Touched by a Voyager
It’s hard to imagine a Klingon version of Touched by an Angel, but Barge of the Dead must come pretty close. Star Trek has a history of
venerating and reusing Shakespeare and Greek myths. Up until now though they hadn’t touched heaven or hell because core Star Trek saw religion as an illusion and a handicap humanity had to move beyond. The last two spinoffs though have been driven less by any kind of well thought out philosophy than random ideas and a watered down version of what a few writers and producers think Star Trek was really about. The result of that kind of philosophy produce episodes like Barge of the Dead that look good, dash around like mad trying to make a point and ultimately ending up as a testament to their own inability to think things through.
Leading with the old stunningly overused gimmick of a crewman thinking they’re back on their ship when in fact they are in the holodeck/an illusory fantasy world inside their brain or someone else’s brain/in the clutches of evil aliens; Torres returns to Voyager with a Klingon plaque. Soon the entire crew goes Klingon crazy to support Torres’ cultural and spiritual exploration. While her Klingon plaque bleeds invisible blood all over the table that looks a lot like red pepto bismol, everyone throws her a party in the mess hall redecorated for Klingon theme week. However when Klingons emerge to slaughter the entire crew in slow motion (to prolong the painful enjoyable experience for the viewer) it becomes clear that Torres is not on a Starfleet vessel traveling to Earth but on a Klingon Barge of the Dead traveling to hell.
We’re not all together clear as to why Torres is indeed going to hell. This is the second time an episode focused on honor without defining just what honor means in the current context of Klingon culture. What exactly did Torres do or not do to deserve going to hell besides not studying Klingon culture or bring prodded with pain sticks. These of course are irrelevant questions because after some weak attempts to put up a fight, the real star of the episode takes over. The main character of Barge of the Dead is not Torres or her mother or Janeway or even Seven of Nine, but the Barge of the Dead itself.
Apparently given the choice of focusing on the story of Torres saving her mother from hell or designing a really cool set for the Barge, the
director chose the latter. And so in between Torres struggling to figure out what the viewer already knows (always a smart way to write dialogue and a great way to keep the audience interested) we get to study how detailed and realistic the Barge looks, the dangerous creatures following the barge to seize deserters (what could they possibly do to them that is worse than going to hell? Superhell?) and the Klingon version of the ferryman. The Barge goes up and down, the sky is dark and ominous and the whole thing feels very Klingon and very hellish.
In hell Torres meets her mother who was doomed to hell because B’Elanna didn’t spend enough time learning about Klingon culture. When the impact of the wonderful family reunion aboard the hell barge fades away the intelligent viewer might find questions on his or her mind. For instance is Klingon hell the only real hell or are there hells and heavens of all the religions of all the species in the galaxy equally real. If so, since Torres is half-human why isn’t she headed to a hell or heaven belonging to an earth religion? Of course in the end watching the Hell-barge go up and down and appreciating just how much effort it was made to recreate a Klingon hell-barge and how little effort was made to put together a halfway intelligent script is far more entertaining.
Of course we actually know Torres isn’t going to hell because that would leave Voyager without an engineer or rather an engineer in hell who
can’t fix the warp drive by reinitializing the anti-matter chronoplast relay in a feedback loop (not that this wouldn’t be a Very original way to dispose of a cast member, far more original than the way Kes was disposed of. And think about it if Kes had gone to hell, Fury would have made a whole lot more sense.) So of course the Voyager crew revives Torres. She’s surprised, we’re not. Now comes the question, was it all a dream or not. If it wasn’t a dream then B’ Ellana’s mother is burning in hell because of something she did. Clearly the only possible story option is to have Torres go back to hell.
After a few filler discussions on the subject, Janeway– never one to stand in the way of emotional or spiritual fulfillment no matter how insane it might be– agrees. At this point we can be stunned by Voyager’s achievement in making a trip to hell look like a trip to the grocery store. The EMH initiates a near death experience and soon in ‘Flatliners’ style, Torres is on the way back to the Hell-barge where she offers to trade places with her hell-bound mother. After the expected resolution with her mother sans Roma Downey but with the Klingon Ferryman doing his best to fit the part, Torres arrives in hell only to discover that hell is actually Voyager. Many people who hate Voyager already know this but for Torres it’s a revelation. Led around by the Doctor acting as a sublimely slick devil, she is given the tour that demonstrates to us how annoying actually living on Voyager would actually be and demonstrates to her how she must change her life. Without the wonderful Hell-barge on screen though the whole point of the episode is gone. B’Elanna Torres is soon brought back from Voyager Hell to the real Voyager which is a somewhat less hellish place. Here she has the chance to change her life and become a better person which wraps up this touching and heartfelt look at the Klingon afterlife and how it can put you in touch with your inner… oh wait that’s not what Klingons were ever about. As I dimly recall Klingons were about pain, violence, courage and honor. And not the kind of nebulous honor that in the spinoffs has become as meaningless as any other Trek principle. As the fans retire to debate who would win in a fight of Voyager vs. The Barge of the Dead the curtain dims on yet another episode of Touched by a Voyager.
Voyager has managed to turn Q, ominous omnipotent Q who twice nearly wiped out the human race, into a cuddly new-age dad. Voyager has
managed to turn the Borg into wind up Turbo-Zombies led by a horny Borgia queen (though to be fair ST:FC had a far bigger problem on both counts) and a way for Seven to get daily lessons on becoming as fully (in)human as the paragon of morality and greatness, Captain Janeway herself. And finally Voyager comes close to tying both those achievements when it manages to turn Klingon Hell into another stop on the “40 steps to getting in touch with your inner-child” book tour. Step 32 go to Klingon Hell which unlike everything else Klingon is another holodecky Voyagerverse in which you’re stuck with lots of annoying people. Admittedly the Voyager crew can be annoying, with special emphasis on Janeway, Chakotay and Seven of Nine, but Klingon hell would probably focus less on annoying you and more on ripping away the skin from your bones.
There are Star Trek episodes that almost come close to reproducing the effect of having your skin manually ripped away from your bones. Spock’s Brain, TNG season 1, anything with Vic Fontaine, Ezri Dax or the third and most talentless incarnation of Ziyal and Voyager’s spiritual quests e.g. Coda, Sacred Ground. Barge of the Dead is not one of them, in the end it’s just a boring episode with really good set design. Ironically enough Barge of the Dead achieves exactly what it threatens B’Elanna Torres with, infinite annoying boredom. In her case infinity was only about four minutes, in our case it was about forty. Somehow that just doesn’t seem fair.