Nutshell: Surprisingly powerful. The best Torres show in years, and among the series' best installments.
First, we must note the interesting coincidence of the week. If you look at the first three episodes of seasons four, five, and six, you might notice the weird parallel: First episode, Janeway-heavy show; second episode, Seven show; third episode, Torres show.
But I don't mean to get lost in trivialities, because "Barge of the Dead," a potentially routine episode that came billed as an hour about "Klingon hell," turns out to be an unexpectedly powerful character development episode. Yes, that's right. Character development—on Voyager. Finally, here's a B'Elanna episode that makes sense. After the way last season had no idea where the character was going or why, this episode gives me hope; it successfully reaches into the thoughts and identity of the multidimensional B'Elanna that intrigued me in the earlier seasons.
The story is ostensibly about a near-death experience Torres has while on a shuttle mission, but the creators go the extra mile and truly make the show about the character. I've long maintained that Torres has the potential, on a writer's good day, to be the series' most complex character. With the help of the always watchable and sometimes riveting Roxann Dawson, "Barge of the Dead" shows why.
The episode begins with B'Elanna escaping serious injury as she crash-lands a shuttle into the Voyager shuttle bay. Then weird things start to happen: The captain mistakenly calls her "Lanna" ("That's what my mother used to call me"). A piece of debris from a Klingon ship is found lodged in the shuttle's engine, and later B'Elanna hears distant screaming and watches as the metal fragment inexplicably oozes blood. Tuvok turns into what seems to be a Klingon cultural advocate, appears angry with B'Elanna and accuses her of detesting all things Klingon, then cuts her with a bat'leth during a strange demonstration.
These off-kilter events, of course, are not real; they are part of the "naj," or "the dream before dying," which ends with the noteworthy implicative sight of Klingon warriors slaughtering B'Elanna's shipmates right in front of her, during what was up to that point a jovial mess-hall celebration in the name of the Klingon Empire.
Suddenly, B'Elanna finds herself on the "barge of the dead," which we soon learn is the Klingon afterlife (according to legend). This barge sails for all eternity, transporting the recently deceased to Gre'thor (Klingon hell of eternal dishonor). B'Elanna has always dismissed this afterlife as simply myth—beliefs drilled into her by her mother when she was a child—but now she begins to think differently.
The ship is piloted by Kortar (Eric Pierpoint), the first Klingon who according to myth slaughtered the gods who created him and must forever pilot the barge as punishment. This sort of Klingon cultural information seems to emanate from the realm of Ron Moore, who has co-story credit on the episode, although the script itself was written by Bryan Fuller, who does a wonderful job turning this into a Voyager character episode.
I thoroughly enjoyed the production design; the barge has a convincing look and feel, and the lighting and effects supply plentiful hellish atmosphere. Voices scream from afar and lure Klingons to jump from the ship into the murky waters, where they are attacked by sea creatures. What does it mean when a dead Klingon gets eaten by a sea creature in the realm of the already dead? I honestly don't know, but what Klingon episode would be complete without an ominous, sincerely delivered line like, "There are things here worse than death"?
The story is only partially about Klingon spirituality. Much of it is about B'Elanna and her troubled past. While on the barge, she witnesses the arrival of her mother, Miral (Karen Austin). What is her mother doing here? Before she can find out, B'Elanna suddenly wakes up in sickbay, saved from a nearly fatal shuttle mission.
Needless to say, this is a disturbing experience for B'Elanna, who has spent her entire life resisting the Klingon afterlife mythology of Stovokor and Gre'thor. It prompts her to question her spirituality and priorities. There are some genuinely good dialog scenes here. One of the best is the Torres/Chakotay scene in Torres' quarters, where the big question comes up: "My whole life I've immersed myself in science and schematics, but what if it's time to start looking beyond that?" Chakotay's answers are nicely stated, too, voicing the reasonable possibility that B'Elanna's visit to the barge wasn't necessarily experienced through her death but was instead her subconscious pulling memories from her childhood beliefs.
Of course, it's hard to watch "Barge of the Dead" without revisiting the debated issue of religion in Trek. I think "Barge's" approach is even-handed and fair, and lets the viewer decide the validity and usefulness of the spiritual elements—and without being a ponderous mess the way third season's "Sacred Ground" was. Does Torres really die? Does her soul truly venture into the Klingon afterlife and back? You can make the call, but ultimately it doesn't matter because the story is a symbolic tale of the character's past and her journey of the self.
B'Elanna wants answers, and when she discovers that turning her back on Klingon ways is what resulted in her mother's dishonorable damnation, she decides to try to set things right by "going back" to the barge of the dead with the help of the Doctor, who can simulate the conditions that caused her first near-death experience.
This is of course met with the understandable skepticism, which the story addresses in the sensibly anticipated ways, with Janeway at first refusing to let her engineer risk her life for matters of the soul that can't simply be assumed as so easy to manipulate. The story's notion is itself making some assumptions; who is to say that B'Elanna can control anything in the afterlife, much less rescue her mother by essentially "cheating" in taking her place? I suppose it's all a matter of belief. If she "felt" the realism of afterlife the first time, perhaps she simply "knows" she can make changes from there. But Paris' response is a reasonable one; wouldn't exploring her spirituality in life ("Go to church or something?") be the more appropriate course of action? It's hard to even say what would be appropriate under circumstances that prove so personally troubling in a sci-fi/fantasy world.
B'Elanna's return to the barge is where a massive battle of the self begins. Saving her mother from the fate of Gre'thor is why B'Elanna chose to simulate another near-death experience, but that's not why she is here. She is here for a greater personal purpose—to confront her past, which has discordantly wound itself into her present and future as a person.
