HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
Some of the most powerful episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine dealt with dark, difficult themes. And while generally, we think of “In the Pale Moonlight” when we think about DS9’s moral gray areas, we shouldn’t discount “The Siege of AR-558” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” in which the show explored not only the ugliness of war but also the damage left in its wake. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds eighth episode of season two “Under the Cloak of War” shares the premise of both of these episodes but uses a 2022 budget and technology to tell a similar story. To that end, be aware that this column will deal with themes of violence, war, guilt, and death. Stay safe and read with caution.
Given how long it has taken me to write this, Memory Alpha’s detailed plot summary is already up, but I want to include some of the major points here. The Enterprise takes on a controversial passenger, a Klingon general-turned defector-turned diplomat, Dak’Rah. Starfleet Command instructs Pike to roll out the red carpet, which in turn forces Pike to request that his senior staff play nicely with the Klingon. The problem here is that not only is Dak’Rah a Klingon, while many members of the crew are veterans of the Federation-Klingon War, but that he’s also known as the Butcher of J’Gal. Y’all may remember that M’Benga told a Klingon in the season’s opening episode that he’d been on J’Gal. As it happens, that’s where he met Chapel. Ortegas demonstrates a rage as bright as her uniform, but it’s the silent, deep hurt torturing M’Benga and Chapel that’s the real story here.
The episode flips between the past bloody events on the Moon of J’Gal and Rah’s visit to the ship as both stories are irrevocably linked. As the episode progresses, we discover that Dak’Rah was not the Butcher of J’Gal; M’Benga was when he went on a one-man mission to slaughter the top Klingon officers after watching far too many people die on J’Gal. In the present, Dak’Rah tries to browbeat M’Benga into working with him on his peace initiatives, believing that having a veteran of J’Gal working with him will create an important symbol of cooperation and healing. M’Benga, however, declines respectfully, but Rah continues to push. The disagreement becomes physical, and Rah dies in the scuffle. Pike ultimately clears M’Benga of any wrongdoing in the face of a lack of concrete evidence.
“Under the Cloak of War” features three primary arguments. What I’m going to call the first is Pike’s, that everyone deserves a second chance and that repentance is real. The next is Rah’s contention that the symbol is more important than the reality, and finally, M’Benga’s story makes the argument that no one can force healing. What’s absolutely great about this episode is that each one of these contentions is right, at least on some level. The tension in the episode exists in the spaces where these ideals meet because they cannot all exist equally in all forms at the same time.
Other characters have called Pike a boy scout, and true to form, Pike stands for the Federation ideal, and in this case, that ideal is justice over vengeance. For Pike, even though Rah has done absolutely horrible things in the past, he believes Rah can change and can choose a new path. For Pike, there’s almost an affirmative duty to extend Rah the opportunity to do so. Rah himself appears to be doing everything he can in order to make that change, and he has thrown himself into working for peace anywhere and everywhere he can. It just so happens that Rah sees his work as a way to atone for the events on J’Gal, which is why he’s willing to coerce M’Benga by any means necessary to join him. M’Benga, however, stands diametrically opposed to Pike’s position because he argues that in some cases, redemption isn’t possible. Sometimes, the damage is so great that all we can really do is treat the symptoms.
M’Benga, of course, feels he knows this to be true from experience. He allowed himself to become the real Butcher of J’Gal, and he doesn’t quite believe that he deserves forgiveness for his actions. That’s in part why he’s so adamant in his refusal to work with Rah. On the one hand, working with Rah would force him to face the man whose abhorrent orders became the catalyst driving M’Benga to betray some of his most deeply held beliefs. Let’s not mince words here; Rah ordered the slaughter of civilians. While he may not have been the man who butchered his fellow officers, Rah’s hands are far from clean, and he knows this to be true. Rah therefore throws himself into the pursuit of peace as a way to atone for his crimes. He clings to M’Benga with a desperation that arises out of this need. Whether he’s seeking redemption for his war crimes or for his cowardice really isn’t actually important because Rah is working very hard on a “fake it until you make it” agenda. For Rah, the external symbol becomes more important than the internal work both because the external symbol can be easily seen and validated, and because he’s right that the symbol can inspire real change in other people if not actually himself. Pike needs to believe that the change can be real.
Obviously, the story demands that we at least acknowledge that there are questions regarding how legitimate Rah’s search for redemption really is and whether that legitimacy matters if the story creates positive change. However, the episode also asks us to appreciate how difficult healing can be. Ortegas, Chapel, and M’Benga all struggle with Rah’s presence, and the episode reminds us that their struggles are real and legitimate. They’re on their own timeline for recovery, and Una points out that Pike owes it to his crew to give them space to wrestle with their emotional wounds. Nog does this in “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” and there’s a huge difference between how Sisko reacts and how Pike tries to balance these competing interests.
Ultimately, the episode doesn’t really offer us any real answers because there are none to be had. Sometimes, it really is about doing the best you can to honor not only the ideal but the reality of a situation, and that’s an extremely difficult task. While Star Trek: Strange New Worlds may not have a perfect solution, “Under the Cloak of War” reminds us that it’s important to honor the struggle as that might be all the honor to be found.
Four and three quarters time crystals.
Stray Thoughts From Behind the Keyboard
- I love how they brought back J’Gal as something more than just a throwaway line.
- Yes, I realize that Starfleet is only too happy to use Rah the same way that Rah wants to use M’Benga. The episode really does play with themes of appearance vs. reality.
- You know it’s going to be a hard episode when Spock is the comic relief.
- Also, given what happens in “Subspace Rhapsody,” his attempts to help Chapel are heartbreaking.