“Barge of the Dead“
Star Trek: Voyager (Season 6, Episode 3)
For a science fiction (and generally atheist) property, Star Trek has gotten metaphysical surprisingly often. Many stories across the various series and movies have featured its characters on mystical and spiritual journeys (or calamities). Trek has never been hard sci-fi, and that general looseness of the genre allows a more blended approach to these adventures of the beyond. There’s usually a science-fiction plot device to get the protagonist outside the bounds of the physical realm, but after that it can get pretty wacky in some interesting ways. That blurred line between sci-fi and fantasy fuels a particularly memorable episode of Voyager that also utilizes the blood-soaked mythology of Klingon culture for maximum effect.
The plot boils down to “B’Elanna and her mom go to Klingon hell,” and the episode very fortunately turns out to be almost as nuts as that sounds. It’s an installment that almost feels like it belongs in a different property altogether, but it’s ultimately classic Trek in all the right ways. It’s a spooky, intense fever dream of a story courtesy of Ronald D. Moore, one of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine’s best writing talents (and the brainchild behind the Klingon race from TNG onwards). Following his departure from DS9, Moore had an extremely short tenure on Voyager (two episodes, to be exact), which is unfortunate and speaks to the behind-the-scenes shortcomings of the series (more on that below). But I’m just grateful that this episode exists.
The story of the episode’s story is interesting in itself – it was a recycled, unused idea Moore had for Deep Space Nine‘s Dominion War story arc that opened the sixth season. It was to be a Worf and Martok adventure (fuck yeah) where they journeyed on a mysterious boat through the fog to the Klingon afterlife and met Worf’s father Mogh (among other deceased Klingons). None of this really fit in with what was going on with DS9 at that time and was considered too expensive and bizarre a concept to execute. I would so, so love to see that version of this story (I love me some bizarre), but the adaptation to Voyager’s framework works very well and the change is perhaps a blessing in disguise.
The episode begins en media res style with Torres being rescued from a shuttle badly damaged in an ion storm. It’s a bumpy landing in the shuttlebay, but she’s fine. Captain Janeway gives her a minor dressing down for taking an unnecessary risk in trying to retrieve a special spatial probe. “We only have one multispacial probe,” Torres explains. “We only have one B’Elanna Torres,” Janeway replies, which is kind of sweet. She then calls her Lana, which freaks Torres out a bit because it’s what her mother used to call her.
It’s the first of many weird moments that continue to build. Chakotay drops by Torres’ quarters and brings her a piece of metal that they found lodged in the shuttle hull – hundreds of years old and emblazoned with the insignia of the Klingon Empire. Torres is only slightly intrigued, until the chunk of metal starts bleeding and crying out in Klingon to her. I’m going to go with… yikes?
After rigorous scanning and testing, Kim is unable to find anything notable about the object or any sign of what Torres experienced. Right on cue, Neelix announces that in honor of this momentous discovery, he’s arranging a Klingon-themed party in the mess hall, with Torres as the guest of honor. Yay.
Torres is still doing her meditation sessions with Tuvok, and he attempts to impart some meaning on her vision involving the metal fragment – her revulsion at her Klingon half is asserting itself. Just as in the last session we saw Torres is as uncooperative and sarcastic as ever, so Tuvok changes tactics and pulls out a bat’leth sword. Tim Russ looks supremely bad ass wielding it, and he uses it to try and force Torres to confront her true feelings about her Klingon heritage. He goes so far in whipping it around that he cuts her face, and then angrily snarls at her cowardice and dismisses her (one of Russ’ first roles in Trek was a Klingon on Deep Space Nine’s “Invasive Procedures,” and you can see a lot of that feral gusto here).
Later on Torres and Paris visit the Klingon party, and she speaks of how much her mother would have liked it. She was super into Klingon culture and its beliefs and unsuccessfully tried to impress that onto B’Elanna, even going so far as to put her into a Klingon monastery school after her dad left the family. Not only that, but it’s been 10 years since the two have spoken. Janeway begins to give a speech, but the action slows to a crawl and a savage red light fills the mess hall. Torres seems to be the only one who notices, and the arresting slow motion sequence continues as Klingons begin to fill the room and brutally kill everyone there, saving Torres for last.
