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Threshold is hated by fandom.
Veteran reviewer Jamahl Epsicokhan described it as “one of the all-time worst episodes of Star Trek ever filmed.” He is far from the only voice raised in protest. Winston O’Boogie remarked that, watching the episode, “you can’t help but think that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong with the world that allowed this to happen.” Assessing writer Brannon Braga’s contributions to the larger franchise, Jim Wright reflected, “Whatever else he may accomplish, he’s as forever shackled to Threshold as George Lucas to Jar-Jar.”
Threshold is terrible. There is no way around that. It is a very stupid episode that is never entirely sure what it is trying to say from one moment to the next. More than that, positioning it as an important Tom Paris arc in the middle of the second season serves to sabotage the already confused character arc running between Alliances and Investigations. There is absolutely no context in which Threshold could be described as a “good” (or even “competent”) hour of television.
At the same time, it is not one of the worst episodes of the franchise ever produced; it is not even one of the worst episodes of the series. Surrounded by episodes like Tattoo or Alliances, the episode cannot even make a particularly confident claim to being the worst instalment of the season. None of this should be confused as an endorsement of Threshold. It is condemnation of everything that exists around Threshold.
It’s interesting to wonder why Threshold generated such a strong response from fandom. The episode is terrible, but there were so many terrible episodes airing around it that it seems weird to focus hatred on this individual story. After all, Threshold aired directly following Alliances; that particular episode found Janeway opting to ally with white-skinned slave owners instead of their dark-skinned former slaves, offering a big sanctimonious speech at the end about how, if she can’t trust slaveowners, then Voyager must truly be on its own.
This is to say nothing of the script for Tattoo, an episode about a bunch of magical white-skinned aliens who came down from the heavens and gave indigenous populations a spark of divine genius that somehow makes them all mystical or something. There is a lot of unfortunate racial subtext running through the second season of Star Trek: Voyager, and that is without considering the implications of the whole “Kazon as Los Angeles street gangs” theme that Michael Piller and Kenneth Biller thought would be fun to thread through the season.
In light of all this, it seems a minor miracle that Threshold decides to mangle evolutionary theory in a manner that is simply idiotic rather than explicitly racist. Considering the handling of race in scripts like Tattoo and Alliances, it is a wonder that Tom Paris evolves into a space!salamander rather than a space!W.A.S.P. Threshold is terrible and ill-conceived on multiple levels, but at least it is not spectacularly racist. That should be a fairly low bar for any episode Star Trek to pass, but it seems to be a lot tougher than it should be this season.
(This is not to suggest that Threshold doesn’t have its own rather problematic moments. After all, mutant!Paris abducts Janeway for the purpose of making mutant!babies with her. The closing scene tries to shrug that off, with Janeway remarking that “sometimes it’s the female of the species that initiates mating.” However, the point of the abduction is clear, even if mutant!Janeway consented to freaky mutant!sex. Given the second season’s fixation on female characters as mothers, the whole climax of the episode is ill-conceived. At best.)
What is it about Threshold that provokes such a strong and emotive response from fandom, while other second season episodes simply get a pithy dismissal or a half-hearted critique? Perhaps a lot of it is down to the positioning of Threshold. This is not a good episode, and it comes at the end of the first half of a season that has struggled to produce a handful of passable hours of television. More to the point, Voyager has yet to produce a truly classic or defining episode; the first season has come and gone without a hint of a Duet or a In the Hands of the Prophets.
There are good episodes in the first stretch of the second season; Projections is genuinely great, while Persistence of Vision and Resistance are generally entertaining. Nevertheless, it has been a long and painful slog through the second season. There is a lot of crap here. It isn’t even like the second season of Star Trek: Enterprise, where everything blends into a competently-produced blur with no distinct flavour; there are genuinely terrible episodes scattered through the season, with the production team messing up what should be simple Star Trek stories.
Perhaps the hatred is cumulative. Maybe Threshold is simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. The episode is certainly more engaging than Twisted; it is certainly less actively racist than any episode featuring the Kazon. In some respects, Threshold arrives at a low point in the second season. The second season does have some legitimately great episodes coming up in a fairly short space of time, with one genuine masterpiece and a number of nice character-driven stories for the ensemble. There are still a few stinkers to come, but less than there were before.
