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Star Trek: Voyager – Barge of the Dead (Review)

There is some small symmetry in Barge of the Dead.

When Bryan Fuller first pitched to Star Trek, he pitched to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The first idea that he sold was The Darkness and the Light, which felt like something approaching a gothic serial killer horror about a deformed killer stalking his victims using the franchise’s hyper-advanced technology. That original idea was heavily re-written by franchise veteran Ronald D. Moore, who also brought a more substantial thematic weight to the story by focusing on themes of violence and retribution.

Barging in.

In contrast, Barge of the Dead is the last television story that Ronald D. Moore would pitch for the franchise, coming at the very end of his time on Star Trek: Voyager. The episode has its roots in an earlier pitch by the writer, the original idea for Soldiers of the Empire. However, Moore would depart the franchise before he could finish work on Barge of the Dead, and so the writing of the script fell to Bryan Fuller. Much like Moore had subtly shifted the emphasis of The Darkness and the Light to his own thematic interests, Fuller embraces his own sensibilities in reworking Barge of the Dead.

Moore had re-written Fuller’s last story, and Fuller would re-write Moore’s last story. There is some sense of poetry in this.

Tom’s idea of a romantic evening certainly needed some work.

The genesis of Barge of the Dead can be traced back to Soldiers of the Empire, a Klingon-centric story that Moore had written towards the tail end of the fifth season of Deep Space Nine. Producer Ira Steven Behr had expressed an interest in an episode that could be described as “Star Trek: Klingon”,  a story unfolding primarily on a Klingon ship with an emphasis on Klingon characters; the next logical step from the cultural exchange seen in A Matter of Honour, but without needed to graft a human perspective into the story to hold the audience’s hand.

The return of the character of General Martok to the show in In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light provided a suitably vehicle for this story, with Worf serving as the audience identification character. While Worf had been raised by humans and was largely an outsider to the Klingon Empire, Martok was a much more conventional Klingon who had grown up as part of that culture. The idea was to tell a story set on Martok’s ship, the Rotarran. Ronald D. Moore had been “the Klingon guy” dating back to Sins of the Father in his first season, so he was a logical choice to write it.

Dead tired.

Moore’s original pitch for the episode that would become Soldiers of the Empire was rather different than the finished episode. Rather than tying the plot to cold war brewing during the second half of Deep Space Nine‘s fifth season, Moore originally conceived of telling a more conventional standalone adventure that just happened to use Klingon characters. As The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion relates:

Approaching the assignment with perhaps too much enthusiasm, Moore immediately began writing a story of mythic proportions about Worf and Martok taking a bird-of-prey to a Klingon outpost that the Empire had lost contact with. When the pair arrive at the outpost, located on a strange planet, they find that all the Klingons are missing. Near the outpost is a fog-enshrouded lake, upon which a boatman appears. Worf and Martok give some coins to the boatman, who rows them across the lake…

“Basically, it was the River Styx,” Moore says. “There was going to be a friend of Martok’s on the other side that they wanted to bring back, and Worf’s father was over there, too. I was really intrigued by it.”

However, when Moore turned in his story document to Behr, the executive producer was forced to point out an unfortunate reality. “I was trying to show the inner life of the crew of a bird-of-prey and do this big, out-there kind of piece,” Moore admits. “It was just too much to do in one episode. And, as Ira said, it was the wrong point in the season to do a big meditation on the metaphysics of Hell and Life and Death,” relates Moore.

To be fair, the fifth season of Deep Space Nine did play with big metaphysical ideas in Children of Time, an episode in which the crew found themselves confronted with their potential grandchildren on an uncharted planet in the Gamma Quadrant. However, Moore and Behr eventually settled upon a more generic primary plot that tied into the lead-up to the Dominion War in Call to Arms, a shrewd choice that avoided over-cluttering the episode.

Ferry thee well.

Still, the original idea for Soldiers of the Empire seems intriguing. In particular, it feels more like a very broad Star Trek premise, a concept that could easily have been adapted for any other series in the franchise. It is not too difficult to imagine a watered-down version of this story on Star Trek: The Next Generation, with Picard and Worf encountering an alien species claiming to be the ancient Klingon gods. Certainly, the question of religious belief had been dealt with in the context of stand-alone episodes like Justice, Who Watches the Watchers? and Devil’s Due.

So it makes sense that Ronald D. Moore would revisit this concept on moving over to Voyager. It is a story that is (roughly) compatible with the narrative framework on Voyager; it is a relatively clean standalone story with no larger connection to any overarching plot, which merely relies upon the existence of a Klingon (or even half-Klingon) regular character. The basic premise of Barge of the Dead is not so different from an episode like Coda, and the broad strokes of the story could easily be retooled or reworked without any in-depth knowledge of Voyager‘s continuity.

Squirm ‘n’ worm.

In fact, the idea to repurpose the original pitch for Soldiers of Empire as an episode of Voyager came from Moore’s long-time collaborator, Brannon Braga. As Braga explained to Cinefantastique:

“We really felt that if Voyager was going to do Klingons, we should do something unique. Klingon Hell was an idea that Ron Moore had been thinking about on Deep Space Nine, but they never got around to doing it. When Ron came over, one of the first things I said was, ‘We are ripping off Klingon Hell.’ Ron wrote a story for us. Bryan Fuller did a terrific job on that script. Producing the Barge was a real feat, a real challenge for our production team.”

What better way to welcome Ronald D. Moore to Voyager than to ensure that one of his earliest scripts is a Klingon-centric story? The third season of Deep Space Nine had done something similar, assigning Moore to spoof the Klingon culture that he’d helped create as his second script for the series, in House of Quark.

Getting on board with this idea.

Of course, there is something slightly absurd in this; Voyager was a show set in the Delta Quadrant, far removed from the Alpha Quadrant. Indeed, part of the reason why the writing staff chose that premise was because it allowed them a clean break from a storytelling world that had been heavily populated and defined by The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. In theory, Voyager was supposed to represent a new beginning for the Star Trek franchise, an opportunity to get away from Klingons and Romulans and Ferengi.

