Space millennial is menaced by an evil clown and Cirque du Soleil; still not his worst day at work ever.
“The Thaw” is, in my opinion, one of Voyager‘s best episodes. Ever. It’s absolutely the most underrated.
Big call? Sure! But hear me out.
Voyager is at its weakest when it’s making conservative choices, when it forgets that the characters are more interesting than technobabble, when it’s being half-hearted. A lot of season 2 has been half-hearted.
But not “The Thaw”! Though it starts out with a teaser so generic it was literally lifted from “Death Wish” and moved here, once the plot gets underway, “The Thaw” is wholly committed to being absolutely bonkers.
You have a planet faced with an ecological catastrophe, and five people who chose to ride the disaster out in stasis, hoping they can wake up and rebuild when the dust settles.
(What happened to the rest of the population? Tuvok expresses doubt about the feasibility of an evacuation — so that’s grim.)
The sleepers have been in stasis for four years too long, so Janeway decides to wake them up. Is that a Prime Directive issue? The planet had advanced technology and warp drive, so I guess not. I also don’t care!
The three surviving sleepers are trapped in an artificial reality created by the stasis system — it was originally designed to keep their minds active, but their fears began to manifest themselves … in the form of a clown.
What follows is a surreal hostage crisis. The Clown has Harry Kim and the three surviving aliens; Voyager has the Doctor, who can access the artificial reality, and … well, gumption.
The Voyager side of things is pretty standard. There are meetings, there is problem solving, there is maybe too much technobabble.
But over in Clownland, it’s a party.
Is this a story that only Voyager could tell?
Well, no. With just a few tweaks, this could have been a TNG episode, it could come from early DS9, or ENT.
But what it really feels like is something out of TOS. And, despite my rule of thumb about generic stories, that’s actually part of the appeal.
Voyager has used a lot of the darker tropes of 1950s and ’60s SF, but this is a very rare excursion into camp. We have bright colours! Music! Deliberate theatrics, whose oddness and artificiality are highlighted by camera tricks and deliberate discontinuity — the same people popping up in different shots, implying that they exist in several places at once.
It should be terrible, but it works — partially because the directing is so confident, and partially because Michael McKean and the supporting company are absolutely unapologetic in their performances.
OTOH, sometimes vintage tropes should be left in the past for a reason
One aspect of “The Thaw” is not great, Bob — the Little Woman. Played by Patty Maloney, one of the most iconic performers with dwarfism who isn’t Peter Dinklage, the Little Woman is just straight up Little People Are Surreal.
Which is not to fault Maloney’s performance — she’s a powerful presence, and a great leader of the ensemble and foil for McKean — but it’s an ugly trope, and served to remind me that people of short stature are rarely seen in Star Trek, and when they are, it’s usually as Weird Background Aliens. Rarely characters in their own right, and never as humans. In fact, in terms of screentime and dialogue, the Little Woman might be the best representation in the whole franchise.
So that’s a yikes from me.
I’m not saying this is definitely an old DC Fontana script they found down the back of a couch, but…
It’s not just the aesthetic that’s straight outta the sixties — apparently the most traumatic experience of Harry’s life was when his parents responded to a “radiation disaster” on a colony, and he slipped away and encountered a small child preparing to undergo some kind of terrifying surgery.
Now, I’m as scared of radiation as anyone who was a small child when the Chernobyl disaster took place, but the phrase “radiation disaster” doesn’t quite fit ’90s Trek, and nor does the picture the Clown paints of the surgery prep Harry witnessed.
Of course, the Clown is not a reliable narrator, and apparently Harry’s little head is just stuffed full of 20th century references (he quotes FDR’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”) which the Clown picks up. But it’s all a bit … Cold War.
Did this need to be a Harry story?
Honestly, no. As I typed up that paragraph about the 20th century-ness of it all, it occurred to me that this could have just as easily have been a Tom story.
But I don’t care, because Garrett Wang is so good in this episode, and Tom’s had more than enough screen time this year. And while the “radiation disaster” story will never come up again, Harry’s fear of loss of control, of being powerless, is a nice insight which feels consistent with everything we know, and will learn, about him.
The living embodiment of fear checks under his bed to make sure Janeway isn’t hiding there
“Deadlock”: Janeway out-stubborns herself.
“The Thaw”: Janeway scares the embodiment of fear.
I’m beginning to understand why I fell so hard for Janeway in season 2. “Resistance” made her vulnerable; these episodes made her anything but.
And her dialogue about the value of fear is hugely important. In “Innocence”, Tuvok told the ‘children’ that fear was a normal, and powerful, reaction, and gave them the skills to deal with it. Here, Janeway advances that idea.
And she is always scariest when she’s whispering.
- Kes is present, but not really used. She’s handed the idiot ball so we can learn what is meant by “artificial environment”, even though she lives on a starship with holodecks.
- On the other hand, she looks super cute.
- Neelix and Chakotay are kind of just there, but the rest of the ensemble is used well.
- Sing it with me: there are too many regulars on this show!
- Harry is flirting — or at least playing duets with — an officer, Susan “Cold Hands, Cold Heart” Nicoletti, but he also still misses Libby. Moving on is hard, I know.
- (I have long been convinced that Nicoletti is a perfectly nice woman who just wasn’t interested in Tom “Kind Of A Sexist Jerk” Paris, and nothing will change my mind.)
Okay, it’s not perfect, but “The Thaw” is still amazing. I’m not scared of clowns, but this episode makes me wonder if I should be. Four and a half surrealist guillotines out of five.