That said, it feels like an unconvincing explanation for the raw anger that Threshold provokes from fans. It is interesting to wonder if the aggressive response to Threshold is rooted in the fact that it is a very silly episode of television. After all, Star Trek fans tend to take the show very seriously; Kenneth Biller was very eager to complain about the goofy and pulpy design of the robots in Prototype, ignoring that the retro design was perhaps the the strongest part of an episode with a number of very questionable storytelling choices.
The episode was originally pitched by Michael De Luca, the head of New Line Cinema who had struck up a friendship with Brannon Braga. De Luca explained his original pitch:
I think my pitch was if you break the warp ten barrier you…at warp eleven you’re in touch with every molecule in the universe at the same time and it has a bad effect on that character on the show that played the test pilot. I think it was Lieutenant Paris or something. So, they bought the story and I got to have my name on that episode of the Star Trek series and it made me really happy.
De Luca’s writing credits include Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and Judge Dredd, giving an indication of the sensibilities of his pitch. This is not the sort of science-fiction that nineties Star Trek did very often.
Threshold is a very pulpy episode of science-fiction. If the robots from Prototype look like they escaped from a fifties or sixties b-movie, it seems entirely possible that the script for Prototype is another refugee from late-night broadcasts of cheap horror films. Brannon Braga has always been fascinated by schlock and horror, with his work on Threshold sitting comfortably between his scripts for Genesis or Microcosm. Much of Threshold plays as an attempt to do trashy body horror within a familiar Star Trek framework.
Braga’s script is aware of its ridiculous elements. “Here lies Thomas Eugene Paris, beloved mutant,” Paris laments as the EMH and Kes fight to save his life. As the EMH prepares to infuse him with radiation, Paris amends his epitaph, “Great. Now it’ll read, beloved radioactive mutant.” After his supposed death, the EMH is working in Sickbay (with the lights turned down low for maximum horror vibe) only to discover that the pilot has been resurrected. Pulling back the tarp draped over the body, the EMH declares, “You’re alive.” Victor Frankenstein would be proud.
Discussing the episode, Braga has explained that he was attempting to do high concept body horror within the structure of a traditional Star Trek episode. Braga is the first to admit that Threshold doesn’t work:
Of course, the one I’d just as soon forget is called Threshold. That’s the one in which Janeway and Paris turn into lizards. That’s a real low point. I was trying something. I don’t want to get into what I was trying to do, but it didn’t quite work. It was my homage, I guess, to David Cronenberg’s The Fly, but it really backfired on me. It was poorly executed by me.
It is not a surprise that Braga should want to make an episode like this. More than any other Star Trek writer of his generation, Braga has been fascinated by the intersection between Star Trek‘s science-fiction sensibilities and classic horror tropes.
The body horror of Genesis, Threshold and Microcosm provides perhaps the most jarring contrast to the somewhat sterile aesthetic of nineties Star Trek. However, Braga also worked on the script for the gothic horror of Sub Rosa. His own stories for episodes like Frame of Mind and Projections have a strong psychological horror element to them. Indeed, even his breakout script for Cause and Effect could be seen as an existential horror story. So there is definitely a larger context for what Braga is doing here.
(Indeed, Braga’s reintroduction of horror into the Star Trek oeuvre is arguably long overdue. Classic Star Trek contained more than its fair share of goofy space horror episodes; the first episode of Star Trek to air was The Man Trap, a script featuring what might be described as “a salt vampire.” Kirk was constantly confronted with cosmic horror, with classics like The Squire of Gothos and The Immunity Syndrome consciously playing up the horrors of going “where no man has gone before.” This is to say nothing of Robert Bloch’s influence on the show.)
Threshold actually works reasonably well as a piece of body horror. It is certainly more compelling as body horror than it is as character study or philosophical treatise. The show is surprisingly discomforting for an episode of Star Trek, with one of the lead characters pulling out his own tongue. The make-up is impressive, even if it leads to the bizarre situation where Threshold beat The Visitor to an Emmy award. Paris rants and raves all sorts of suitably creepy existential nonsense about what he is “becoming.”
