You Talking Trek to Me? (Worst of Voyager) – “Threshold”

Star Trek: Voyager – Season 2, Episode 15

Well, here we are.

Hey, bad episodes happen to every show – even one as marvelous as Star Trek. And “Threshold” is definitely, definitely one of them! It’s a very special bad episode of note, not just because of how particularly bizarre it is, but due to the visceral reaction and infamous place it holds among Star Trek fans. To be clear, it is very much deserved and I think the consensus among anyone that has watched the show is that “Threshold” would probably rate the highest in a word-association survey of “worst” and “Voyager.” And it really… is something.

Detractors of the episode give it a ton of shit for its mind-bendingly crazy ending (and again, it is deserved), but for my money the primary sin of “Threshold” is that it doesn’t really know what story it wants to tell. There are several competing ideas and any one of them is interesting enough to center an episode around, but they’re all thrown together in a very inelegant and wacky way that doesn’t do any of them any favors. And yeah, that ending.

Next stop: indescribable horror!

One of the things I love about Trek are the occasions when it really commits to out-there concepts. Traveling to the edge of the known universe, visiting the Q Continuum, and other crazy adventures are some of my most memorable stories from the shows. “Threshold” shoots for the same appeal, but misses the mark in a monumental fashion.

In the sci-fi lore of Star Trek, warp speed is the fantastical realm of faster-than-light travel that makes the whole space exploration thing (and thus the franchise) possible. That lore also tells us that the famous warp factors go up to 10. Except not really, since warp 10 is merely theoretical – it represents infinite speed, an unattainable physics barrier. It’s basically like light speed for humanity IRL – possible for particles of light and energy to travel at, but impossible for anything made of physical matter to reach (like a spaceship or… a chicken). The math just doesn’t work out and as far as we know, never will. Sorry.

But the premise of “Threshold” is… what if it did work? What if one could reach that theoretical, infinite velocity of warp 10? What would happen to a human being that did? What kinds of hidden realms of the universe would that open up? It’s a great idea that probes the limits of the show’s universe and offers some tantalizing possibilities. Unfortunately, this is where anything good about “Threshold” ends.

Immediately, the story does away with anything approaching credibility by having Paris, Torres, and Kim somehow cook up a way to reach warp 10. Like, c’mon. The best scientific minds of all the major societies in the galaxy have no doubt been trying to crack this barrier since warp travel was invented. But these three people are able to figure it out with the relatively meager resources of Voyager? Mind you, the ship is completely cut off from home and in a survival situation. Of course, there is some magic, new form of dilithium crystals they discovered that make it possible, but still. Just silliness.

So after several weeks (?!) of hard work, these three knuckleheads have solved an elemental roadblock of physics and the universe itself. OK, whatever. Holodeck simulations look promising, and it’s time for the test shuttle’s warp 10 flight. And here’s problem #2. “Threshold” is ultimately a Tom Paris episode (yay…), but it doesn’t succeed at all in any sort of character-exploring capacity. On the eve of the flight, Janeway visits Tom and gives him some bad news – the Doctor has found some sort of extremely minor genetic irregularity that might cause medical problems if he goes on the flight (how one could possibly predict the ways in which a process that breaks the laws of physics could affect the human body is beyond me).

Paris is extremely disappointed and reacts badly. He even becomes a little unhinged as he begs Janeway to let him do it anyway. To be fair, this does tie into Tom’s character. He’s the loser son of an admiral, full of talent and potential but lacking the critical mass to actually do anything with it (as well as a history of bad choices). Being stranded on Voyager has been something of a boon to him – he’s gotten a field promotion and is able to do the thing he was always meant to: pilot a starship. But that’s not quite enough, and he wants to (further) prove himself by doing something no one has ever done, something amazing and incredible. Again, this totally tracks with his personality and overall persona of hot shot pilot. You could say he’s got a need for… uh, infinite velocity.

But there’s a darkness to that drive, and it relates to his checkered past. Paris is basically the same character as Nicholas Locarno, Wesley Crusher’s Starfleet academy classmate that got another classmate killed doing a risky flight maneuver. You don’t get to be a hot shot pilot by playing it safe; danger is the name of the game and the thing you live for. He even cites how much potential everyone saw in him growing up, how everyone said he would go on to do great things. It’s a bit of a curse to be supposedly endowed with glorious purpose. So Tom, daredevil adrenaline junkie that he is, reacts the way any junkie would when you wave their drug of choice in front of them and then take it away. It’s this hunger for thrills that gets Paris into trouble here.

Unfortunately, the episode doesn’t commit to this idea beyond the flirtation presented in this single scene. Janeway suggests that Kim perform the flight instead, to which Tom flips out and pleads to let it be him. It’s not a great look, and he seems to have too much personal stuff invested to perform the duty in a clear-headed way. Amazingly, despite how weird he’s being Janeway still lets him do it. OK, whatever. Scenes like this annoy me because they just present perfunctory obstacles that are immediately overcome and end up being a waste of time to the plot.

