Star Trek Voyager: Threshold

"I don't know how I'm going to enter this in the log."

How do I begin to explain 'Threshold'? Basically, Paris, Torres and Kim invent the Infinite Impossibility Drive. And that is the sanest part of the episode...

When people sit down and consider the Star Trek series as a whole, when they make lists of best and worst episodes, when they go through the highs and lows of twenty-nine cumulative years of television and twelve movies, two episodes stand tall above the rest as contenders for Worst Episode Ever. And those two episodes are the original series' 'Spock's Brain' and 'Threshold'.

'Threshold' has been lambasted as a terrible episode by the actors (Kate Mulgrew and Robbie McNeil have both expressed polite reservations), the writer (Brannon Braga outright called it 'terrible'), critics (all of them) and fans (ditto). It is so bad, it was written out of Star Trek continuity in season four's 'Day of Honour', in which Paris says he's never travelled at transwarp. The problems with this episode are so huge and so numerous that it has its own sub-folder on TV Tropes' 'Wallbangers' page for Voyager.

I kinda love it.

If you've never seen the episode, you're probably thinking it can't possibly be that bad. Let me summarise some of what happens for you:
  • Paris, Torres and Kim achieve an engineering breakthrough that has always been explicitly stated to be impossible in the Star Trek universe - travelling at Warp 10. On Voyager, with its constant supply problems and their own heavy workloads. With help from Neelix.
  • At Warp 10, one apparently inhabits every point in the universe simultaneously. Which means, as mentioned above, that what Paris & co. have actually invented is the Infinite Improbability Drive from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. To be fair, the rest of the episode makes a heck of a lot more sense if you assume they have invented the Infinite Improbability Drive.
  • Then it turns into an homage to The Fly. Paris becomes allergic to water, can't process oxygen, then he dies, then he comes back to life, he grows an extra heart, his hair starts to fall out, then his tongue falls out.
  • Finally, Paris breaks out of sickbay, kidnaps the Captain, steals the shuttle, and flies off to Warp 10 again.
  • It is eventually decided that going to Warp 10 prompted Paris to 'evolve' - into a giant slug-lizard thing that looks more like the first thing that crawled out of the primordial ooze than a future stage in human evolution.
  • The crew eventually track down Paris and Janeway to some random planet.
  • They have both turned into lizards.
  • Who have mated and had lizard babies.
  • Which Chakotay happily abandons on the planet without so much as considering whether they could be made human with the miracle cure the Doctor has produced for Paris and the Captain, or whether they should care for these creatures in any way.
  • When Paris tries to apologise to Janeway for sexually assaulting her while in the form of a giant lizard she says the female often initiates mating and laughs it off. Neither are remotely interested in the fate of their children, so we can add neglect and abandonment to their record.
  • And on top of everything else, Chakotay apparently needed Tuvok to tell him that the Captain was the female giant lizard-slug thing.
You can see the problem. Problems. How anyone ever thought this episode was a remotely good idea is a complete mystery. A lot of science fiction and fantasy can sound a bit silly when you boil it down to essentials (well, there's this ring, you see, and these guys have to throw it into this volcano or the Dark Lord will win...). But this doesn't just sound a bit silly to outsiders - it is genuinely, deeply ridiculous.

So why do I love it? A couple of reasons. One is that there is some genuinely good character work in here. Robbie McNeil acts his heart out, the bits that basically remake The Fly are pretty good body horror and Paris gets some lovely character moments concerning his relationship with his father and with B'Elanna and Kes. His delirious slide into apparent death is especially affecting.

More than that, though, as may be clear from the summary, this episode is simply so ridiculous that it's well into So Bad It's Good territory. As long as you don't take it seriously at all, it's completely hilarious - it starts off silly and just gets crazier and crazier. This is what sets it apart from 'Spock's Brain'. 'Spock's Brain' is not only bad but unbearably tedious, but if there's one thing this episode is not, that thing is boring. It's riveting from start to finish, if only because you keep thinking it can't possibly get any worse, and then it does.