Of course, the episode around all this is incredibly lazy and disappointing. There are any number of credible criticisms of the plot, right down to the principles underlying Paris’ transformation. Quite simply, evolution does not work that way. Evolution is not a linear process that can be magically accelerated. Evolution occurs through natural selection and genetic diversification; there is not a magic “go faster” button buried in DNA that might speed things up. For a show that claims to be science-fiction, Star Trek sure has a shoddy understanding of evolution.
Star Trek tends to adopt a very deterministic approach to evolution. According to Star Trek, evolution is not a process that results from a variety of external factors – including the surrounding environment and gene pool. Stories like The Chase and Threshold suggest that there is really a predetermined evolutionary path for mankind to follow, a clear and orderly progression between what mankind is and what mankind is to become. According to the logic of the Star Trek universe, evolution is something that occurs with a very clear purpose and objective.
Indeed, this arguably plays into the rhetoric of the Prime Directive as it is articulated in the nineties Star Trek shows. Picard and Janeway are reluctant to interfere with the so-called “natural” evolutionary course of a species, refusing play god. In Prototype, Janeway even suggests extinction is the most likely outcome of any evolutionary path. All of this ignores the reality that evolution is a process that is adaptable and flexible; it does not occur within a vacuum, and often welcomes the arrival of outside influences.
In Captains’ Logs Supplemental, Braga argues that he intended the episode to play as a deconstruction of the idea that evolution was inherently progressive:
It’s very much a classic Star Trek story, but in the rewrite process I took out the explanation, the idea behind the ending, that we evolve into these little lizards because maybe evolution is not always progressive. Maybe it’s a cycle where we revert to something more rudimentary. That whole conversation was taken out for various reasons, and that was a disaster because without it the episode doesn’t even have a point. I think it suffered greatly. I got the note that it wasn’t necessary, but in fact it really had a lot to do with what the episode was about. Big mistake taking it out.
It’s a fair point, but Braga’s central thesis still suggests that evolution is a single predetermined path, albeit one that doesn’t always lead upwards.
(As if to demonstrate that Threshold considers evolution to be a singular predetermined path, it is worth noting that apparently Janeway undergoes the exact same transformation as Paris; her “evolution” progresses in exactly the same direction as his own, to the point that the two are able to conceive children together. It appears that Threshold is being rather unambiguous here; those salamander creatures are the natural end point of human evolution, folks. Don’t worry that it doesn’t make any sense.)
In a way, Threshold could be seen as an example of the Star Trek franchise’s somewhat reactionary anxieties about transhumanism. For a property that claims to offer a utopian vision of the future, Star Trek is frequently terrified by the idea that anything could exist “beyond” humanity; humanity is presented as something approaching the pinnacle of evolutionary design, and any attempt to transcend that is inherently abhorrent. The future might hold infinite possibilities, but they are possibilities to be explored by good old standard-model humans.
The franchise has been wary of attempts to genetically enhance humanity, dating back to Space Seed and continuing through to Star Trek Into Darkness. When genetic engineering does not produce monsters like Khan, it produces sociopathic misfits like those featured in Statistical Probabilities. The Borg are portrayed as monstrosities in their efforts to transcend organic life and reach towards “perfection.” It seems that Threshold is embracing this anxiety, suggesting that even evolution itself cannot improve on the basic human form.
Even allowing for the somewhat… questionable evolutionary theory underpinning the episode, the script around the pseudo-science is incredibly weak. Threshold starts out as another “Voyager almost gets home” story, in the grand tradition of Eye of the Needle, Prime Factors and Cold Fire. This time, it seems like the crew of a ship stranded on the opposite side of the galaxy are somehow able to break the fundamental laws of the universe. Well, they certainly have the necessary motivation.
Threshold is very much a “Voyager crew redefine the laws of physics and forget about it the following week” story. The crew would often solve seemingly impossible scientific problems, constantly re-writing the textbooks on basic physics and elementary science. Although this tendency was somewhat exaggerated by fandom, there are a number of points where it seems like the Voyager crew devote a few hours of thought to a seemingly unsolvable problem, refine it to the point where it helps them either get into or out of the plot of the week, and then promptly discard the idea.
(This is typically a factor in “crew almost get home” stories, because the nature of Voyager means that the crew cannot get home before the end of the series. As a result, a number of key projects and decisions are motivated by the possibility that the crew might get home, only for the episode to handwave a reason why they can’t actually use the technology or research to get home. In Prime Factors, they try to use the Sikarian technology once; when it proves incompatible, the crew make no further investigation into it and conduct no further research.)
