Star Trek: Strange New Worlds – Season 2 Episode 8
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the writers and actors currently on strike, the series being covered here wouldn’t exist.
“Under the Cloak of War”
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds deals with the personal impact of War when some of the crew are faced with a visceral reminder of what they went through.
This franchise has previously delivered thoughtful depictions of War and its impact on those who fight it. The Dominion War took up the final two seasons of Deep Space Nine with a variety of perspectives being explored in that time. It had scope and it also dealt with moving personal stories. Enterprise didn’t last long enough to venture into the inevitable Romulan War story but delivered to some degree with the Xindi arc during its third season. Discovery‘s first season detailed the start and end of the Klingon War with most of its episodes being about the Discovery crew’s participation in it.
War is an interesting subject in the context of Star Trek as the franchise is built on the notion of an idyllic future where things like War and prejudice are a thing of the past on Earth. Of course that doesn’t apply to aliens that are encountered so War is still an unfortunate reality. Some of the more interesting stories directly interrogate whether those lofty Federation ideals hold up under the pressure that a War would put on them. Does the promise of the Federation survive or is it tainted by lines that were crossed under the fog of War? The answer may surprise you if Deep Space Nine is any indication and this episode is looking to do something similar.
Pike’s opening log entry sets up the scenario of a Federation ambassador coming aboard the Enterprise to be ferried to Starbase 12. The ambassador is a Klingon who defected to the Federation and tries to position himself as an example of peace being possible between the two former warring races. M’Benga, Chapel and Ortegas are less than pleased with their guest because they are carrying significant PTSD after fighting in the War. They are unwilling to take their guest at face value because they struggle to see Klingons as anything other than the enemy.
One of the fascinating things this episode does is deliver two competing perspectives. The War veterans see things very differently from those who weren’t involved. in Discovery it was mentioned that the Enterprise was kept out of the conflict partially because they were too far away to be involved quickly and partially because of a desire to preserve the best of Starfleet in the crew. Ortegas, Chapel and M’Benga are recent additions to the ship’s complement so weren’t kept away from the fighting as many of their colleagues were. This means that some of the crew are able to buy into the possibility of peace with the Klingons because their values haven’t been challenged by a brutal conflict. The debate hangs over the whole episode and is articulated in several ways.
Pike has always been the personification of Federation values and talks about them with a confident certainty that shows how committed he is to living those ideals. One question he poses to Una is “How can we represent a Federation that believes in peace if we say that some people aren’t allowed to make up for their past?”. It sounds great in theory but Pike hasn’t experienced fighting in a long and bloody War so it’s easier for him to preach that philosophy as he hasn’t ever had cause to question it. Una agrees in the abstract but is aware of the reality that people might not be able to easily forgive the Klingons. She acknowledges that everyone is on their own journey and some may not be able to buy into the idea of peace at this point.
This conversation makes it appear that Pike is naive and doesn’t recognise the reality of what is going on around him but an earlier conversation with M’Benga and Chapel shows that he’s fully aware. He makes sure that they’re ok interacting with their guest and makes it clear he isn’t forcing them to do anything that may be a trigger for them, regardless of how good it may look to have them present and extolling the virtues of peace after what they’ve been through. Chapel recites that the ultimate goal of the Federation is to make peace with its enemies. It’s a statement of intent and something that’s easy to buy into under ideal circumstances but Chapel is clinically stating it possibly because it’s what she’s expected to say rather than actually being comfortable with the idea. Pike counters her statement by pointing out that the Federation is also an organisation that waged War with the Klingons. He understands that being involved in such a conflict isn’t easily dealt with. He shows empathy and expresses genuine concern for those under his command because he understands that people have feelings that need to be taken into account regardless of orders that have been issued.
Pike posing that question to Una with the context of his awareness of how difficult some will find it to deal with what they experienced turns it into a question he’s wrestling with. The way he puts it is so simple as a contrast to how complex it actually is. He has no basis for understanding what some of his crew are going through so it seems to him that it should be easy to promote those ideals but he’s also wrestling with the notion of bearing an unresolvable grudge as he doesn’t believe himself capable of it but he also hasn’t been through what others have so has no way of knowing. As a Captain and the leader of a community, it’s a difficult line to walk as he has to carry out his orders and do everything in his power to work towards peace but also be mindful of the mental well-being of his crew.
Una’s suggestion to cut the journey to Starbase 12 short by setting a more direct course is something Pike doesn’t feel comfortable with as it looks like they’re trying to hurry things along which is exactly the reason for cutting the journey short. She suggests this because she is fully aware of the tension that exists and wants it to end as soon as possible. Her point is that some of the crew aren’t ready to fully buy into peace with the Klingons and are finding the presence of such a divisive one onboard the trip difficult to deal with. The War deeply affected those who experienced it and everyone is working towards processing it in their own way. The reality is that some just aren’t ready to deliver what the Federation is asking of them and it’s foolish to try to force it because such a thing can’t be asked of people.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country dealt with this idea in its own way. In that film the Klingon Chancellor, Gorkon (David Warner) was a firm believer in a peaceful future for the Federation but he also wasn’t naive to how difficult that would be to achieve. This is summed up eloquently when he said “If there is to be a brave new world, our generation is going to have the hardest time living in it.”. It’s a simple yet elegant acknowledgement that such things aren’t achieved overnight and that it might take at least a generation for well-cultivated prejudice and hatred to become a thing of the past. People who have been arguably conditioned to hate the people now becoming allies can’t simply flip that perception on command. It needs to grow naturally and it will be impossible for some to let go of that depending on their experiences.
