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The Trek Nation - Barge of the Dead

Barge of the Dead

By Edward James Hines
Posted at October 6, 1999 - 5:00 AM GMT

"Barge of the Dead" ***
Teleplay by Bryan Fuller
Story by Ronald D. Moore & Bryan Fuller
Directed by Mike Vejar

Knocked unconscious in an ion storm, a comatose B'Elanna Torres has a near-death experience. She finds herself on the "barge of the dead," which in Klingon mythology ferries the souls of the dishonored to Gre'thor, or Klingon hell. Just before she is revived, Torres sees her mother Miral (Karen Austin) delivered to the barge as well. Convinced that her rejection of Klingon traditions has condemned her mother, Torres re-enters a coma under the Doctor's supervision and claims responsibility for Miral's dishonor so that her mother can go to Sto-Vo-Kor, or Klingon heaven. While comatose, however, Torres must confront her own feelings of dishonor, anger and identity.

"Barge of the Dead" is actually the third part of a probably unplanned "Torres Trilogy" that began with season four's "Day of Honor" and continued with season five's "Extreme Risk." Coincidentally, all three episodes were shown third in their respective seasons. The trilogy impressively manages to weave an evolving story of personal exploration for Torres, who is the most deserving of the underused characters. Regardless, when the series finally ends, at least Torres will leave behind this legacy of imaginative, gut-wrenching storytelling.

What's fascinating about Torres is that when she's used to her full potential, she comes across as a character of seemingly endless contradiction and conflict. Her hybrid heritage is human/Klingon and is always at war within her. She can't accept her humanity because she's angry with her human father for abandoning her, and she can't embrace her Klingon heritage because Miral was too much of a fanatic - force-feeding doctrine to Torres whether she wanted it or not. She is a brilliant engineer but dropped out of Starfleet Academy to take up with the renegade Maquis. She won the role of Voyager's chief engineer but soon found herself at odds with Janeway and too many Starfleet rules. Just as she began settling in, resigned to a long voyage home, unwelcome news found her even in the Delta Quadrant that the Maquis - her former family - were wiped out ("Hunters"). This triggered an unrelenting situational depression that gripped Torres for the next year-and-a-half.

In "Day of Honor," before the news, Torres was merely enduring a really bad day, or "Moore's law, Klingon-style." She initially resisted celebrating the holiday but then confessed to Neelix that, being so far away from everything Klingon, the rituals no longer seemed so hateful to her. At this point, Torres' attitude was salvageable if only she had been able to give herself some credit - cut herself some slack when it came to recognizing her contribution to Voyager's survival. She attempted to proceed with the ritual until she felt unworthy as a Klingon of having done anything "honorable." At the end, however, fearing her own death, she managed to take a positive step forward in acknowledging her feelings for Tom Paris, thus briefly abating the overwhelming feeling that she has kept him and everyone else at arm's length (to her own detriment).

A year later, in "Extreme Risk," Torres was at her lowest. She was completely disinterested and reclusive. She had been running dangerous holodeck programs with the safety protocols disengaged in a desperate attempt to feel something - anything - and convince herself that she was still alive. After finding herself bereft of Klingon honor and orphaned from the Maquis, Torres shut herself off for lack of anything to believe in or count on. Even with so many of Voyager's crew having been lost over the years, Torres began to see that this, her latest family, was as vulnerable as the Maquis turned out to be. Thus, she stopped caring for close friends Paris and Chakotay and even considered her job to be unimportant. At the end, however, again fearing her own death, she managed to pull herself together, acknowledge her strengths and take responsibility as an engineer and friend to save her comrades.

