Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, S2.8: “Under the Cloak of War” commits a few atrocities…


Last Time on Star Trek: Strange New Worlds…

Forgive me for being so late with this column, as my wife and I have been battling matching cases of COVID since returning from San Diego Comic Con 2023 over a week ago.  Even vaccinated, it’s been rough (I’m still not quite over it, as of this writing). However, what better distraction is there than taking a look at some new(ish) Star Trek, right?

During my COVID convalescence, I did watch “Those Old Scientists,” but I have to pass. I just can’t stand “Lower Decks,” and I didn’t really care for its SNW crossover.

Dropping five days early last week, on July 22nd, was the anticipated crossover episode between Strange New Worlds (SNW) and the animated “Lower Decks”; the latter being a series I quit a half-dozen or so episodes into its run. I just don’t like Mariner’s boorish behavior, nor do I find Star Trek references to be particularly funny punchlines on their own. I like humor in Star Trek, but I prefer humor rising organically from characters and situations, not from childish adults who treat Starfleet like a nonstop hazing week at university. Yes, I did watch “Those Old Scientists,” but no—I didn’t like it. Mariner (Tawny Newsome) is still obnoxious, and Boimler (Jack Quaid) still acts like a cliché fanboy instead of an adult Starfleet officer. I prefer Star Trek written by those who can craft solid stories within the parameters of that universe, not by gushing fans trying to bulldoze the fourth wall every few seconds. That’s my review. Moving on…

Please go away.
Seeing “Lower Decks” in SNW is like seeing the characters of “Family Guy” walking in the Bunkers of “All in the Family.”

Written by Davy Perez, Onitra Johnson and directed by Jeffrey W. Byrd, last week’s episode “Under the Cloak of War” (I’m way behind here, so please forgive) offers a story of a Klingon war criminal who’s trying to reinvent himself as a peacemaker between his people and the Federation.  However, there are veterans of the last Klingon-Federation war aboard the Enterprise whom history can’t quite get past…

“Under the Cloak of War”

Arriving in the Prospero system, the USS Enterprise is ordered to rendezvous with the USS Kelcie Mae, where they are to take on a rare Klingon passenger named Dak’Rah (Robert Wisdom) for delivery to Starbase 12. Dak’Rah successfully negotiated a ceasefire between the three planets of that troubled system.  The former military general defected to the Federation, where he’s become an ambassador-at-large for his former foe. 

Note: From what I gather, the name Kelcie Mae was chosen to honor a Star Trek fan who’d worked on SNW, and who recently passed away. This is in keeping with other Star Trek honorary names such as the character of Geordi LaForge, who was named after a quadriplegic Star Trek fan named “George LaForge” who attended the earliest Star Trek conventions before he passed away in 1975.

The USS Kelcie Mae in the Prospero system; another ship/character honoring a late fan–a proud Trek tradition.

In the transporter room, Dak’Rah—who prefers to simply be called “Rah”—is beamed aboard, where he is greeted by Captain Pike (Anson Mount), First Officer Una Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn) and Security Chief La’an Noonien Singh (Christina Chong). Upon materialization, Rah is given boatswain whistle honors, which he compares to the “red carpet” treatment. Rah’s unusually disarming manner is surprising to the crew.  With Security Chief La’an ready to escort him to his quarters, Rah humbly asks Pike if he could trouble him for a tour of the ship, instead…

Note: Rah’s immediate and vaguely suspicious request for a ‘tour of the ship’ is a clear red herring, strengthened with a suspicious glance between First Officer Una (Rebecca Romijn) and La’an.

Ambassador Dak’Rah (Robert Wisdom), flanked by escorts Pike (Anson Mount) and La’an (Christina Chong) arrives just in time to hear how far his “Butcher of J’Gal” reputation extends.

