Star Trek has always been a utopian ideal. Gene Roddenberry envisioned a future where the nations of the world put aside their petty differences to come together and explore the stars. (Deanna Troi pretty much explicitly states this several times in the course of Star Trek: The Next Generation. “We have no war! No poverty!”)
So what happens when those ideals are tested? Can people really put aside differences so easily? Can you ask people to “forgive and forget” another country that might have killed their family in war?
It’s a big ask. My grandmother was a wonderful and funny woman, but for years she grumbled about her Austrian neighbor, Inga. “Oh that’s what they all say. She’s German, and those people tried to kill my husband in the war.” This was 50 years after the end of World War II. She still drove Inga to their aqua-robics class every day, because she told herself that was the good deed that would get her into heaven. (At my granny’s funeral, everyone was curious to meet Inga, who we’d all heard so much about and were disappointed that she didn’t show up. My wife pointed out that of course she wasn’t there. My grandmother was her ride.)
It’s also the subject of this week’s gripping episode of Strange New Worlds, “Under the Cloak of War.” Can our enemies change? Can we forgive them? What happens when we can’t?
The Enterprise is picking up the ambassador who brokered a tricky peace agreement in the Prospero system. Three different worlds finally put aside decades of fighting and agreed to a tentative truce. They’re to take him to Starbase 12 for the official debrief. The wrinkle? The ambassador is a Klingon, and not just any Klingon. It’s Dak’Rah, often called the Butcher of J’Gal for his brutal combat tactics. He defected to the Federation and has been working to redeem his crimes by becoming an ambassador for peace.
There’s a definite split in the crew between those who fought in the Klingon War (like Ortegas, M’Benga, and Chapel) and those who didn’t. Those people are very supportive of the Federation’s attempts to show that they welcome everyone, and even old enemies can be rehabilitated and join in the mission of peace and diplomacy.
The war vets? Not so much. Ortegas is convinced he’s playing a long con in order to get sensitive Starfleet secrets. Chapel and M’Benga served on J’Gal in the war and know first hand what a chaotic hellhole it was, and that was largely due to Dak’Rah’s commands. Towards the end of the battle on J’Gal, the Klingons started to kill everyone who wasn’t a Klingon warrior — and that included civilians and children. The veterans as a whole are upset that the Federation is all too happy to sweep that history under the rug and roll out the red carpet for a war criminal.
Dak’Rah (Just call him Rah, he says. Formal Klingon names are a mouthful.), played with aplomb by Robert Wisdom, certainly talks a good game. He politely asks for a tour of the flagship, is dazzled by the view from the bridge (Birds of Prey aren’t really designed for sightseeing), and gamely accepts the cup of raktajino that Spock has tried to replicate. Unfortunately, the drink is too hot and Rah burns his hands. That means a quick trip to sick bay and M’Benga and Chapel’s first encounter with Rah.
M’Benga has a full on panic attack when he sees him. While Chapel tends to Rah’s burns, M’Benga retreats to his office and starts hyperventilating. This leads to an extended flashback of the Klingon War, which will be intercut throughout much of the episode.
In the flashback, we see a young Nurse Chapel arriving on J’Gal. She’s been assigned to the Forward Operating Base near the Athos Colony and has just beamed down amid the chaos of battle. She is informed by the Chief Medical Officer Buck Martinez that she is now the new head nurse, so let’s get to work. (Between that name and the whole Toronto episode, I have to believe there are a few Toronto Blue Jays fans on the writing staff.) Buck is played by Clint Howard, and he plays him like the classic character in every war film, the over-it-all CO, who just accepts what a shit show everything is while the hope drains out of everyone around him. He tells Chapel that he’s in charge, but Joseph knows how things are done around here. He points towards a tent, where Joseph M’Benga rises out of a makeshift hot tub.
The base is a shambles. They are under constant shelling by the Klingons. Wounded are continually beaming in for treatment. Bloody blankets are everywhere. They have no organ replicator, despite many requests, so M’Benga has to do the transporter buffer trick to keep severely injured people in stasis. (Hmm, bet that will come in handy should his daughter develop a incurable disease one day!) Chapel is learning first hand of the heartbreak of battlefield triage. “We can’t help this soldier, and his body is blocking the transport pad.” After an experience like that, it’s no wonder that M’Benga and Chapel are less than enthusiastic about their Klingon visitor.
Still, Starfleet is quite insistent that everyone put on a friendly face. They want all the veterans of the war to interact with Rah to show that everything’s cool now, bygones are bygones. Which, frankly, seems insane. The war was only a few years ago. People still have literal scars from the battles. Has no one in Starfleet ever heard of PTSD? Pike has his orders, but he isn’t about to force M’Benga to do anything he doesn’t want to. M’Benga puts on the Starfleet Face (TM) and agrees to come to the Captain’s Dinner. (After all, Pike made jambalaya. That’s a pretty good enticement!)
The dinner is going all right, but the vets — Ortegas, Chapel, and M’Benga — are really white-knuckling their way through it. Spock sees Chapel’s discomfort and subtly tries to change the subject of discussion by asking Rah to do a detailed analysis of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and comparing it to the Klingon mL’parmaq Qo (Poor Spock. You are absolutely not ready to have a human girlfriend.) When Rah discovers that M’Benga and Chapel served on J’Gal, he tries to empathize with them, saying the fighting was without merit. Which, for a peace negotiator, is not the best thing to say. Ortegas presses him about the rumors that he killed his own men at J’Gal, and Rah gives a dismissive answer about how everyone was pushed to their limits, and then offers a toast to the survivors of J’Gal. This infuriates Ortegas, who remembers the chants of “Remain Klingon!” coming over the comms, right before the Klingons killed a lot of her friends. She storms out, followed by Chapel. Pike sees how tightly M’Benga is gripping his chair, so he sends him out to check on Ortegas as well.
