B’Elanna Torres snuck up on me. When Voyager began I instantly admired Captain Janeway, related to Kes, and crushed on Tom Paris, and when Seven of Nine was introduced she rapidly became my favorite character in all of Star Trek. Or so I thought.
When “Extreme Risk” first aired in Voyager’s fifth season it shook me. I loved Voyager, loved Star Trek, and I’d related to various characters and stories before, but this episode spoke to me on a deeply personal level. After learning of the death of her Maquis friends in the Alpha Quadrant, B’Elanna becomes depressed, isolates herself from everyone on Voyager, and reprograms the Holodeck to engage in self-harm. When confronted about her self-injurious behavior she tells Chakotay: “I’m not trying to kill myself. I’m trying to see if I’m still alive.” That was the moment B’Elanna became my favorite character, I just didn’t know it yet.
With the help of her friends and a well-timed engineering project, B’Elanna is able to work through her issues and start to heal. It’s somewhat unrealistically convenient and we never see or hear about her self-injuring after, or before, this. For a long time my annoyance at what I considered a too easy resolution kept me from fully embracing the episode, and B’Elanna, despite the emotional resonance.
But revisiting the series as an adult, and after dealing with my own depression and anxiety, I realized “Extreme Risk” is not a one-off and B’Elanna’s self-harm is not a situational quirk. B’Elanna Torres struggles with mental illness throughout the run of the series.
In the first season episode “Faces”, B’Elanna is split into two separate beings — one fully Klingon and one fully Human — as part of an alien medical experiment. In simplest terms the two B’Elannas embody either side of the fight-or-flight response: Klingon B’Elanna attacks problems, and people, directly while Human B’Elanna cowers both physically and within herself. I consider this an important introduction to B’Elanna’s anxiety disorder, and her coping mechanisms. When she has a scientific riddle to focus on she is able to stave off fear, and, though often over internal protest, she leans on her Klingon side, literally here and figuratively outside of this situation, for the inner strength her mother taught her to rely on as a child. B’Elanna is shown doing both as early as the pilot and as late as the finale.
B’Elanna gains confidence in her abilities as a direct result of her status as Chief Engineer and over the course of the series she bonds with the senior staff, finds true friends, and builds a family. She falls into depression and self-injury in “Extreme Risk” because the security and stability she’d finally found on Voyager was threatened by the news that the last group she’d thought she belonged with was not just lost, but destroyed. The events of the episode are entirely in character and what’s wonderful is how her Voyager family comes together to get her through it.
In the seventh season episode “Lineage,” B’Elanna’s pregnancy, and the revelation her daughter will have the same Klingon facial ridges she does, bring up memories of her human father’s abandonment, which throw her back into a state of high anxiety. She argues with her loved ones, hides her real fears, and again tampers with the computer, putting herself, and her unborn child, at risk. The episode proves that B’Elanna’s issues haven’t disappeared. In fact they’re pretty close to the surface. But it also proves, again, that B’Elanna doesn’t have to battle her demons alone. In Voyager’s crew she has a network of people to help, love, and support her. “Faces” and “Lineage” are bookends to B’Elanna’s story, and two of my favorite episodes of all time.
The author with Roxann Dawson
Mental illness doesn’t go away. It can’t be “cured.” But it can be managed. B’Elanna taught me that mental illness isn’t a weakness any more than Human DNA is. She taught me to accept my flaws and to embrace my Klingon side. And Voyager taught me I don’t have to go it alone.