Taking the conn position on the bridge, a deeply suspicious Lt. Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia) is having a debate with Ensign Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) over the true nature of the ambassador’s visit. Uhura takes their Klingon guest at his word, citing his long history of successful ceasefire negotiations, while Ortegas thinks it’s a “long con” to spy on the Federation. A veteran of the recent Klingon war, Ortegas lists Rah’s many atrocities, including a story of his slaughtering fellow Klingon soldiers to ensure a safe retreat; an act so reviled it earned him the title “the Butcher of J’Gal.”  As those last words escape Ortegas’ lips, the turbolift doors to the bridge open, and Pike, Una, La’an and the ambassador step out (!).  Ortegas winces, as La’an loudly and deliberately announces “Captain on the bridge!”  Rah ignores Ortegas’ comment, and admires the view on Enterprise’s wide viewscreen, noting that Klingon ships don’t offer such expansive vistas. The ambassador tells Pike that no Klingon would ever admit that “Federation ships are superior,” noting the Enterprise seems more “fun to fly.”  Rah then extends compliments to the crew, including Ortegas, who tersely replies she does her best.

Note: A touch of levity as Ortegas winces when she realizes the ambassador overheard her “Butcher of J’Gal” line. Parts of this episode are tonally very similar to the awkward Klingon-Starfleet dinner aboard the Enterprise-A in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (1991).

“Coffee, Tea or Gagh?”
Ambassador Rah is about to try Spock’s (Ethan Peck) approximation of Klingon coffee, raktajino.

The tour continues, as the ambassador is taken to the Enterprise’s luxurious lounge, where Spock (Ethan Peck) and navigator Mitchell (Rong Fu) are attempting to synthesize Klingon coffee—aka “raktajino”—with the bar’s replicator.  As the ambassador enters, Spock introduces himself and explains that they’re making a ‘surprise’ for him. The drink is replicated, and the ambassador reaches for it, only to scald his hand on the overheated mug. Spock quickly apologizes for the coding error which made the drink so hot.  Rah shrugs it off, saying Klingons have a high tolerance for pain. Pike looks at the burn, and insists that the ambassador let them treat it for him in the ship’s sickbay…

Note: Of course, raktajino would later become a very popular drink for humans in the 24th century, as we saw in Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), Deep Space Nine (DS9) and Voyager (VGR).  It was even pointed out as such in the brilliant DS9/TOS Star Trek crossover, “Trials and Tribble-ations.” 

Dr. Joseph M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun) and Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush) are two war veterans who have each others’ backs.

As the ambassador enters sickbay, a nurse quickly tends to his burn with a dermal regenerator, as Dr. Joseph M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun) gets a look at their visitor—a face with which he and Nurse Christine Chapel (Jess Bush) are all too familiar.  Both M’Benga and Chapel served together on J’Gal, where the ‘ambassador’ earned his ‘Butcher’ title.  The sight of Rah sends Joseph into a panic attack, as he races into his office to calm himself.  Memories of the traumatic Klingon war come flooding back to him, as Chapel discretely goes to check on her boss and friend.

Note: A very realistic portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from actor Babs Olusanmokun (“Dune: Part One”). While I have issues with this episode which I’ll get into soon, I do admire the attempt at portraying successful professionals struggling with PTSD.  I’m only upset that portrayal is somewhat sabotaged later on…

“Fresh out of corbomite, too…”
Chapel is introduced to her eccentric commander, Buck Martinez (Clint Howard).

The episode then flashes back “a few years earlier” to the Klingon-Federation war.  Nurse Chapel is reporting for duty on the Moon of J’Gal. Arriving at the MASH-unit style field hospital, she meets Commander Buck Martinez (Clint Howard), an eccentric old doctor and hardened war veteran who tells her that whatever she needs, they probably don’t have, and that if she has any questions, she can ask “Joseph” (M’Benga).  When Chapel asks to meet with the head nurse, Martinez tells her that she is the new head nurse—and that he had to trade a case of Romulan ale to secure her for the position, noting her extensive experience. 

Myself and actor Clint Howard in Las Vegas, back in August of 2016.

Note: Actor Clint Howard (whom I met once in Las Vegas, 7 years ago) has a long history with Star Trek, going back to 1966’s “The Corbomite Maneuver” where he appeared as the child-like alien “Balok” (he was only 7 at the time of filming). He would later costar in DS9’s “Past Tense,” (1995), Star Trek: Enterprise’s “Acquisition” (2002) and more recently in Star Trek: Discovery’s “Will You Take My Hand?” (2018).  The brother of actor-director Ron Howard, Clint was a child star with the series “Gentle Ben” (1968) and costarred in many of his brother’s films, including “Apollo 13” (1995) and “Far and Away” (1992).

A grisly surgery flashback scene sees Chapel temporarily blinded by a spurt of blood from a hemorrhaging patient.