Opening her eyes, Torres finds herself on a creaking wooden sailing ship surrounded by other Klingons. It’s the Barge of the Dead, the mythical ship that ferries the dishonored dead to Gre’thor – Klingon hell. Fun!
The set of the ship is great, and it’s cast against blood red skies. Wind howls around them and it feels totally nightmarish. There are a lot of great visuals and shots in these sequences, and I wish we could have spent more time here. The Klingons try to brand Torres in the face with a blazing iron, but it doesn’t stick for some reason. Turns out everything up until now in the episode has just been the final dream before death. They suddenly hear voices calling out to them from beyond the ship – illusions of loved ones meant to draw its passengers out to the water. One guy follows them and leaps, only to get devoured alive by unseen sea creatures below. It’s totally fucking metal.
Depictions of the afterlife in movies and TV have always fascinated me – the artistry and creativity of portraying the beyond can be captivating and scary. What Dreams May Come is a great example, even if it isn’t a great film. There’s something reminiscent of the version of hell in that movie to the Klingon afterlife here, especially in the voices calling out to lure people away from the right path. Likewise, there’s a big Disneyland ride vibe and hearkens to the nightmarish parts of Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion. Those were always two of my favorite rides and I liked how spooky and disturbing they were. What I wouldn’t give for a “Barge of the Dead” themed amusement park ride, where you’re floating through the cosmos and beyond in an increasingly terrifying journey to hell.
Torres meets the guy in charge of the boat at the wheel – Kortar, the first Klingon who slew the gods and was forced to pilot the ship of the damned for all eternity. DID I MENTION THIS WAS METAL. Torres is still in disbelief until another soul appears on the ship – her mother, Miral.
At this point, Torres wakes up in sickbay. Turns out that nothing up until this point has been real – after her shuttle was disabled she lost consciousness and has been in a coma up until now. But she’s extremely disturbed by what she experienced, as it felt totally real. Doing research, she discovers some ancient Klingon text that states a child’s dishonor can sentence the parent to an eternity in hell. Torres believes that her rejection of Klingon beliefs is what’s caused her mother’s eternal disgrace.
As with “Nothing Human,” this plot point is based on the fact that Voyager is isolated from the Alpha Quadrant and brings some compelling ambiguity as to what’s going on. Is Miral really dead? There’s absolutely no way of knowing, and regardless of the thousands of light years separating them, they’re apparently crossing paths in the afterlife. It’s kooky, but also a very cool idea.
Torres wants to go back, which would involve the Doctor recreating the conditions of the shuttle accident – essentially bringing her to the brink of death so that she can board the Barge again. Not surprisingly, Janeway is firmly against this, which is totally in character for her. Torres is somehow able to sway her, which strains some credibility – it wasn’t that long ago that Janeway overrode Torres’ medical wishes to save her life, so it’s inconsistent that she would let B’Elanna risk her life over religious beliefs.
But there wouldn’t be a rest of the episode if she didn’t budge, and soon enough the Doctor is fulfilling her wish by allllmost killing her in sickbay. Torres once again awakens on the Barge (dressed now as a Klingon, interestingly) and finds her mother down below. It’s not long before they’re bickering like they used to. B’Elanna even accuses her mother of driving away her (human) father with all this Klingon nonsense. According to the ancient Klingon texts, Torres can transfer the dishonor back to her so that her mother can ascend to Sto-Vo-Kor (Klingon heaven). She wants to do it before the Doctor revives her so she doesn’t have to go to hell herself, and her mother balks at the notion of trying to trick her way into the honored afterlife.
