With the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season premiere coming up, I thought we might discuss one of my really big questions regarding a key character: Dr. Joseph M’Benga. Like most characters in Strange New Worlds, more than one actor has portrayed the character, in this case, Booker Bradshaw in the sixties and Babs Olusanmokun in the show’s current run. Moreover, like a number of the SNW characters, the show has taken the bare bones characterization from the sixties and fleshed the character out considerably.
In the original run, Dr. M’Benga appeared in two episodes: “A Private Little War” and “That Which Survives,” and most of what we know about him is that he’s better with Vulcan physiology than McCoy is due to having spent a medical internship on Vulcan. That’s really it. Bradshaw gives us a thoughtful, measured, and intelligent M’Benga, but to be frank, the scripts don’t really give him much to do. Strange New Worlds introduces us to his certain dry wit, daughter Rukiya, and his first name, Joseph. We get to see M’Benga struggle to care for his daughter in the face of a devastating diagnosis, and what he looks like resolving a fairy tale mission. We even get to see him developing relationships with the rest of the crew. It’s a huge difference.
As part of that difference, we’ve seen exactly zero evidence that M’Benga is incompetent or somehow lacking in his skills not only as a doctor but also as Chief Medical Officer of the Enterprise, so what I cannot wrap my head around is why he will not only eventually step down to allow McCoy to take over as highest ranking medical officer but also chose to remain aboard the ship rather than moving to Starfleet Medical or take some other appropriate promotion.
Initially, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned, I thought it might have something to do with Rukiya. Season 1 set up her existence as being somewhat clandestine, to the point that M’Benga made unauthorized alterations to the medbay. Una, of course, discovers them and finds a way to accommodate Rukiya’s unusual living situation as well as safeguarding the ship. Then, Rukiya ends up joining with an alien entity in a nebula, as one does in Star Trek, where she experiences tremendous wonders. While a happy ending all around, it neatly removes Rukiya as a possible contributing factor.
That leaves me perplexed. I do get that not every Starfleet officer needs to proceed on to become an admiral. There are plenty of officers that achieve a rank and stick with it, but we haven’t seen anything indicating that M’Benga is complacent, either. I realize this is a relatively minor issue, especially given the upheaval the discovery of Una’s Illyrian heritage has caused, but it’s one I legitimately wonder about every time I see him on screen. I don’t know that SNW is going to offer us an explanation of M’Benga’s choices here, but I have to admit, I’d certainly like one.
Stray Thoughts From the Couch
- If you’re wondering what episode “That Which Survives” is, you aren’t alone. I had to search for it on Memory Alpha, and I still have zero recollection of this particular storyline.
- I love M’Benga’s working relationship with Chapel and Pike so much.
- The fairy tale king costume was just a really great piece of artistry.