Chapel doesn’t have any time to get settled in before the camp is bombarded by Klingon weapons fire. Martinez is unfazed, saying they keep scrambling the sensors, but the Klingons always find them sooner or later.  Patients are beamed in via a field transporter unit, where they are quickly assessed and triaged for care as they’re cleared off the pad. One such patient is a young soldier named Alvarado (Jose Gutierrez-Solana) whose major organs are all bleeding out.  Without a working organ regenerator, they are helpless to care for the man.  Chapel consults senior physician M’Benga, who calmly tells the frazzled new nurse to put the man into the transporter buffer, so that his pattern can be restored when a starship arrives with fresh supplies.  M’Benga shows her how to do this, and the pad is temporarily cleared—allowing swarms of new wounded patients to be transported in…

Note: M’Benga would use this transporter buffer trick to keep his own terminally ill daughter, Rukiya, alive in stasis, as we learn in “Ghosts of Illyria.”  She is later freed from the buffer by aliens living in a nebula who are able to cure her in the surreal quasi-surreal episode “The Elysian Kingdom.” Unfortunately, her cure depends on her living with the aliens in the nebula, and she parts ways with her father. We first saw a transporter buffer used this way in Star Trek: TNG’s “Relics” (1992), where TOS’ Scotty (James Doohan) survived for 75 years following the crash of his transport ship, Jenolan.

M’Benga and Pike discuss a sensitive subject, as the patient seems to be the bio-bed itself.

In the present, we see M’Benga working on a malfunctioning bio-bed in sickbay, which hasn’t worked well since the recent Gorn attack (“Memento Mori”).  Pike walks in, and asks if he can borrow some “Deltan parsley” for a meal he’s preparing. M’Benga is too clever to be fooled by such a flimsy excuse for a visit. Pike is aware of the service records for both M’Benga and Chapel during the Klingon war, and he just wanted to be certain they’re okay with hosting “the Butcher of J’Gal” aboard the Enterprise.  Minor protests have broken out during the ambassador’s goodwill tour, and while Pike is sensitive to their feelings, he’s also under direct orders by Starfleet to ensure that war veterans interact with Rah as much as possible for the sake of goodwill.  However, Pike insists he’ll put his own people’s feelings first.  M’Benga assures Pike he’s fine, as is Christine, after she joins the conversation. The captain is reassured, and leaves. With Pike gone, Chapel and M’Benga’s faces express their true feelings. Chapel notes that Pike left them an out if they need it. M’Benga looks her in the eye and says “We’ve got this!” This was an expression he once used with her on J’Gal, when he instructed her to manually stimulate a dying patient’s heart into beating. It worked. Those words still resonate with her now; “We’ve got this!”

Note: A minor nit, but why isn’t one of Chief Engineer Pelia’s team working on repairing that bio-bed?

“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”
Una, Pike, Chapel and M’Benga are a captive audience to a Klingon ambassador.

As reluctant war veterans Ortegas, M’Benga and Chapel arrive for dinner, they see Rah holding court with stories of his diplomatic exploits at Prospero.  Elsewhere in the large room, Spock and Chapel try to play a word game, but the distraction isn’t working for her, as she witnesses “the Butcher of J’Gal” being treated as an honored guest.  Spock offers a distraction. He addresses Rah and asks if the ambassador is familiar with Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” and how it compares to an analogous Klingon book?  Rah dives right into the subject, as he enjoys the Sun Tzu’s book (“a most inspired human masterpiece”).  With the ambassador engaged in conversation, M’Benga quietly moves over to Chapel, and the two begin drinking doubles. Neither Chapel nor M’Benga can ever explain to the others what they’d been through in the war… 

Note: Of all the scenes that foreshadow/reference 1991’s “The Undiscovered Country,” the awkward dinner scene with Klingon ambassador Rah is the most on-point.

“I’m a doctor, not a soldier,” as Joseph M’Benga’s successor might say.  

