Korea, with premiere dates to be announced at a later date.
Keep up with news about the Star Trek Universe at TrekMovie.com.