The next day, Tom performs the flight and his speed builds and builds and builds until his shuttle just disappears from sensors. But soon enough, it reappears in the same spot with an unconscious Paris aboard. The Doctor wakes him up (in a very funny fashion), and Paris recalls the sensation of attaining infinite speed. At warp 10, one would essentially occupy every point in the universe simultaneously, and indeed Tom recalls the feeling of being everywhere at once (the shuttle’s logs also contain data from every spot in the sector). So it worked! Hooray, question mark?

This leads into another theme of the episode, a dark one that is also potentially captivating. In essentially breaking the speed limit of the universe itself, Paris ultimately pays a terrible price that crosses over into outright horror. The genres of science fiction and horror go together like peanut butter and chocolate for me, and there’s a lot of dramatic material to the idea that in violating the laws of the universe, humanity must suffer some sort of punishment. It’s a little outside the bounds of Trek’s sober, atheist philosophy, and borders on superstition and the supernatural. But Star Trek is all about exploration of the unknown, and there’s a thrill as well as a dread to the depths of that unknown. The way the rest of the episode unfolds embodies an almost Lovecraftian type of horror – Paris doesn’t come face to face with Cthulu (or any other space gods/demons), but he does suffer grave consequences from an unknown and horrifying force.

“Mr. Paris, your crustiness is reaching dangerous levels. I need a spray bottle, stat!”

Unfortunately, the way this plays out is a meandering, plodding mess that’s dumb as hell. Not long after his flight Paris starts having chest pains, and examination reveals a bevvy of weird and new medical problems – he’s allergic to water (?), can’t breathe oxygen anymore (??), and… is also dying on a cellular level (?!?). The Doctor and Kes do their best to help him, but there’s too much going wrong with his body to counter all at once. Delirious, Paris starts blabbering about all sorts of personal stuff – the times he spent crying alone in his room as a child, wanting a huge funeral, not trusting people who don’t cry (including Torres, which is ironic), losing his virginity, hankering for pizza, desiring a kiss from Kes, wanting to tell his father that he did it, etc. It’s a lot of character stuff that gets vomited out and it’s all fine material I guess, but I wish the episode chose to handle it in a more thoughtful and organic way. It could all have been the basis for an interesting character study of Paris (especially the implication of a not-great childhood that seems out of character for Trek‘s utopia), but instead it’s presented as him acting super weird because his brain’s going crazy – one of my least favorite Star Trek story tropes.

After all that, Paris’ body give up and he dies. Oh no. Anyway. Later on that night, the Doctor hears something in sickbay, and discovers… that Tom is alive again. Or something. His hair is now falling out and he has… two hearts now. Coooool. Also, he can breath regular air again? I dunno, whatever. None of it makes any sense since it’s just a bunch of random stuff that happens.

“Tom, dude. You smell like a microwaved burrito full of poop. And taste only slightly better”
“Mr. Paris, you have… two chesticles.”

The mutations continue, and Tom’s physical state becomes increasingly grotesque. It’s the centerpiece of the episode, and it’s just… weird. Not “good-weird,” just “weird-weird.” Janeway comes to see him, and Paris’ personality is erratic, swaying quickly between self-pity, disgust, anger, and arrogance. I just don’t like these kinds of stories in Trek because they don’t MEAN anything from a character standpoint. Someone has a malfunctioning brain caused by a sci-fi plot device, and they say/do a bunch of stuff they ultimately don’t mean and have to apologize for later. Sometimes there’s entertainment value in the characters’ altered states (such as the wacky alternate personalities of Deep Space Nine’s “Dramatis Personae,” or Tuvok’s scary murderous tirade), but not so here. It’s just ugly and bizarre.

“Wanna chip? I grow them myself off my own body.” *CHOMP*

True to that, Paris says a buuuunch of shit. He doesn’t want the Doctor to stop his mutation because maybe he’ll become something better than what he was. He’s just a screw-up that people only pretend to like. But in fact, everyone is JEALOUS that he reached warp 10! Sure, buddy. Some of it is probably legitimate feelings he has, but it’s mostly just delirium and gibberish and there’s no reason to take it seriously. Janeway doesn’t seem to, and just as she’s about to leave, Paris… coughs up his own tongue, and smiles in an almost sheepish, embarrassed way.

OK, whaaaaaaaat.

Tom, did you bring enough tongue for the entire crew?

