"The Thaw"


These reviews are lengthy, long-winded, and highly opinionated. Accuracy is not one of my priorities. I fancy myself a storyteller, and there are times when what I write only vaguely represents the episode itself, because my memory is faulty. If any of this bothers you, go to rec.arts.startrek.reviews and find a reviewer more to your liking (there are many excellent choices). But if you have some time to kill and enjoy silly and occasionally obscure humor, this may be worth a look.


Apparently even aliens fear clowns. Janeway matches wits with an emotion to save Harry Kim and three aliens from deadly stasis mimes and their own fears.

Jump straight to the Analysis


Harry is playing a chipper tune on his clarinet as Paris relaxes. A pounding on the wall indicates the neighbors don't share his love for classical music. Harry complains about the travails of practicing on the ship, and the benefits of the fine arts in the pursuit of wimmenfolk. A certain Lt. Nicoletti is mentioned as the unconquered object of Paris' desires and the cofounder with Harry of the Voyager Philharmonic.

A call to the bridge, and Tom and Harry are soon staring at a planet with the rest of the senior staff. Infodump indicates that the planet had the shortest Ice Age in the history of speculative fiction: nineteen years. An automated message from the planet indicates that the planet's former residence expected it to last fifteen, and asks any visitors to please leave them alone.

Polite rebuffs and the Prime Directive notwithstanding, Janeway orders a sensor sweep of the planet--first the surface, then under the surface. Harry discovers something 2.3 kilometers underground, which is small enough and sufficiently self- contained to beam aboard. And there's people inside it. (Normally Janeway would agonize over such a decision, but this isn't a Prime Directive story.)

Soon, the ship is host to a five-person stasis chamber. Three of the stasis pods are occupied by living aliens; the other two contain corpses. There is also a centralized computer thingie that is deemed to be a neural net of some sort. Though the bodies are held in stasis, the minds are still quite active; they theorize that they waited out their ice age in a virtual environment of some kind.

Medical scans reveal that the two corpses died of heart failure, and the other three show signs of stress. The computer seems to be functioning, and the crew can't figure out why the other three haven't exited the system yet. Janeway decides to use the two corpse-filled stasis pods with her people, in an attempt to wake the other three up. She picks Torres and Kim, the best likely troubleshooters.

Kim and Torres enter stasis, and soon find themselves in unfamiliar territory: a room filled with mimes. (That scares me half to death right there.) Dancers, jugglers, midgets, Mardis Gras grotesques, masked oddities--you name it, they're here. But Kim and Torres do not see the three aliens. (A note here: if you've entered a virtual reality of the mind, who's to say you'd look like you actually do? You could look like you imagine yourself to look. But Kim and Torres look like themselves, so we must assume the other three real people will as well.)

Among the circus freaks is a clown whose Frank Gorshin makeup is off by 90 degrees. You can tell right away that he's different from the rest of the characters. Harry and B'Elanna keep looking. The clown confronts them, then suggests they dance. An alien conga line commences, spiriting Kim and Torres to a waiting platform, where a pink guillotine is revealed, just as the music goes from silly to sinister.

They try to escape, but it's hopeless; soon Harry is shackled with (pink) manacles and manhandled into the gaudy contraption of death. (You know, the whole crew has had their share of odd experiences, but Harry's gotta have them all beat. He's died several times, been whisked into other dimensions and realities, traveled scores of thousands of lightyears without any of his crewmates, is currently on a ship in which another version of himself has died...they don't put that stuff on the Starfleet recruiting posters. I imagine Harry has been voted Crewman Least Likely to Submit a Boring Personal Log.)

Well, before the clown can shorten Harry, the three aliens show up and put a stop to the fun. They convince the clown that it's in his best interests to not harm the newcomers, at least not yet. Harry is released, and we get some first-hand information about this virtual world gone mad.

As soon as the five Real People can huddle, they talk, about this place, and about the clown, who is not eager for them to leave. Harry figures out that their presence assures the clown's existence--the minds make up the network, and without people there's no network, and hence no clown. The clown hears, and agrees. And since Harry and B'Elanna are now hooked up, they're part of the clown, and he's a part of them, and he knows their thoughts. Heck, he IS their thoughts.

