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[VOY] Jammer's Review: "Barge of the Dead"

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Warning: This review contains significant spoilers for Voyager s Barge of the Dead. If you haven t seen the episode yet, beware. Nutshell: Surprisingly
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 19, 1999
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      Warning: This review contains significant spoilers for Voyager's "Barge of
      the Dead." If you haven't seen the episode yet, beware.


      Nutshell: Surprisingly powerful. The best Torres show in years, and among
      the series' best installments.

      Plot description: A near-death experience sends Torres into the apparent
      Klingon afterlife, and leaves her searching for answers when she returns.

      -----
      Star Trek: Voyager -- "Barge of the Dead"

      Airdate: 10/6/1999 (USA)
      Teleplay by Bryan Fuller
      Story by Ronald D. Moore & Bryan Fuller
      Directed by Mike Vejar

      Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
      Rating out of 4: ****

      "Tell me what you want from me!"
      "We don't want anything from you, B'Elanna. We only want you."
      -- Torres' battle of the self
      -----

      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 "arms 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.

      -----
      Copyright (c) 1999 by Jamahl Epsicokhan, all rights reserved. Unauthorized
      reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.

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      Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...
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