It’s a grisly sight and one of the most unpleasant in Trek, so props, I guess. Body horror is all well and good (and something Trek has effectively done before), but it just feels misplaced in this episode. It does further that Lovecraftian terror/God’s wrath theme, but it’s a competing idea in an episode with too many. And somehow, all of this is absolutely NOTHING compared to what’s coming…

Paris continues to get even worse, and pleads with the Doctor to let him go back to the shuttle (the sound of him trying to talk without a tongue is something, and he sounds appropriately pathetic as he moans). The mutations are accelerating, and the Doctor devises a way of using energy directly from the warp core to stop it and preserve what little unaltered DNA he still has.

“I ate too many of my chips and now my tummy hurts! I’m too zesty!”
*record scratch* Yep, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I got here. Well, it’s an inane yet horrifying story you’ll wish you could forget, so here goes…

Now looking more like a standard reptilian/amphibian alien, Tom sits in an iron-lung like chamber in engineering getting zapped. But of course he breaks out, manages to overpower security, screw up some energy conduits making lights dark all over the ship, and escape. Sure, why not. There’s a quick but creepy sequence as he jumps Janeway in a corridor and knocks her unconscious. He’s able to evade Voyager’s sensors, and takes her to the shuttle where he escapes the ship, activates the warp engines, and disappears.

Are you ready for what happens next? No? Too bad.

Prepare for ludicrous speed!

Sooooo Voyager eventually manages to track down the shuttle. Also, the Doctor has finally figured out what the F was happening to Paris. Turns out… you sitting down for this? He was EVOLVING. Apparently it’s consistent with the natural evolution that humanity has been undergoing for a while now, just accelerated.

OK, obviously… no. This is far from the first time that Star Trek has gotten evolution COMPLETELY wrong, but the idea that humans are gradually moving towards being amphibian? And that this was all triggered by going super duper fast? It’s yet another idea – while a decent story idea in its own right – gets thrown in to an already weird and overstuffed episode and executed in the dumbest way possible.

“I don’t know, where do YOU want to eat tonight? How about the swamp? No? The lagoon? God, why is it always a guessing game with you, JUST TELL ME.”
“Am I right? This guy knows what I’m–“ *ZAP*

The Voyager crew locates the shuttle on a nearby planet and beam down. You laying down in the fetal position for this? They find two large salamander-like creatures by a pond, and the DNA is somehow a match to Janeway and Paris. The prop work on the two creatures is actually pretty well done, but everything about this is absolutely MENTAL (I absolutely love how they just phaser these two abominations into submission). But the absolute capper (more like crapper amiright) to this insanity is that there is a nest of smaller salamanders – their offspring – who promptly slither into the pond. And the away team just leaves them there!

“What adorable little abominations! Tuvok, hand me that large rock.”

And then somehow… SOMEHOW, the Doctor is able to take these completely non-human large salamanders and TURN THEM COMPLETELY BACK INTO REGULAR HUMAN BEINGS AGAIN. Like, of course. Why the fuck not. Geordi La Forge can’t have real eyes because that’s beyond our technology, but the Doctor can literally just transmute an entire lifeform into another totally different animal – every cell, organ, skeleton, BRAIN, every strand of DNA – switcherooed! HA HA, TOTALLY.

Paris and Janeway seem pretty much fine AMAZINGLY, except there’s an awkwardness in the air. Perhaps it’s the lingering ennui of a great adventure having come to a close? The hushed awe of peering past that velvet curtain of reality itself? Or maybe IT’S THE FACT THAT YOU TWO EVOLVED INTO AMPHIBIANS AND HAD FUCKING OFFPSRING TOGETHER. Paris is apologetic for… you know, kidnapping Janeway and mating with her. A definite faux pas, to be sure. And Janeway, I shit you not, just says that sometimes… it’s the females that initiate mating. SENSIBLE CHUCKLE. Also, DEAR GOD.

But the important thing? Paris broke the warp 10 barrier, and he should be proud. But the really important barrier he still needs to break? His self worth. THE END.

After all the nuttiness that the episode plops down at the very end, there’s something limp and perfunctory in tying it back to Paris’ character. We are so far beyond that now (as well as anything good and holy in the universe). Under any other circumstances and in any other property, the plot swerve of the two of them mutating into other life forms and having offspring would be an absolute horror show. And there wouldn’t be any coming back from it. David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly was based on some of the same themes of “Threshold” – scientific hubris, the dangers of tampering with unknown physical forces, and the resulting decay of the human body. But despite the fantastical nature of that story, there was a more grounded (and viscerally awful) realism to how it played out, as well as an effective finality to the path it leads down. In Dr. Brundle’s case, there was no going back, and he ultimately pays a deadly price for his ventures into the scientific unknown.

“In all candor I enjoyed being a salamander. I thought it was kind of cute being a big newt. Although it would seem to be a huge slog to be a giant frog. Yes, all in all I preferred being an amphibian to just an average simian.”

