Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’ fondness for exploring old ideas and structures doesn’t just rely on an affection for the original Star Trek. It’s willing to take on tones, ideas, and experiments from across the franchise’s history—and even its most recent past, as is the case this week, as the show takes on Discovery’s largest unexplored aftermath. But it might be coming to its own limits on just how dark a path it can take some of its heroes down.
“Under the Cloak of War” acts in some ways as a sibling episode to season two’s premiere, which tackled the fallout of what came after in the aforementioned Discovery story: the Klingon War. Discovery itself was quick to move on from the aftermath, and then promptly leave it all behind when the show’s titular ship catapulted itself hundreds and hundreds of years into the future. But Strange New Worlds has already proven it has an interest in examining the fallout of the war this season, using the unique opportunity that not everybody aboard the Enterprise fought in it. And now, even more so, it’s willing to push those characters that were involved down some fascinating paths.
Those characters in particular this week are Dr. M’Benga and Nurse Chapel—both frontline medics during the war who first met, as we see in flashbacks, on the battlefields of the Klingon moon J’Gal, the site of a devastating theater of war. Instead of, as with the premiere, being asked to confront the abstract idea of conflict between Starfleet and the Klingons threatening to raise its ugly head again, Christine and Joseph are faced rather literally with their past: the Enterprise is to play host to Federation ambassador Dak’Rah (guest star Robert Wisdom), who as you might be able to tell from the name, is a Klingon. And not just any Klingon, but the former commander of the Empire’s forces at J’Gal, whose actions and eventual defection to the Federation earned him the moniker “The Butcher of J’Gal.” Now the Federation’s most vaunted diplomat, and the symbol of acceptance and tolerance that the Federation champions, Chapel and M’Benga are confronted with asking how much they themselves have changed in the years since the war.
Much of the episode’s tension comes from splitting the Enterprise’s senior staff, as we dive back and forth between the present of Dak’Rah being hosted aboard the ship and the past on J’Gal, where Chapel, newly assigned to a triage medical station on Starfleet front lines, first meets an already war-weary M’Benga. Despite the conflict happening in the booms and blasts of the background, these flashback scenes are incredibly evocative of Deep Space Nine’s Dominion War stories, literally and thematically dark, with more than a few shades of the infamous episode “The Siege of AR-558,” which climaxes in the young, recent Starfleet inductee Nog being gravely wounded in a doomed battle. While in the present scenes aboard the Enterprise the tension is left to simmer—as Pike, Una, and Spock try to play diplomatic hosts to Dak’Rah, knowing that they were afforded the privilege of not directly serving on the war’s front lines, and Ortegas, M’Benga, and Chapel tackle the resurgent feelings of their own war experience—these flashbacks let Strange New Worlds get tonally and visually messy in a way it rarely has been, even in high stakes moments of conflict.
The pace is relentless in these moments, one tragedy or ethical compromise for Chapel and M’Benga following another with little time for them to deal with or even acknowledge it. It makes the languid, simmering moments aboard the Enterprise in the present all the more gutwrenching, because just as the flashbacks are barreling towards a grim, inevitable climax, you know that it’s similarly leading to an explosive conclusion in the present. Which is what we get as the straight faces put on by M’Benga and Chapel, the former in particular, start to crack as Dak’Rah increasingly pushes his reformed reputation. After a tense dinner in Pike’s quarters sees Ortegas storm out, you’re allowed for a brief moment to think this is the tension boiling over—M’Benga and Chapel have their excuses to leave the increasingly bad mood of the dinner to go deal with her, Dak’Rah gets a small moment of amelioration where he gets to express regret for the past that lead to this outburst, and Pike and Una come to the conclusion it will be better for everyone if the ambassador gets off of the Eneterprise as quickly as possible.
But “Under the Cloak of War” has a final knife to twist, and it’s the most complex one Strange New Worlds has yet to wield. Past smashes into the present when, just before he leaves, Dak’Rah approaches M’Benga with an offer previously floated between the two in a tense sparring session: join him in a diplomatic tour to prove that veterans of some of the war’s deadliest theaters can bury the hatchet. M’Benga, however, can’t bring himself to face the lie Dak’Rah has made for his new life in the Federation, revealing that the real butcher of J’Gal is none other than M’Benga. As we see in flashback, it was he who slaughtered Dak’Rah’s lieutenants—amped up by the same psychoactive serum we saw him and Chapel use in the premiere—after the then-general gave the order for Klingon forces to attack civilian as well as Starfleet targets. Dak’rah’s story of honorable turncoat is a lie bathed in the blood of innocents, and then ultimately bathed in his own, when M’Benga reveals he still has the Klingon knife, seemingly one of Dak’Rah’s own, that he used to hunt the general’s forces down on J’Gal. A fight breaks out, and we’re left to see it from Chapel’s perspective in shadows. Dak’Rah lies dead on the sickbay floor, M’Benga above him—and no one but those two men will ever know how the scuffle ended.
That includes us. “Under the Cloak of War” pointedly keeps the details vague—we don’t see the fight save for the direct outcome, we’re told as the scene cuts away to La’an and Pike discussing with Chapel that ostensibly Dak’Rah attacked the doctor, and there’s enough DNA evidence on the weapon to support that. When Pike follows up with M’Benga, the doctor is hesistant to either defend himself or provide detail even when Pike tries to speak to him not as a captain but as his friend: all M’Benga can say is he’s glad Dak’Rah’s dead, and ponder on a perpetually broken biobed as to whether or not some things can ever truly be fixed—or just managed forever.
Did Dak’Rah really start the fight? Are M’Benga and Chapel covering for each other as a way to avenge the trauma they endured on J’Gal? There is no real clear answer by the end of the episode, only a sense of unease. It’s a compelling, morally ambiguous ending for the episode to end on, and much like the flashbacks to the war here echoing “Siege of AR-558,” it feels like one that wants to echo the similarly dark, complicated mood Ben Sisko takes at the conclusion of “In the Pale Moonlight.” But, for as much as Strange New Worlds wants to play with this “in the moment” storytelling in such a dark way, you cannot really look at “Under the Cloak of War” and what it wants to do with these characters without the context of where this episode sits in the wider season’s structure. Not just in its parallels to the topics touched on in the season premiere is important here; this past weekend, we had the Lower Decks crossover, an episode that, while emotionally sincere at its core, is primarily a lighthearted, knowingly goofy romp. Next week we have “Subspace Rhapsody,” Star Trek’s first-ever musical episode, and while I’m willing to be surprised, I somehow doubt that episode is going to examine the monsters made of ourselves in the crucible of war.
Star Trek can and should explore a vast tonal array of moods and ideas, and it can and should place those ideas in contrast with each other from week to week. But it also can’t fall into the trap past Trek shows have in doing so—not letting that tonal variance actually impact on its characters. Time and time again episodic Trek has told stories that weigh heavy on the consciousnesses of its heroes, only for that weight to vanish in the next episode. Strange New Worlds has been a series that similarly wants its cake and eat it in this regard in its weaker moments, when heady ideas and big impacts on people are just left to sit within the confines of individual episodes. But it doesn’t have to—in fact, this week is a compelling note that the show is capable of following up on these emotional beats after raising them in the past. Given the nuanced ambiguity “Under the Cloak of War” leaves M’Benga on, there’s hope this isn’t the last we’ll see of this series exploring one of Discovery’s most fascinating, but arguably most wasted, opportunities. The good will earned here has to matter going forward, otherwise it’ll be just as wasted an opportunity.
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