When I was in Sixth Form and we were allowed off school grounds for lunch, one of my best friends used to have us over to her house for coffee every lunchtime, and we'd sit and watch Voyager together. Much as we appreciated how awful it is, this was the sort of episode we loved and watched multiple times, because it's so much fun to watch together and laugh at. (We should really replicate the experience with alcohol at some point). This may well be the Worst Episode of Star Trek Ever Made (though personally I'd give that award to 'Spock's Brain') but it has given me many hours of viewing pleasure over the years and for that I will always be grateful.

Oh, by the way, this is also one of six episodes of Voyager (plus the main theme) to have won an Emmy, for Best Make-Up. It is the Norbit of the Star Trek world.

Bits 'n pieces

 - On the plus side, I guess the crew of Voyager are more motivated to break speed records than most. Which sort of explains how, with Neelix's help, they're able to solve problems that have defeated the entire Starfleet engineering corps for centuries? Maybe?

 - Apparently, this was the third most watched episode of Voyager's second season. This goes a long way towards explaining Voyager's poor reputation. Actually, the second season in general does...

 - Janeway flirting watch: See above re: lizard sex, lizard babies. She has canonically (until 'Day of Honour' anyway) had sex with Paris. She seems less interested in him after this. Neither Chakotay nor Tuvok look impressed.

 - In other flirting news, B'Elanna calls Paris 'Tom' and they work closely together, but any budding chemistry is rather damaged by his delirious assertion that he doesn't trust anyone who, like her, doesn't cry. And he's still mooning over Kes, asking for a last kiss (which she gives him post-apparent-mortem).

 - Regular cast death watch: Paris apparently dies, then comes back to life a few hours later. Since we should probably assume Janeway undergoes the same process, we can probably count her too, bringing the regular cast deaths total to 8, 2 of them Janeway and 3 of them Paris. Miraculously, the shuttlecraft seems to come through the whole thing intact.

 - Jonas is still keeping the Kazon informed of everything that's going on.


Janeway: Can you wake him?
Doctor: I don't see why not. (Yelling) Wake up Lieutenant!

Doctor: What did he ingest?
B'Elanna: Just a cup of Neelix's coffee.
Doctor: It's a miracle he's still alive.

Janeway: I've thought about having children, but I must say I'd never considered having them with you.

Judging this as a quality episode of Star Trek, zero out of four lizard babies, obviously. But as a fun and entertaining experience, it gets a healthy four out of four from me.

Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.


Billie Doux said...

I think I'd completely wiped this one from my conscious mind, but you successfully brought it back, Juliette. :) Loved your review.

Juliette said...

Thanks :) I've been really looking forward to this one - I know it's terrible, but I'd rather terrible than boring!

Juan Alberto Roche Rodríguez said...

Hi, i´m new here, I'm from Argentina. Long time reader of the blog, but first time posting a comment. What promt me was that you are finally reviewing my favourite Star Trek series of all time, DS9. But at the same time how could I resist posting something about Threshold. Great review Juliette by the way. You caught me by sorprise whith that this episode was deleted from continuity, by Day of Honor none the less, one of my favourite episodes of Voyager. How could I miss that?
Over the years I have always seen this episode been thorne apart by fans, but I have always liked something about it, that I have never seen anybody coment, and is the interesting idea that it suggest (assuming time travel has, somehow, something to be with Tom changes). That, as humans, we usually believe that we are at the pinnacle of evolution and it can only get better, but what if not. What that if we can go backwards, like dinosurs did when they devolved into birds. What if in the far future, when mankind have intercross whith many alien species and all of our needs have been satisfaced by machines like in the movie Wall-E, humans start to lose everything that we have become, or what if a disease or an ambiental disaster occur that forces us to live simple lives in isolation in some forgotten planet. In other words, what if evolution is not a constant continnium but a constant cycle, and in the end, after all of our history, our culture, our science, we end back at the beginning again, not as suprem godlike creatures like the Qs, but as little horny lizards.
For my that is a fascinating idea, kind of the end of BSG, but more to the extreme. Not many episodes of Voyager had made me think that hard.
Anyway, thats my two cents. Great review again Juliette. Love you all guys, and I hope to keep reading your Voyager reviews, specially the fourth season ones, thats my favourite! See you.

Juliette said...

Hi Juan! I think that's probably what Braga was going for, but it got lost amongst the lizard silliness, the mating and the fact that Star Trek never quite seems to understand how evolution works. But it's nice to know I'm not the only person to get something out of the episode!