The both of them are brought before Kortar, who knows what Torres is planning to do. But B’Elanna reverses course and decides to commit to the transference for real – she will voluntarily go to Gre’thor so that her mom can go to Sto-Vo-Kor. Back in the real world, Torres’ life signs start to fade and the Doctor labors to bring her back, but it doesn’t seem to be working. The Barge docks at its destination and the terrifying gates of Gre’thor open up (I fucking love the upside down Klingon insignia). Torres steps out and…
…wakes up in a dimly-lit sickbay where the Doctor and Neelix cheerfully announce that she’s now in hell – her hell. This recalls the wacky and sublime Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, where the two dudes find themselves in their own tailored, custom-made hell. She faces versions of the Voyager crew who taunt and mock her for stubbornly keeping them at arm’s length all these years. But then she’s back on the Barge again, where the crew (as well as her mother in a Starfleet uniform) surround her and demand she defend herself.
It’s the dramatic climax of the story, and Torres (with bat’leth in hand) defends herself from her crewmates, constantly spinning to face each accusing person. She strains under the expectations of everyone around her, feeling herself unable to be everything to everyone – a good Maquis, a good officer, a good girlfriend, a good daughter. Torres has always been a fighter, but she breaks down and admits she is exhausted of fighting. Dawson’s performance is like that of a caged animal here and she really sells the conflict and turmoil. Her crewmates’ attacking disposition morphs into sympathy and understanding – she doesn’t need to defend herself to these people. They respect her, love her, and want her to let them in. They’re her friends and family. She responds by hurling her sword into the sea. It’s a great metaphorical act and the visual is just crazy cool. Her mother tells her they will meet again – either in Sto-Vo-Kor, or maybe when she returns home…
Torres awakens in sickbay, alive and well. She wraps her arms around Janeway in an emotional embrace. The several allusions to Captain Janeway’s maternal role in Torres’ life throughout the episode come to a dramatic head here, and it’s a surprisingly tender conclusion to a story involving nightmarish hell and blood-soaked eternal damnation. And I like that the episode ends there, without feeling the need to sum up this week’s lesson with an overly explanatory coda. It’s a powerful emotional catharsis that Torres has reached, and sending it off on this affectionate note is a restrained and effective conclusion.
It’s ultimately not an outwardly metaphysical journey that Torres has endured, but an internal, emotional one. It’s some good character work and a great angle that Ronald D. Moore was able to mine for Torres. As much as I like the ending, I think it does lose something in definitively explaining away that no, none of this stuff actually happened. Removing the ambiguity does rob some of the intrigue for me – I really like the idea that maybe she did actually go to the afterlife and met her mom’s spirit there, as totally outside the realm of Star Trek‘s status quo as that may be. It’s a minor quibble though, and doesn’t detract that much from the episode’s appeal.
The science fiction setting of Star Trek has allowed its heroes to journey to some very strange places, but “Barge of the Dead” pushes that envelope even further to a realm beyond the limits of scientific understanding. It’s an arresting and very memorable experience that builds upon established Klingon mythology to tell a deeply personal and emotional story. B’Elanna Torres’ surreal journey through life and death ends up being a metaphorical one about herself, her place on Voyager, and her emotional connections to the people in her life. It’s a classic and essential Trek story that weaves big ideas and mind-bending vistas around its characters to tell a down-to-earth and personal story. Allowing oneself to be vulnerable and letting people in can be an intensely scary notion, and it’s the central fear that Torres’ personal hell is based around here. Instead of tricking her way out of it, she fights through it like she always has and emerges victorious.
- Ronald D. Moore was reportedly dismayed at the working environment of Voyager’s writer’s room. Apparently, when he was tasked with writing a story about Torres he asked the other writers for some background on how she would react and what kind of person she is, etc. He was basically told to just make anything up he wanted, which is just… wow. For writers on the sixth season of a show to not have definitive takes on main characters is pretty crazy. Like, The Walking Dead crazy.
- Kind of surprised Torres’ dad doesn’t show up in her circle. It would have added unnecessary baggage to the sequence, probably.
- Why no Fek’lhr??? He’s mentioned here but sadly not shown. He originally appeared as an illusion in TNG’s “Devil’s Due.”
- Kortar is played by Eric Pierpoint, who has had a number of Star Trek appearances, including Captain Sanders on Deep Space Nine. I absolutely would not have recognized him without the credits.
- Seven and the Doctor singing Klingon drinking songs, lol.