The episode contains flashbacks detailing Chapel and M’Benga’s time on J’Gal, a particularly brutal battleground in the War. Showcasing the medical perspective works really well because it provides a visceral view of the cost of combat. The relentlessness of wartime triage is depicted brilliantly through the abundance of serious injury and death put in front of Chapel and M’Benga while they have to remain focused and professional in order to help as many people as they can. It’s fast-paced, chaotic and unsettling in equal measure. This view of the War was absent in Discovery due to the focus being in a different direction so this added texture widens the scope of the conflict in natural ways and reinforces the points being made in the present-day set scenes with practical examples.
A lot of ground is covered in the flashbacks in terms of painting a picture of how horrific a conflict this was. A particularly effective example is the Ensign being asked why he joined Starfleet and being told by M’Benga that they’re fighting to preserve the Starfleet they joined so that people they love can have a chance to live in peace. What they’re fighting for is important as they’re fighting for the preservation of their way of life. The Ensign is young so would have recently been idealistic to the point of naivety until the War forced a radical shift in his point of view. He is overwhelmed by how senseless it all seems and M’Benga is there as the voice of experience to tell him that the fighting is necessary because their enemy won’t back down unless they’re defeated. It’s a sad reality but the alternative is the loss of everything they hold dear.
Chapel’s perspective comes first with her arrival at J’Gal being shown followed by her very quick introduction to the reality of the situation. It adds considerable weight to her distress in the present-day scenes and her relationship with Spock is used well to convey how deeply affected she is. He tries to be there for her but she isn’t able to talk about it and becomes agitated with him when he inadvertently comes across as pushy. Chapel makes two statements that reinforce the distance that exists between those who fought in the War and those who didn’t. “War will make sense if you’ve been there” and “Why is it so hard to explain to people who weren’t there?” are similar sentiments that highlight Chapel’s inability to express how she’s feeling. It’s especially difficult to talk to Spock about it as he’s very early on in his attempts to understand the nuances of emotion. Even still, Spock is supportive and gives her space without protest when asked to do so.
Ortegas not being involved in the J’Gal situation separates her from the experience to a degree but the episode does a good enough job highlighting that she fought in the war and carries her own trauma. The dinner scene is impressively tense and allows all of the affected characters to feed in. Ortegas struggles to remain diplomatic, something that is punctuated by her conversation with M’Benga before entering Pike’s quarters. She pledges to put on the “Starfleet face” and M’Benga reminds her that “it’s a good face”. The message of course is that they are all playing a part during this mission rather than expressing how they truly fear. It adds to the discomfort that builds over the course of the episode.
It’s easy to see how what was experienced in the flashbacks would contribute to Ortegas, M’Benga and Chapel’s mental states when directly confronted with reminders of them. In the case of M’Benga and Chapel, it’s especially relevant as Dak’Rah -or just Rah- (Robert Wisdom) was present on J’Gal when they were so they are encouraged to remember those events specifically.
Rah has a particularly strong reputation that comes with the title of Butcher of J’Gal. He personifies the trauma that M’Benga and Chapel carry with them after what they experienced. Rah has supposedly reformed and committed to a life of peace but M’Benga, Chapel and Ortegas are far from convinced because they have a less than flattering view of Klingons and struggle with the idea of this one specifically being capable of changing considering what he is known for.
The handling of this is very sophisticated with perspective playing a big part. M’Benga and Chapel’s point of view is used to encourage not taking a word Rah says at face value and consider whether he’s putting on a front to mask his true self. Ignoring that perspective also presents an equally valid reading of Rah. That reading is that he seems genuine and comes across as very personable which suggests that he does truly believe in a peaceful future. One thing that supports that reading is that he doesn’t shy away from difficult questions or make excuses for his participation in the War. He seems to see that as something in his past that he wants to move beyond and his experiences have inspired him to attone for his sins by working to create a better future. It seems reasonable and even noble on the surface but this episode deals with the range of reactions to this attitude. M’Benga and Chapel’s doubts are countered by the likes of Pike being willing to give him a chance which makes for a very tense atmosphere that tests the fundamentals of Federation values.
Rah tries to show how genuine he is by asking M’Benga to join him on his campaign because former enemies coming together to work towards peace will send a strong message to anyone who doubts such a thing is possible. Several references to M’Benga’s combat experience and skills are made over the course of the season and the flashbacks suggest that he is very well known in certain circles because of what he has accomplished. Whether he’s known across the Federation is unknown but the idea of someone who fought in the War campaigning for peace would be powerful regardless, especially standing beside an enemy saying the same thing.