M’Benga memories return to J’Gal.  After the surgery which restored the heartbeat of Ensign Inman (Brendan Jeffers), M’Benga gets to know the young man, who was raised on Luna, aka “the Moon” (as natives call it). The disillusioned ensign wonders aloud what they’re doing here—this isn’t the space exploration he signed up for when he joined Starfleet. M’Benga does his best to reassure the young man.  Later, a battle-hardened Andorian tactical officer named Lt. Trask (Kyle Gatehouse) discretely approaches M’Benga and reminds him of his excellent service record—with the most confirmed hand-to-hand combat kills of anyone.  M’Benga tells the scarred Andorian he now prefers saving lives over taking them. Trask presses him about “Protocol 12”; a formula designed by M’Benga (“The Broken Circle”) to hyper-stimulate adrenaline glands while suppressing pain responses, allowing humans to take on superior Klingon combatants more effectively. M’Benga refuses, but Trask persists—explaining it’d give his teams a great advantage.  Later, we see Ensign Inman, barely out of recovery, already dressed in battle gear, as his unit is deploying to face the Klingons.  M’Benga is mortified that the young man he and Chapel fought so hard to bring back to life is going out to possibly lose it so quickly afterward.  The doctor protests, but Inman insists, saying “We have to fight so that the people we love have a chance to live in peace. That’s Starfleet.” 

Note: The episode’s editing is a bit of a mess. The constant jumping back and forth between past and present makes the 51-minute running time feel considerably longer, yet neither the present-day story or the flashbacks are given proper ‘breathing room’ with this editorial approach. 

Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) looks on nervously as the guest of honor takes a few jabs from the dinner guests.

Cutting back to the dinner party with Rah, the Klingon speaks about the end of the Klingon-Federation war, and about the Klingon chancellor asking him how he came to speak on behalf of the Federation. Pike follows up, to keep the conversation flowing. Rah says that J’Gal changed him.  M’Benga quietly but pointedly chimes in, “J’Gal changed a lot of us.” Rah’s attention turns to the doctor, who admits he too, was a veteran of J’Gal.  Having M’Benga’s back, Chapel chimes in to mention the massacred Athos colony on J’Gal, as well. Trying to be diplomatic, Pike covers with a broad statement; “War is never the ideal option.” 

Note: This is one of the few times in the series (if ever) that Pike’s often wise words ring hollow.

“Terrible table manners.”
Lt. Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia) doesn’t exactly put on her best poker face at dinner.

Meanwhile, Lt. Ortegas has had about all she can take.  She asks Rah if the stories of him killing his own soldiers in order to retreat are true.  Rah only offers that they were all pushed to their limits on J’Gal, before offering a toast to “the survivors of J’Gal.”  However, Ortegas isn’t finished yet. She chants a phrase in Klingon which translates loosely as “Remain Klingon”; a Klingon battle cry used during the war (DSC: “Battle at the Binary Stars”). Ortegas twists the knife, saying that phrase was usually the last thing her friends heard before they were killed.  As Ortegas rises out of her seat, Una orders the helm officer to stand down, but she’s defiant.  With an angered expression across her tightened lips, Ortegas then storms out.  Chapel offers to go after her to see that she’s alright.  Pike also notices a tense M’Benga gripping the ends of his chair’s arms and suggests the doctor assist Chapel.  Before M’Benga can leave, Rah touches his arm—which nearly sends the doctor into another panic attack. Rah asks M’Benga if he’d care to join him for some Klingon martial arts at his convenience.  M’Benga says he’ll check his schedule.  The dinner party from hell is mercifully ended. 

Note: I can’t say I’m thrilled with how the series is handling Lt. Erica Ortegas to date; from almost no character development at all to giving her moments that make her seem reactionary and militant. Not to mention that First Officer Una owes her a kick in the britches for her insubordination at dinner.  What the hell happened to the easygoing jokester we were just getting to know at the beginning of season one?

Chapel has an idea to pour all remaining power into one working transporter to beam out mass casualties—one of whom is still stuck in the transporter buffer.

