Star Trek: Voyager Rewatch

Star Trek: Voyager Rewatch: “The Thaw”

“The Thaw”
Written by Richard Gadas and Joe Menosky
Directed by Marvin V. Rush
Season 2, Episode 23
Production episode 139
Original air date: April 29, 1996
Stardate: unknown

Captain’s log. Kim is practicing his clarinet, but Ensign Baytart, whose cabin is next door, is not happy about it. Apparently the fluid conduits in the bulkhead transmit sound; also apparently, soundproofing is a concept that will disappear from human consciousness in the next three hundred years…

Voyager arrives at a planet that Neelix knows as a trading post from a couple decades ago, but it suffered a massive catastrophe thanks to solar flares. The biosphere seems to be recovering from the event, at least, but there are no signs of life. However, an automated signal hails the ship. It’s a prerecorded message from a native of the Kohl settlement, Viorsa, who says that he and some of his comrades are in hibernation and will come out of it fifteen years after the catastrophe, and please don’t interfere with the prearranged cycle.

The only problem is, it’s been nineteen years since they went into hibernation.

Kim finds very faint lifesigns far underground. Tuvok is able to lock onto five pods and beam them up. Two of the Kohl are dead, having apparently died of heart failure, but the other three are showing brain activity, which doesn’t track with being in suspended animation.

They soon determine that the Kohl are in some kind of virtual reality simulation that keeps them occupied while they’re hibernating, and also that they can come out any time, but they have chosen not to for some odd reason. The EMH can’t just pull them out without their consent without risking serious brain damage—the machinery was set up to only allow voluntary revival.

Janeway decides to send Kim and Torres into the simulation via the two pods belonging to the ones who died and make contact.

Torres and Kim find themselves in the midst of a bizarre festival, full of people in costumes and masks and makeup and such. The guy in charge is a clown in gray-and-white makeup who welcomes them and seems to already know them. They take Kim to have his head chopped off, but Viorsa and the other two Kohl finally show up and convince them not to do that. Viorsa points out to the clown that if these two die, their ship will just send more people, and possibly just turn the whole thing off.

The clown is keeping them all there, refusing to let the Kohl leave. He cut off the heads of the other two, which is what led to their real bodies dying of heart failure—the fear of decapitation killed them. He’ll kill the other Kohl if Torres and Kim try to leave on their own.

When Janeway orders Kes to revive Torres and Kim from outside, Kim shuts it down from the inside. The clown wants him to remove the mechanism for reviving all together, but Kim talks him out of that—if Voyager doesn’t hear from Kim or Torres soon, Janeway will shut the whole thing down, even if it risks brain damage. Once everyone leaves the simulation, the clown will disappear, as he only exists because he’s tethered to the Kohl (and now Kim and Torres).

They learn that the simulation they’re in is adaptive, and linked to the minds of the Kohl. The clown is a manifestation of their fear—of dying, of the planet not recovering, of something going wrong—and it can read their minds. There’s a delay between what you think and when the clown reads it, at least.

The clown decides to let Torres leave in order to bring a message to Janeway: don’t mess with the simulation, or Kim dies.

Star Trek: Voyager

Screenshot: CBS

While the senior staff of Voyager try to figure out how to negotiate with a manifestation of an emotion, the clown torments Kim for having thoughts of escape. The clown has long since beaten such thoughts out of the Kohl’s heads, but Kim is new and doesn’t know any better yet. The clown puts Kim through a mental wringer, aging him, reverting him to infancy, and reminding him of a traumatic experience from his youth.

That experience included observing an operation on a little girl who was restrained, and the clown’s reenactment of the surgery is interrupted by the EMH, who shows him how to wield the scalpel properly.

The EMH has been sent into the simulation to negotiate—since he doesn’t have an organic brain to read, the clown doesn’t have an advantage. Janeway has offered to create an artificial brain that will sustain the clown, but the clown can read in Kim’s thoughts that this is a dubious notion. Likewise, when Viorsa says it can be done by adjusting the optronic relays, the clown refuses to believe it. He tells the EMH to go away, which he does, after reassuring Kim that he’ll be back.

