Review: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 2 Episode 8 “Under the Cloak of War”
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds switches gears in a big way from its hilarious crossover episode last week to something far more violent, contemplative, and serious as we learn more about the Klingon War and the toll it took on some of our characters.
This episode follows two related plotlines: one where the Enterprise in the present day escorts a Klingon ambassador to Starbase 12, and the other where we learn about Dr. Joseph M’Benga’s (Babs Olusanmokun) and Nurse Christine Chapel’s (Jess Bush) service during the Klingon War on a forward operating base on the moon of J’Gal. Here, violence reins as the Federation fights the merciless Klingons, with plenty of casualties on both sides.
What’s past is prologue, so let’s start there. Nurse Chapel lands on J’Gal during the bloody war with the Klingons, which started in the first season of Star Trek: Discovery. Learning about this war, first of all, really scratches our Star Trek canon itch, as the struggle plays a significant role in pre-TOS history. Seeing even one battlefield from this conflict come to life is notable, especially since the vista of war is illustrated so clearly on Strange New World’s famous AR wall.
Chapel, as the base’s new head nurse, has her hands full handling casualties. It’s in a forward operating base that she meets M’Benga, a soldier-turned-doctor who has seen more than his fair share of combat. Chapel and M’Benga work together to save who they can, and we see firsthand that war is, indeed, horrible, especially in the face of such deadly adversaries. Even with elite Starfleet black ops soldiers working on the front lines, it’s clear something needs to be done to win the day.
“I’m just a doctor now. I prefer saving lives to taking them.”– M’Benga
After nursing back to health an idealistic young soldier who was captured by Dak’Rah, an infamous Klingon general, only for that same soldier to fall in battle, M’Benga, having seen far too much death on J’Gal, decides to take matters into his own hands. Someone must stop Dak’Rah, who is reportedly killing civilians to accomplish his war aims. M’Benga heads to the Klingon compound to kill the leader; much to M’Benga’s chagrin, the general escapes by throwing his men at the Starfleet doctor to buy himself time.
In the present day, the Klingon ambassador the Enterprise escorts is, of course, this former general. However, Dak’Rah (Robert Wisdom) – the former “Butcher of J’Gal” – is here in the name of peace; since the war, he has evolved his thinking and now argues for unity among the Klingons and Federation. Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) is more than happy to indulge this peace effort, but members of his crew who served in the war, such as Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia), Nurse Chapel, and most notably, Doctor M’Benga, have major issues with their former enemy walking the halls in what they say is a faux-peace offering.
“We can still ditch this.”
“No, Chris needs us there. And I’ve handled worse than polite conversation. Plus, I don’t want to give Rah the satisfaction of chasing me away from the captain’s table.”– Chapel and M’Benga about the upcoming dinner with Dak’Rah
M’Benga, having tried to assassinate Dak’Rah on J’Gal, suffers especially severe PTSD while the ambassador is onboard. Simmering ill will toward the ambassador comes to light at a dinner hosted in his honor, but M’Benga and Dak’Rah avoid a full-on confrontation – for now. Even a friendly-but-not-really-friendly sparring match between the two war veterans – during which the Klingon asks M’Benga to join him as allies to present an impressive united front – doesn’t dissolve Dak’Rah’s sins of the past in the doctor’s eyes.
Una Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn) senses dark energy among the crew as the ship ferries Dak’Rah, so much so that she suggests taking a shortcut to get the Klingon ambassador to his destination faster; her instincts end up being right. Dak’Rah goes to see M’Benga in his office, and the doctor, in no uncertain terms, asks him to leave. One can tell M’Benga is on the edge of doing something he can’t take back, so much is his rage toward Dak’Rah.
M’Benga reveals to Dak’Rah that he was the one who earned the former general the nickname “Butcher of J’Gal” because he killed so many Klingon warriors who were protecting the general. Dak’Rah, for his part, is angry that M’Benga has let the Klingon take the blame for those Klingon deaths for all these years. Dak’Rah asserts he has been trying to make his reputation right by doing so much good since the war, but a scuffle ensues between the two men.