The episode flashes back to the war (again) to an attack led by Dak’Rah’s soldiers. Chapel learns the Klingons hit the primary power supply for the base, and that many wounded trapped in the field can’t beam out. Chapel realizes they can channel all available power to one working transporter, however doing so would purge the transporter’s backlogs, and Alvarez—the mortally wounded soldier still inside in the buffer—would be erased from existence.  As reports of casualties pile up, an indecisive Chapel hesitates—and M’Benga calmly purges the buffer.  The transporter is free to use, now.  Chapel asks what he did.  M’Benga resignedly replies they saved lives.  The system is activated, as multiple casualties begin to beam in… 

Back in the present, we see Spock and Chapel attempting to discreetly talk in an open corridor.  Spock, unable to pick up on complex human cues, asks her what he can do to help, as he realizes she’s going through something that he feels responsible for somehow.  Coldly reciting the losses of J’Gal in an awkward attempt to relate, Chapel cuts him off saying “J’Gal was not a statistic!”  She then tells him they need time apart

Note: This is the ‘No One Is At Their Best’ episode…

Yeah, fighting a burly alien warrior who triggers panic attacks in you is probably not the greatest idea.

In the ship’s gymnasium, M’Benga meets Rah for their Klingon martial arts session, though Rah says he thought M’Benga might refuse the invitation.  M’Benga admits he’s considered canceling, but asks if Rah is up to the challenge.  Rah says he’s more vigorous than his age suggests. As they begin, Rah seems sincere in his wish to reinvent himself as a peacemaker, while a less loquacious M’Benga says Rah makes it look easy to put the past behind him.  Each one flips the other, as the session becomes increasingly kinetic with each round.  Rah then takes the opportunity to present his ‘pitch’ to M’Benga—the two of them, war veteran and warlord—joining hands for peace.  Rah thinks their example might inspire others. However, M’Benga is really more interested in getting at the truth behind Rah’s “the Butcher of J’Gal”  reputation, and asks Rah if he really killed his own troops in retreat.  Rah reiterates that he did what he had to do. The Klingon also says that of all his men, Commander Kiff put up the greatest challenge. M’Benga and Rah both stand, as their session ends.  Rah tells the doctor he enjoyed the match, and looks forward to the next one.

Note: The sparring match used to vent frustrations is an old cliché, but it works. However, the martial arts used in the match don’t seem as exotic as other Klingon martial arts we’ve seen in past Star Treks (courtesy of Dan Curry), which almost seemed more spiritual than what we see here. I’m certainly no martial arts expert, of course, and that’s just my opinion, based on outsider observation. 

“Take one of these and call me in the morning.”

After their match in the gym, M’Benga goes to take a sonic shower, where he’s once again flashing back to J’Gal.  He remembers the final days, as the bodies pile up.  He regrets not taking Trask up on his offer to join his elite fighting team as he sees the corpses of Trask, Ensign Inman and many others.  Furious with himself at not being able to do more as a doctor, he pulls a Klingon dagger from Trask’s belt and takes it for himself.  He then finds a supply of his own Protocol 12 stimulant and sets about the grim task of killing General Dak’Rah himself.  In the melee, Chapel locates M’Benga and says they’ve been trying to find him.  She notices he’s dressed in tac gear, and carrying a Klingon dagger.  She knows what he’s going to do.  M’Benga then gives her a tracker which will allow them to find him, but asks that they don’t beam him out until he’s finished. While he hoped to return home unchanged, he realizes that’s impossible. With Chapel nearly in tears, he hands her his supplies along with a vial of Protocol 12, telling her to use it on herself if the Klingons breach the lines…

Note: It’s never made clear whether M’Benga began as a military man who became a doctor, or was he a doctor who just happened to be good at killing people?  And what led him to create Protocol 12 in the first place?  Was Section 31 involved somehow?  While I’m not eager to revisit M’Benga’s cold-blooded killer side anytime soon, these are questions that might warrant further exploration someday.

Una (Rebecca Romijn) suggests a course change, but is it too late?

Back in the present day (ugh—getting a wee bit tired of this), we see Una and Pike in the ready room.  Una suggests a course change through a nearby nebula to cut a day off their arrival at Starbase 12. Crew morale is very low with their Klingon guest aboard, and she hopes they can drop him off a day early.  Pike wonders aloud how they can ever hope for peace if people like Rah are not given a second chance?  Una understands, but points out the trauma his presence is causing several war veterans aboard the ship.  Pike approves the course change.