Viorsa was trying to send a hint back to Voyager. The optronic relays wouldn’t do anything to help create an artificial brain, but when Torres examines them, she finds that she can manually shut down the simulation—but it will take time, and the clown may figure out what she’s doing. Janeway decides it’s worth the risk.

While the EMH goes back into the simulation to distract the clown with talk of a cloaking device that will keep any other ships from coming by to disrupt things the way Voyager did, Torres starts disabling the relays, which causes various simulated characters to disappear.

Unfortunately, the clown notices before Torres can finish, and, realizing that Viorsa gave them the idea, cuts his head off, causing his real body to die. Horrified, Janeway has Torres restore the relays she disabled before anyone else is killed.

The EMH returns to the simulation, where the clown is leading a celebration (though he reassures Kim that he will eventually be punished for that attempt to shut things down). Janeway gives him an ultimatum, which the clown finds amusing, since losers don’t usually get to issue ultimatums.

But Janeway still has control of the “off” button. The EMH states that the clown has sixty seconds (he reminds him of the lessening interval periodically as they chat) to let everyone leave or Janeway will turn it off regardless of the risk. If the clown does allow everyone to leave, Janeway herself will enter the simulation, thus providing him with an organic brain to sustain him.

The clown agrees. Janeway climbs into the pod, and then the clown sees Janeway standing next to him. He can sense Janeway’s mind entering the matrix, though he won’t be able to read her thoughts for a bit. For a moment, the clown toys with the notion of keeping the hostages, but he lets the remaining two Kohl and Kim go.

Kim promises to find a way to rescue Janeway, but the captain assures him that won’t be necessary. The clown admires her courage.

Once the hostages are gone, Janeway explains that she’s not really the captain, she’s a simulation, similar to the EMH, which was inserted into the program. Janeway was hooked up to the pod so that the clown would sense her brain patterns, but not actually inserted into the simulation.

The simulation starts to fade slowly to black, and the clown admits he’s afraid, while Janeway points out that fear exists to be defeated. The clown’s last word is, “Drat.”

Can’t we just reverse the polarity? The Kohl created a VR simulation that creates characters from their subconscious, which probably wasn’t the wisest course of action when you’re dealing with trying to recover from a global crisis…

There’s coffee in that nebula! The simulated Janeway tells the clown, “Starfleet captains don’t easily succumb to fear.” Damn skippy.

Forever an ensign. We find out that, as a youth, Kim traveled with his parents to a colony that was suffering from a radiation disaster. He’s also currently working with Lieutenant Nicoletti, who plays oboe, on a performance piece.

Half and half. Torres isn’t able to disable the simulation fast enough, though she does her best.

Star Trek: Voyager

Screenshot: CBS

Please state the nature of the medical emergency. The EMH proves to be the best possible negotiator, as the clown isn’t capable of reading his thoughts. He also makes it clear that removing the hostages without their consent could result in significant brain damage that he can’t guarantee being able to fix.

Everyone comes to Neelix’s. They only came to this planet because Neelix said he heard it was a good trading post. Said information is two decades out of date. Neelix also suggests confronting fear with laughter, a suggestion that is greeted with the eye-rolling silence it deserves.

No sex, please, we’re Starfleet. Paris has apparently been pursuing Nicoletti for months, and finds her to be cold. Kim assures her that she’s not cold with the oboe, and Paris then makes a comment about learning the drums. It’s meant to be funny, but just makes Paris out to (still) be a creeper.

Do it.

“Doctor, if we do simply disconnect the hostages—”

“There would certainly be brain damage.”

“How much damage? Could you possibly repair it?”

“Possibly, yes. Would Mr. Kim still be able to hold his clarinet when I was done? Possibly. The brain is such an interesting organ.”

–Janeway looking for options, and the EMH shooting one down with supreme sarcasm.

Welcome aboard. Trek vets Thomas Kopache and Carel Struycken appear as, respectively, Viorsa and the clown’s very tall sidekick. Kopache previously played a Romulan and a holographic train engineer on TNG, and a communications officer in Generations, and would go on to play Kira’s Dad on DS9 and both a Vulcan and a Sphere-Builder on Enterprise. Struycken played Lwaxana Troi’s valet Mr. Homn in five episodes of TNG.

