An Underrated Portrayal of an Underrepresented Experience: B’Elanna Torres and Biracial Identity

One of the reasons I love science fiction, and why I think it’s such an enduringly popular genre, especially today, is that it can offer thoughtful explorations of real-life issues in an alien, but familiar, way.

Star Trek is perhaps the best-known example of this, regularly confronting issues involving various forms of prejudice and touching us on a personal level when we recognize ourselves in the strange and fantastical mirror that’s being held up. Episodes like “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” or “The Outcast” examine race and gender, and audiences are still talking about them, still discussing and debating decades later.

But for me, as a half-Chinese, half-White person, one of the best and most underrated depictions of mixed-race experience I have ever seen was in Star Trek: Voyager’s B’Elanna Torres. For those who may not be familiar with one of the less-lauded Trek series, Torres is half-Klingon, half-Human.

Now, this may shock some readers, but I am not a Klingon. No one is. But this character did go on journeys that I recognized all the same.

In Voyager, Torres, the titular ship’s engineer, is plagued throughout the majority of the series’ run by an overwhelming sense of self-loathing and a wish to have her Klingon half suppressed or even eliminated. This manifested early on in a very literal sense, in the episode “Faces,” written by Kenneth Biller, who has said that he was partly inspired by the experience of an adopted relative of mixed race.

In “Faces” (Season 1, ep. 14) one of the show’s recurring villains, the Vidiians, splits Torres into two separate, independently thinking people—dividing her human half and her Klingon half—for… science? To be sure, it’s no less-contrived than when James T. Kirk’s “evil half” manifests into a wholly separate being in TOS’ “The Enemy Within,” and in more ways than one, “Faces” feels like a throwback to ’60s pulp, complete with some creepy body-horror villains.

Unfortunately, it also feels like a throwback in that its handling of racial identity is a little ham-fisted. For starters, biracial identity is not literally akin to being of two completely separate species. And of course, it’s also deeply problematic to suggest that racial identity is intrinsically tied to certain behavioral characteristics, like aggression and strength.

Screenshot: CBS

There are strong moments, though, including a monologue from the “human” Torres delivered with touching skill by actress Roxann Dawson, in which she talks about covering up her obvious Klingon features, and the silent judgment she felt from people around her in a human colony. Those are sensations which are very familiar to people of mixed-race descent, with echoes of the complicated history of racial “passing.”

We are also introduced to the long-term trauma of Torres’ father abandoning her and her mother, and how that impacted her sense of self-loathing toward her Klingon half.

Sadly, some of the stronger ideas in “Faces,” like the need to accept yourself, weaknesses and strengths alike, are overshadowed by the ghastly proceedings (the image of the Vidiian doctor wearing a dead crewman’s face is seared into my memory) as much as by the problematic elements.

While “Faces” was of dubious quality, like most of Voyager’s first season, Biller’s first exploration into Torres’ conflicted emotions about her dual heritage laid the groundwork for better, more three-dimensional opportunities in the future, and offered vital backstory that would pay off down the line.

Again, as with most of Voyager’s other content and characterizations, we would see a marked improvement in Torres after the third season, and in Season 4’s “Day of Honor” we got a chance to revisit her identity. The Day of Honor is a Klingon holiday that Torres is trying to meaningfully participate in, while also finding herself experiencing the worst day ever.

Star Trek: Voyager "Day of Honor"

Screenshot: CBS

Most of the cultural and racial aspects of Torres’ character are put aside in the episode’s second half in favour of exploring her budding romance with Tom Paris, but what we do get is another meaty taste of what it means to be on a biracial divide. After being coaxed into embracing her heritage by Neelix, Torres tries to take part in the Day of Honor through a holodeck program. While things start out reasonably well with some good ol’ Klingon fun like eating a targ heart and drinking mot’loch (whatever the heck that is), the ceremony quickly takes a turn when the painstiks come out and Torres quite literally runs from her culture.

It’s nice that Paris correctly observes that Torres is pushing down parts of herself, but as with “Faces,” these themes are again set aside to focus on other matters—in this case, looking at how she has been denying her feelings about Paris and their budding relationship.

No, for the real deep-dive into Torres’ psyche, we turn to an absolute barn-burner in Season 6’s “Barge of the Dead,” which, among other things, fulfills Trek fans’ most secret wish to see Klingons on a pirate ship in the vein of the Flying Dutchman, ferrying the dishonored dead to Gre’thor, the Klingon hell.

The episode expeditiously moves to exploring that hell after a cold opening where Torres suffers a concussion as she returns from an away mission, and a mysterious Klingon artifact is found lodged in her shuttle. Shortly thereafter, following a fake-out with some scenes featuring the crew behaving oddly and holding a sort of “Klingon festival” celebration, Torres’ experience is revealed to have been a near-death vision. But in that vision, she also meets her mother aboard the titular “Barge of the Dead,” and B’Elanna becomes convinced she must save her from hell itself.

What’s satisfying about “Barge of the Dead” is that it makes no pretense about being a near-death experience, neatly ducking the age-old cliché of “it was all a dream.” In this case, the episode’s main action is unambiguously a dream, but is important regardless, centering on Torres finally coming to grips with her heritage and her relationship with her mother. The stakes hinge less on if she will live or die, than if she will be able to confront her cultural heritage and come through this reckoning changed for the better.

It was this episode where I really started to recognize some familiar signposts in my life experience alongside Torres’. The scenes in which the crew embarks on a full-throated embracing of Klingon rituals, with Seven of Nine and the Doctor singing a Klingon song, the captain toasting the Klingon Empire and Tuvok threatening Torres with a bat’leth, cast me back in time to my childhood.