The episode is packed full of imagery, parallels, and symbols, but unlike last season's dreadful "The Fight," this is a show where the images grow out of the story and actually mean something, rather than existing for the sake of pointless atmosphere. There's symbolism here that makes a great deal of sense if you're willing to dissect it. (And even if you're not, the underlying events are still here and provide a perfectly solid story.)
First is the aforementioned annihilation fantasy where Klingons kill all of B'Elanna's friends. I won't overanalyze this point, but B'Elanna's tendency to repress her Klingon heritage certainly plays into the game, and there's dialog where she openly states that the only Klingon attributes she inherited were "the forehead and the bad attitude." These are the remarks of a conflicted individual uncertain and angry about her self-identity, and in the early stages of the "naj" when Tuvok confronts her for dishonorably disavowing her Klingon half, we realize B'Elanna's tortured dilemma.
Of course, the use of Tuvok in itself is interesting. Perpetually the antagonist within these scenes of introspection, Tuvok comes across as some sort of adversary that serves to attack Torres' sense of self-identity. We don't see all that much Tuvok/Torres interaction in general on the series, but this confrontational relationship is interesting. Deep down I get the sense that Torres suspects he's right; particularly during the early "naj" scenes we sense his remarks are hitting too close to home.
Naturally, a connection is also drawn between B'Elanna's mother and Janeway as maternal figures (the echoing of the line "request denied" and B'Elanna's mother wearing a captain's uniform provide nice touches). The idea makes sense given B'Elanna's circumstances of learning, adapting, and aiming to please, even if we must note that this means Janeway is a maternal figure to at least three characters on the show.
Perhaps most intriguing, however, is the particularly telling notion that once B'Elanna reaches Gre'thor, it turns out to be an eternal version of Voyager. "I don't consider Voyager hell," she says, but is she trying to convince herself? Does she hate where she is? Who she is? The idea that she'll be stuck in that place for 50 years? The story's stance seems to be that if Voyager is hell, it's because B'Elanna hasn't been able to do enough to make it more than that. She keeps everyone at "arm's length," says an image of Harry. "Even Tom, who you claim to love."
I suspect that a big part of her problem is in trying to live up to expectations when she isn't sure whether she's being true to herself in trying to meet such expectations that have been forced upon her. In a crucial scene on the barge, B'Elanna confronts images of her mother and her shipmates. She pleads with them: "What do you want?" Her mother responds, "Who are you asking?" B'Elanna doesn't know. She's probably asking everyone.
Just who is B'Elanna Torres? It's a question she needs to answer herself, rather than feeling compelled to exist as a functional unit for some organization or another person. In doing so, she needs to open herself to others. She generally won't let people see inside, and I see this quest as her own way of telling herself she should try.
Having B'Elanna's life hang in jeopardy through this near-death journey is milked for perhaps a bit of routine, unnecessary suspense, but in context it makes sense and provides the story with a way of taking the character through the journey she's found so difficult to travel. Even B'Elanna's choice to go through with the near-death simulation highlights her adamant tendency for total independence; Tom tries to convince her to find another way. "We'll figure this out—together," he pleads. "Next time," she says. She needs to do it alone.
As a quest of a character, this is all truly compelling stuff. Here's a person boxed inside herself by a deeply repressed identity crisis. Constantly trying to live up to the expectations of the moment, unsure of whether she's human, Klingon, Starfleet, Maquis, lover, daughter, a melding of some or all of the above, she has essentially cut off her private torment from those she is closest to. She finally admits to herself that she is tired of fighting. The lesson here, I think, is to embrace vulnerability to overcome it, rather than burying it under a tough, stubborn facade.
It's also interesting that B'Elanna's decision to simulate a near-death experience to save her mother is considered by her mother (or the image of her mother, rather) as choosing the "easy way." Digging deeper, this says to me that B'Elanna's turmoil runs so unconsciously deep that it requires her almost dying before she can at last fully confront it.
Essentially, this story reveals B'Elanna as a long-tortured, conflicted, private, complex character who is still looking to understand herself. The episode is about the growth she experiences only when she truly turns inward and confronts these tough questions. It's rare to get a character show where we feel we truly understand an individual with such complex layers, which is what makes this outing so special.
"Barge of the Dead" is punctuated by a wonderful visual sense—sometimes appropriately dark and creepy—and the typically compelling cinematics of director Mike Vejar. Noteworthy are the good transitional elements, like the thoughtful way B'Elanna stares at the cut on her hand from one scene to the next, pondering its meaning; or the way B'Elanna is physically attacked (repeatedly "killed") with a bat'leth—usually by Tuvok—used as the story's way of switching from one plane of the apparent afterlife to another. And the bigger theatric gestures I thought worked well too. In particular, the use of the bat'leth as a consistent device, especially when B'Elanna finally hurls it into the sea, proves nicely symbolic.
"Barge" comes together as the best overall episode of Voyager in nearly a year, if not longer—and one of the series' best. It's a story that understands its central character and puts her through a wringer where she learns and grows, all the while remaining true to who the character overall has been (excluding some of the fifth-season schizophrenia, of course).
I guess the next question is whether we'll see any change in B'Elanna in the future because of the events of this episode. Such events certainly invite change, but I of course don't expect ongoing continuity these days on Voyager. This episode comes billed as a "first step" for B'Elanna accepting who she is and deciding who she lets into her life. I'd like it to be a first step and not the last. This episode can stand on its own as a great episode, but it also shows what kind of potential this series' characters can have if they're permitted to be believable people who change.
"Barge of the Dead" is a hugely successful thought piece. I hope it can ultimately become even more than that.
Next week: Says the trailer, "Fascination II: The Voyager Version." Kill me now. But wait ... such an episode might be my Gre'thor.