However, Voyager always felt that pull back to the familiar, and the show would repeatedly populate the Delta Quadrant with familiar aliens: a Romulan in Eye of the Needle; humans in The 37’s; a Cardassian missile in Dreadnought; Q in Death Wish; Ferengi in False Profits; the Borg in Blood Fever and onwards. In particular, the writers working on Voyager seemed to feel a strange affinity for familiar aliens like the Klingons and the Ferengi; both featured prominently as Seven’s personalities in Infinite Regress, and both would appear in the final season – in Prophecy and Inside Man.

Ship shape.

As much as the premise of Barge of the Dead might have been a recycled Deep Space Nine plot, but one of Moore’s early plans was to restructure that story in such a way as to make it unique to Voyager. Moore originally planned for Barge of the Dead to be a story about the relationship between Torres and Paris, but discovered that the production team had little interest in that dynamic. Moore observed that this reflected a bigger issue with Voyager:

Do the characters really believe they are not getting home for seventy years? They don’t act like it. They all believe they are getting home in a couple of hours. There is no big deal for them, because otherwise wouldn’t Janeway at some point have said, ‘Realistically, this is becoming a generation ship. Time to start having kids, because somebody is going to have to man this ship 60 years from now, and it ain’t going to be me. It ain’t going to be Chakotay, and probably nobody on this bridge. So let’s start making babies.’ That’s a realistic thing that they would really do, and they are nowhere near that. The Tom and B’Elanna thing, when we were breaking Barge of the Dead, I just remember having these arguments. This should have big impact on their relationship. Her thing with Klingons, her mother, and her spirituality, how does that reflect to them? It was, ‘Yeah, it’s a relationship, but we don’t want to do a show about the relationship. It’s not that interesting, and it doesn’t really matter anyway.’ If the character is in a relationship, if it actually matters to B’Elanna, and it actually matters to Tom, then something like this that happens to her is going to have an impact on the relationship. It’s going to get worked out in the context of that relationship. But Star Trek: Voyager is afraid of any of the characters getting hooked, on any kind of real, steady, permanent basis. ‘No, no, no. No relationships between the characters. We don’t like it. It didn’t work with Kes and Neelix. And the Tom and B’Elanna thing it’s–well, we don’t really care.’ It’s a weird attitude.”

This is a very fair point, and reflects a lot of Moore’s issue with Voyager. He had raised similar points in his objections to the scripting of Equinox, Part II. The writers on Voyager had relatively little interest in exploring or developing the romance between Torres and Paris. It is revealing that most of their character development – their marriage in Drive and their child in Lineage – comes once the series is in spitting distance of the finish line.

Relight my fire.

It is clear that Barge of the Dead could never have been the story that Moore wanted it to be. The finished episode acknowledges the relationship between between Torres and Paris, but as a secondary concern. It seems like Torres has a much more considered discussion with Janeway about her plans to relive her own death in order to engage with her mother. Paris is there in Sickbay during the procedure itself, but alongside Janeway and the EMH. There is nothing here as unique to their relationship as Change of Heart was to the dynamic between Worf and Dax.

Instead, Barge of the Dead feels like a somewhat generic Torres story, a variation on the single story that Voyager has been telling about the character for half-a-decade at this point. As with episodes like Parallax, Extreme Risk and Juggernaut, Torres is a fundamentally angry character and needs to make peace with that anger. As with Faces and Day of Honour, Torres also needs to make peace with her Klingon identity. These are all familiar character beats for Torres. In fact, Torres will even revisit her strained relationship with her heritage in Prophecy and Lineage.

The Lanna of the Dead.

To be fair to Barge of the Dead, the episode is at least more overt and direct in tackling this theme than some of the earlier stories. It feels very much like an exhausted escalation, as if Voyager is somewhat tired of having to repeatedly broach these familiar character beats time and time again. Towards the end of the episode, Torres imagines herself in a version of hell that looks very similar to Voyager. She responds, “I don’t consider Voyager hell.” 

demon!Neelix counters, “Are you sure? Have you ever been truly happy here? If you thought fifty years aboard this ship would be difficult, try eternity.” There is a self-aware element to this, as if the episode suggests that hell is an eternity of spending time learning the same lessons over and over again, but failing to properly internalise them and so living through some variation of the same story for all of time. The audience has seen Torres wrestle with her demons repeatedly over the run of Voyager, only to repeat that struggle a season or so later.

To be fair, fifty years of Neelix’s cooking probably feels like an eternity in hell.

Despite how familiar these beats might be, there is still a surprising emotional power to the climax of the episode, which finds Torres standing on the deck of the eponymous ship waving a bat’leth at the shapes of her friends and colleagues. It is an abstract representation of Torres’ central character conflict, her anger and her need to lash out at the people who love her. It is an evocative and effective image. “Defend yourself,” ghost!Paris urges. Torres replies, “I don’t know how. I’m so tired of fighting.” ghost!Janeway acknowledges, “We know.”

It is hard to describe this emotional climax as “earned”, given that the audience knows that this is just another iteration of a tired character arc, that Torres has been through all of this before and will be through it once again. However, it surprisingly effective. A lot of this is down to director Mike Vejar and actor Roxanne Dawson, who really sell the sense of delirious fatigue that lends the narrative its weight. So much of Barge of the Dead seems to unfold in a twilight between life and death, between awake and asleep. It feels like Torres and the show are both worn out.

“You’re not leaving that easily.”

Rather than focusing on the existing relationship between Torres and Paris, Barge of the Dead instead shifts its emphasis to the dynamic between Torres and her mother. On the one hand, the tension between the two characters has been well-established to this point. Torres has talked about her mother in episodes like Eye of the Needle and Faces, and the dynamic in Barge of the Dead feels like a reasonable extrapolation of that. However, the relationship is also not an on-going concern for Voyager. Miral has never appeared before, and will never appear again.

