B'Elanna Torres mirrored the struggle I didn't want to acknowledge in myself

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Sep 19, 2017

Among Star Trek fans, there’s politics when it comes to which series is “the best.” Many argue in favor of The Original Series versus The Next Generation, while an increasingly vocal minority (including myself) insist that Deep Space Nine is where it’s at.

But when it comes to the women of Star Trek, Voyager is the winner; after all, it has the first female captain, and the relationship between Captain Kathryn Janeway and Seven of Nine was the stuff of legend. The franchise has a history of doing a disservice to its female characters (if even just in numbers: a standard of five men — or more — and two women is not something to brag about), so the fact that a female friendship was such a heavy focus of the show was incredible.

However, the narrowing in on this friendship leaves out someone very important, a character that spoke to me so intensely that it made me uncomfortable at times.

When I was younger, I always said that Kira Nerys, the prickly Bajoran officer from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was my Star Trek persona. She had her flaws for sure, but I admired her fighting spirit and her strength. She may have been uncomfortable in her uniform, but she knew who she was. Her crisis of identity on the show related to what she stood for and how she fought for it.

Kira Nerys, with all her flaws, may be the person I wanted to be, but B’Elanna Torres is the person I was.

When I say I didn’t want to be B’Elanna, that’s not a slight on the character. She’s an incredibly talented engineer with a sharp sense of humor. She’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but she tries to learn from her mistakes. She sees her captain as a role model and tries to emulate her, wanting to be a good leader. She’s a strong woman, to say the least. There are so many incredible qualities this character embodies that I admire. But the one that spoke to me the most, and that I wish didn’t, is her inner struggle.

I’ve discussed before how it’s a terrible idea to compare writing alien races to writing people of color and other marginalized groups. After all, the implication that results is that PoC (the primary group that receives this comparison) are as fundamentally different as an alien race might be to humans. We’re not, and it’s frankly offensive. But that doesn’t mean that stories about being an outsider and crises of identities can’t resonate. I found a kindred spirit in the half-human, half-Klingon B’Elanna, even when I didn’t want to. Because acknowledging that I shared her struggles, that her onscreen inner fight mirrored my own, would be to admit how difficult and lost I was.

It will likely surprise no one reading this to discover that I’m a child of immigrants. My parents came to the United States from India before I was born; I grew up in the Midwest United States. And, as any kid who was caught between two cultural worlds, two very different heritages could tell you, it’s not an easy time growing up. Who are you? Where do you belong?

In Voyager, B’Elanna, as portrayed by the luminous Roxann Dawson, embarks on an extraordinary character journey — one of the most ambitious we saw through five different series. She begins as a short-tempered officer who doesn’t quite fit into a Starfleet uniform. She blames anything she doesn’t like about herself on her Klingon temper. After all, it’s easier to hate the part of you that sets you apart from everyone else than embrace it.

In the first season episode Faces, when an alien races separates the Klingon and human sides of B’Elanna into two different people. The viewer gets to see, on screen, the two halves of this women personified. We get to visualize the conflict that is happening within her each and every day.

It’s a powerful episode, and it would have been so easy to conveniently wrap up that storyline with a neat little bow. But it’s not that simple. When there are two worlds warring within you, it’s a constant battle. Neither wins; neither will ever win. It’s not about choosing one or the other. It’s about bringing the two into balance within yourself, accepting that they are both a part of you but also understanding that there will always be conflict. That’s the storyline B’Elanna gets to explore over the course of Voyager.

I’m certain that part of the reason B’Elanna resonates so much is because of who portrays her. I can’t help but wonder whether the incredibly talented Roxann Dawson drew from her Latina American heritage in order to play this character. B’Elanna is defensive; she doesn’t let her guard down easily. But the few times she does over the course of the series, when she confronts her inner pain and struggle on what it means to be half Klingon, it’s raw. It’s difficult. It’s mirrors the real pain many of us experience every day.

Take the late-series episode Lineage for example. An unexpected pregnancy brings B’Elanna to the medical bay for some tests, and she’s treated to an image of what her baby will look like. She’s surprised to find relatively prominent forehead ridges on her daughter; after all, the baby is only one quarter Klingon.

B’Elanna becomes determined to eliminate any Klingon DNA from her daughter, removing that which will set her apart from those around her. She’s intent on this singular goal (without the knowledge of her husband), no matter the cost, damaging relationships and even performing sabotage to make it happen. It turns out, though, that this determination comes from a very painful place: B’Elanna is convinced her (human) husband will leave her and their daughter if he has to handle two Klingon women. After all, it’s what happened to B’Elanna and her Klingon mother with her human father; the episode is dotted with flashbacks that show just how awkward and difficult B’Elanna’s childhood years were.

But we also see B’Elanna come to terms with her Klingon heritage in Barge of the Dead, a culture she’s always derided even though it’s a part of her. After a near-death experience, B’Elanna becomes convinced that her mother is in the Klingon version of hell. The reason: B’Elanna’s dishonor in not choosing a Klingon way of life has doomed her mother. It’s a tough episode, to say the least; I can’t watch it without crying.

The lengths B’Elanna goes to in order to save her mother are telling (especially when you remember how much contempt she has for Klingon customs), but what she realizes at the end of the episode is that she’s saving herself as well. You can’t constantly hate something that’s a part of you, even if it’s easier than accepting yourself for who you are.

Star Trek: Voyager may be long over, but B’Elanna will forever be a character I love and admire. When I was young, she inspired me, but I refused to accept just how much I identified with her pain and inner struggles. Now, as an adult who’s more accepting of those sensitive parts of myself, I can also proudly say she is the Star Trek character who I can see myself in. Thank you, Roxann Dawson, for the gift of B’Elanna Torres. I can’t tell you what she means to the woman I am and the little girl I was.