Voyager rewatch 2.15 – “Threshold”

It’s the blog post that goes really, really fast, and then turns into a lizard.

“Threshold” is widely maligned as the worst episode of Voyager, if not the worst episode of Star Trek ever.

This is completely unfair. There are far worse episodes of Trek. Hell, there are worse episodes this season. (Looking at you, “Alliances”.)

Not that “Threshold” is good, but it’s bad in a harmless B-movie sort of way. Yes, Paris evolves into a lizard, kidnaps Janeway and they have hyper-evolved lizard babies together, but the script even tries to suggest this was consensual lizard reproduction! Is it any wonder that Tumblr fandom has turned its back on conventional fan wisdom and embraced Threshold Day as a solemn nerd holiday?

Pssst, you wanna break the laws of physics?

We open with the nerd squad — Tom, Harry and B’Elanna — running simulations to break the warp 10 barrier. Why? Well, they found a new type of dilithium, which means they (think they) can. There’s just a slight problem where all their simulations end in explosion.

Neelix accidentally provides the solution to this problem, and Janeway — despite concerns that We Are Not Yet Ready For This Power — gives her blessing. No one mentions Discovery‘s spore drive, because it hasn’t been retroactively invented yet, but also no one mentions the transwarp drive experiment featured in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, which only failed because Scotty sabotaged it, and yes, I’m still mad that Discovery had to jump through all these hoops to “explain” why the spore drive was never mentioned later when, you know…

Anyway. We’re good to go, except that the Doctor is concerned that a minor defect in Tom’s brain could kill him. Janeway wants to take him off the mission; Tom argues his case.

This is a good scene! Janeway and Tom haven’t really hung out much since the early days of the series, and their mutual respect is really enjoyable to watch. (Especially if you’re a Janeway/Paris shipper, which … well, I dabbled. How could I not, when they canonically had lizard babies together!)

Through this scene, we learn:

  • Here are two people who would absolutely inject themselves with homebrew tardigrade DNA and strap themselves into a bootleg spore drive if they knew that was an option.
  • Tom recalls that, growing up, everyone — his parents, his teachers, the kids at school — predicted that Tom Paris would go on to do something great. And I have to conclude:
    • I’m pretty sure the kids at school were actually saying, “That Tom Paris, eh? What a wanker.”
    • He is the living embodiment of Gifted Kid Who Grew Up To Be A Mediocre Adult.
    • As opposed to Harry, Gifted Kid Who Grew Up To Be A Perfectionist With Anxiety.
    • And B’Elanna, Gifted Kid Who Was Overlooked Because Of Her Marginalised Identity And Responded By Acting Out.
    • (Seven is in the same category as Harry, obviously. Janeway ruined a perfectly good drone. Look at her, she’s got anxiety.)

Janeway is deeply moved by Tom’s account, as if we didn’t all grow up being told we were going to be Australia’s first female prime minister, and she gives the okay.

And the experiment’s a success! Neither the shuttle nor Tom’s brain explodes, but the shuttle’s computer is full of delicious sensor data, and Tom briefly occupied all points in the galaxy at once. Which sounds stressful to me, like opening Twitter as soon as you wake up, but he seemed cool with it.

It’s all going just fine until Tom develops an allergy to water. Followed quickly by an inability to breathe air.

Beloved radioactive mutant

The next act is basically Tom’s theatrics as he mutates his way towards death.

That’s not a criticism of Robert Duncan McNeill’s acting — he brings a lot of sincerity to his scenery chewing — but the dialogue is as overwrought as it is entertaining. Tom reminisces about his favourite pizza (pepperoni with olives), the hours spent crying in his childhood bedroom, and also the loss of his virginity in that same room.

McNeill emotes, Robert Picardo plays straight man, Jennifer Lien looks sad and pretty. This is solid, amusing character work. I know that sounds like faint praise, but this and the earlier scene with Janeway are rich with character detail and quite fun.

Finally, tragically, Tom dies.

I recommend just stopping here.

B-movie blues

Some of the Voyager writers were super into pulp SF and B-movies. We saw it with “Prototype”, we’ll see it again with the Captain Proton holonovel in season five, and here we have writer Brannon Braga’s homage to the genre.

You want body horror? How about Tom pulling his own tongue out?

You want low budget action? Here’s the Doctor and Kes watching on a monitor as phasers discharge and Tom makes his escape!