Star Trek has a long history of drafting in characters related to the primary cast in an effort to create a short-cut to emotional catharsis. This can occasionally work. Benjamin Sisko’s relationship with his father was powerful, but it was explored across a number of episodes including Homefront, Paradise Lost, A Time to Stand, Far Beyond the Stars, Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols. There are stand-alone stories that focus on familial dynamics that have worked very well; Ronald D. Moore’s scripts for Family and Doctor Bashir, I Presume come to mind.

Cling on to Klingon history.

However, far too many Star Trek episodes introduce extended family members in a way that feels lazy and clumsy. Kirk’s brother dies off-screen in Operation — Annihilate!, with William Shatner making a mustachioed cameo as his corpse. Riker reconciles his father in The Icarus Factor. Worf has to deal with his adoptive brother in Homeward. Geordi mourns the loss of his mother in Interface. These stories all struggle to create a genuine sense of family dynamics between lead and guest characters. Barge of the Dead suffers from the same problem.

Part of this problem is structural. Like Survival Instinct, Barge of the Dead suffers from an interesting variant of the plotting issues that typical affect Voyager – a focus on hitting important “beats” and in story momentum, ahead of cohesion and development. Voyager will frequently burn through several plots over the course of a single episode, so eager to fill forty-five minutes that it jumps from premise to premise without a consistent throughline; Alter Ego, Worst Case Scenario, Waking Moments, Demon.

The mother of all problems.

Survival Instinct and Barge of the Dead have a slight variant on this formula. Neither Survival Instinct nor Barge of the Dead swap plots at certain points in the episode. There is nothing as jarring as the contrived twist that Kim is in love with a hologram that is in love with Tuvok but is really a voyeuristic alien in Alter Ego or the last-minute reveal that Seska has created a murderous holoprogramme in Worst Case Scenario. Both Survival Instinct and Barge of the Dead keep their central focus for most of their runtime. It is never ambiguous as to what they are “about.”

However, there is also a sense that both Survival Instinct and Barge of the Dead struggled to fill their runtimes, and so had to extend their plotting in a way that affects the pacing of the story being told. Survival Instinct features an extended flashback sequence that runs through the spine of the episode that feels like it delays the episode’s central moral dilemma and draws out a lot of the big reveals. However, the script is constructed in a sturdy manner, with the memory gap allowing Seven of Nine to learn what happened at the same time as the audience.

A good day to die. Twice.

Barge of the Dead moves in a straight line from its beginning to its end, but the emphasis feels slightly off. Torres descends into the underworld early in the episode, but she moves through a doppelganger version of Voyager before landing on the eponymous barge. The episode is almost half-over by the time that Torres discovers that Miral has been consigned to the barge, which means that the episode effectively starts over; Torres has to decide to go back, convince Janeway to let her, reconcile with her mother and make a bold sacrifice all in the second half of the story.

There is a clever and endearing symmetry in this. On her first trip, Torres begins on a duplicate version of Voyager before descending on to the barge. On her second trip, Torres immediately lands on the barge before descending on to the duplicate version of Voyager. The episode’s structural echo elevates it above other awkwardly constructed episodes like Coda, on the series’ previous meditations on the gap between life and death. However, it still means that Barge of the Dead waits until almost the half-way point to get to the heart of the story that it is telling.

The Klingon underworld.

While Barge of the Dead began as a Ronald D. Moore story, the writer would leave Voyager early in its development. Bryan Fuller would find himself assigned to develop the episode and bring it to screen. While Barge of the Dead feels too clumsy and generic in its character beats and too broad in its emotional storytelling to be a Ronald D. Moore script, the episode does feel very much of a piece with Bryan Fuller’s own fascinations. Both the core themes of the story and the manner in which the story approaches these themes reflect Fuller’s interests.

Bryan Fuller is a writer very interested in the idea of death, and in exploring the relationship that exists between the living and the dead. This is obvious looking at his work outside of Star Trek: Pushing Daisies, Hannibal and American Gods. It is also very obvious looking at Fuller’s work within the franchise. Fuller was responsible for writing Mortal Coil, the episode in which Neelix was forced to confront the idea that there might be no afterlife and that his existence meant nothing.

To sea beyond the mortal veil.

More than that, death haunts Fuller’s recurring fascination with horror storytelling, as demonstrated in episodes like The Darkness and the LightEmpok Nor and The Raven. When Fuller found himself tasked with reviving the Star Trek franchise for the twenty-first century, the writer returned to this fascination. In The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary StarsStar Trek: Discovery consciously and overtly rewrites Klingon culture to make it fixated upon ideas of death and resurrection in sharp contrast to what came before.

In this respect, Barge of the Dead might be seen as something that foreshadows the larger future of the Star Trek franchise. It marks the passing of the torch from Ronald D. Moore to Bryan Fuller as the standard-bearer for what Star Trek will be. It also might be seen to represent an early point of transition. Moore had largely finished his writing of the Klingon Empire in When It Rains… and Tacking Into the Wind at the end of Deep Space Nine. As such, Fuller’s emphasis on morbid death-driven Klingon spirituality is a sign of things to come.

Wake up call.

Talking with Cinefantastique, Fuller explained that he actually toned down his exploration of Klingon beliefs and rituals:

“The first draft of Barge of the Dead had much more Klingon mythology than the final draft. I think it would have been, for the layperson, a little overwhelming to try to catch up. We really tried to simplify it. Coming up with all that stuff was a treat, and working with Ron Moore on that was a lot of fun.”

This makes a certain amount of sense, given that Voyager had never been a show particularly invested in continuity. The series was wary about alienating casual fans by being overly elaborate in its world-building.

A sharp retort.

At the same time, there is a lot of care and craft within Barge of the Dead. The episode feels very thought-out in how it approaches Klingon ritual and tradition, even if not everything is clearly articulated and explained for the audience at home. Barge of the Dead suggests how the logic of this afterlife might work, but it never has an extended exposition-driven sequence in which Torres goes into incredible detail about the complicated and varying details of this particular space between life and death.