Genre vet Patty Maloney, an actor who also worked on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Far Out Space Nuts, and Star Wars, plays the clown’s very short sidekick. Viorsa’s never-named fellow Kohl are played by Tony Carlin and Shannon O’Hurley.

But the big guest is the great Michael McKean as the clown. McKean is a longtime Trek fan and jumped at the chance to guest star on the show.

Star Trek: Voyager

Screenshot: CBS

Trivial matters: This was the first Voyager teleplay by Joe Menosky, who had been a co-producer on TNG before going freelance. He will join the staff of Voyager in season three, working his way up to co-executive producer.

The opening of the episode with Kim and Paris was filmed for “Death Wish,” but cut for time and reused here.

Besides Kim’s love of the clarinet, which was shown in the teaser, the clown also mentions how much he misses Libby, his girlfriend, whom we saw in “Non Sequitur.”

The clown mentions a Romulan named Chulak, who suffered a great defeat at Galorndon Core. Chulak’s campaign has been dramatized in two different tie-in works. The Enterprise novel To Brave the Storm by Michael A. Martin had Chulak fighting in the Earth-Romulan War that was first mentioned in the original series episode “Balance of Terror.” Star Trek Online states that Chulak was a 23rd century commander who lost control of a doomsday weapon he obtained from aliens and crashed on Galorndon Core, which is why the planet is now a wasteland ravaged by magnetic storms, as seen in TNG’s “The Enemy.”

Set a course for home. “Well, you certainly know how to bring a party to a halt.” This script is right out of Joe Menosky’s Metaphysics Is Awesome playbook, which is often a hit (“Darmok“) or miss (“Masks“) proposition.

This one hits for a couple of reasons. One is that the metaphysical notion actually makes sense in the context of what’s established: a VR simulation that is based on the thoughts of the people inside it. That it would make all five of their fears manifest is a side effect that works nicely.

The other is the same thing that makes, for example, “Darmok” so brilliant: fantastic guest casting. Michael McKean is simply superlative as the clown. He has the perfect mix of goofiness, menace, childishness, and, yes, fear.

He’s aided by excellent performances all around him. This is one of Garrett Wang’s better turns as Kim, as his earnest quotidian quality works in his favor here as the clown torments him and he tries to hold it together. (I would’ve liked it more if they didn’t fall back on two tired clichés from the mid-20th century for this 24th-century ensign to persevere to, the FDR quote about how the only thing you have to fear is fear itself and the line from The Wizard of Oz about how there’s no place like home.) Kate Mulgrew projects the determination (to save people), the anger (at failing to save Viorsa), and the cleverness (outwitting the clown) that are all befitting the captain. And Robert Picardo is superb, his sarcastic deadpan playing perfectly off of McKean’s rubber-faced lunacy.

The episode also has one of the most devastatingly effective endings in Trek history, as the simulation slowly fades to gray and then black as the clown and the fake Janeway exchange final words and the world vanishes before we see the executive producer credit over a black background. (I’d put this on the same level as “Necessary Evil,” “Blood Oath,” and Part 1 of “The Best of Both Worlds” for gut-punch endings in Trek.)

A point is knocked off for two reasons: One is that this feels way too much like a hastily rewritten TNG script. Voyager is trying to get home, and stopping at a planet that’s had a catastrophe is a bit contrived. (The business with Neelix saying it used to be a trading post feels pasted in awkwardly.) Swap out Picard for Janeway, Riker and La Forge for Kim and Torres, and Data for the EMH, and you’d barely change anything. And the other is the tired cliché of casting of the very tall Carel Struycken and the very short Patty Maloney as the clown’s sidekicks, which mostly served to remind me of this epic rant from Peter Dinklage in the 1995 movie Living in Oblivion.

Warp factor rating: 9

Keith R.A. DeCandido will be attending KAG Kon 2020: Home Invasion, an online event focusing on Klingon related stuff, this coming weekend. Keith will be doing a reading, which will be available throughout the weekend, and also doing panel discussions on his Klingon fiction and on Klingon religion. Here’s his schedule.

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