Strange New Worlds‘ “Under the Cloak of War” in Review
What was all that “shoot up with glowing blue stuff to get Matrix-style bullet-time powers to kick Klingon ass” with M’Benga and Chapel in the season premiere? Well, we’re not going to get all the answers here. However, we do get some disturbing implications about their shared backstory.
The USS Enterprise is visiting the Prospero system to pick up and transport an ambassador who helped unify the system’s three planets, which had still been fighting after the end of the Klingon War. The visiting Federation ambassador is a Klingon defector, Rah, formerly known as General Dak’Rah. He is very un-Klingon-like, believing in peace and being all charm and aged wisdom, so Pike is happy to give him a tour. They first walk in on Ortegas explaining to Uhura on the bridge that other Klingons call Dak’Rah “the Butcher of J’Gal” for killing his own men to cover his escape. Spock then offers him raktajino, but it’s too hot and causes Rah a trip to sickbay, where M’Benga sees him and immediately has a panic attack.
A few years previously, Chapel was being transported from a shuttle to the forward operating base on J’Gal during a bombardment there. She’s immediately made the head nurse, by virtue of being the only nurse there, and saw M’Benga for the first time. Almost immediately, injured Federation troops were beamed in for treatment. M’Benga had Chapel safeguard one of the worst ones — who needed medical technology unavailable in the battle zone — by saving him into the transport buffer.
On the Enterprise, M’Benga has recovered from his panic attack. Pike hosts a dinner party to try and calm the tension. M’Benga thinks the former Dak’Rah may have changed but Ortegas doesn’t believe a word of it. Spock is unhappy at being unable to help Chapel talk out her memories of the battle.
It also becomes clear that M’Benga wasn’t always a doctor, as the troops’ leader kept asking him to join them based on his record for being an effective combatant. M’Benga also had supplies of a secret military serum to boost abilities.
At Pike’s dinner party, Una and Pike rapidly become aware of the tensions which Rah’s presence is causing, especially among the war veterans in the crew. The dinner party only increases the tensions, as Ortegas, Chapel and M’Benga find reasons to challenge Rah verbally and walk out. Rah, meanwhile, has heard that M’Benga practices the Klingon martial art of Mok’bara and arranges to spar with him.
Back on J’Gal, the troops embarked on a mission to find and kill the local generals, including Dak’Rah.
With Chapel retreating internally to what’s always there in her memory, Spock decides to give her some time apart.
On J’Gal, more casualties forced M’Benga to clear the pattern buffer, killing the wounded soldier in there. This enabled the transporter to handle enough new casualties.
Aboard the Enterprise, the sparring between M’Benga and Ambassador Rah leads to heightened tension between them. M’Benga asks Rah about being the Butcher of J’Gal. When M’Benga asks which of his men fought him the hardest, Rah picks a name: Kiff.
Back on J’Gal, not only was the Starfleet mission failing but the Klingons were killing all civilians. The troops were being massacred, a young soldier whom M’Benga saved earlier having his throat cut. M’Benga grabbed a Klingon dagger and gave Chapel some serum to help defend herself if the Klingons broke through. He then left the Starfleet campsite, on a mission to thwart the person responsible for the massacre.
On the Enterprise, Rah comes to see M’Benga in sickbay, sensing that the doctor still needs to be healed after J’Gal. Rah says that he’s been trying to make up for past crimes. M’Benga corrects him that it wasn’t Kiff who fought the hardest but another Klingon, Captain Ruh’lis — who held M’Benga back long enough for Dak’Rah to escape. M’Benga is the true Butcher of J’Gal and was made a monster there. As M’Benga says, Rah has been using the blood on M’Benga’s hands to make himself a saint. M’Benga still has the dagger and Chapel then enters to see clearly what we don’t — the dagger ends up in Rah’s chest.
In Captain Pike’s ready room, Chapel tells Pike and La’an that it was a fight and that M’Benga defended himself. The dagger is shown, by Klingon DNA, to have belonged to the Butcher of J’Gal and everyone still thinks that was Rah. M’Benga says he didn’t start a fight but he ended one. Take your pick as to how much of a fight it really was.
While M’Benga tries to get back to normal, a biobed is acting oddly… Whether this is a buffered Rah or a lead to a future episode, who knows?
After plenty of comedy in recent installments, this episode, written by Davy Perez, is solid drama about the effects that war and disaster have on people. It’s very much focused on M’Benga and Chapel, and the greatest demands are put on their skills. They and Ortegas all have good scenes together.
Jess Bush does her best and works fine depicting Chapel’s internal disconnect. Babs Olusanmokun totally owns this episode, though. Guest star Robert Wisdom is good as Rah too, though his overly sage-like performance makes him look totally suspicious throughout. Maybe that’s intentional, to make the audience think he’s planning an attack.
Longtime fans may also spot the long-awaited return to Trek of Clint Howard (Balok from “The Corbomite Maneuver”, among a few other Trek roles) as the J’Gal base commander. Fans may also note the clips from Star Trek: Discovery’s premiere, the redesign of the Klingon dagger, and the subtle return of the TNG-era Klingon theme in the score.
This has an upgraded feel of some of the later DS9 episodes, particularly “The Siege Of AR-588”, although it’s far grimmer and more morally ambiguous. It’s also in the vein of “Chain Of Command, Part II” and “Duet”. Jeff W Byrd’s direction is especially good in the J’Gal scenes. Between his work, the script and the cast, this is the best dramatic episode of the season so far.
David A McIntee is a writer and historian who has written for properties such as Doctor Who, Star Wars, Final Destination, and Stargate, as well as having written several adventures in the Star Trek franchise for Pocket Books. He has contributed many pieces to the magazines Star Trek Explorer (née Star Trek Magazine) and Star Trek Communicator, as well as having written nonfiction books about Star Trek: Voyager.