As with the best Star Trek world-building, the dialogue and the details are evocative. The early hallucinations of Voyager are explained as “the naj, the dream before dying.” The boat is driven by Hortar, the first Klingon who is being punished for having “destroyed the gods who created him.” When a panicking warrior jumps overboard to be consumed by beasts, one observer explains, “There are things here worse than death.” When Torres arrives, the crew try to brand her with an iron. “She won’t take the mark,” they observe. Hortar explains, “It is not your time.”

A bloody disaster.

None of this is over-explained. It all (mostly) fits with what the early shows have established about the Klingon afterlife. The audience understands the basic dynamics at play, and the script trusts them to fill in the narrative spaces. A lot of this is communicated through unspoken comparisons to familiar human myths: the mysterious “Kos’Karii” evoke the ancient sirens, trying to lure sailors to their death with the sound of familiar voices; the barge itself evokes the myth of the river Styx; the gates of Grethor recall hell itself.

Barge of the Dead is wonderfully ambiguous about what exactly is unfolding, about whether the experience that Torres is enduring can be described as “real” or otherwise. When Torres returns from the dead convinced that she must save her mother, Paris quite correctly responds, “You can’t even be sure your mother is dead.” In some ways, this is just an extension of Voyager‘s recurring fascination with the very idea of reality; the series would frequently blurring the lines between reality and fantasy in episodes like Projections, One and Bride of Chaotica!

Not going overboard on the detail.

However, Barge of the Dead does mark something of a small departure from the way that Voyager traditionally approaches religion and spirituality. Voyager is quite traditional in its Star Trek stylings, favouring rational and objectively verifiable conclusions over spiritual ambiguity. With only a tiny bit of ambiguity, Emanations featured an alien culture that dumps its dead body on another world – if not another universe or galaxy. Tattoo revealed that Chakotay’s ancestors worshiped sufficiently advanced aliens. Mortal Coil suggested that there is no afterlife.

In contrast, Barge of the Dead adopts a more subjective approach to religious belief, in line with the perspective of Deep Space Nine. In episodes like Emissary and In the Hands of the Prophets, the series suggested that that the question of whether the non-linear entities living in the wormhole were “Prophets” or “Wormhole Aliens” had to be answered by each individual person. There was no clear-cut correct answer to that question, no short-cut to absolute and unquestioned wisdom. (Voyager did toy with this approach in Sacred Ground, something of an outlier.)

Torres is so exhausted that she’s really crashing.

Barge of the Dead embraces ambiguity. The episode repeatedly suggests that it is pointless to argue over whether Torres’ experience is objectively or verifiably “real”, it only matters whether the experience is real to her. She warns Kortar, “I may have believed in you as a child, but not anymore.” Kortar simply responds, “If you didn’t still believe, you wouldn’t be here.” There is a strong recurring theme running through Barge of the Dead that Torres is not so much trying to save her mother as to reconcile with the part of herself represented by her mother.

There is something surprisingly affecting in seeing Torres articulate the unspoken aspects of her back story. Divorce is relatively uncommon in the larger Star Trek franchise. In Amok Time, T’Pring likens the ritual combat of kal-if-fee to divorce, which would suggest that Spock is technically divorced; however, such an analogy seems imperfect given the limited interactions between Spock and T’Pring. Quark got married and divorced to Grilka in House of Quark, although it should be noted that Quark boasted that there was no divorce on Ferenginar in Fascination.

Meditations upon life and death.

However, these are all very episodic television interpretations of divorce, to the point that none of these divorces has any long-time or decided impact on any of the characters involved; they serve as a convenient way to resolve a plot of the week that involves marriage. Leonard McCoy is perhaps the only series regular to be divorced in a conventional sense, in that his divorce defines a large part of his character and history, and even that was not explicitly mentioned on-screen until JJ Abrams’ reboot of Star Trek.

(Divorces and separations seem more common in alternate or parallel timelines. In Yesteryear, the marriage between Sarek and Amanda breaks down after Spock dies in his youth; restoring the timeline restores the marriage. In The Visitor, Jake Sisko’s obsession with reuniting with his father ends up pushing his wife away, the restoration of one family predicated on the dissolution of another in an ironic twist; however, the climax of the episode means that Jake never got married in the first place. In All Good Things…, Picard and Crusher are divorced in a possible future.)

Talk about having to take a long trip to visit your parents.

During the eighties and into the nineties, popular culture struggled to reconcile with the realities of divorce. The first children of no-fault divorces in the sixties and seventies were coming of age. The divorce rate had skyrocketed into the last two decades of the twentieth century. Journalists documented the trials of navigating complicated modern family units. Pop culture tried in its own way, as Dawn Bradley Berry noted in The Divorce Sourcebook:

A few television programs, such as One Day at a Time — about a divorced mother and her two daughters — depicted the trials and triumphs of such families, and, most important, showed them as normal, healthy families, not “broken,” not desperate, not failures. Films such as Kramer vs. Kramer and The War of the Roses became more common throughout the eighties, showing the damage that can be done when divorce or child custody turns into war. In the nineties, abundant stories of the positive and negative aspects of divorce and single parenthood abound on television, in popular series like Grace Under Fire, in movies like Mrs. Doubtfire, and in books like Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale.

It was very hard to watch popular television shows and feature films without brushing against the spectre of divorce. On The X-Files, Fox Mulder was the product of a divorced family. On Friends, Ross Gellar’s marriages and divorces became a recurring joke; he had even been introduced as a divorced father-to-be, whose ex-wife had come out as a lesbian.

An extended wake.

However, Star Trek tended to gloss behind the curve on this point, perhaps reflecting the same conservatism that prevented the series from exploring issues of homosexuality or transgenderism. Perhaps there was an assumption that divorce rates would be significantly lower in a utopian future, reflected in the fact that divorces and separations were a lot more common for major characters in alternate or “bad” timelines. If so, the Star Trek franchise seemed very out of touch; divorce is sad, but inevitable. It is important to accept that two people are not always compatible.