Soon a control panel appears on a wall--it's a wakeup program Janeway had ordered so Kim and Torres can return after five minutes in stasis. Kim and Torres are about to leave, but the clown threatens to kill one of the three remaining "hostages" if they do. At first, they deny that this is possible, but then they remember Holodoc's warning that the two corpses died of massive heart attacks, and theorize that a virtual death here equals a real death. The pink guillotine suddenly looks even scarier.

Outside, Janeway wonders why Kim and Torres aren't waking up. They try harder to revive them, only to discover an unexpected resistance.

The clown doesn't want to let anyone go, but since he can read Harry's thoughts (we can't, so we get dialog to help us understand) he soon accepts that he'd better release at least one person to fill Janeway in on the situation. (The clown knows about Janeway from Kim and Torres' thoughts--knows Kim's attachment to her as a mother figure, and deems her a potentially worthy adversary.) The clown agrees to "consult" with his minions.

Kim and Torres talk with the three survivors. They tell him the clown is a manifestation of their fears, who has grown very powerful over the past twenty years. they confirm the clown's claim that he knows their thoughts; their minds are a part of the system, and he's a creation of the system.

The clown lets Torres go, but takes a special interest in Harry. (If he works off of psyches, he probably figures Harry will be more fun to mess with. Virtual or not, Torres could rip his lips off.)

Torres awakes. The inevitable meeting takes place, where she presents the clown's demands. It's a reasonable one on the surface: to exist. But it exists in the minds of unwilling hosts, and that Janeway won't stand for. They theorize that an artificial brain could suffice, but it wouldn't be nearly as cool as the real thing.

How do you negotiate with an emotion? Janeway asks, semi-rhetorically. When fear holds you hostage, how do you make him let you go? Neelix suggests making Fear laugh--tell him a joke. His suggestion soon fades to silence under the fatal glare of an unamused Janeway (the camera angle showed only the whites of her eyes, and they were luminescent with death. I half expected phaser blasts to emanate in Neelix's direction).

One thing they decide: no more hooking people into the virtual world. They need a less vulnerable negotiator. (One guess: Every clown needs a straight man.)

Inside, Harry continues to talk with the three "hostages." He believes firmly in Janeway's imminent rescue. The other three don't buy it: "We're his canvas--his blocks of marble. With us he practices his ghastly art," says one. (With lines like that, I think he deserves to suffer.)

The clown returns, unhappy with Kim's attempts to resist, and begins the Bad Mofo act on Harry. (Consider if someone knew you as well as you knew yourself, knew exactly what scared you the most...and made you face it. not to help you, but to rub salt in old wounds.) He starts with the typical: You're afraid of growing old and unable to do things for yourself (Harry turns ancient and feeble); you're afraid that people think you're the Baby on Board (Harry turns into a darling little crying infant in a starfleet uniform). Pretty universal, and not all that scary; it seems Fear is lobbing softballs in Harry's direction in an attempt to get his cooperation.

Harry will have none of it. "This isn't real. This is an illusion." The clown counters with, "but when your only reality is an illusion than illusion IS reality." Harry chants, "Like the man said--the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." (A good thought...unless your nemesis IS Fear Itself.) The clown breaks out the big guns; he takes Harry back to when he was nine, on a colony world, where a disaster had struck. This memory does scare him. As the clown leads the mimes in a chorus of "all we have to fear is fear itself," Harry is strapped to a gurney and the clown gives him a vivid and terrifying reminder of what he saw.

As Harry screams in horror and a scalpel nears his chest...Holodoc appears and gives the clown a tip on his surgical technique.

Fear, meet Droll.

As the clown protests Holodoc's presence, he helps Harry off the table and announces that he is Janeway's new negotiator. "You're not on the computer; how can I negotiate when I don't know what you're thinking?" Fear asks. "I have a very trusting face," deadpans Doc. He tells Fear that Janeway wants all the hostages released, but that Janeway will provide a simulated brain to maintain his existence. Fear rejects the idea, and asks who this Janeway is. "She's the one with the Off switch in her hand," Holodoc reminds him. He suggests it would be very much like the real thing; Fear asks one of the native hostages if it's possible; the man replies that it would require a recalibration of the optronic pathways, then maybe. The clown hushes him before he can say more.

