This Star Trek: Strange New Worlds review contains spoilers.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 2 Episode 8
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds has delighted in subverting our expectations about what a sci-fi adventure series like this is supposed to be and do, embracing wild shifts in tone, genre, and format from week to week and telling what should be familiar stories in fresh new ways. Season 2 has featured episodes that range from a courtroom drama (“Ad Astra Per Aspera”) to a trip into an alternate past (“Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow”), a relationship comedy (“Charades”), and a heartfelt and hilarious crossover with a Star Trek animated series (“Those Old Scientists”).
Granted, “Under the Cloak of War” does make for a particularly jarring tonal shift after the Strange New Worlds meets Lower Decks episode. This installment is…well, it’s pretty darn dark, especially for a show that generally tries so valiantly to find the light and hope in the stories it’s telling. A war story about a fight that’s theoretically over but never truly ends, the hour explores everything from living with the consequences of trauma to questions about the nature of justice. It fully complicates our understanding of two of the show’s best characters, provides some necessary backstory about a particularly dark period in Starfleet history, and ends on the sort of thorny moral choice that will undoubtedly reverberate throughout the rest of the season (and series). This isn’t a fun hour, by any stretch, but it does feel like a rather necessary one, at least in terms of several characters’ larger emotional arcs.
The story is ostensibly about the arrival of a Klingon Federation ambassador who’s being ferried aboard the Enterprise after helping negotiate a complex multiplanet ceasefire. A former general during the Klingon War who was once known for his vicious brutality, Dak’Rah (allegedly) learned the error of his ways after the devastating Battle of J’gal, defected to the Federation, and has since helped spearhead various trade agreements and peace accords. His presence is fairly upsetting for the multiple crew members who themselves are veterans of the Klingon War, several of whom were participants in the battle that gave the ambassador his dark nickname (the Butcher of J’gal) when he killed several of his own men to cover his escape.
Earlier this season, we learned a bit about M’Benga and Chapel’s experience serving together, but “Under the Cloak of War” provides a full origin story for their relationship, showing us their first meeting in what is essentially a Starfleet M.A.S.H. unit and allowing us to see how the constant grind of death and loss affects each of them in profound ways that reverberate through to the present day. Though neither of them joined Starfleet expecting to become soldiers—or to perform rudimentary surgery without the benefit of the technological aids of the age—both must learn how to make hard, unorthodox choices in the name of helping as many people as possible. And, through these flashbacks, Strange New Worlds manages to make the Klingon War more emotionally impactful than pretty much the entire first season of Discovery did.
In the present day, M’Benga, Chapel, and even Ortegas (who was a war pilot) attempt to manage their lingering rage and PTSD in the face of a larger Starfleet mandate to welcome the ambassador to the Enterprise, and struggle to articulate the horrors what they experienced to those who were not there. None of them believe Dak’Rah’s platitude-filled claims that he’s trying to make amends or help others heal from the trauma of war—which often come across as nothing so much as a weird kind of personal branding exercise—and there are several uncomfortable scenes in which Pike uneasily tries to keep the peace between their Klingon guest and his crew members who are all feeling the emotional strain of his presence.
Babs Olusanmokun’s performance is wonderfully complicated, a mix of rage, fear, and dark determination that seems as though it should be deeply at odds with the kind hearted medical officer we regularly see on the Enterprise. (Who…was also apparently a special ops agent at one point?) “Under the Banner of War” firmly colors M’Benga in overt shades of gray in ways that aren’t comfortable for viewers, and Strange New Worlds doesn’t seem particularly interested in policing how its characters feel or picking a side in their dispute.
The episode even ends in such a way that it’s possible to believe that M’Benga is telling the truth, and that the events behind that screen we couldn’t see unfolded as he said. It’s an interpretation I don’t personally ascribe to—I think the good doctor is, in his way, proud of his decision to take matters into his own hands, and the various hypothetical scenarios surrounding Dak’Rah’s death that he postulates for Pike have some distinct If I Did It O.J. Simpson tell-all vibes. But I can see how viewers might at least be able to read that fight scene as ambiguous if nothing else.
The real question here, though is: How are we meant to feel about M’Benga and Chapel afterward? He certainly seems to feel no regret over anything that may or may not have happened, and even outright says he’s not sorry the Klingon is dead. She (probably) lies to protect him—a decision that isn’t that surprising considering what the two obviously mean to one another, but that explicitly sets their bond above their Starfleet ties in an interesting new way. And both have clearly done some dark things in the service of what they see as their duty, actions they obviously both still carry with them now that they’re ostensibly living in peacetime.
It’s rare that anyone provides such strident opposition to Christopher Pike’s particular brand of sunny optimism—or that Strange New Worlds allows a darker viewpoint equal weight. “Under the Cloak of War” doesn’t come out and say that M’Benga is right and Dak’Rah deserved to die, but it also doesn’t reject that notion either. That the former Klingon general is (or at least was) a very bad person is evident, and the show hints at various points that he may not be as reformed—or at least as non-violent—as he seems. (And using the bodies of your dead countrymen to advance your personal brand is…certainly a choice!) Even if he had somehow truly changed, does it matter? Does a man like this deserve a second chance after everything he’s done? Don’t the people he harmed—both the dead and the survivors—deserve justice? And what does that even look like in a world that wants to believe in the power and possibility of true redemption?