You want problematic gender roles? Once again, we have a female character being knocked out and carried away bridal style!

Star Trek has always had a complicated relationship with pulpy SF. On the one hand, TOS was embraced because it took science fiction seriously. On the other hand, it also produced “Spock’s Brain”, an episode about sexy ladies stealing … Spock’s brain. It took an acclaimed Shakespearean actor and put him in a spandex onesie so tight it caused permanent back damage. The most critically acclaimed of the ’90s spin-offs has a whole episode about a baseball rivalry with mean aliens.

This is a franchise where the “dark ‘n’ gritty reboot” includes travel via space mushrooms. A certain level of absurdity is built into Star Trek, and you can either embrace it or go away and watch something else.

Or, I guess, you can do what I do: go along with it happily until it all gets too much, at which point you throw up your hands and say, “But why did you make these choices?”

Because “what if humans are actually going to evolve into amphibious lizard creatures who may or may not be sentient at all?” is … not an intrinsically terrible idea, but why would you tell that story here, with these characters?

“Apparent technological advancement actually has terrible side effects” is a story worth telling, but it’s hardly new. And “passing through the transwarp barrier causes you to evolve into amphibians” feels more like an in-universe urban legend than … something that we’re meant to actually believe happened.

(For one thing, that’s … not how evolution works?)

I keep asking myself, who thought this was a good idea? Because even as the lizard babies swim away, you can hear the writers room silently agreeing never to speak of this again.

Brannon Braga has noted, “[The episode] had some good intentions behind it.” And, according to quotes on Memory Alpha, a scene was cut out which would have given the episode a point. Which might have helped? But it’s still hard to believe this episode even … exists.

Thank goodness Voyager‘s so episodic — it’s easy to pretend that “Threshold” is just a dream Tom had after eating too much pepperoni and olive pizza, or that it’s … I dunno, anti-transwarp propaganda. Maybe “if you go too fast you’ll evolve into a lizard” is the twenty-fourth century equivalent of wind turbine syndrome.

The (metaphoric) evolution of Tom Paris

Joking aside, Tom goes on a significant emotional journey in “Threshold”. He starts out dealing with the oppressive weight of external expectation. By the end, he’s able to acknowledge that not only has he made significant achievements in his own right, but it’s his own internal expectations that he needs to address. “Threshold” ends with Tom preparing to face that new challenge.

“Extremely privileged white man has self esteem issues” is not a story I find especially interesting, but I like Tom’s growth from self-absorbed-yet-self-loathing douchebag to Actually Decent Guy. And the events of “Threshold” are a key part of that. We’ll never speak of the lizard thing again, but the character development is allowed to stay.

Other observations

  • A good reason to stop watching after Tom’s temporary death is that you’ll miss a Jonas-betrays-Voyager-to-the-Kazon scene.
  • I’m perplexed by Kes’s outfit this week: it’s one of her usual layered tunics, but with a completely superfluous strap over the chest. It’s not even the same colour as the rest of her tunic. Why? How?
  • I realise this is the very least of the questions raised by “Threshold”, but I think it’s important to be complete.
  • Janeway does have a very nice ponytail in the final scene. It’s not, in my opinion, worth everything that led up to it, but I just thought you should know.
  • Tom refers to B’Elanna as “Torres” and claims he doesn’t trust her because he’s never seen her cry. Which is gross, dude. But also faintly amusing in light of their future marriage.
  • Brannon Braga later went on to create a whole series titled Threshold. He is a braver man than I.

In conclusion

Oh yeah, you can skip this. Unless, of course, curiosity and/or the Threshold Day celebrations gets the better of you. One and a half lizard babies*.

* They’re lizards! I’m sure they have the sorts of tails that grow back!

3 thoughts on “Voyager rewatch 2.15 – “Threshold””

    1. That is SO kind of you to say, especially as I’m presently staring at my post about “Meld” and going, “I love this episode! Why is it so hard to write about?”

  1. I never thought it was *that* bad either. I mean I love Spock’s Brain but being cool with that as canon and saying this isn’t is a bit weird. The bit that actually annoyed was the “warp 10 means you’re everywhere all at once” and them going “well, if it’s going to turn you into a amphibian let’s just forget it all.” Love the horror stuff and find the ending oddly delightful though.

    Also these posts are fab, I love them, you are v good at this, I see why you won an award.

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