There was a darkness, a sadness to the latest episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. The scabs that are the horrors of war were picked off and bloodied in an episode titled, “Under the Cloak of War,” an episode that provided a deep dive on the PTSD that still ruminate in the souls of Dr. M’Benga, Nurse Chapel and even Ortega.
It’s an episode that harkens back to the Klingon war, the atrocities that were committed on a planet named J’Gal, and a Klingon general who tried to use a lie to cover up his own cowardice – and how Chapel and M’Benga intermixed with it all. It was an interesting episode and one that I think, as Star Trek always has, sheds a little light on the damage war creates and the struggles PTSD brings. In my estimation it was a tremendously interesting episode, one done with care and compassion, but also left us with a bit of a mystery.
SPOILER ALERT: There are SPOILERS ahead.
Let’s just jump to the end. The arrival of Klingon ambassador Dak’Rah to the Enterprise sets multiple wheels in motion. Nicknamed “The Butcher of J’Gal,” Rah carries a reputation as a ruthless and merciless warrior, one who actually killed off some of his officers when he experienced an epiphany and shame for the atrocities they’d committed in the name of the Empire. And that change of heart led him to work for better Star Fleet-Klingon relations. He’d changed his ways and put himself forth as a model for what a change in mindset could deliver – peace and understanding.
Unfortunately, Rah has parked his large butt on a throne of lies. And M’Benga knew it. And this is where the tension builds throughout the episode. We don’t know why M’Benga, and to a slightly lesser degree, Chapel, simply couldn’t get past the events that happened on J’Gal. And that’s to be expected as they were in the thick of the blood and guts as the two forces battled over that ugly little planet. It’s a reminder that trying to understand the lasting impact that lives in people who have seen what they have seen is an almost impossible task. And in this case, what they’d been through was only the tip of the iceberg.
Clearly, Dr. M’Benga is more than a simple doctor. On J’Gal he’s approached by an Andorian about using his special skills to get at Rah and end the atrocities. M’Benga clearly has special skills and training, and with his little vial of green solution, is able to enhance his abilities and mitigate pain in a way that makes him quite a weapon. Something in his past, though, pushed him towards healing rather than hurting.
Eventually, what we see is the final, desperate moments of a battle that appears lost and M’Benga, overcome at the horrors he’s witnessed at the hands of Rah, decides to take matters into his own hands. It’s a powerful moment, a sad moment. This man who’d committed himself to healing after a dark and deadly past, is forced to use his considerable skills to hunt down the mad dog of J’Gal. I felt for M’Benga then. He clearly wanted to leave that world behind, but the carnage on J’Gal forced his hand.
And that’s how we learn that it was not Rah who killed his own men because of the atrocities they’d committed, but M’Benga who killed them as Rah fled like a coward. And that’s such a fun twist in the story as each man knows the other’s truth and each carries guilt with them. Coming face-to-face like this is a powerful and tense moment as it is clear something has to give. There’s a fun little moment when the two are sparring a little bit and M’Benga asks Rah which of his officers that he supposedly kills fought the best. It’s an uneasy moment, one that tells both men that the charade is about to end. Rah gives a name and M’Benga lets the lie go.
And that leads us to an interesting ending. Rah and M’Benga have one more moment together in the medical bays. Rah wants reconciliation and for M’Benga not to reveal his secret and undo the good works he’s put forth since then. The good doctor simply wants to be left alone. A struggle ensues, one that’s viewed through a frosted window by Chapel (or just us?). And in the shadows, Rah falls with a Klingon blade through his chest. Was it self-defense? Was it cold-blooded retribution?
It’s hard to tell and after reading some of director Jeff Byrd’s thoughts on the episode (they filmed multiple versions of the ending), I’m filled with theories. Byrd explained that we’re not meant to know exactly what happened. We are supposed to put ourselves into the situation, the feelings, and see where it leads us. M’Benga and Chapel both lie about the incident, and Captain Pike, despite suspicions, isn’t inclined to dig into it any further. I think that Pike, despite his diplomatic endeavors in this matter, isn’t a fan of Rah or the Klingons either.
The arrival of Rah left the ship tense and a little rattled, it also brought old memories, old horrors, old hatreds to the surface. It’s a really dynamic reminder of what war does to people, about the very issues of PTSD. It was a thoughtful episode with a lot of little lessons running through it. Is a good lie better than an ugly truth? Is everyone entitled to a second chance, no matter the horrific things they’ve done? Is there a time limit on justice? Are the scars left by war worth the war?
These, and other concepts, ran through this episode. The way that Byrd and his crew interspersed the flashbacks to J’Gal with the tension building with Rah’s arrival was so effective. It’s also a good reminder that, despite some of the lighter vibes that Strange New Worlds has brought to the ST world, when they want to throw down something hard, something with tension and teeth to it, they are more than capable of delivering. “Under the Cloak of War” was one such episode. And, I think it will take its place as one of the better SNW episodes thus far.
Dr. M’Benga is the real “Butcher of J’Gal,” and Nurse Chapel is a willing accomplice to his killing of Rah. But I wonder, if she was a bystander at all. We see her enter the med bays and we’re led to believe it is her perspective we are seeing through the frosted window. But, what if it is she who actually guts Rah. Remember, the Klingon dagger was in M’Benga’s case when the fight started. Is it possible that Chapel, in trying to defend M’Benga, is actually the one who killed Rah? That would be a nice twist, harkening back to the original premise of who really killed the Klingon officers. Just a thought.
Also fun to see Clint Howard show up in another Star Trek iteration. This is is fifth appearance in the Star Trek realm, having shown up as a youngster in “The Carbomite Maneuver.” Robert Wisdom’s turn at General Rah was fantastic, delivering a confidence we learn is a facade while instantly making the mood tension-filled. Babs Olusanmokun is fantastic at Dr. M’Benga in delivering a dark, tense man who is confronted with not only his fall from peace, but the lie he has been silent about for years. Fantastic work.
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