As such, it is refreshing to see Torres tackle her parents’ divorce head-on, to confront her mother about what it felt like to grow up distant from her father as a result of that separation. “You drove me away,” Torres reflects. “The same way you drove away my father.” Miral counters, “He abandoned us.” Torres replies, “You pushed him to the point where he couldn’t bear to be around anything Klingon, including me.” It is a surprisingly candid and affecting exchange, something that feels like it gets to the root of Torres’ resentment of her Klingon heritage.

Dreams before dying.

There is something very familiar and relatable in that resentment, even delivered on a boat navigating the afterlife. It feels a lot more human than a lot of the character interactions on Voyager. Indeed, it is interesting that Moore originally wanted to use Barge of the Dead to explore the dynamic between Torres and Paris. Torres confronting her feelings about her mother and father’s divorce would arguably be a strong hook into that story, worthy of the of the kind of character-driven storytelling generally seen on Deep Space Nine.

Indeed, Barge of the Dead feels like an episode of Deep Space Nine in other ways. As with Survival Instinct, the episode touches upon the sort of cultural clash that is inevitable when members of different societies come into contact with one another and need to work in close proximity. Torres tries to convince Janeway to allow her the freedom to pursue her spirituality. “B’Elanna, I’m not going to let you turn this into a debate about freedom of worship,” Janeway firmly insists. Torres responds, “But that’s what it is.”

A good steer.

This recalls the sorts of cultural clashes that Deep Space Nine embraced and Voyager largely ignored. On Deep Space Nine, Sisko repeatedly found himself trying to navigate a healthy respect for alien customs with the greater demands of a functioning civic society; restricting Quark’s right to sexually harass his staff in Captive Pursuit and refusing to allow Worf to participate in a ritual murder in Sons of Mogh. In contrast, Voyager never really explored what might happen if the values of its individual subcultures truly clashed. Barge of the Dead plays with the idea.

Barge of the Dead also feels very much like a Bryan Fuller episode in other respects. There is a very abstract and surreal style to the storytelling, one couched in the narrative language of horror films. Fuller’s oeuvre is filled with references to horror stories; his early pitches of The Darkness and the Light and Empok Nor, his Mockingbird Lane pilot, his Hannibal revival, his attachment to Friday the 13th. Fuller is a writer very much engaged with hallucinations and psychological horror, and Barge of the Dead is the perfect vehicle for that.

“Set a course for home!”

The teaser ends with a piece of metal screaming and bleeding, like a religious artifact or a cursed relic; it feels like something from the same gothic horror films that might have inspired the riff on The Phantom of the Opera in Juggernaut. The mounting dread in these early scenes is impressive and uncomfortable, as Torres is repeatedly confronted with smaller details that quickly add up. Barge of the Dead‘s unsettling sequences on Voyager, with familiar characters taunting a lead trapped inside a nightmare, evoke Neelix’s hallucinations in Mortal Coil.

Barge of the Dead articulates a recurring theme that bubbles through the sixth season of Voyager. Death and decay permeating the show’s penultimate year, perhaps best evoked in this trip to the Klingon afterlife. Voyager has always had a very strong connection to death, as demonstrated by repeatedly blowing up the ship in episodes like DeadlockYear of Hell, Part IITimelessRelativity and Course: Oblivion. However, there is something even more abstract and more general in the manner in which the sixth season meditates upon the idea of death.

Neelix’s belief that pasta sauce made everything better was being put sorely to the test.

The sixth season of Voyager is haunted by ghosts and zombies, by horrific resurrections and the spectre of death; the death sentence that comes with freedom in Survival Instinct, the resurrected alien threat in Dragon’s Teeth, the monument broadcasting death in Memorial, the dead Borg ship in Collective, Lyndsay Ballard’s resurrection in Ashes to Ashes, Kes’ return in Fury, the eponymous mystery in The Haunting of Deck Twelve and even the closing image of the season with Janeway, Torres and Tuvok zombified Borg drones in Unimatrix Zero, Part I.

Perhaps this fixation upon death reflects a festering anxiety about the future of the Star Trek franchise, a reflection of the same doubts that the fifth season seemed to weigh upon in episodes like Night. After all, there was blood in the water. For the first time in a very long time, the Star Trek franchise was vulnerable. With Deep Space Nine retired and no other series commissioned to fill the gap, Voyager stood alone against the rest of the world. There was a sense of fatigue creeping in around the edges, a worry that Star Trek was a dead franchise walking.

Mugging for the camera.

This perhaps explains the death imagery that lingers across this stretch of twenty-six episodes, in which Voyager seems to contemplate what death might mean. Barge of the Dead is just the most overt example among various other that simmer across the sixth season as a whole. There is a sense that the production team working on Voyager understand that the end is near, that the Star Trek franchise is closer to the end of this stage of the journey than they are to the beginning.

It is no coincidence that Barge of the Dead suggests that the eponymous supernatural ferry might find itself reflected in the title starship, that Torres’ journey on the Barge of the Dead might blend so smoothly into her time on Voyager.

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15 Responses

  1. Can we take a moment to appreciate Chakotay’s line: “It’s what my ancestors called a monkey wrench.”? It does such a perfect job of puncturing Piller’s strange ‘Noble Savage’ dialogue from the first two seasons.

    I mean, at times Piller tried to send-up the old ‘Noble Savage’ stereotypes, but examples of that – like the conversation with Tuvok about his bow in ‘Basics’ – were handled so clumsily. This episode offered a glimpse of much less wooden Chakotay. Comparing it to how Robert Beltran behaves in the blooper reels it seems much better tailored to the actor as well.

    • There is a wonderful moment in “One Small Step” where Seven wonders if Voyager can operate with a first officer, and Beltran ruefully says, “They’ll manage.”

      The absence of vision quest episodes is a welcome reprieve, but it was Chakotay’s last stab at legitimacy. He doesn’t challenge any of Janeway’s decisions anymore; He’s just there to hold up the sets.