"Barge of the Dead" finds Torres celebrating an anniversary - the tenth year since she and her mother have spoken. With Miral on her mind, Torres embarks on a shuttlecraft mission that ends in terror. Once again, she fears her own death and, while comatose, is again confronted with inescapable feelings of worthlessness and dishonor as a Klingon. When she returns later to accept responsibility for Miral's dishonor, Torres is painfully reminded by Janeway of her "Day of Honor" fear that, in death, she has "no valor, no glory, nothing to celebrate in song and story." She is also reminded by Harry Kim of having kept everyone at arm's length, which was her concern from "Day of Honor" and "Extreme Risk." Against all of these accusations, however, Torres does nothing. She neither confirms nor denies them. Later, when physically surrounded by them, she cries out in frustration, "Tell me what you want me to be!" In searching for the perfect "formula," Torres the engineer overlooks the simple answer that eludes so many like her - be yourself. Accept yourself. Find ways to make life work for yourself. In knowing yourself, you will know how to live life. "You can't free me until you free yourself," says Miral in perhaps the pivotal statement of the climax.

In each installment of the trilogy, basically, Torres' fear of death forces her to take responsibility. What she hopefully learns at the end of "Barge of the Dead" is to be responsible to herself and to others - no matter the risk - while choosing to live. By throwing away the bat'leth in the penultimate scene, Torres acknowledges that she is weary of the constant inner struggle that has since overflowed and consumed her friends, too. Awakening, she gratefully embraces Janeway, signifying her renewed willingness to accept help from those who love her.

Tuvok plays critical roles in both of Torres' near-death experiences. By cutting her face with the bat'leth, Tuvok demonstrates that Torres is unwilling to follow her instinct and defend herself. By pushing her into death (i.e., Gre'thor), he forces her to acknowledge her desire to live. By constantly entreating her to defend herself, he forces her to accept and be proud of herself. By offering the bat'leth, Tuvok represents: 1) her Klingon desire to attack, and 2) her human need to defend.

Torres' comparison of Janeway to Miral is another interesting revelation. Both women represent domineering yet passionate influences - Janeway in her dedication to Starfleet principles, even in the worst of circumstances, and Miral in her devotion to Klingon honor. Janeway's maternal effect on Torres never really had the chance to blossom until now, with the specter of Miral's "death" looming as a possibility in Torres' mind. Her sole motivation in pursuing the second near-death experience is to seek the same kind of "inner" peace with her mother that she was able to find "outwardly" with Janeway.

Particularly significant are the various instances of Janeway/Miral commingling. The first indication that something is awry with Torres is, of course, when Janeway calls her "Lanna" - a pet name used only by Miral (and it's probably a misstep that the "real" Miral doesn't use this nickname during the near-death experiences). Later, in her final appearance, Miral is dressed in Janeway's uniform, sometimes speaking as the captain would (e.g., "Request denied" - although the scene may have been more effective if Janeway had not been present as well).

Other clues that suggest the "false introduction" include Tuvok's strange behavior when he cuts Torres, berates her and later sneers at her in the Mess Hall. Also, on the barge, Torres won't take "the mark" that is to be burned onto her cheek. Finally, the ferryman Kortar (Eric Pierpoint) flat-out tells Torres that it's not yet her time to die.

Kortar, whose role in Klingon mythology parallels that of Charon (the Greek mythological figure who ferried the souls of the dead across the river Styx into Hades), earned his ignominious, eternal punishment by being the "first Klingon" who killed his creator gods. The derivation of this tale comes from DS9's "You Are Cordially Invited," in which the Klingon marriage ceremony tells the story of the first two Klingon hearts - male and female - who destroyed the gods and turned the heavens into ashes.

Kortar's apt designation for Torres is "mongrel child." He also seems to be the Klingon equivalent of the boogeyman, about whom Klingon children are warned.

Noticeably absent from Gre'thor, whose gates are ominously crowned by the inverted symbol of the Klingon Empire, is Fek'lhr, the guardian monster who was introduced in TNG's "Devil's Due." It would have been appropriate for the visual effects producers to have inserted an immobile CGI representation of Fek'lhr just beyond the gates, obscured but silhouetted by smoke and fire.

