Tuesday, July 17, 2012

(Frequently And Wrongly) Deemed The Worst Star Trek: Voyager Episode, "Threshold" Manages To Satisfy.

The Good: Excellent acting, Decent effects, Interesting idea
The Bad: Poor execution of idea, No real character development, Plot heavy, Lack of follow-up
The Basics: A perfectly average episode, "Threshold" illustrates the consequences of breaking the unbreakable speed limit set by the galaxy.

One of the basic ideas of the Star Trek franchise is the idea of the warp drive, a faster than lightspeed travel method that alters the shape of space to make it faster to go through. Star Trek scholars generally agree that there are two different warp scales and that warp speeds in the Star Trek: The Next Generation time (24th Century) are on a faster scale than the warp speeds of the Star Trek time (23rd Century). Those who hypothesize most on this suggest that the "transwarp drive" from the U.S.S. Excelsior in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (reviewed here!), set a new standard for the warp drive and the scale was adjusted accordingly. So enters Star Trek: Voyager to the warp speed weirdness with the episode "Threshold," which many fans and critics consider the worst episode of the series.

Tom Paris, along with Chief Engineer B'Elanna Torres and Ensign Kim, retrofits one of the shuttlecraft with what is believed to be a stable transwarp engine. The shuttlecraft is believed to be able to go faster than warp ten and break an unbreakable barrier. Encouraged by Janeway, Paris takes the shuttlecraft Drake up to warp ten and he disappears. The shuttlecraft returns moments later and Paris is celebrated as a new hero for accomplishing what no one ever had and the crew begins to think this might make getting home fast a reality. Unfortunately, Paris soon begins to mutate in ways that the Doctor cannot comprehend, nor stop. As Paris begins to hyper evolve, the crew fears they might lose him and the experiment and the future of the U.S.S. Voyager lean toward failure.

"Threshold" is one of those episodes that is slighted by a lot of people with little genuine cause. Despite the fact that it deals with the development of a new propulsion method, like "Star Trek The Next Generation's" "New Ground" (reviewed here!), and combines it with something quite close to the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Genesis" (reviewed here!), "Threshold" is one of the more original episodes of Star Trek: Voyager and it seldom gets credit for that. More importantly, this episode illustrates exactly what one would hope for and expect from the crew of a starship stranded on the other side of the galaxy; they are desperately innovating to attempt to get home quicker. It's very StarFleet.

The episode is clearly based on the Einsteinian theory of physics, which postulates that at the speed of light, one would occupy every point in space simultaneously (it if could be achieved). Indeed, Paris describes the sensation of existing across the galaxy as best he can with a complete inability to describe the magnitude and depth of it. I actually liked that; Paris picks out some details he recognized, but is at a loss to describe much else of his experience.

But this leads to the first real problem with "Threshold;" the science of it might be backed by Albert Einstein (in a weird way), but the engineering of it is utter b.s. The Drake is retrofitted with almost no structural changes and the magic device by which Paris breaks the transwarp barrier is a dilithium crystal that does not stress as much. Beyond that, it's simply a matter of Paris making the ship go faster. How? He simply does not slow down. This is the equivalent to suggesting that a race car driver who puts the pedal to the metal and simply does not let up will continue to accelerate until they break the speed of light. If that sounds ridiculous to you, now you know how "Threshold" looks to so many fans of Star Trek: Voyager.

But then we get to what so very many people object to with this episode. When Paris returns to Voyager, he begins to evolve at an accelerated pace, quickly becoming some strange, amphibious being. I have less of a problem with this than most people. It bugs me more that Paris breaks the transwarp barrier simply by not putting on the brakes. If he's going to break the barrier, I say it's cool that there are consequences for breaking the barrier. And of all consequences, hyper evolution is at least an interesting and original idea.

The problem is, it's not so great a consequence as to sell the audience on the idea that the experiment was a failure. What "Threshold" lacks is a consequence to realistically keep the crew of Voyager trapped in the Delta Quadrant. After all, what is the disincentive to the crew to simply continue to use the transwarp shuttle to fly crewmembers back to the Alpha Quadrant and then be cured of the hyper-evolution once they get there? Put simply, at the end of "Threshold," there is no reason why Paris cannot bring the crew of the starship Voyager home, even if he's ferrying them one at a time (or in groups of five).

The practical answer, of course, is that this is the second season of a show holding a network aloft that is contracted for a seven year run. You can't get the crew home so quick. Bummer. This leads to the only other problem with "Threshold" and that is where it falls in the series; this episode lacks any consequences. Paris never has a flash of insight into an impending danger that he recalls from his time spent occupying every point in the galaxy. The experiment is never attempted again and it smacks of pointlessness.

What works, though, is the acting. This episode focuses very much on actor Robert Duncan McNeill as Tom Paris. There is virtually no character development - other than suggesting what has been evident since the pilot, that Paris is a rogue made good who has turned his life around - but still McNeill does great with his performance. McNeill plays the hyper-evolving Paris wonderfully, emoting beautifully with his eyes when the character can no longer talk. McNeill is able to connote desperation expertly with his body language and he makes the episode watchable.

This is a good episode for anyone who likes science fiction in general, though it will have limited appeal to those who are not fans of the adventurous aspects of space travel. The only element that might be esoteric for non-fans of the series is the brief appearance by Michael Jonas, a traitorous officer who details the transwarp mission to the villainous Kazon.

This is a good episode for those willing to keep an open mind and it's entertaining, despite its faults.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek: Voyager - The Complete Second Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the sophomore season here!


For other Star Trek episode reviews, be sure to check out the Star Trek Review Index Page!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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