But in “Threshold,” it’s all so weightless and silly. There should be no return from being turned into a whole other animal (even in Star Trek’s fantastical universe), but they just reinstall the DNA and life goes on. This was the exact trick performed at the conclusion of TNG’s similar but not-quite-as-infamous “Genesis,” where a little DNA switcheroo magically fixes everyone’s extensive mutations. But the crew weren’t quite as far gone as Paris and Janeway are here, and it was a little easier to swallow as a plot contrivance (plus the episode is a far more effective horror show).

And of course, the fact that their offspring is just left on the planet, never to be seen or spoken of again. What exactly was the episode going for with that final bizarre choice? Because in any other context it’s horrifying and you could imagine different characters destroying those abominations instead of watching silently as they escape. “Threshold” doesn’t want to commit to the inherent horror of what it presents, and it would have been a better episode if it had.

As is, it just presents a bunch of random, totally bonkers shit that happens in chaos. It’s all pretty disjointed and incongruous, and makes for a half-baked episode. Breaking the warp 10 barrier, Tom dealing with his need to prove himself and worth as a person, accelerated human evolution, crewmembers having kids… These are all fine premises individually, but tossing them all into a blender makes for a weird, crazy, and bad fever dream adventure. It is a memorable one, though.

Tom’s transformation is too inessential and takes up too much episode time which could’ve been devoted to more interesting craziness. The episode starts off pretty normally, spends most of its time being weird but kind of boring, only to kick it into a breakneck, fascinatingly mental final gear. The Next Generation’s “Conspiracy” had a similarly balls-to-the-wall climax, but the rest of the episode was a well-crafted hour of building terror. “Threshold” is an unintentional horror story and could have succeeded if it narrowed its sights and committed to its own idea(s) in a more thoughtful and dark way. The episode crosses the fearful threshold of good taste, but like Tom’s ordeal, it’s too messy, weird, and off-putting to succeed.

Stray Observations:

  • After holodeck simulations, wouldn’t the next step be an unmanned flight via a probe or remotely-controlled/pre-programmed shuttle? Or would the shuttle have evolved into a robo-salamander afterwards? The mind reels.
  • So just to be clear, the episode’s entire premise boils down to “Tom undergoes superfast evolution because he… went superfast.” There’s something that’s simultaneously clever and childishly dumb about that idea. If anything, the opposite would happen as per actual physics – fast moving objects experience time at a slower rate because of time dilation. If one were to reach some sort of infinite speed the entire lifespan of universe would just pass around them as they remain oblivious.
  • Obviously, evolution is simply the biological changes of a species as a result of environmental pressures over time. An individual doesn’t evolve, they mutate. And those mutations over time add up to the actual evolution of a species. So what Tom goes through is certainly mutation (and boy howdy is it), but not evolution.

    Even if it was evolution, none of it makes any sense. If humanity is indeed trending towards amphibianism, why would he be allergic to water??? Or oxygen????? I think amphibians have tongues, generally? Really long ones, even? Oy. The environmental pressures presented by a starship environment in space seem like they would push evolution in an entirely different direction anyway. THAT would be yet another cool idea for its own story.
  • The episode (perhaps mercifully) doesn’t make it clear, but the salamanders probably aren’t intelligent/sentient? If so, that’s at least one thing the episode gets right about evolution: it doesn’t necessarily favor high intelligence. Humanity has gotten much more intelligent over the eons, but we’re a rarity in that regard. In fact, there are significant survival-related drawbacks to having gigantic brains (as I frequently demonstrate).
  • I can’t help but think of Junji Ito’s horror manga Uzukami, in particular the chapter about the slow-moving, picked-on nerd who transforms into a gigantic snail, followed by the bully who teased him. The two of them mate and lay a clutch of gigantic eggs. True to the horror of that circumstance, a teacher destroys the eggs only to suffer the same fate by also transforming into a snail. The story commits to the stomach-churning nature of this batshit insanity and it’s disturbing but great. Still less of a horror story than “Threshold!”
  • The premise of some magical crystals allowing the crew to inexplicably devise an entirely novel approach to space travel would be repeated in “Timeless,” albeit in a more grounded fashion and to an infinitely better effect. But in both cases, this reality-altering discovery would be quietly shuffled away.
  • One of the running plot threads of the second season was the treasonous crewman passing info along to the Kazon, and we get a scene of that here. Somehow it makes everything seem dumber by connecting it to the larger goings-on of the show. Absolutely no reference to this episode would ever be made again, which is for the best. Also, the Kazon happen to have the same warp factor system in which 10 is the impossible upper limit? Can those bozos even go warp 9, let alone a bajillion times faster? *SNORT* Unlikely!
“With this subspace flux descrambler I can finally watch the naughty channels! Ooh, was that a boob or a planet? God, this is sad.”