Torres' mental manifestation of Gre'thor as Voyager - or vice versa - is a compelling reaction. Despite her protestation that she doesn't consider Voyager to be hell, Neelix's assertion gives her noticeable pause - that 50 years aboard the starship is nothing compared to spending an eternity there. For Torres and undoubtedly many other crewmembers, however, the long journey home may as well be an eternity ... or maybe Torres was reacting to the Doctor's impending performance of an aria from Berlioz's "Faust" (great choice) as the most hellacious part about being trapped in Gre'thor.

"Barge of the Dead" is not the first time that VGR has speculated about the afterlife - season four's "Mortal Coil" depicted a distraught Neelix who, after being dead for 18 hours, was revived only to realize that Talaxian beliefs hadn't prepared him for what he actually experienced. Given his eager attempts to comfort Torres in the first two parts of the trilogy, it would have been interesting if "Barge of the Dead" had managed to sneak in a scene with Torres asking Neelix about his experience and what sense he has been able to make of it.

A new wrinkle is added to the Klingon realm of penance with the "sins of the child." TNG's "Sins of the Father" revealed that an individual could dishonor his family for seven generations, and now "Barge of the Dead" indicates that such dishonor can also work in reverse. With so many opportunities to strike out on the afterlife, it's a wonder if any Klingons get into Sto-Vo-Kor at all!

One character who comports himself honorably throughout Torres' latest ordeal is boyfriend Paris, who is all-too-eager to immerse himself in Klingon tradition if it means helping Torres find peace. While sorting out the situation in his head, his funniest rumination is, "One minute you're in a coma, the next you're a born-again Klingon? I don't get it!"

Also, if anyone knows what it's like to be at odds with a parent, it's Paris. He easily sympathizes with a frustrated Torres, who joins the likes of Spock, Picard, Riker, Odo, Bashir and Chakotay in being estranged from a same-sex parent.

Co-executive producer Ronald D. Moore, who wrote teleplays for TNG's Klingon-centered episodes "Sins of the Father," "Reunion" and "Rightful Heir," and also wrote the "Redemption" two-part episode, logs in his final Klingon story (for now?) with "Barge of the Dead." He does an impressive job fleshing out Torres and her ongoing situation, considering how new he was to VGR and how little Torres had been developed in five seasons. This was his last episode before his untimely resignation from Star Trek. He will be sorely missed.

Astute fans will notice that in the Doctor and Seven of Nine's Klingon drinking song, which was lifted from DS9's "The Way of the Warrior," quick mention is made of "Molor," the tyrant whom Kahless slew. Also mentioned indirectly later is Morath, Kahless' brother who was, at the time of his death, initially deposited onto the barge of the dead for dishonoring his family.

In the setup of the "false introduction," Torres had been chasing Voyager's only multispatial probe - presumably the same one from last season's "Extreme Risk." During her crash-landing sequence in the shuttlebay, her speed is slowed by a "tractor pulse" (the same design created by Wesley Crusher in TNG's "The Naked Now"?) and her forward momentum stopped by "arresting fields" (they were physical barricades in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier).

"Barge of the Dead" boasts an impressive array of Star Trek alumni as guest stars. Eric Pierpoint, who is probably best known for his television role in Alien Nation, previously played "Voval" in TNG's "Liaisons" and "Captain Sanders" in DS9's "For the Uniform." Karen Austin, who is probably best known for her role in Night Court, was "Doctor Kalandra" in DS9's "Nor the Battle to the Strong." Last but not least is John Kenton Shull ("Brok'tan"), Klingon veteran extraordinaire, whose name characters include "Molor" from TNG's "Firstborn" and "K'Temang" from DS9's "Return to Grace."

Finally, rabid fans may know that former executive producer Jeri Taylor's novel Pathways was intended to fill in the personal histories of every VGR character save Janeway (who was detailed in her own book, Mosaic). Taylor listed Torres' mother as "Prabsa," but apparently this "fact" was overlooked and/or forgotten by the latest VGR regime.

Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


Edward James Hines writes weekly reviews of Voyager episodes.