It does seem weird that Voyager is apparently populated with the sort of hyper-competent individuals who put the crew of the Enterprise to shame. Picard assembled his crew from the best of the best to staff the Federation flagship, it makes sense that Geordi LaForge and Data would be among the best and the brightest. In contrast, Caretaker suggested that the crew of Voyager were a bunch of rogues and neophytes thrown together by circumstance. It seems weird that so many breakthroughs should come from throwing these characters together.
After all, the team that crack “warp ten” are hardly a collection of Starfleet all-stars. Tom Paris was a hotshot pilot who was not skilled enough to avoid detection when he became a terrorist; Harry Kim is just a child. The only person on the team whose specialty is actually warp travel is only one who never actually graduated from Starfleet Academy. It seems weird that Torres should prove so skilled at theoretical physics when the show has made so much of her practical prowess.
In Threshold, the crew develop a new technology that allows them to be everywhere in the universe at once; it has a fairly useful application for a crew stranded on the other side of the galaxy. In his initial test, Paris starts and ends in the same place; however, his later adventure with Janeway suggests that it is possible to enter and exit transwarp at different locations. (Although it is convenient that he stays within range of Voyager.) This could be a vital part of getting the crew home, with a bit more research and development.
Sure, the technology has some unfortunate side effects, like turning people into lizards. However, the closing scene of Threshold suggests that the EMH has found an effective treatment for that potential issue, as reverting Janeway and Paris to their human forms is no big deal. Why can’t Voyager make the jump, and then have the EMH treat the crew afterwards? It seems like the transformation from human to lizard takes quite a bit of time, so the EMH certainly has a window of opportunity; particularly if he has an effective treatment.
If there are factors like Samantha Wildman’s pregnancy to consider, why not send a shuttle with one person (and details of the treatment) to Earth to let them know Voyager is alive and to give them the transwarp research? Why not continue research into transwarp with an eye to preventing the sudden evolution of the crew? There are any number of ways that the events of Threshold should get Voyager at least a little closer to home, although the show can’t be bothered to do anything with them.
There is a reason for this, of course. The second season of Voyager is absolutely abysmal at arc-based storytelling. Even leaving aside the question of how quickly the crew forsake the possibility of using transwarp to get home, Threshold wreaks havoc with Tom Paris’ arc across the second season as a whole. Threshold is essentially an episode about how Paris has to become comfortable in his own skin, coming right before Paris starts roleplaying as a lovable rogue in an effort to get himself kicked off the ship and recruited by the Kazon.
Discussing Threshold with Cinefantastique, actor Robert Duncan McNeill explained how he tried to root the episode in a simple character arc for Tom Paris:
What is this about? Before you can even start to tell the story you have to find the moral. What is the simplest point of this episode? Once you can say that in a sentence then that is what the episode is about. To me that the whole warp ten and salamanders and all of that frosting was about Paris trying to find some sort of salvation outside himself and ultimately realizing that he had to find his own self worth from within. Here is somebody who thinks he’s got to break warp ten and prove to everybody, his father and himself that he can do this outside thing, but ultimately your happiness comes from within.
It is a fairly generic character arc for Tom Paris, particularly heaped upon an episode that is already as tonally messy as Threshold.
At the same time, the theme kinda works with the episode’s body horror themes; Tom Paris finds himself transforming into a monster, perhaps reflecting how he sees himself – or how he suspects other see him. “What I’m becoming will probably be better than who I was,” Paris confesses to Janeway in a moment of self-pity. However, the theme is never quite as developed as it needs to be for the story to work. Instead, it feels like a concept grafted on in an attempt to give the episode some emotional heft.
The episode ends with Paris coming to the realisation that he needs to be comfortable in his own skin. “I guess I went into this looking for a quick fix,” he confesses. “I thought making history would change things. Not just my service record, my reputation.” Janeway assures him, “If I’m not mistaken, you’ve changed quite a few minds on this ship. You’ve earned a lot of people’s respect and admiration.” Paris responds, “Yeah. But I’m starting to realise that it’s not other people’s opinions I should be worried about. It’s mine.”