Note: Pike is right. In addition to exploration, Starfleet is also a peacekeeping force, which sometimes makes for uncomfortable diplomatic situations.  Sometimes you just have to put on a poker face and deal…

“Mr. Rah, don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry…”

In sickbay, we see M’Benga examining a chest containing various war artifacts, including the still-bloodied dagger he apparently kept with his ‘spoils of war.’  Unwisely, Rah then enters sickbay to tell the doctor his time aboard the ship has been cut short and that they might not get to spar again.  M’Benga drily replies he’s fine with that, and asks Rah to leave. Now. Not sensing the doctor’s urgency, Rah asks that he not let hate cloud his judgment of him, and that his purpose now is to atone for his past.  M’Benga quietly lets slip that it wasn’t Kiff who put up the greatest struggle during the retreat—it was another Klingon named Ruh’Lis. With that admission, M’Benga finally takes due credit for murdering Rah’s soldiers during the retreat, admitting that he—not Rah—is the true “Butcher of J’Gal.” M’Benga still hates Rah for turning him into a monster that day, and for using the blood on his hands to make himself a saint.  Rah’s entire reputation is built on lies.  M’Benga then turns around and removes the Klingon dagger from the case, asking Rah why couldn’t he have simply left him alone?  As Rah makes a final appeal to M’Benga, they struggle.  Chapel enters sickbay and sees their silhouetted forms behind a diffused glass partition—just as Rah falls dead to the floor, with M’Benga’s dagger thrust into his chest… 

Note: What was that war chest of M’Benga’s doing in sickbay, anyway? Why wasn’t it safely tucked away in his quarters somewhere?  The fact that it was there in sickbay, with the dagger inside, shows a certain premeditation to M’Benga’s ‘accidental’ murder of Rah, and unfortunately, that also changes how I look at the character.  I could much easier sympathize with the doctor having a panic attack than I can with seeing him murder a Federation ambassador in cold blood, whatever his personal feelings. This episode does the character of Joseph M’Benga—a legacy character from TOS Star Trek—a tremendous and permanent disservice. I can never quite see him the same way.

Partners in crime.
Chapel coolly covers for M’Benga’s murder of Rah. Are these the same characters we thought we knew??

In the briefing room, Pike and La’an take Chapel’s account into the record, as she presents them with the bloodied dagger.  She then proceeds to compound the crime by lying about it, stating that she saw Rah attacking M’Benga with the dagger, whichshe now claims he pulled on the doctor.  DNA on the knife’s dried blood samples correlates with the other Klingon deaths on J’Gal from a few years earlier, as well as Rah’s own blood.  Chapel says it just goes to prove you can never truly know what goes on in someone’s heart, painting Rah as a violent psychopath who simply snapped on M’Benga.  One last character assassination of a dead man…

Note: I get that Chapel wouldn’t want to turn on her boss and fellow war veteran (with whom she’s been through so much), but rather than dragging a dead man’s name through the mud once again, she could’ve simply said that she arrived late and that the glass partition obscured her view, which is slightly more truthful than saying Rah attacked M’Benga in a psychotic frenzy. This episode makes M’Benga out to be a bloodthirsty monster, Chapel as a liar, Ortegas as a bigot and Pike as a captain who lets murder of a Federation ambassador slide aboard his ship. No one comes out smelling particularly good in this one.

Has the character of Joseph M’Benga been permanently sullied?
And is this why he later relinquishes his position as Chief Medical Officer to Dr. McCoy later on in TOS?

Later, after the inquiry, we see M’Benga still futzing with his malfunctioning bio-bed (um, call engineering, perhaps…?). Pike steps in, and tells M’Benga that La’an has submitted her security report.  There will most likely be an inquiry.  Not fully satisfied with the presented account of what happened, Pike calls on their longtime friendship in hopes that M’Benga will come clean with him.  M’Benga assures him he didn’t start the fight, and that Rah was living a lie, which the Federation Diplomatic Corps knew and ignored in the name of peace.  Pike points out those involved are still answerable to due process, but M’Benga asks about justice for Rah’s victims?  Pike retorts by asking who gets to play god in this situation?  M’Benga says the two of them see eye-to-eye on many things, but that Pike hasn’t lived his life, and perhaps the captain doesn’t realize some things can’t be forgiven.  For his part, M’Benga is glad that Rah’s dead. With that distressing admission, Pike leaves.  M’Benga then continues to work on the bio-bed, which sparks to life…before shorting out once more.  Its breakdown was inevitable.