Star Trek: Voyager "Barge of the Dead"

Screenshot: CBS

On two occasions, I can remember being called on to “present” on Chinese culture—once in my elementary class, and once to earn a merit badge for Boy Scouts. This was in the early ’90s, and the internet wasn’t nearly as accessible and prevalent as today, and so I was left to turn to other sources. The public library. A set of encyclopedias in my house. And my mother.

My own relationship with my other was very unlike Torres’—Voyager paints her mother, Miral, as being positively obsessed with trying to get Torres onside with Klingon culture. My mother, by comparison, did not pass on our family language, Toisanese, outside of a few short phrases. We would and still do go for dim sum on occasion, and we were sure to call my grandmother (婆婆) around Chinese New Year. But I never felt that my mother, herself born and raised in Canada in a majority-White setting, was determined that I associate with a culture she herself was once-removed from.

Sitting down in class and at Boy Scouts though, stumbling through explanations of rituals that I didn’t regularly partake in, like eating mandarin oranges or crafting traditional decorations, I couldn’t help but feel disconnected. The sensation was made worse by a “fully” Chinese classmate and a fellow scout also participating in these presentations, which made me feel like a “lesser” Chinese person. It felt like I was a fraud.

It’s only in more recent years that I’ve made an effort to reconnect with my Chinese side. Partly, that’s come through my mother’s gentle urging to hear my grandmother’s life stories before it’s too late (now that she’s 102, that’s something to be concerned about). But it’s also, as Torres experiences in “Barge of the Dead,” a sense of guilt at having self-censored a side of my life in favor of taking the White-passing easy path.

That takes me to “Lineage,” another great Torres-centric episode in which she and Paris are on the verge of having a child together, and Torres becomes obsessed with re-shaping her child’s appearance to suppress any sign of Klingon genes.

If “Barge of the Dead” is the episode that lays to rest Torres’ issues with her mother, “Lineage” is the one that confronts her long-standing trauma over her father. It’s in the latter part of the episode that we learn that on a camping trip with her father and uncle, Torres overheard her father saying that he was exasperated by her recent behavior and moodiness. He reflects that his parents may have been right when they warned him that he wouldn’t be able to live with a Klingon, then notes, “And now I’m living with two of them.” Her self-loathing would take root in that moment and continue to dog her for most of her life, up to this point.

I feel fortunate to say that my father, by comparison, never abandoned me. However, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that he has consistently felt alienated from my mother’s family, and by extension, a lot of her culture. Unconsciously, I think I absorbed some of that alienation, and even resentment, towards Chinese culture. But where I really see my own experience in “Lineage” is in Torres’ anxious need to fit in. Both the teasing she experiences from the other children on the camping trip and the desperate pressure she feels for her child to not have Klingon features are things I can identify with.

Star Trek: Voyager "Lineage"

Screenshot: CBS

I don’t think I will ever forget the times children would tease me with a “ching-chong, wing-wong” mocking nonsense spiel. I definitely won’t ever forget the time a fully-grown adult man—a complete stranger—told me that if I wanted to fit in more at the historic Chinese laundry I was working in as a historical interpreter, I should “file my teeth down and pin my eyes back.”

Just as Torres carried the trauma of her father, I’ve felt that trauma in my mind ever since, and I still wonder at times about how my appearance affects the perceptions of the White-dominant society around me.

“Lineage” is another imperfect Voyager outing, in my opinion. There are some troubling questions of bodily autonomy raised by the episode, and centering the issue around motherhood blurs the stronger points of racism and internalized self-loathing by pushing the story into problematic territory, so that questions about eugenics and abortion take center stage in many discussions.

Nevertheless, the stronger parts of the episode shine and resonate, and they do so in a way that’s unique to science fiction.

Again, I am not a Klingon. Nobody is. But the strength of Star Trek’s B’Elanna Torres is that by offering an “alien” experience that is deeply recognizable in theme and message, it can apply across a broad spectrum.

There are, of course, pitfalls. “Faces” shows that leaning too much on the “sci-fi” aspects of a science fiction narrative can overwhelm stronger character beats. But the stronger parts of “Lineage” and “Barge of the Dead” portray the experience and emotions of Torres at her biracial peak.

Offering a portrayal that can resonate across a range of real-life analogs, without tying itself to any one in particular, Torres’ character gave me something to identify with. There’s a comforting balance between the familiarity and the distance provided by her alien heritage that can allow a viewer like me to insert themselves where they see similarities without feeling like all the details need to fit. Ironically, it’s an alien life where I found one of the best mixed-race characters in all of media, as opposed to more realistic fare.

It’s a helpful lesson for anyone thinking of how they should write effective and meaningful depictions of racial issues. The key takeaway is to stay true to the message you’re trying to get across and to write with authenticity, which I think the writers of Voyager accomplished in “Barge of the Dead” and “Lineage.”

Indeed, living authentically, and staying true to yourself is the lesson I take from Torres. I am Chinese. I am White. I am me.

Tim Ford is a writer and freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. He has had bylines with CBC News, the Toronto Star and the National Observer, and SF&F stories with Neo-Opsis Magazine, Crossed Genres Magazine and EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy. He also has a pitbull-corgi cross and can be found @TimFordWrites on Instagram and Mastodon.

citation

Back to the top of the page

6 Comments

This post is closed for comments.

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.