The actions of who does what in this fight are clouded by our view through a frosted window in M’Benga’s sickbay. Ultimately, Dak’Rah gets a knife in the stomach and dies shortly after, leading to a vital question: did Dak’Rah start the lethal fight, or did M’Benga? We’ll never know, but it’s clear if he had put the knife in Dak’Rah purposefully, the doctor wouldn’t regret doing it. In M’Benga’s eyes, Dak’Rah was a killer who deserved to die. Chapel, who witnessed the fight, claims the ambassador attacked M’Benga, but alas, we can never know.
“Under the Cloak of War” pulls together some lingering threads from this season regarding M’Benga’s and Chapel’s war service. The first episode of the season strongly hinted that M’Benga and Chapel had a brutal history in the war, and we learn the context of that history thanks to this week’s episode. We learn the mysterious injection the two medical staff used in the season premiere was Protocol 12, a serum created by M’Benga that allows soldiers more stamina and strength for hand-to-hand combat. We also learn Pike in “Among the Lotus Eaters” knew M’Benga was a martial master with a proven record in the war, as we see in this week’s episode, which must have been why the captain opted to take the doctor on the away team.
More substantially, though, “Under the Cloak of War” gives us a hard, cold look at war and how morality in such a struggle is subjective. Strange New Worlds offers no optimistic silver lining here in the way other Star Trek series might be apt to do; war is hell, people do terrible things even for a just cause, and war stays with you long after the conflict ends. Strange New Worlds is brutal in this message; you aren’t likely to forget this episode soon.
Babs Olusanmokun shines here, presenting a version of the soft-spoken doctor who seems so ill at ease with the Klingon aboard his ship. This is M’Benga with the weight of death on him, and Olusanmokun brings a level of intensity – both subtle and explosive – that is, at times, unnerving. Of course, “Under the Cloak of War” isn’t just about the doctor; it’s a Nurse Chapel origin story of sorts, and Jess Bush also brings the hell of war to our living room convincingly. In fact, the performances and sights we see in this episode remind us of some of Deep Space Nine’s most war-torn episodes; the questionable morality of war here reminds us, especially of DS9’s memorable “In the Pale Moonlight,” where Sisko resorts to dire measures to get the Romulans in the Dominion War. “Under the Cloak of War” also leaves us with the same chills as the end of DS9’s “Duet.” This is all to say these are welcome comparisons that point to an outstanding outing for Strange New Worlds this week.
Taken together, “Under the Cloak of War” is once again an example of Strange New Worlds going all-in on differing genres. In last week’s The Ready Room, Jonathan Frakes asserted this show’s experimentation with differing genres comes from this show’s executive producers; Frakes said each episode should seem like its own movie, and that definitely is the case with “Under the Cloak of War.” Last week, characters from SNW’s sister show appeared in a historic and hilarious crossover; this week, our characters go through hell and back, and leave us with a tricky and perhaps unanswerable moral quandary. For that reason, “Under the Cloak of War” is a highly recommendable episode, especially since we can’t quite stop feeling that chill up our spine.
- Starbase 12, the place where the Enterprise is ferrying Dak’Rah, has been noted on a few star charts in Discovery, Strange New Worlds, and Picard.
- We’re confident in saying this is the most visceral war has ever been portrayed on Star Trek. Keep that in mind when watching with younger viewers.
- Are there not security cameras or other ways the Enterprise records what happens in sickbay?
- The Enterprise sat out the Klingon War and had its own adventure, as described in The Enterprise War.
- This episode asserts, through the analogy of a broken bio-bed, that M’Benga has only temporarily received some relief from his experience in the war. We bet the next season will pick up the throughline of his and Chapel’s war service.
New episodes of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds are made available to stream Thursdays on Paramount+.
Stay tuned to TrekNews.net for all the latest news on Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Star Trek: Picard, Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Lower Decks, Star Trek: Prodigy, and more.