Back outside, Holodoc reports. Janeway considers a rescue operation. Holodoc points out that pulling them out of stasis after disconnecting the system would be tricky: "Would Kim be able to hold his clarinet afterwards? Maybe." He mentions the Optronic Pathways line, and Torres scoffs--it has nothing to do with an artificial brain, which is nothing like a real brain. (I'll try not to take that personally, Holodoc retorts.) Tuvok asks if it may have been a message, and Torres deduces that messing with the pathways would disconnect the people from the opposite direction, unplugging the virtual world a piece at a time. She theorizes it will take her a few minutes, and Janeway orders Holodoc to renegotiate in order to stall and divert Fear's attention.

Inside, Fear mopes. He hasn't been the same since Holodoc's appearance, and his minions and midgets try to cheer him up. ("Don't be a poop!" scolds the midget, in what has to be a Trek first.) They suggest he take his frustrations out on the hostages; they suggest the Insect Game. this cheers Fear, and they prepare for the Insect Game, only to be stopped in their tracks by...Holodoc. (I love that guy.) He brings Janeway's new offer: a cloaking device. For a moment, Fear is intrigued.

Torres begins disconnecting the pathways. There are 40 of them.

As Holodoc talks and Fear listens, the room starts disappearing. First tapestries, then mimes, then enough that Fear takes notice. He immediately knows what's happening and points to the guy who mentioned the optronic pathways. Out comes the guillotine; off comes his head. Outside, Kes monitors the change in the man's condition as his stress and fear levels rise, until he suddenly flatlines. Torres, nearly done, is ordered to stop working when another hostage looks ready to meet her fate, and Janeway orders the other pathways restored as well.

"We've lost," Janeway mutters. "We've won," exults Fear.

Janeway meets with Holodoc, who tries to console her. She is in no mood; captains don't like losing to fear. She talks to herself, asking about the attributes of fear, the need even in the 24th century to party with fear. Fear is an adrenaline rush; people seek the limits of existence, hate to play it safe, yearn for the thrill.

So what does fear itself seek? An idea forms.

Inside, a celebration. Fear tells Harry he will be punished for his captain's trickery, but that for now, party on. The festivities end yet again by the presence of Holodoc. "You know how to bring a party to a halt!" Fear grouches. "I don't get out much," says Holodoc. He then issues Janeway's Ultimatum: in sixty seconds, she's shutting down the whole system unless they agree to her terms. Clown scoffs; "forty-seven seconds," says Holodoc. He continues this; before each new term, he counts down from sixty, giving fear the ride of his life: the release of all the hostages. He gets to keep one. It will be a real brain. That one is Janeway herself, he finishes as time runs out. It's a beautiful move, and Fear accepts immediately. The mythical Janeway of Harry's thoughts, the bane of this world's recent existence, the ultimate thrill for this embodied emotion. How could he not accept?

Holodoc reports that the deal has been accepted. Janeway makes preparations. Inside, Fear has set his minions to work: "Sparkling! I want everything sparkling for her arrival!" He notes Kim's thoughts; Kim declares that it's like the captain to sacrifice her life for theirs. Fear's face registers a change; he can feel her entering the system, can taste her thoughts; his anticipation grows.

Soon Janeway appears, as the room goes quiet. Fear greets her cordially, in awe. After asking Kim if they're alright, she demands he keep his side of the agreement, and soon all are gone but the clown, and the queen.

"I understand it takes you a few minutes to merge with my thoughts," Janeway says. Fear is gushing affection on her, telling her of the fun they'll have, oblivious to all but the two of them. When he seems to have won all, Janeway reveals the truth: he wants this to end as much as she does, and she's giving him that chance. He grows indignant, but Janeway then reveals some more truth: she is just an artificial brain; Janeway is only partly connected--enough to be felt, but not enough to be held hostage. Soon she will be gone, and only we will remain.

The room spins, as fear gets vertigo. Outside, the pods empty their occupants, and Janeway awakes.

Inside, all is gone. No midgets or mimes, no gaudy colors or guillotines. Just blackness, and fear, and a faux Janeway. "She lied," Fear grouses. "It was very unStarfleet of her." Janeway tells him that fear exists for one purpose: to be conquered. And Starfleet captains rarely succomb to fear.

"What will become of me?" Fear asks, growing quiet, darkness settling further.

"Like all fear, you'll eventually vanish." Darker.

"I'm afraid," Fear whispers, rapidly fading to black.

"I know," Janeway rasps in a voice of ice-cold triumph. Her look is the final nail in the coffin of Fear.

