Wednesday, October 5, 2011

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

It figures if VOY was to do an episode full of Klingon mythology, it would be DS9’s resident Klingon guy Ronald D. Moore who would write. “Barge of the dead” is the second and final script Moore had a hand in for the series. He only gets story credit here, which leads me to think he must have left before writing the script. Whether that is entirely true, the episode shows clear evidence of his immersion in Klingon culture. No one quite made theme as multidimensional as did Moore.

“Barge of the Dead” is obviously Torres-centric. With the possible exception of Neelix, no other character on VOY has had as many misfires in episode centered on them as Torres. Her character could be fascinating. She is a self-loathing hal-human, half-Kligon who falls into foolish idealist notions in order to feel important, but her fiery personality forever keeps her from truly belonging. For some reason, none of the VOY writers have been able to do anything with that even though her issues are ripe for a personal journey in which she becomes comfortable with herself enough to fit in with her crewmates as they search for w way home. Generally speaking, her characterization has been terribly uneven. Every Torres-centric episode features a Torres progressing and regressing as the plot requires. There is no personal growth for her. “Barge of the Dead” does not improve matters in the long run, either, but at least it tries to explain why Torres is so screwed up.

“Barge of the Dead” also deals with a touchy subject for Star Trek--religion. This is not the first time Moore has explored religion through Klingon allegory. The whole concept of Kahless’ return in TNG was a Christ allegory. “Barge of the Dead” does not feature many Christian elements. You may considr the dream sequence before torres winds up on the Barge of the Dead as pseudo-purgatory, but from then on, it is all about the Egyptian mythology of crossing the Styx into the afterlife. The episode takes the usual Trekian patronizing view of religion--Torres’ crewmates with tolerate her beliefs only to the point it inconveniences them. Then it stops being cute.

Torres has a near death experience when her shuttlecraft is caught in an ion storm. She believes she lands on the Barge of the Dead, a ship that ferries dishonored dead Klingons to Gre’thor, their version of hell. On board the ship, she discovers her mother. Before she can learn much else, she is revived in sick bat. While she has always been logically minded, torres suddenly accepts that Gre’Thor is not a myth. Upon further study of the afterlife through spiritual texts, she realizes her mother is being condemned for her dishonor.

In response, Torres wants to simulate her near death experience so she can go back to the Barge of the Dead and Save her mother. Here is where it stops getting cute as far as her friends are concerned. It is fine if one thinks she has seen the afterlife3 and starts reading religious texts. It is something else to insist on taking a spiritual journey. Surprisingly, the conflict is presented far more even handedly than usual for Star Trek. Torres claims simulating her previous experience is a freedom of worship issue. Janeway says she is willing to respect freedom of worship, but only to a point it does no physical harm. Worship your god all you want, but you cannot sacrifice an infant to him, now can you risk dying yourself.

Janeway is rationalizing she cannot risk her chief engineer on a quest for spiritual epiphany, but acquiesces when Torres brings up their--wait for it--surrogate mother/daughter relationship. This relationship is the crux of the resolution. When Torres returns to the Barge of the Dead to take her mother’s place, it is really a journey of self-discovery. Torres learns she has been fighting solid, healthy relationships with the people around her that she ought to accept. The most important appears to be bonding with Janeway. Why? Because Janeway is Awesome, I guess. I never thought I would miss saying that, but Jeri Taylor departed the series some time ago and her living vicariously through her favorite creation is conspicuously absent. Torres gets the message, which lasts through the closing credits. Hey, that is longer than most character developments in VOY.

Humorous line: when Torres crosses the gates of Gre’Thor, she winds up on a surreal version of Voyager and proclaims, “I don’t consider Voyager hell!” Speak for yourself, honey.

There are some good points about “Barge of the Dead.” It may very well be the bests Torres episode yet, which may not be saying much, but there you go. The production design is quite good. The barge of the dead is a old wooden ship floating on a river of fire in which the dishonored who have jumped overboard in a desperate attempt to escape burn forever. The CGI gets a little dodgy at Gre’Thor, but that is mostly due to over ambition with a television budget. Religious views are treated with far more respect than usual for Star Trek. While I think the resolution is a bit too touchy feely, Torres sudden embrace of the crew as family is not a serioys detriment. ’Barge of the Dead” is a nifty existential experience.

Rating; *** (out of 5)

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