    • Yep. Beltran was never the strongest performer in the franchise, but he could do deadpan quite well. Some of the best Chakotay episodes are those that treat him as the bumbling everyman who wanders into these strange science-fiction plots, kinda like the show tried to do with Paris, but it didn’t work as well. (I’m thinking of Nemesis and even Shattered here as Chakotay episodes, or his supporting turn in Timeless.)

  2. Heh…this is the only VOY episode that I’ve seen at least 5 times, courtesy of a “Star Trek: Klingons” dvd I got a decade ago and then re-watched frequently when living abroad. I really liked the mythological aspects of the episode and the way that Voyager’s futuristic setting and the dreamscape merge together strangely.

    Incidentally, there’s a great homage to the episode in Star Trek Online’s Klingon storyline, where the ancient slaver aliens that attacked the Klingons returns, and your character participates in the ritual to enter the realm of the dead to learn from the dead about the way to defeat them.

    • It’s nice. I would have loved to see a more abstract and metaphorical version of Voyager, a show more willing to take chances and to embrace weird abstract imagery.

  3. Ron is a quick study; he knows stories in the alpha quadrant are catnip to VOY writers.

    Ever notice how these Klingon-themed VOY episodes always come across as a fan convention? You’ve got the doctor singing a hymn with gusto (and his heavy-lidded girlfriend playing along), Neelix doing his cruise director bit, replicated zombie gagh. One of the cheesiest-and-yet-endearing aspects to Voyager is Neelix’s fetish for TOS cultures.

    The scene in “Grethor” is hilarious, both because of the Doctor/Neelix, and because it likens Voyager to a “Barge of the Dead” full of people just going through the motions.

    The vision quest is well-trodden, but at least it’s grounded in the show’s mythology and gives Torres something new to do. Apart from this, (as usual) we gain no new insight into the characters. Neelix is a fanboy, Torres is having an identity crisis, Janeway is motherly. Their typical characters roles are there and have been immortalized.

    • Well, I mean Voyager isn’t just the barge of the dead.

      Voyager is hell.

      And based on various behind-the-scenes anecdotes, I can believe that.

      • “Voyager is hell” I don’t know about that Darren, so many of these damn Star Trek prequels keep overwriting the history of Star Trek to the point I don’t even know who Star Trek is for anymore, it certainly isn’t the fans. I just binged watched AMC’s The Terror about Franklin’s doomed expedition into uncharted territory and that frankly felt more Star Trek to me than anything I’ve seen in a long long time. Voyager was part of the Sci Fi golden age and at the very least, you could enjoy explorers being explorers. I’m tired of hearing how sci-fi has to be made the way is is now to maximize profits. Capitalism writes some god-awful movies. This is hell.

      • Okay. Let’s hash this out.

        Voyager is the worst Star Trek. Well, Voyager and the first two seasons of Enterprise. It is just as much a product of capitalism as the Abrams films or Discovery, having been designed to launch and sustain a fourth television network. As such it was constrained by capitalism from the start. Downplay the conflict in the premise, keep the stories self-contained, bring in as many of the familiar Star Trek elements as possible. Ironically, that network subsequently lost interest and the need to satisfy “the market” started imposing more ridiculous constraints on it; a sexy lady in a skintight cat suit, a crossover with WWF. While the production team might claim these were their own ideas, they certainly demonstrate that Voyager was never its own entity, but instead something desperate and pandering.

        Voyager is toxic Star Trek, on a conceptual and literal level. You’re right that there is an issue with all of the Star Trek shows following Voyager being prequels. That is a problem. And the studio vetoing Fuller’s ideas for an anthology series are part of that. But Voyager very consciously paved the way, with trips back to the near present in episodes like Future’s End, Part I, Future’s End, Part II and 11:59, not to mention the fixation on early Star Trek history in episodes like One Small Step and Friendship One. Hell, the final seasons inexplicably become nostalgic for Voyager itself, demonstrated by episodes like Relativity, Fury and Shattered.

        But at least those prequels are building towards something, pushing forward relative to their starting position. The third and fourth seasons of Enterprise were about the question of how you reclaim the future of Star Trek during the War on Terror, literally building towards the idea of the Federation by presenting it as a subversive and radical concept rather than a given. Into Darkness also touched on that, expressing a fear that the Starfleet had lost its way, Starfleet being a metaphor for the United States. Discovery is about trying to build towards a better future that we once knew existed, but can now only imagine. Sure, these versions of Star Trek don’t always succeed at articulating that, but it is built into their DNA.

        What is Voyager about on a fundamental level? You mention “explorers being explorers”, but it’s not really about that. It’s about a bunch of people who find themselves beyond what is known and who immediately retreat back to the comfort and familiarity of home. It is about nostalgia. Not nostalgia as a starting point from which you might push outwards or explore, but nostalgia as an aspiration and a destination. It’s telling that the Delta Quadrant is populated by savage and monstrous aliens trying desperately to steal from and exploit our heroes; the Vidiians harvesting their organs, the Kazon stealing their tech, the Hirogen putting them into slavery, the aliens from Displaced as a bunch of invasive immigrants, the refugees from Day of Honour revealed as treacherous schemers. Voyager isn’t about exploration, it’s about retreat. Naturally, this carries over to the first two years of Enterprise, where it’s amplified by the paranoia of 9/11.

        “Wouldn’t space be better if we all just left one another alone?” ask Voyager and the first two years of Enterprise. That’s not what I want from my Star Trek. It’s okay to say that space is big and scary, as much of the original series did, as Enterprise and Discovery do. But then you argue that it’s worth going out there anyway. Voyager and Enterprise are Star Trek shows that seem to suggest that it’s better to stay at home. It’s reactionary and borderline xenophobic.

