“Extreme Risk,” which tells the story of B’Elanna Torres’ struggle with depression and self-harm after the deaths of her old Maquis friends, is one of Star Trek’s most significant portrayals of mental illness. I’d argue it might also be Star Trek’s best. Unlike “Good Shepherd”, “Statistical Probabilities” or pretty much any Barclay episode, “Extreme Risk” doesn’t play mental health issues for laughs. And unlike “Night,” which portrays Janeway’s depression through the eyes of others as an inconvenience to the ship, this episode puts B’Elanna at the centre and really asks the audience to step into her shoes.
That’s partly why I’ve been putting off this review, even though it’s been much-requested – because it hits close to home.
While I’ve never self-harmed I have survived major depression and I still cope with anxiety. When I put “Extreme Risk” on this past weekend, B’Elanna’s behaviour resonated with my experience so deeply that it left me feeling rattled.
Part of that is a testament to the outstanding performance by Roxann Dawson. Dawson nails every facial expression and vocalization, from her flat disinterest in building the Delta Flyer…
to her defensiveness at Janeway’s questioning…
to her blank hopelessness after being released from Sickbay.
The ways B’Elanna tries to hurt herself – orbital skydiving and fighting Cardassians on the holodeck with the safeties off – are science-fiction, but Dawson’s performance and the writing for B’Elanna’s scenes keep her experience grounded in contemporary reality.
Chakotay: Are you trying to commit suicide?
Chakotay: Then why?
Torres: Because. Because if I sprain my ankle, at least I feel something.
Chakotay: What do you mean?
Torres: I’m not trying to kill myself. I’m trying to see if I’m still alive.
Yup, that’s legit.
And in true Star Trek role modeling, most of the characters are shown responding well. Paris allows B’Elanna space. Janeway does dress down B’Elanna but in a way that’s appropriate given B’Elanna’s lies, and clear it’s out of concern. Neelix listens to B’Elanna and doesn’t pull any of that dismissive crap that so many people with depression deal with, like: “Oh come on, all you need is a nice plate of banana pancakes to snap you out of it.”
But I was uncomfortable about Chakotay literally dragging B’Elanna into the holodeck, forcing her to come face-to-face with a program she had created, showing the death of their friends. Chakotay may be B’Elanna’s friend but he is also her superior officer, and very much not a qualified mental health professional. Literally no other treatment had been attempted beyond repairing her physical injuries, before Chakotay used physical force as an intervention. His approach could’ve easily backfired. Badly.
Of course, it didn’t backfire because as good as this episode is, it was still part of a relatively episodic show, and the main problem had to get wrapped up by the end. Instead, we’re shown that Chakotay’s intervention pretty much snaps B’Elanna out of it. She immediately volunteers to join the Delta Flyer on its mission, saves the ship, and comes back ready to heal.
Chakotay does tell her to “give it time,” but given the progress she’s made in less than a day, it might be hard for an audience member who hasn’t been there to really understand the time it can take, and the patience, empathy and love needed to support someone through that.
While B’Elanna’s turnaround is unrealistically speedy, it is nice to see the episode end with B’Elanna making herself some banana pancakes, taking pleasure in a simple act of self-care.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: Pass. Janeway and B’Elanna discuss B’Elanna’s mental health.