Back in the past on J’Gal, M’Benga is approached by an Andorian black ops agent named Trask. He wants to end the conflict by getting rid of the Klingon command, including Dak’Rah. He knows that M’Benga used to be a black ops killing machine. Not only that, he invented a serum called Protocol 12. (This is the green Hulk Juice M’Benga and Chapel used back in Season 2 Episode 1 to fight their way through a bunch of Klingons.) M’Benga refuses, saying that a serum that boosts adrenaline and numbs pain receptors is dangerous. And he doesn’t want to end lives anymore, only save them.
That resolve doesn’t last very long. The push by the Klingons on J’Gal continues, and they start to massacre everyone. The Federation is trying to mount one final push, but it’s only pushing bodies into a meat grinder. M’Benga has to purge the transport buffer in order to get more wounded in. Trask the Andorian has been killed. Young men, who look barely old enough to shave, that Chapel and M’Benga took extraordinary measures to save, have returned dead. This makes M’Benga pick up his bottle of Protocol 12, strap on a dagger he took from Trask’s body, and go off to finish the job Trask started.
This leads to the big reveal of the episode. From his lockbox back in the present, M’Benga takes out a dagger. It’s the same dagger he took off of Trask. The same one used to kill the Klingons on J’Gal. The Butcher of J’Gal, the one who killed the Klingon generals, wasn’t Rah. It was M’Benga, pumped full of Protocol 12, who killed three Klingons with a dagger. Rah revealed himself to be a coward and fled while his generals fought M’Benga.
Rah being a coward who ran away while his men got killed so he could save his own skin kind of disrupts the whole Defector and Man of Peace narrative. Still, Rah is trying to get M’Benga on his side. Rah is trying to atone for his actions. He did terrible things, he admits that. He just wants to help M’Benga deal with his pain. This is some great work by Robert Wisdom. You can sense that he isn’t telling the whole story, but he does seem like he wants to help. And he sounds sincere, but M’Benga is not having it. He just wants this walking reminder of the worst parts of his life to leave him alone.
Chapel comes in just then and sees the end of this confrontation, but she only sees it through a frosted panel of glass. (Which is a nice allusion to title. Chapel sees what happens, but she doesn’t see everything and it’s all shrouded.) There’s a scuffle, M’Benga shouting for Rah to leave him alone, and then Dak’Rah collapsing. Chapel runs behind the glass to see the dagger sticking out of the Klingon’s heart.
There’s an inquiry by La’an, but everyone seems…kind of blasé about M’Benga killing an ambassador that Starfleet valued very highly. I get that the Enterprise is special and all, but between blowing up a fuel refinery last week and murdering their highly prized defector and peace ambassador, you’d think that Starfleet would start demoting some people or assigning them to supervise a mining colony on the outer rim.
Pike comes to tell M’Benga that there will likely be a tribunal, but he’ll probably get through it okay. But why? Why couldn’t he come to him and talk? Why couldn’t he let due process and tribunals take their course? M’Benga responds with a devastating line. “You have the privilege of believing in what’s best in people.” M’Benga, however, has had his nose rubbed in the worst parts of humanity and war and himself. He had to do terrible things. As he says later in the episode while trying to repair a faulty biobed, some things can never really be fixed. Only patched up until they break down again.
One thing really strikes me as odd about the relationship between M’benga and Pike is that they’ve known each other forever. They claim that they’re good friends. Yet, Pike somehow doesn’t realize that M’Benga has severe PTSD? Pike keeps putting him in triggering situations and does not seem to realize how traumatic it might be. Considering how much Pike prides himself on knowing his crew, it seems very strange.
Overall though, this was a really solid episode, anchored by a wonderful, soulful performance from Babs Olusanmokun. M’Benga is really going through the wringer this week, and you can see it in Olusanmokun’s eyes. He projects the pain of his past beautifully. The writing here is very deft, never really taking a side, but plainly showing that you can’t overcome some trauma by forgiving someone. I was fully prepared for the episode to cop out and have M’Benga come to an understanding with Rah and was happily surprised that it did not. Was M’benga right? No doubt Dak’Rah was a war criminal by any definition, intentionally killing civilians. But were his contributions to peaceful negotiations enough to counterbalance that? No one seems that broken up about Rah dying, but once again M’Benga has had to do something he loathes and has lost another piece of himself.
It’s great to see Trek grapple with how it doesn’t always live up to its ideals and goals. We saw it before this season in “Ad Astra Per Aspera,” with the way they treated Una. Starfleet is all about peaceful exploration, except when they’re not, and let’s not talk about that. It’s a situation that cries out for a ship’s counsellor; too bad they won’t be standard on ships for another 100 years or so. I am very much appreciating how this series takes time to examine Starfleet’s ideology and how much effort is required to prop it up.
Episode Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Classic Call Back: Clint Howard, everybody! This is the fifth time the star of Gentle Ben has been on Star Trek! He’s now been on The Original Series, Deep Space 9, Enterprise, Discovery and now Strange New Worlds. Step up, Lower Decks!
[Editor’s Note: HEY!!! Back off Lower Decks, aka Best Trek!]