Strange New Worlds S2E8: Under the Cloak of War

The Enterprise is on a diplomatic mission this week, ferrying a diplomat named Dak’Rah, a Klingon defector who was instrumental in brokering peace in a war that several of the crew fought in, and aren’t entirely over. Ortegas distrusts Rah before even meeting him, as in her one-sided view, a Klingon who wants peace is no Klingon at all. 

Yet Robert Wisdom (who recently played Jim Moss on Barry and plays Dak’Rah here), gives us something we’ve never seen before — a laid-back Klingon. The last season of Picard made a running joke of an older, mellower Worf still being very tightly wound compared to everyone else, but Rah seems genuinely relaxed and at ease, even around humans who aren’t at ease around him. He’s even kind and gracious with Ortegas after overhearing her refer to him as a butcher who even other Klingons don’t like or trust.

But easygoing as he is, his appearance in sickbay triggers something in Dr. M’Benga. The doctor quietly leaves the room before being overcome by a panic attack. We get a flashback to the war, where Nurse Chapel first meets M’Benga, serving under long-running Star Trek guest actor Clint Howard in an undersupplied and overwhelmed field hospital under constant fire from the Klingons.

There have been a lot of references to war throughout Star Trek’s long history, but we very rarely see it up close. Deep Space Nine’s standout episode “Rocks and Shoals” put the crew on the front lines, but most of that series’ two-season-long Dominion War happened offscreen, with the crew dealing with the emotional and geopolitical ramifications from the safety of the station. But the brief flashbacks we get here show Chapel and M’Benga dealing with an unending parade of trauma and suffering, patching up soldiers only to send them back out to die, and it brings home the ugly reality of war far more than the franchises’ usual space battles and phaser shootouts.

Despite this, even because of it, Pike asks the three traumatized vets to attend a state dinner with Rah — who had ordered the attack we see M’Benga and Chapel deal with the casualties of. Pike’s sensitive to their experiences, but in the interest of peace, he needs to make it clear to the Klingons that there are no hard feelings between the two former enemies.

Except there are hard feelings. Ortegas can’t accept that Dak’Rah has changed, and she assumes he’s pretending. But M’Benga is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. “Sometimes if you pretend something long enough, it becomes the truth.” So they resolve to put on their “Starfleet face” and make it through the dinner.

What’s remarkable is that, only three episodes ago, we got a nearly-identical scenario — someone trying to mask their emotions for the sake of a visitor everyone needs to impress — but played entirely for laughs. Whereas here, it’s completely in earnest, as our three veterans try and make it through the evening together, and Spock tries to find a way to help Chapel, who’s in no mood for his unemotional emotional support. The more Ambassador Rah ingratiates himself to Pike, Uhura, and Number One — none of whom fought in the war — the more irritated the veterans get, until the topic of the war is broached and things come to a head.

Ortegas calls out Rah for being behind so many attacks that killed her friends, but even then he’s unruffled, saying he’s a changed man, and hopes she too can find peace. Instead, she storms out, Chapel and M’Benga in tow. And yet Rah still insists on reaching out to M’Benga, until the two finally have an emotional confrontation in the tradition of Deep Space Nine’s powerful two-hander “Duet,” in which old wounds are reopened and old secrets are revealed. There’s more to Rah’s perpetual calm than meets the eye. But there’s also more to M’Benga’s trauma than the early flashbacks let on.

On the heels of a couple of fairly silly storylines (and in advance of next week’s lighthearted musical episode), Strange New Worlds hits us with an emotional gut punch of an episode that shows exactly what the series is capable of when it’s at the top of its game. The episode’s denouement delves into trauma, guilt, whether we can truly escape our past, and whether a well-intentioned lie can — or should — be sustained. There are no easy answers to those questions, nor should there be.

Stray tachyons:
• M’Benga and Chapel reassuring each other, “we got this” both in flashback and the present does a terrific job of — in just a few words — tying together the horrors of war and the ongoing struggle of PTSD. They’re just two different battles in a war that, for veterans, doesn’t end when the ceasefire is called.

• Pike and Una aren’t veterans of the war because — as we learned when they appeared on Discovery prior to Strange New Worlds — the Enterprise was sent on a five-year mission of exploration during the war. That was ostensibly to show that Starfleet’s mission of exploration would remain a priority during wartime, but really as a way to ensure that if the Federation lost the war, some of its best and brightest would survive. 

• After appearing in “The Corbomite Maneuver” in season one of the original series, Clint Howard has appeared on Deep Space Nine, Enterprise, Discovery, and an episode of Fringe in which he plays a conspiracy theorist whose theories include Romulans, and William Bell, a key figure on the series played by Leonard Nimoy.

• M’Benga traps a mortally wounded soldier in the transporter buffer — beaming up him up and then waiting indefinitely to beam him back down — until help arrives, a trick we know he later uses with his terminally ill daughter.

• Babs Olusanmokun does remarkable work here as M’Benga, and the script, from Supernatural vet Davy Perez, gives him plenty to work with. The story is both intensely personal, and tragedy on a grand scale. Watching an all-timer like this episode makes it all the more tragic that we’ve only got two left this season, and with Paramount and the other studios digging their heels in in the face of the WGA/SAG strike, who knows when we’ll get more.