Let’s talk about Star Trek: Voyager. I wrote some of my dissertation on Voyager, and I still maintain that it is one of the most progressive series of all time, and certainly one of the most progressive Star Trek series.
We are all aware of how ground breaking and ceiling shattering the original Star Trek is. I could go into great detail about just how ahead of it’s time the original series was by American, Japanese and Russian crew members all sharing equal responsibilities at the helm of the ship, in a series that aired in the 1960s. Or introducing one of the first black women to have an onscreen role as a qualified scientist and communications expert, not as a maid or servant. Or how forward looking Gene Roddenberry was to try and envision a world of global peace despite creating the series during the Cold War – an era of fear and global distrust. Yeah, we could go into that, but that’s not why we are here today.
We are here to celebrate one of the greatest characters on Star Trek: Voyager – B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson). Originally a part of Chakotay’s crew, B’Elanna and the rest of the Maquis reluctantly join Janeway’s crew on Voyager in the first episode, as they are stranded in the Delta quadrant. Lightyears from home (no exaggeration, they are roughly 75 years from Earth), the two crews are forced together – despite the fact that Voyager’s original mission was to apprehend the Maquis and bring them home. The two opposing sides have to join together in order to navigate their way back, through a quadrant so far uncharted by Starfleet.
So it’s a rocky start. B’Elanna is the Maquis ship engineer and would quite like it to stay that way. She’s slightly hot headed, has a quick temper but she is incredibly good at her job. Typically, in sci-fi or otherwise, engineer’s have always been a male fronted profession. So it’s a very welcome surprise when Janeway selects B’Elanna to be the ship’s Chief Engineer, placing the (male) Starfleet engineer as her second in command. This is a bold move. Women are rarely given “important” jobs or roles in science fiction, at least not until fairly recently. It’s regularly argued that Voyager actually paved the way for women to be involved in sci-fi in a much more prominent way, and the case of both Captain Janeway and B’Elanna, that is certainly true.
B’Elanna securing the role of Chief of Engineering sees her overcome the odds because of two things. Firstly, that she is female and secondly, that she is part Klingon. The Klingons, traditionally enemies of StarFleet, have reconciled with the human race by the time Voyager is set and so it is not ‘out and out’ racism directed at B’Elanna. She is, however, subjected to stereotypes that other crew members point out about the Klingon race. There is still stigma attached to being Klingon, and B’Elanna probably feels this prejudice worse because she is also a woman. Klingon’s exhibit traditionally masculine characteristics – you know, aggressive, intelligent, enjoy a good fight, that sort of thing. Though Voyager tries its damn hardest to come across as ‘post-gender’ (Captain Janeway’s refusal to be called “Sir” or “mam”, simply “Captain”), the show is still making a very critical point by giving the Chief of Engineering role to B’Elanna over her competitor: a white man. B’Elanna’s background means that she is at a unique intersection. She is a biracial feminine character and talented scientist, leader and engineer, who is logical, rational and highly intelligent. However, her Klingon side is far more irrational, aggressive and ‘masculine. B’Elanna, quite literally, has two separate sides inhabiting her body – as explored in the season 1 episode ‘Faces’ (which we’ll discuss in a minute).
From the start, we understand that B’Elanna is probably going to go through some identity struggles throughout the show – possibly amplified by the fact that she is a woman too. Typically, characters who are part-human and part-*insert alien species here* tend to have narratives where they explore what that really means to them, and how they navigate it. Spock, Worf and Seven of Nine, Data and the Doctor (the latter two being human programmed holograms/androids) all have in depth episodes exploring their identities.
B’Elanna is no different. In ‘Faces’, B’Elanna is physically separated into her two identities. An alien race, the Vidians, believe that they can cure a disease which ails their race by using Klingon DNA. They successfully kidnap and separate B’Elanna into two bodies – one of which is entirely human, the other of which is Klingon. Klingon B’Elanna has strength and courage, but is unruly and uncontrollable. Human B’Elanna is unconfident and scared, but is rational and patient. Though the two halves only meet towards the end, Human B’Elanna is convicted in her utter hatred for Klingon B’Elanna. She tells Tom Paris how she has spent her life trying to suppress her Klingon side, and we can see the whole episode as a physical manifestation of B’Elanna’s deep rooted identity issues. ‘Faces’ is probably the best episode in season 1 – and Dawson is fantastic as both the human and Klingon B’Elanna.
At the end of the episode, when B’Elanna is back to normal, she concludes to herself that, ‘I just have to accept the fact.. That I’ll spend the rest of my life fighting her’ (‘her’ being Klingon-B’Elanna). Throughout ‘Faces’, B’Elanna expresses a clear preference for her human side, but there is the small revelation that without her Klingon identity she would never have been able to escape the Vidians, or save her friends. We can see her ‘biraciality’ is overwhelmingly a good thing, but she has yet to learn that.
Though ‘Faces’ is probably the closest we get to dissecting B’Elanna’s identity, there are several other moments where we get glimpses into how complex she really is, and her relationships with other crew members – notably Captain Janeway.
In ‘Dreadnought’, a deadly machine that B’Elanna programmed herself before Voyager’s arrival in the quadrant, is set to destroy Voyager and millions of people on nearby planets. B’Elanna’s actions in programming the Dreadnought show how far she has come since her days on the Maquis crew ship, before joining Voyager. Despite her not being at fault, B’Elanna takes it upon herself to board the Dreadnought and attempt to stop the machine before it kills everyone. Her desire to save the Federation crew overrides the pride she has in re-programming the machine in the first place (a feat admired by most of the crew). As B’Elanna attempts to change the Dreadnought’s trajectory, her own pre-programmed security voice speaks to her – she essentially ends up arguing with her past self via the Dreadnought. The whole situation is allegorical of B’Elanna’s changes in identity; Klingon to human, Maquis to Federation.
Interestingly, as in ‘Dreadnought’, B’Elanna and Janeway often disagree on the best way to tackle a problem. Whilst Starfleet regulation is pretty clear that Starfleet is not a democracy and the Captain dictates the orders, Janeway appropriately twists this rule when necessary. It’s important to note that Janeway respects and supports B’Elanna in her decisions (we can especially see this in ‘Dreadnought’), and to recognise that Janeway is a white woman who commands the respect of the crew, whereas B’Elanna is a mixed race woman (Roxann Dawson is also Latino) who has a troubled past. It’s an important symbol of the ‘equality’ that Voyager tries to portray.
In a lot of sci-fi/action films or television series, the ‘tough girl’ trope is regularly employed. B’Elanna seems to fit this trope – she is undeniably tough, she is a leader and she has a lot of traits that we understand as typically masculine. The ‘tough girl’ (also known as the ‘strong female character’) denies herself any kind of femininity, and constantly seeks to prove to the audience that women are just as capable as men, essentially becoming ‘pseudo-men’. B’Elanna definitely starts out as a ‘tough girl’, but seems to move away from the stereotype later in the series. She starts to understand herself and allow herself to feel emotions – as is evident with her relationship with Tom Paris. She is proof of the multi-dimensionality that female characters can have – she can be a terrific leader, engineer, lover, friend and eventually mother too. B’Elanna isn’t defined by any one of these roles, she encompasses all of them.
Basically, B’Elanna Torres is probably the most underrated character in Voyager (and quite possibly the entire Star Trek universe). Thoughts?