M’Benga declines because the spotlight doesn’t interest him and he can’t bring himself to trust Rah. He wants to believe that Rah has genuinely reformed but finds it very difficult to actually live it. Regardless of whether Rah is genuine or not, M’Benga’s perspective has been poisoned by his experience and he sees Rah in a very particular light because of what he knows about him.
As the episode progresses, more information comes to light surrounding Rah’s reputation and M’Benga’s experience of it. It’s revealed that M’Benga was actually the Butcher of J’Gal and Rah took credit for the horrors he committed. It’s mentioned that Rah is using the blood on M’Benga’s hands to make himself a saint and it utterly disgusts M’Benga to see him flaunt that so casually. Rah does express that he is ashamed of his cowardice leading him to take credit for it. The truth would likely have resulted in him being executed by his superiors so he had to present himself as a lethal warrior to be respected by his people. Even his reputation as the Butcher of J’Gal is an important part of the narrative of peace as the idea that someone like him could reform is a potent narrative.
M’Benga’s line “Your work is built on lies, you never paid for what you did!” is particularly impactful because it applies just as much to him as it does to Rah. He feels guilt and shame for what he did on J’Gal and doesn’t feel that he has been appropriately punished for his actions. It’s a significant burden to carry and he clearly feels that he can’t be open about it which will only add to that burden.
Rah may represent a later part of the same journey M’Benga is on. Regardless of whether he’s genuine, Rah has taken what he has experienced and decided to attempt to allow something good to come from them. M’Benga would rather forget but his inability to deal with what he has experienced means he can never move on from it. Uhura learned this in a recent episode and M’Benga was shown to understand that she needed to be honest with herself about her feelings which seems to be advice he can give but not follow himself. He sees himself as someone who can’t be fixed so he won’t be able to properly deal with his trauma.
Log entries mentioning biobed two bookends M’Benga’s emotional state. He reports early in the episode that it has gone down and at the end of the episode he states that it’s working again but it likely won’t be long until it breaks and laments that some things can never be repaired, only managed. Based on the exploration of M’Benga throughout the episode, it’s evident that he sees himself that way which will severely hamper his ability to heal.
The episode is let down by an unclear development towards the end. Rah makes one final attempt to reach out to M’Benga offering friendship only to be rejected as M’Benga grows more distressed. The exchange ends in Rah’s death and the execution of the moment is confusing. It appears that M’Benga is the one to attack Rah in his heightened emotional state before lying about what happened. Chapel seems to back that lie up and M’Benga doesn’t suffer any consequences. All of that is easy to follow, but the aftermath’s treatment raises a few questions. M’Benga acts as if Rah was the one who attacked him and talks as if Rah showed himself to be the opposite of what he claimed.
Since it appears that M’Benga was the aggressor, it’s difficult to accept the point he makes during his conversation with Pike. There’s a sense of righteousness to the points being made as if his version of events is the truth. Maintaining the lie makes sense from a self-preservation point of view but it taints M’Benga’s point of view given the sincerity in his voice. Pike even encourages him to be honest and that he’ll support his friend either way but M’Benga sticks to his story and uses it to illustrate that he was right all along. He also questions whether people deserve to pay for their actions rather than being put in a position of influence as Rah was and Pike counters it with his belief that everyone deserves a second chance. It’s the same thing that the Federation believes in line with him being the personification of the organisation’s values. He also believes that people should answer for their misdeeds, but due process and tribunals are the way to do that rather than lethal justice, per M’Benga’s implication. Pike is clearly troubled by M’Benga’s assertion that some people don’t deserve forgiveness because he and the Federation stand for the belief that everyone does.
Their conversation is an excellent example of the gulf in perspectives with an acknowledgement that Pike may never be able to understand M’Benga’s point of view on this. He understands that there is a difference but can’t see the alternative point of view, which suggests hope for a better future if enough people like Pike commit to making it happen. Pike’s view on justice is clearly presented and his response to M’Benga’s difficult question about what circumstances would matter when it comes to lethal justice is to counter by asking where the line is and who gets to make those decisions. It’s an uncomfortable impasse and ends the episode on an uncertain note which is unsettling and effective.
An excellent episode with a thoughtful, varied and complex exploration of PTSD enhanced by detailing competing perspectives and highlighting that some debates have no easy answers.
- the thoughtful, varied and complex coverage of PTSD through three characters
- exploring two competing perspectives with Pike embodying idealised Federation values as usual
- Pike showing himself to be nuanced by understanding the reality of what members of his crew are facing while remaining optimistic
- acknowledging that bitter experience would make it difficult to buy into the notion of peace with the Klingons
- the flashbacks punctuating the points being made wonderfully
- the evolution of the Rah/M’Benga dynamic
- differing views on whether Rah is genuine
- slowly revealing more information about Rah and the events surrounding him
- using the metaphor of the biobed to bookend M’Benga’s emotional state
- the difficult conversation M’Benga and Pike have with no easy conclusion
- the circumstances surrounding Rah’s death being unclear and impacting the aftermath
- Ortegas’ experience being less developed than M’Benga and Chapel’s
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