"Drat." (I think.)

Utter blackness. Roll credits.


I must confess I read Tim Lynch's review of this episode before writing my own. If some of his comments seem to bleed into mine, I freely give him credit for the ideas.

First, I'm going to avoid the obvious rant about the events leading to Kim's entrapment. It's not like Janeway to mess so completely with another culture, given her past stances on the Prime Directive and Starfleet protocols. But this is one of those conceptual pieces where the science and the rest take a back seat to characterization. Whatever pod people hijacked the minds of the crew to get them into this situation is not an issue (though it will certainly bug people). It's a goofy concept, but I'm willing to take the concept at face value.

Second. Poor Harry. Have you noticed that most of the really weird things happen to him? In a way it's good that they're 70,000 lightyears away from home; if he were in communication distance of earth, his mom would intercept the ship at maximum warp and drag his alternate-reality enduring bootie back home for more clarinet lessons and wedding pattern registrations with his girlfriend Libby.

As I recall, Chekov in the original series had his share of mishaps as well. I guess that's Harry's role: to get the snot kicked out of him every so often, but not too permanently--even death must somehow be rectified by episode's end, whether it's a fast-acting Holodoc to revive him or a recently-replicated spare Harry relocating from a phase-shifted Voyager whose ensign Kim was sucked into the vacuum of space.

Third: Holodoc is my hero. He always gets the best lines, and he delivers them with perfection. He was an excellent foil for Fear.

Fourth. Fear's line about Janeway's actions being "very unStarfleet of her" could well apply to this entire episode. This is not one for the textbooks. She shouldn't have beamed the pod thingie aboard in the first place. She shouldn't have sent two of her own crewmen in their in the second place--a little thinking and this could have been an all-Holodoc adventure, with no danger to the crew and plenty more negotiations between Fear and a creation incapable of fear on behalf of a captain for whom fear is never an excuse for defeat. In the third place she should have let Torres finish with the optronic pathways thing.

To borrow an indelicate line from Stuart Smalley, we're "shoulding" all over the place. (Don't say it aloud.) Janeway acts lobotomized for most of the episode, then pulls off a brilliant (and remarkably cold-blooded) end run to win the game. It's a bit of a cheat.

In this story there are three interesting people: Holodoc, Janeway, and Fear. Everyone else, including Kim and the technostuff, is a bit player only in this tale. We learn a little about Kim, but even though he has most of the screen time we learn more about Janeway. Jarry's a mere pawn in this little psychological chess game; Janeway is the queen. (And to carry the analogy further, the clown's makeup could give some people the image of the Bishop chess piece....Or maybe it's just me who sees that. Sorry.)

As Fear, Michael McKean does an okay job. I've seen better demented clowns, and worse. I've read several reviews that make the reference to Jack Nicholson's Joker in "Batman," but for this role I see a Jim Carrey character (Riddler or Ace Ventura) as closer to the mark. Either would be way too darn expensive, though. There is also the unconscious parallel with Stephen King's IT, and Tim Curry as the killer clown messing with people's heads.

My concern is that Fear never seemed menacing enough, or goofy enough, or formidable enough. Perhaps that's the fault of the natives held hostage--he was a creation of their minds. Perhaps they were lacking in imagination. I will admit that the scenes between fear and Holodoc, and Janway, were the most interesting, and the most fulfulling. It isn't McKean's fault that he didn't have more scenes with the right people.

The end, though, blew me away. I'd be harsher to the episode as a whole were it not for the elements coming together at the end, with Fear fading to black and the artificial Janeway striking more fear into me than Fear ever did. It's regrettable that more of the episode wasn't like that.

In this case, I think the episode failed because it gave us glimpses into how much more it could have been: more terrifying, more wacky, more tense, more...compelling. When you spend an hour with Fear, you should be on a sixty-minute adrenaline rush, like a roller coaster--anticipation, release, dread, terror, until all you can do is laugh or cry, perhaps both. And when it's over, and done right, you may want to come back for more. And "more" is what this lacked.

On a scale of 0-10, I'd give this one a 6.00, on the strength of the ending.

Next week: Take Tuvok and Neelix, the consummate Odd Couple on Voyager. Mix them together in a transporter mishap. Is this tragedy, or comedy?

Copyright © 1996 Jim Wright

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Last Updated: May 11, 1996
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