        If anything, the Abrams movies and Discovery tone down the worst impulses of Voyager. They’re undoubtedly still there, and that’s bad. But they’re nowhere near as prevalent. Say what you will about the exoticism of the Klingons in the Abrams movies or in Discovery, but Voyager spent two years arguing that releasing the Kazon from slavery was a bad idea and comparing them to Los Angeles gang members. Similarly, complain about the couple of gratuitous sexy scenes in the Abrams movies, but don’t forget that Jeri Ryan was put in a costume so tight that they kept a nurse on set with early versions of it in case she felt faint.

        This is to say nothing of the show’s weird retrograde fifties nostalgia. I’d argue that Voyager is more of a prequel to the original series than Enterprise, the Abrams movies or Discovery, in aesthetics rather than continuity. Voyager‘s frame of reference is very much the fifties, a conscious step back from the sixties. Body-stealing aliens, Potemkin villages, the recurring fixation on the atomic bomb, the creature feature aesthetic, Chaotica. Hell Caretaker establishes Voyager as the franchise’s answer to John Ford’s westerns; Chakotay as the loyal Native American sidekick and the Kazon as the savage inhabitants of an untamed frontier.

        With regards to being party of science-fiction’s “golden age”, I tend to agree with whoever argued that the “golden age” for science-fiction is “twelve.” We all have a fondness for the science-fiction of our youth. I’d say Voyager might even overlap with my own golden age, running alongside the peak seasons of The X-Files, Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine. But, even then, it was part of the filler rather than the content. It was more like Earth-2 or V.R. 5 or Strange Luck. It was appreciably weaker than Stargate SG-1, which could at least be counted upon to churn out consistent characterisation with fairly generic episodic storytelling.

        Do I think that any science-fiction on television today measures up to The X-Files or Deep Space Nine at their best? Maybe, but not consistently. But on the other hand, there’s a much great abundance of science-fiction that is better than Voyager or Earth-2 or V.R. 5 or Strange Luck. Modern science-fiction (over the past decade or so) looks like Interstellar, Battlestar Galactica, Lost, The Prestige, Black Mirror, Westworld, Phillip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, The Expanse, The Discovery, Altered Carbon, Arrival, Annihilation, Blade Runner 2049, Discovery, The Good Place, The Leftovers, Ex Machina, Doctor Who, Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, Twin Peaks, Legion. You even mention The Terror, which I’m really looking forward to digging into when I get a chance.

        I mean, Discovery is a very minor part of that cosmology, and you can argue whether the peaks of this era of science-fiction peaks reach the heights of The X-Files or Deep Space Nine, but it would seem to be nostalgia to insist that the nineties were a golden age of science-fiction in comparison and that Voyager can hold a candle to any of those series or movies. And there’s a good mix in there too. In terms of storytelling, you’ve got serialised stories and larger anthologies. You’ve got sugary charm and grim realism. You’ve got stories in the distant future and closer to the modern world. You’ve got hard science-fiction, idea-driven science-fiction, and even drama and fantasy lightly flavoured with science-fiction tropes. You’ve got fantastic allegory with potent subtext, and more subtle explorations of how technology is affecting how we perceive reality. But you’ve got big ideas finding a broad audience, and a rejection of formula.

        Are the last two seasons of Enterprise, the Abrams movies, and Discovery flawed? Yes. Are those flaws deep? In places, yes. Can they compete with the best of The Next Generation or most of Deep Space Nine? Nope.

        But, crucially, are they as soulless, vacuous, xenophobic and reactionary as Voyager and the first two seasons of Enterprise? No.

        And, I mean, there are really good episodes of Voyager. It’s not fair to dismiss the whole thing out of hand. And I don’t think that this project could be said to be doing that. I’m giving each and every episode fair consideration. I like some of it, and I find it deeply interesting even when it doesn’t work.

      • @Darren I agree that Voyager is an exercise in frustration at the lost potential, a nice steak stuffed into a grinder and turned into a hamburger. It’s a nice hamburger, but we can’t stop thinking of what that steak could have been like. But all 3 prequel movies and STD feel remarkably like cannibalism. Star Trek is eating itself at this point to provide the meat.

        Voyager drawing on the 50’s era Sci-Fi at least feels like it’s drawing from a well of interesting ideas. It wasn’t Capitalism that was driving these ideas, it was Bragga. Yes, there were some eye rolling episodes for sweeps, but never whole seasons dedicated to maximizing viewership. In order to maximize profits, the prequel movies had to be about explosions, about battles, and war. Until DS9, war and the fate of Earth wasn’t really a major part of Star Trek, that was all in the background. But in order to sell tickets to the Star Wars crowd: Nero attacks the Federation. Khan attacks the Federation. Krall wants to attack the Federation. STD: Klingons attack the Federation. At the very least the premise of Voyager prevented such trite plots by removing Earth and the Federation.

        I can respect noglistgia, I mean, I LOVE the Indiana Jones trilogy, and those also harken back to the pulp 50’s serials of old. But what’s going on with Star Trek is something else entirely. It speaks to me of a showrunners too frightening to do something original. The Discovery ends on the Enterprise, I mean jeez. Of all the shows in Star Trek, only Voyager had the discipline to not bring in a constitution class ship. And what, are also going to get a third casted Spock now after only 2 years? Even the premise of the Discovery is reusing the premise of Equinox from Voyager.
        This isn’t inspiration, this is desperation, it’s the final resource: Cannibalism. They can’t escape NCC-1701, they have to gnaw on its bones now.

        STD has had it’s war plot, which wasn’t really Star Trek, but now what? Explore space that has already been explored in TNG? Even if the show is less soulless, vacuous, xenophobic then the shows before it, what can they even do with their premise? The Orville is as much a drive toward nogistia as Voyager was, and Star Trek some fans are flocking to it over Discovery.

        Oh and the Terror is excellent, the anti-Voyager. They all want to return home too, but their pleasure cruise won’t last forever. And we know from history that none of them will ever make it back. It’s a season long Course: Oblivion!

