The Enterprise has been given the role of ferrying a peace ambassador to his next meeting – but it is a mission that does not sit well with many of the crew. Dak’Rah is a Klingon who fought against Earth in the Human/Klingon War and who had a reputation as a brutal, merciless leader who not only ordered the deaths of hundreds of humans but also slaughtered his own crew when they rebelled against him. He is known by some as ‘The Butcher of J’Gal’ and though he is now a defector, building a similar reputation as a repentant figure devoted to peace, the likes of Doctor M’Benga and Nurse Chapel remember all too well the bloodstained battlefields where they saw and experienced such carnage… and often tried in vain to limit casualties.
Pike expects diplomacy for their ‘guest’ and – to their credit – the crew try to honour their roles as hosts, but it is not long before the tensions begin to rise and it’s clear that a direct confrontation may be inevitable. The truth about what happened at J’Gal may have been hidden by time and convenience, but it has a long memory and a greater reach…
If one of Strange New Worlds‘ achievements is its ability to tilt at no end of different narrative windmills in quick succession, then it also knows one of the other story-telling truths: that the way to keep an audience on their toes is to follow a comedy with tragedy (or, indeed, vice versa) making each land more effectively and unexpectedly. After the manic glee of The Old Scientists, this week’s Under Cloak of War, displays a volteface of quite epic proportions, leaving almost no place for humour and exposing some raw nerves that have only been hinted at in passing.
Imagine if Star Trek did M*A*S*H and did it absolutely NOT as a bittersweet comedy, but built it around that other pillar on which that famous war-torn series was based – the things that good people do (or have done to them) to survive in bad situations on the frontline of a war. Strange New Worlds examines the way in which savage events change you forever and how fragile even survival can be… and those expecting a neat and comfortable ending will be left adrift of such comforts. What they’ll get is some of the season’s best television…
This week’s episode touches on justice, PTSD, trauma, deceit and the way truth is obscured for personal reasons – none of which are treated in any sort of flippant, easy-to-fix way. One could argue that The Original Series touched on key moral issues and not always in a comforting cookie-cutter way, but Gene Roddenberry was very much of the mind that mankind had risen above petty squabbles and differences as it made its way out into the galaxy. But there’s definitely a feeling that Roddenberry might have been troubled by the character decisions and story on show here and this is one of the darkest entries of Trek I’ve ever seen (even shadier than the often overlooked Deep Space Nine). This outing to Strange New Worlds strikes far closer to home, providing one of the best reasons for the endurance of The Great Bird‘s mission statement, but highlighting its high cost in the darkest, sharpest relief… and in an ambitious, brave way that doesn’t turn away from the uncomfortable and unnerving and sticks with you far beyond the credits.
This week’s episode touches on justice, PTSD, trauma, deceit and the way truth is obscured… As a viewer, I had no idea where the under-marketed Under Cloak of War (sandwiched between two high-profile, lighter and essentially ‘stunt’ episodes) would go or what resolution it might offer… and that, in itself, is the highest recommendation for any hour of television.
Robert Wisdom expertly plays the nuances and Dak’Rah as an ambiguous presence, a lightning rod for different viewpoints… and one that you want to believe in and distrust in equal measure. He says all the right things and hits all the right beats for a character who has done truly terrible things but may now regret them. But it would be like one of history’s biggest despots suddenly becoming the Dali Lama – likely a conversion too far from a past too defined as to be anything more than convenience. Having Dak’Rah on board makes the usually sedate crew positively bristle, even in the presence of their Captain Pike (ever the diplomat) and the episode makes it clear that even the most opened-minded and forgiving members have a very hard time holding to diplomatic civility. First Ortega is caught out talking about their visitor’s reputation as ‘The Butcher of J’Gal’ (just as he enters the bridge), so fierce he is said to have killed his own troops when they disobeyed him and later neither Ortega nor Chapel can sit in polite silence for a welcoming meal. M’Benga makes it through longer, but one can almost feel his nails cutting into his own palms with barely controlled restraint before he is excused. It is quite excellently acted and lensed and a tribute to the way that the ensemble cast have risen to become people we know and care about. (And, honestly, sorry, I can’t imagine caring a fraction of much about the crew of Discovery).
This is often heavy-going, the only vague touches of humour are early on with Clint Howard, striking an almost ‘Radar’-like presence as a commander in the medical compound. (Die-hard fans will know that Clint Howard – Ron Howard’s brother originally appeared in TOS episode The Corbomite Maneuver when he was only nine years old). Otherwise, the audience will be put through the wringer with the episode refusing to bend to expectations. Some intense dramas dilute the power of their message by tagging on an ambiguous ending, wanting to play devil and angel and so avoid absolute commitment. As a viewer, I had no idea where the under-marketed Under Cloak of War (sandwiched between two high-profile, lighter and essentially ‘stunt’ episodes) would go or what resolution it might offer… and that, in itself, is the highest recommendation for any hour of television. However, here the final elements of uncertainty that are left hanging absolutely underline the episode’s message of what people may or may not do under pressure – despite or because of their experiences.
The truth is, as viewers we simply don’t know if M’Benga killed the provocative Dak’Rah in an act of self-defence or not, with writer Davy Perez and director Jeff W. Byrd creating a framework that allows for several interpretations of what is partially-obscured from view. We see M’Benga expose Dak’Rah’s lie, a deceit that the Klingon warrior might be legitimately using in the name of finding peace and we can understand why Dak’Rah might actually kill to keep it hidden. We also see M’Benga plead – repeatedly – with the Klingon to leave. him. alone. and the doctor (at least initially) resist taking out the blade ready to strike. But we also know M’Benga’s hatred for not only Dak’Rah’s actions during the siege at J’Gal but in the way that he and Chapel have hidden their own decisions from that time. He hates Dak’Rah for changing him into a man of violence, an aspect he keeps hidden under a cloak of peace and saving lives. From different angles M’Benga, Chapel and Dak’Rah all know that the current status quo is built on a lie and they’ve lived with that, honourably and productively or not, in different ways. If Under the Cloak of War judges any of them by the time we’re done, it does so silently.
* Beyond the obvious result, two notable things are the briefest use of Discovery‘s controversial Klingon make-up in a stock-footaged flashback (at odds with the Klingons we now have back in Strange New Worlds) and the fact that this is surely another event aboard the Enterprise that could not possibly be completely overlooked by Star Fleet superiors (because even with the incriminating blade being traced back to Dak’Rah, the death of a senior diplomat could not be pushed aside, surely providing more ammunition to the steady pile of infringements being aimed at the Enterprise crew.
- Production Design / VFX10