RED ALERT! This interview contains spoilers for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 2 episode 8, “Under the Cloak of War,” available for streaming now on Paramount+. If you haven’t had a chance to watch the episode yet and wish to remain unspoiled, beam out now!

In “Under the Cloak of War,” Doctor Joseph M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun) is unexpectedly confronted by a face from his previously unexplored past in the Klingon War. The episode was written by Davy Perez (SNW season 1’s “Memento Mori”) and directed by Jeff W. Byrd.

The Beat leaped at the chance to speak with Byrd over Zoom about directing the compelling and complex episode of SNW. We asked Byrd all about his personal history with Trek, how his previous experience directing an episode of Star Trek: Discovery compared with directing “Under the Cloak of War,” and found out about the making of that heart-stopping flashback triage scene!

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

AVERY KAPLAN: Can you tell us about your personal history with Star Trek?

JEFF W. BYRD: My personal history with Star Trek goes back to when I was a little kid, watching the OG version back in the day. My mom and dad would have us watch Star Trek. And one of the main reasons we’d watch Star Trek was because Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) was on it. The only Black actress on a television show at the time. 

We would all gather around the television set and turn on the TV and watch and hope it was an Uhura episode. And when it was, we’d be like, “Yay!” And when it wasn’t, we’d still watch it. And we all got caught up in the world of Star Trek.

Flashing forward, as a grown-up human directing an episode of Star Trek: Discovery. And now doing SNW. So life could not be more complete and full circle for me.

KAPLAN: Given your personal history with Uhura, what was it like to be able to direct scenes with the character?

BYRD: Oh my god, it was incredible. The beauty of it is, working with everyone was great, but I loved the fact that M’Benga had the episode – M’Benga and Chapel (Jess Bush). And obviously, we had Mr. Bobby Wisdom coming in to play Dak’Rah.

L-R Anson Mount as Pike, Robert Wisdom as Dak'Rah and Christina Chong as La’an appearing in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds streaming on Paramount+, 2023.
Photo Credit: Best Possible Screengrab/Paramount+

And I was able to also work with Celia Rose Gooding and work with Uhura, which was amazing. I told her that, too: “You know, when I was a kid…” And she said, “Oh my god Jeff, that’s so sweet.” So that was great, too. I was just a kid in a candy store every day on that set.

KAPLAN: As you mentioned, you’ve previously directed an episode of Discovery. I’m curious if your experience there informed your work on “Under the Cloak of War”?

BYRD: It kind of did, although, “Under the Cloak of War” is kind of the diametric opposite of “Rosetta,” my episode of Discovery, just in regards to the nature of it. 

I love both shows. But what I loved about this episode was, really we got into a much darker place. It was a much darker episode of Star Trek. And it’s also a much darker version of Star Trek that we rarely, rarely see. I think we’ve only seen this version of Star Trek one time, in Star Trek Into Darkness, where we found out that there’s this black starship that they have that goes and does all these things.

But “Under the Cloak of War” was really dark. We got to see a Starfleet Black Ops team that M’Benga was a part of. And they just went around killing folks, killing the bad people.  “Okay, who is a bad person in the universe? We can’t make a deal, we can’t make any truce with them? Are you sure? Okay, well Official Starfleet, we’re going. And we don’t know whose being left behind, but we’re going.” And next thing you know, that despot that was running that planet is now gone. And we don’t know how he died… but he died.

You can only think about it late. Oh, M’Benga and his team went in there and did some damage, took ‘em out. So it was good to know that, and I love that you get to see that in this episode because that shows that Starfleet, and Star Trek the show, has many different nuances to it. It’s not just, “Oh, we go in peace, and we come in peace, and we’re going to figure out a way that we can do it with our brains, and hopefully we can out-think everybody.” But when we can’t… Bang bang bang, chop chop chop. At least we know that that exists.

KAPLAN: What was your approach to directing “Under the Cloak of War,” given that unique tone? 

BYRD: I really wanted to immerse myself in the world of PTSD, and how it affects a person. Like I said before, when kill people, and your mission is to kill the bad person for the universe, the bad person for the world… Somebody, sadly, has to do that. And when that happens, how does that affect that human? 

A lot of us, we don’t think about it. We don’t think about the SEAL Team Six who had to kill Bin Laden. How are they affected when they go home? They literally extinguished a life.

So for this episode, I really did a lot of research in regards to PTSD, in regards to war, people coming home from war; Afghanistan, Iraq. What happens when they come home, how do they conduct themselves with their family; how do they conduct themselves with their friends? How do they conduct life again?

That informed how I wanted to direct this episode, and how I wanted this episode to feel. I want it to feel like every moment was intense and tension-filled. From the moment this man got on the ship, to, obviously, when he left – which was in a body bag. 

And also, how it affected Nurse Chapel and M’Benga in their minds. Because at the end of the day, only the two of them really know what happened on that frosted glass.

Babs Olusanmokun as Dr. M'Benga in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Directed by Byrd.
Photo Credit: Michael Gibson/Paramount+

KAPLAN: Aside from flashbacks, this episode took place entirely on the Enterprise. What directorial challenges and/or opportunities did this afford you?

BYRD: Shooting on the Enterprise… first of all, shooting on those sets is amazing. And I was able to do some really interesting things within the set of the Enterprise.

But then also, certain scenes that were on the Volume that we shot, some of the war stuff… It really lent itself to explore what open-heart surgery is like. We had a consultant there on set who was talking us through how heart massage is done and walked Jess through it. She actually put her hands on our prosthetic heart that we had that really looked like a real heart. And she had to squeeze it, and fluid moved through it… I put my hands in there to feel it; it felt disgusting, I don’t want to touch it anymore. She had to touch it all day. I didn’t want to do that… 

And all the fake blood that was everywhere, all of the wounds. It was all fake, but in the moment on that day, it looked totally real. I applaud the production designer and the special effects and all the folks in there that do their job for all the Treks, they do it so extremely well. And this episode, we went in there making a war episode, a battle episode, and also a triage episode. “This person can’t live, the wounds are too extensive.” And you see the wounds. You see why they had to say, “You know what? Put this person in the transporter buffer, we can’t do anything for this person.”

So as great as it was to work on the Enterprise and really explore those sets, it was really great to be in the Volume and have our triage/hospital set really be one of our major setpieces. And we had the great Clint Howard on there, whose also Star Trek royalty, from OG back-in-the-day Star Trek. I love Clint.

L-R Clinton Howard as Buck and Jess Bush as Chapel in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Directed by Byrd.
Photo Credit:Gibson/Paramount+

KAPLAN: Did you have any particularly memorable experiences on set?

BYRD: Yeah, definitely. I mean, every day was memorable for me. The one, in particular, was the heart. But also, whenever we would show the panic attacks – Babs came up with that tapping motion that really expressed when he was having a panic attack. He explained to me, the concept of creating a beat that was opposite to the way that his heart was beating and the way his adrenaline flowing, and then having his heart mimic that beat. That way, he brought his heart rate down. 

That was something he learned from talking to PTSD folks. And talking to the people that take care of people with PTSD, and try to teach them how to have tools to regain control back when they have a moment when they’re having a flashback.

And that was really special to me, and it stayed with me so that whenever I have a high-stress moment, I have a tendency to tap somewhere on my body. Whether it be a leg or my other hand, or a shoulder… You can definitely start to lower your heart rate just in time with the way that your fingers are hitting your shoulder. 

So that stayed with me, and it’s still with me now. So I intend to use it now for the rest of my life, just because it’s such a great tool.

New episodes of Strange New Worlds are released on Thursdays on Paramount+.