Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Star Trek: Voyager--"The Thaw"

Fair warning; ‘The Thaw” is one of my personal favorites. The episode will be rated higher than you might think it deserves, but it is my review and I can do things like that. The script is written by Joe Menosky, the most avant garde of Star Trekk writers, and bears strong resemblance to the cult series The Prisoner. the combination rates high in my book. So does logical handling of the VOY characters, a sadly rare event that must be noted when it does come around.

Voyager approaches a planet that has suffered a geological distaerr within the last twenty years. Neelix informs janeway the inhabitants were big time traders in the not so distant past. Scanning for life signs, Harry discovers five life pods connected to a computer system which is keeping the occupants alive. With no mention of the Prime directive at all, Janeway has the whole setup beamed onboard.

The system was programmed to awaken the occupants once the environmental damage had cleared from the surface. They should have awakened four years ago, but not only are they still in there, but two have died from heart attacks. As the computer is maintaining a virtual environment for them, Janeway opts to send Harry and Torres in to get a grasp on the situation.

What a situation. The three surviving people are trapped in a surreal Mardis Gras from hell run by The Clown, a personification of the fear the occupants felt as they spent two decades in suspended animation. The Clown is played to the hilt by Michael McKean, who has played smarmy characters all over television, but to tie him into these reviews, he was MiB Morris Fletcher in several episodes of The X-Files. A little bit of The Clown goes a long way--think Chris Tucker in any role he has ever played-- but he is an amusing psychopath. There is a lot of Cesar Romero’s Joker in him.

The Clown reveals he can hold people hostage by strapping them into a guillotine and chopping their heads off. Even though they are virtual recreations, the fear is enough to induce heart attacks. The Clown lets Torres go in order to inform the outside world of his powers, but he takes a shine to Harry. A shine meaning he enjoys tormenting him.

Since everyone’s brain is on the system, The Clown knows everyone’s most intimate thoughts, and he uses that knowledge for just the right torture. Considering the symbolism, The Clown seems particularly interested in tweaking Harry’s sexuality. I have not been one to draw hints that he and Tom are subtly attracted to each other. I have not even pointed out the last couple times Harry and Tom have been seen together off duty, Harry is playing a long, wooden flute for him. Other fans want to read into that, be my guest. I think it is a stretch. But what is not a stretch is that in “The Thaw,” Harry is taken over to the guillotine, which is run by a fat man in a BDSM Pulp Fiction gimp outfit. The executioner places a block of wood in the guillotine and chops it in half in order to demonstrate the blade. The The Clown mocks Harry brutally for how much he considers Janeway a maternal figure. All this because The Clown can read Harry’s mind. Draw whatever conclusions you wish about harry inner emotional struggle from the tailor made ordeal.

The Doctor comes to the rescue in yet another creative way to broaden his role. I always applaud such things. The Clown cannot read his mind since he does not have one. That is a plot point that will come up in the resolution. I only point this out because VOY rarely has decent foreshadowing, and when it does, it is usually an unfathomable technobabble plan that deflates the drama because of how meaningless it is.

A technological solution to rescuing the hostages that is easy to grasp is not the only unusual plus for “The Thaw.” Th story is devoid of any moral dilemma. No one is suggesting The Clown or any of the other creations are sentient beings with a right to exist. It is all about how do our heroes kill him before he can kill the hostages? I have heard fans complain about this in the past. “The Thaw” is a slam bang action episode in which the characters avoid any introspection over their actions. My response is that it is about time we had one of those. Even highly enlightened 24th century humans do not need to stick their thumbs up their butts and kvetch over the morality of what they are about to do. Just kill the bad guy, already! He is torturing innocent people!

The effort to destroy the program right out from under the hostages fails. The Clown executes one as punishment. Janeway offer an ultimatum in response--take her as the sole hostage, or she will destroy everything. It will severely damage the hostage’s brains, but it will kill The Clown, too. He accepts the terms under pressure. Since it takes a few minutes before he can read a new occupant’s mind, the Clown does not realize it is not the real Janeway who shows up in his virtual world, but a holographic version. He does not realize he has been tricked until the hostages are free and he no longer has any thoughts with which to maintain his existence.

Which leads us to the best ending of any VOY episode. Such lofty status merits an actual view:Yeesh, that is cold. note the the hologram tells The clown it responds in situations exactly as Janeway would. Sometimes you have to love that woman, no?

There really is nothing special about this episode. The plot is quite absurd. McKean is not exactly Emmy bait in his performance. You might even consider the episode dumb and obnoxious. But it is still a personal favorite of mine. I always have a morbid curiosity from what Menosky can come up with in a script. I like the homage to The Prisoner. I like the Doctor as a away team member. I like Janeway as appropriately tough, rather than a bipolar nut like usual. I like the un-Star Trek “So, how do we kill it?” theme. “The Thaw” is, by definition, an anomaly. But it is a welcome one. You may lanbaste me for the high star rating should you feel the need.

Rating: **** (out of 5)

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