      • It absolutely was capitalism driving Voyager, even more than capitalism obviously drove the other Star Trek series. (Roddenberry famously invented the IDIC so he could sell replicas.) By virtue of being on UPN, Voayger was bound to the network’s demands and constraints. Whether or not the writing staff claim they made those decisions on their own terms or not, it’s impossible not to see Seven of Nine and episodes like Tsunkatse as things that were an inevitable result of being on UPN. And say what you will about the Abrams movies, they are certainly less cynical than that.

        (If anything, they’re just a better example of what Braga was trying to do with Voyager, big blockbuster special-effects-driven storytelling with epic stakes.)

        And Voyager’s nostalgia is just as awkward as that which followed. It becomes another triptych show. The captain, the doctor, the science-versus-emotion character. Its plots are recycled and rehashed, and it very rarely (maybe once or twice in a given season) has anything particularly meaningful or insightful to say.

        Is there nostalgia in the Abrams movies? Sure, but it’s honest about it, and it is clearly aiming to be big crowd-pleasing blockbuster Star Trek. (Which the late Berman movies and Voyager/Enterprise clearly aspired to be.)

        Is there nostalgia in Discovery? Yep, far too much at times. But it’s still doing much more interesting things with it than Voyager did, and is arguably less a slave to it than Voyager.

        I’ve made the argument before that Voyager is the only Star Trek show about which you could make a “this is Star Trek!” argument out of the gate, with nobody objecting too strongly or insisting that it wasn’t really Star Trek as they did about The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine or Discovery. That is because, unlike The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine or (yes) Discovery, Voyager never challenged what Star Trek could be.

        What “this isn’t Star Trek!” really means is “this isn’t anything that Star Trek has done before!” Given the franchise motto is “where no one has gone before”, I’d argue that any new Star Trek isn’t doing its job if a large portion of fandom isn’t shouting “this isn’t Star Trek!”

  4. “What “this isn’t Star Trek!” really means is “this isn’t anything that Star Trek has done before!” Given the franchise motto is “where no one has gone before”, I’d argue that any new Star Trek isn’t doing its job if a large portion of fandom isn’t shouting “this isn’t Star Trek!””

    And yet new Star Trek is going where they have already been before. We’ve already seen the a big Klingon War with DS9, we’ve seen the original Enterprise before, we’ve seen the Mirror Universe before. Hence my cannibalism metaphor. It’s not nogistiga that’s driving this either, otherwise they wouldn’t have tampered with the Klingon makeup. Now I may be ignorant of the opinions about TNG, but I’ve never really heard it being said that it wasn’t really “Star Trek”. It may have rehashed TOS to horrific effect in Season 1 but TNG never seemed to challenge what Star Trek could be. It just was. I do think DS9 does suffer for not being like Star Trek enough. I cannot dispute that the writing was excellent and it made sense to push the format since they were a competing spin off, but I do find myself having a harder time watching DS9 because of the format. Babylon 5 has many similar ideas and pursues them to greater effect (even if the sfx makes my eyes bleed).

    When Spock utter the words “where no one has gone before” in Wrath of Khan, I feel like that epitomized the Franchise, but DS9 failed those words. DS9 is what it is, it couldn’t be a TNG clone anyway because of Voyager so I can’t criticize too harshly. Since Enterprise, it’s been a retread of “where we’ve been before”. I’ll admit, even Enterprise managed to push forward a little with the Xindi arc, but the Abrams movies failed the words “where no one has gone before” in every way. We’ve seen so many franchises copy Star Wars. Remember when James Bond was duking it out with lasers on Drax’s space station? Was this boldly going where no one has gone before? Was this challenging the notion of what James Bond was? Yes. Was that a good thing though? Moonraker made loads of money but the franchise had to desperately reboot itself away from the Dr. Evil plots with The Living Daylights, Goldfinger and finally Casino Royale.

    Discovery is still on going so we can see what it can do, but with the anthology idea being shot down, I’m not sure what else the show can do other than relive Star Trek’s greatest hits. But consider this, when James Bond ripped off Star Wars, the result was an alloy of two differing concepts. When Star Trek rips off Star Trek, it becomes a contradiction and it stops being Star Trek. They’re suppose to be trekking among the stars after all.

    • We haven’t seen a Star Trek where the lead character is not the commanding officer, we haven’t seen a Star Trek show without a focus on the senior staff, we haven’t seen a Star Trek show that adheres to the aesthetics of modern (twenty-first century) television, we haven’t had a Star Trek show with a black female lead, we haven’t had a Star Trek show with an explicitly gay main character. DS9 (and ENT) did a lot of work in this area, but we haven’t even had a Star Trek show with a fully serialised season. Saying that we’ve seen the mirror universe or a Klingon War before glosses over the fact that we’ve never seen a story told in this way. (Hamlet doesn’t make every story about royalty redundant, nor is The Godfather a bad film because earlier crime films exist.)

      All of this is new. Whether it’s what you want to see or not, or it fits with your predetermined vision of what Star Trek is, that’s up to you. But Discovery is appreciably different from any Star Trek that came before. You wouldn’t be seeing this level of venom towards it if it weren’t different from what came before.

      And there was a very vocal contingent of fans that spent at least the first three years of TNG insisting that it wasn’t really Star Trek. Why is that stuff British guy captain? Where’s the Vulcan? How come they spend so much time sitting around the table and talking? It wasn’t so bad because the internet was still young, but the production team have discussed it at length. Especially Ira Steven Behr. Eventually those things became normalised. In fact, there’s a certain contingent of Star Trek fans who act as if TNG is the core of the franchise and the yardstick by which the franchise is measured.

      (And that’s fair, it is for some people, myself included. But that doesn’t mean that TOS has to be either (a.) similar to TNG or (b.) not Star Trek by comparison. You see a lot of people retroactively rewriting TOS based on TNG, which is fair to neither of them.)

      The only Star Trek show that actually looked like Star Trek when it premiered was Voyager. And that pretty much killed the franchise, even if it lurched on through Enterprise. Stillness is death. Change is good. Not every change will be correct or perfect of itself, but change moves us forward.

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