It is a sweet – if corny – sentiment. Unfortunately, it is completely undercut by Paris’ character arc across the next few episodes. Starting with Meld, Paris reverts back to his bad boy ways and starts squandering all the good will that he has built up. In Investigations, it is revealed that this is all part of a secret plan to infiltrate the Kazon and expose Michael Jonas. Ignoring the terrible execution of the arc, which pretty much killed any possibility of Voyager embracing serialised storytelling, it is an interesting concept.
The problem is that the handling of Paris across the rest of the season jars completely with the central point of his character arc in Threshold. Threshold insists that he is appreciated on Voyager and that he can be comfortable enough to stop playing the feckless rebel. There is a way to rationalise Paris’ character development in Threshold with his treatment across the rest of the season, but it would require a fundamental reworking of the season arc. As it stands, the arc is incompatible with the character work here.
Then again, it comes down to one of the fundamental problems with the second season’s use of Paris. Having Paris act like a jerk for no reason, before revealing the reason as a twist, is a terrible creative decision; it feels lazy and ill-judged, prioritising the twist ahead of the character. It might have worked better to be upfront with the deception, exploring the arc from the perspective of Paris himself. There are many issues with the Paris arc that runs through season, but the fact that it doesn’t actually develop Paris’ character is one of the most striking.
Having Janeway pitch the ruse to Paris, and having Paris decide that he is willing to throw away all the goodwill he has earned to protect the crew, would be an organic continuation of his arc in Threshold. The closing scene of Threshold has Paris suggest that his own esteem is more important than that of anybody else on the crew; watching Paris make that choice would be an interesting dramatic beat. Of course, this does nothing to resolve the many other problems with the arc; most notably, Janeway and Paris still violate the trust of the senior staff – especially Chakotay.
There are other stock problems with Threshold. As with a lot of Voyager scripts, flimsy science (and hazy internal plot logic) are hung on technobabble. The show offers a variety of gobbledygook to explain what is happening (and how the EMH plans to fix it) but none of it is actually convincing. “I’d like to place Mister Paris in an isotopic restraint and then infuse it with controlled antiproton bursts,” the EMH explains. “A tricky venture, but I see no other alternative.” It is hard to generate tangible stakes when dialogue comes out of a technobabble generator.
At the same time, there are some interesting concepts. The idea of transwarp allowing Paris to be everywhere at once is quite interesting, in a vaguely spiritual sort of way; the ability to occupy every space in the universe in the same instant is something almost beyond human comprehension; it suggests a state of “oneness” with the universe. In fact, it invites the viewer to wonder whether beings like the Q evolved in a similar fashion, transcending the boundaries of space (and even time) to be everywhere at once.
Paris’ description of the experience is romantic. “I was… I was staring at the velocity indicator. It said warp ten. And then, as I watched it, I suddenly realised that I was watching myself as well. I could see the outside of the shuttle, I could see Voyager, I could see inside Voyager. I could see inside this room. For a moment, I was everywhere. I mean, everywhere, Captain. With the Kazon, back home, with the Klingons, other galaxies. It was all there. I don’t know how else to explain it. It was like. Well, no, it wasn’t like anything.”
Star Trek is a show that is about exploration, and Voyager was very consciously an attempt to get back to the art of exploring. However, that exploration is as much about interrogating the human condition as it is about charting literal new frontiers. The use of transwarp as a means to connect mankind to everything in the universe and to transcend linear perception does both at the same time; it suggests an evolutionary leap in the type of “exploration” that is possible on Voyager. Too bad that it ultimately ends up as an episode about lizard babies.
(Then again, it is hard to imagine what the dramatic stakes might have been in a story about the crew achieving “oneness” with the wider universe. Where does that particular story go? What happens when you are literally everywhere at once? As Death Wish suggests, omniscience can be boring. At best, this alternate version of Threshold might have played out in an abstract manner that recalled Where No One Has Gone Before. Given how Threshold ultimately turned out, that might not be such a bad thing.)
Threshold is not a good episode of television. It is, in many respects, quite terrible. However, it is not as terrible as its reputation suggests; it is not as terrible as the episode that aired directly before it. It doesn’t even come close to working, but it is not even the worst episode of this season.