Star Trek Voyager: The Thaw

"When fear holds you hostage, how do you make it let go?"

When I was reviewing the previous episode, I mentioned that quite a few episodes in Voyager's first two seasons have a bit of a horror vibe to them. Well, forget just a horror vibe - this is a whole horror story.

Voyager tries to rescue a handful of aliens who have become trapped in a simulation that was supposed to respond to their thoughts and desires. Instead, their fears have manifested as a truly terrifying Clown, who is now holding them hostage, because if they leave the programme, he and all his simulated companions will die. The Clown has already killed two of them, as they suffer massive heart failure from stress when he executes them by chopping off their heads in the simulation, but he needs at least one alive to remain alive himself (and they can't just turn off the programme without causing brain damage).

Much of this episode takes place in a simulated circus environment populated by circus performers, including the Clown, who is played by Michael McKean. McKean's performance is fantastic, lively and creepy and compelling, as well as terrifying. The clashing colours, discordant music and weird costumes all add up to a seriously freaky atmosphere. The story becomes a battle of wits between Janeway, negotiating via the Doctor, and the Clown. The final face-off between Mulgrew and McKean is great, and the slow disintegration of his environment adds to its power, while making Janeway herself fairly scary too.

This episode is very well made, brilliantly designed and well written. It's main flaw is probably just that it succeeds so well in being utterly horrific that it suffers a bit in terms of re-watchability. I am a person who watches the Daniel Radcliffe version of The Woman in Black as a comfort film (I love ghost stories, I like Radcliffe, it all works) but I find this episode seriously unsettling and for years I avoided re-watching it at all. Which I suppose implies that it's very, very good - but I do tend to prefer episodes I actually want to see again, for the most part.

Bits and pieces

 - Harry says the Captain knows he would rather die than be stuck there for the rest of his life. I have to say, I'm impressed at the three aliens' will to live after 19 years in there.

 - Nice use of the Doctor, who, as a computer program, can hop in and out of the simulation without danger, and can negotiate for Janeway.

 - Harry's clarinet is back. Ensign Baytart doesn't appreciate it.

 - Harry is going on a music-date with a girl (Susan Nicoletti) Paris has been chasing. Isn't that a violation of the Bro Code?

 - The Clown says he knows how much Harry misses Libby. Presumably Nicoletti doesn't.

 - There were 400,000 people on the aliens' home planet when natural disaster hit, and apparently none could get away. Three survived, and the Clown kills another during this episode, leaving two. Now that's horrific.

 - This whole thing kicked off because the aliens put their bodies in stasis but wanted their minds active and entertained. They could have saved themselves if they'd just gone into stasis unconscious like everybody else.

 - Janeway flirting watch: The Clown decides to keep Harry over B'Elanna, because Janeway would never let him die (though he suggests it's a more maternal fondness). The Clown flirts with her himself and expresses particular interest in her.

 - In the eternal cycle of Star Trek inspiring Red Dwarf, which then inspires Star Trek (which has already given us Neelix as morale officer, with Voyager's writers apparently unaware that that's the mark of a truly insufferable character), this episode may have been partly inspired by Red Dwarf's 'Better than Life'.

Quotes

Harry: Like the man said, the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.

Doctor: I have a very trustworthy face.

(Holo)Janeway: I've known fear. It's a very healthy thing most of the time. You warn us of danger, remind us of our limits, protect us from carelessness. I've learned to trust fear.
Clown: Finally, someone who appreciates me! Am I blushing?

(Holo)Janeway: Fear only exists for one purpose. To be conquered.

(Holo)Janeway: Starfleet captains don't easily succumb to fear.

Clown: Drat.

Very good, but this episode creeps me out more than most horror shows and I'm not sure it's entirely in a good way - but then, that's the point. Four out of four scary clowns for quality, knock half off if you watch with children (this being a family show) 'cause it's really freaky.

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

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