Note: An issue I have with most modern Star Trek (2017-present) is that too many characters are being defined almost solely by their traumas; nearly every character has a tragedy as their calling card (Uhura’s family died in a shuttle crash, La’an’s family were used as Gorn breeding sacks, Una’s family lived a lie, M’Benga and Chapel are traumatized war veterans, etc).  Speaking as one who’s experienced trauma myself, I can safely say that there are those trauma survivors who don’t like to be defined so much by their painful pasts. Whatever happened to characters who are simply interesting people?

The End.

Summing It Up

“Under the Cloak of War” seriously damages the character of Dr. Joseph M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun), a legacy character from TOS who only appeared in a few episodes, where he served as McCoy’s relief, and a specialist in Vulcan medicine. M’Benga, who seemed so gentle in earlier episodes of SNW, has been revealed to have a much darker side—one that includes taking his performance-enhancing “Protocol 12” drug to better slaughter superior Klingon soldiers. The once-good doctor is now revealed to have a Jekyll & Hyde duality, and I really don’t like it. 

The once-gentle character of Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun) also gets assassinated, along with the Klingon ambassador.

I’m also disturbed that M’Benga didn’t take the out initially offered to himself and Chapel by Pike earlier in the episode.  Pike was perfectly willing to overlook Starfleet’s admittedly absurd order for war veterans to ‘mingle’ with Klingon ambassador Dak’Rah (Robert Wisdom) for the sake of his own crew’s well-being. But M’Benga refused Pike’s offer because of pride—he didn’t want Dak’Rah to get the better of him. M’Benga also wasn’t keen on Dak’Rah taking ‘credit’ for his own acts of butchery against the Klingon soldiers during the retreat. We also see M’Benga placing the box containing the dagger closer to himself during the fatal encounter with Dak’Rah, which showed cold-blooded premeditation.  

TOS Star Trek’s “Arena.”
Kirk also faced the choice of killing a bloodthirsty opponent, but he didn’t–even when he believed his crew was at stake.

Some might argue that M’Benga’s murder of a war criminal was justified, but this is Star Trek, not “Rambo.”  Star Trek is supposed to be about not killing our enemies, even when there’s ample cause (see: TOS’ “Arena” “Day of the Dove” and countless other episodes).  It was clear that admitted war criminal Dak’Rah (however he embellishes his backstory) was sincere in his desire for peace.  M’Benga’s act of murder might’ve set Klingon/Federation relations back by decades. I wonder how many lives did that single act cost?  Interesting that Pike’s former science officer, Spock would be the one to restart those efforts thirty years later, in 1991’s “The Undiscovered Country,” which this episode foreshadows. The flashbacks of Chapel and M’Benga at D’Jal were also very reminiscent of Deep Space Nine’s “The Siege of AR-558” and “Nor the Battle to the Strong.”

“Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (1991).
Good thing Dr. M’Benga wasn’t aboard the ship during this voyage–Gorkon might’ve died before the dessert course.

“Under the Cloak of War” seemingly sympathizes with the plight of veterans struggling with PTSD, but it subverts that sympathy by reinventing M’Benga as a cold-blooded killer just waiting for the right moment to seek his vengeance. I wish I could erase the final act of this episode and give it a more Star Trek-style solution where M’Benga—the man he wants to beovercomes his darker impulses. Perhaps eyewitness Chapel could’ve used M’Benga’s Protocol 12 on herself to break up the deadly fight. A sobering M’Benga could’ve stood over the Klingon who brought so much misery into his life, and chose not to kill him—taking his hand for the sake of future peace

Chapel has M’Benga’s back, but this wartime-born loyalty of hers leaves her covering up for an act of murder.

As it is, “Under the Cloak of War” is little more than a revenge story with only superficial insights into the struggles of PTSD. The story ultimately fails, because it forgets that Star Trek is not about murdering those deserve it. It’s about answering to our better selves; the mythical, aspirational future breed of humanity who someday rise from the ashes of World War Three to put something better out into the universe. The people we want to be, not necessarily the lot we are today.

Star Trek can do much better than this, and has.

Where To Watch

“Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” is available to stream exclusively on Paramount+. The first season of “Strange New Worlds” is also available for purchase on BluRay and DVD from CBS/Paramount, and is available for purchase wherever you can still buy physical media (Amazon, BestBuy, Barnes & Noble; prices vary).

Images: Trekcore, Paramount+
Images: Trekcore, Paramount+,

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