Star Trek: Voyager “Threshold” (part 1 of 7)
Well, here we are, at long last. Star Trek: Voyager. In particular, the episode “Threshold”. Unlike most recaps on this site, I’ve been forecasting this one for years. In fact, I originally promised a recap way back in my very first Worst of Trek outing, “And the Children Shall Lead”, which was over three years ago.
Now that it’s finally here, I can say this episode is every bit as hellacious and awful as I’ve been alluding to over the years. But contrary to what I’ve been implying all along, Voyager as a whole wasn’t as bad as everyone says.
Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t a great show, or even a good show by any measure. It had its moments, but in my mind, there isn’t a single episode of Voyager that stands out as one of the best episodes of Star Trek. Having said that, I will admit the show usually lived up to its (generally low) expectations. With Voyager, you always knew what you would get.
It didn’t look like things would turn out that way when it premiered in 1995. It was supposed to be the riskiest Star Trek series ever. Voyager was to be a small Starfleet ship stranded in a remote part of the galaxy, exploring harsh, unfamiliar territory, with limited supplies and a divided crew. And for the first time on a Trek series, the commander of the ship was a woman.
Star Trek in general was still a big deal at the time. In fact, Paramount chose Voyager as the flagship show to launch their brand new broadcast network, UPN. And I think we all know how that turned out. Yes, UPN no longer exists, its few modest successes having been absorbed into the brand new CW network.
I doubt this came as a surprise to anyone. In the entire 11-year history of UPN, I cannot think of one show on that miserable network outside of Voyager and Enterprise that I watched on a regular basis. The closest I ever came was letting America’s Next Top Model drone as background noise while working on this site. Hey, dumb hos have their entertainment value, too. (And yeah, I know that a lot of people were/are into Veronica Mars, but it’s not really my thing.)
The premise of Voyager was clearly a reaction to the declining ratings of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which ran concurrently with Voyager for a few seasons. Star Trek: The Next Generation left the air with stellar numbers (over 20 million viewers at one point), but for a variety of reasons, this success didn’t carry over to DS9. The suits at Paramount, never much to really probe the cause of poor ratings, were quick to blame the (relative) failure of DS9 on its space station-based setting. Somehow, the groupthink consensus became that people only watched Trek for the exploration angle, and (supposedly) you couldn’t do that on a space station. So the prevailing attitude at the time was, “Hey, people must want starship-based Trek! So let’s give them more starship-based Trek!”
Of course, the setting of a show matters not worth a damn, as long as the writing is sharp and effective. I mean, most of Taxi took place in the grimy garage of a New York City cab company, and it was brilliant (for at least the first few seasons, anyway). If the characters are interesting, likeable, and the plots themselves are a fresh spin on old ideas, nobody cares where a show takes place.
Naturally, the bean counters didn’t see it that way. And so the producers of Voyager decided early on to stick closely to the TNG formula of: discover strange spatial anomaly and/or disease, fix/cure strange anomaly and/or disease, lecture the Aliens of the Week about morality, warp off into the sunset, never look back. With only a few exceptions, every episode of those first few seasons of Voyager could have been a TNG script.
“Time and Again”, in particular, was the first bad omen. Here they were, in the Delta Quadrant, supposedly a strange region of the galaxy teaming with unknown and bizarre life forms. And in only the third episode, they were encountering aliens indistinguishable from humans. And the plot itself was nearly a carbon copy of TNG’s “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, except with Kes filling the Guinan role as the one person who could supernaturally sense changes in the timeline. (Not to mention it was Voyager‘s first use of the “reset button”—wherein all of the events of the episode are shown not to have really “happened” in the first place. And it would certainly not be the last.)
But, in my opinion, the true death knell of not just Voyager, but the Trek franchise as a whole, was the second season episode “Alliances” (which, in fact, aired the week prior to our current subject, “Threshold”). At this point in the series, they were frequently tangling with the disorganized, mercenary race known as the Kazon. (Who were ultimately revealed to be nothing more than slightly angrier Klingons.)
Captain Janeway began to realize that one, lone ship, stranded this far from Federation space, didn’t stand much of a chance against the Kazon in their lawless, chaotic territory. At the prodding of her senior officers, she began to consider forming an alliance with another species against the Kazon.
This episode had the potential to completely change the series. Instead of a constant barrage of pointless episodes where they find a way home, only to lose it in the last few minutes, the show could have been about Voyager making pacts and trying to form a new federation of sorts. This new federation wouldn’t have been anything like the old one, of course. It would have been far rougher around the edges, and a lot less concerned with doing things by the book.
So what happens at the end of “Alliances”? Voyager’s potential allies end up backstabbing them. Janeway breaks off all negotiations, and makes a pointed speech to her crew about sticking to Starfleet principles, no matter what. And with that, the ship merrily cruised off into the status quo. In retrospect, that was probably the moment the Trek franchise died.
Oh sure, it continued on for nearly ten years after that. Two more seasons of Deep Space Nine, five more seasons of Voyager, four of Enterprise, and even two feature films with the TNG crew. But it was over. Because that speech was the signal that from here on out, no chances would ever be taken with the franchise. It was now Star Trek, Incorporated, and when you tuned into Voyager every week, you knew you were getting the same product, just in slightly different packaging. And no matter what events transpired over the course of the episode, you could rest assured that the ol’ reset button would be pushed in the final five minutes, and everything would go back to the way it was.
When all was said and done, Voyager was the least risky, and the most safe of all the Treks. (Yes, even Enterprise. Say what you want about the quality of the scripts—and I plan to, when I get around to it—but it took some balls to do a prequel series and completely invalidate decades of cherished fiction and fan lore about that period in Star Trek history.)
No surprise, Voyager lost viewers at pretty much the same rate as Deep Space Nine. It’s clear now that despite TNG being a big success, and really being able to capture the public interest, nobody involved with that success could figure out how to duplicate it. Instead, they were content to coast on TNG’s fumes for as long as possible.
But if there’s one good thing I can say about Voyager, it’s that it reached such a predictable level of sameness, that it became like comfort food television. Just like ordering a Big Mac, you always knew what you would see when you opened that box. Unfortunately, this is only good for certain situations, like when you have an hour to kill and don’t want to think too hard. For a series, it was ratings death. There was zero chance the show would ever get any critical notice, or become water cooler talk.
I can’t say the show was out and out horrible, because I’ve seen many series that are way worse (have you seen what’s on MTV2 these days?). No, Voyager‘s greatest sin is that it was, for the most part, completely unmemorable.
But it definitely had its share of awful, awful stinkers. Which, fairly or unfairly, many people have used to hang the whole series. And the most widely reviled of these was the second season episode “Threshold”.
Here’s an episode that for most of its running time plays out pretty unremarkably. Sure, a lot of it is dumb and clichéd, and seemingly ripped off from a bad B horror movie, but judged solely on the first thirty minutes, “Threshold” would have been quickly lost beneath a pile of other forgettable episodes in the same vein. But this episode features an ending that is so poorly thought out, and so insulting to the intelligence, that you can’t help but think that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong with the world that allowed this to happen.
The episode has all the failings of a typical Voyager episode: The plot, once again, finds the crew stumbling upon a possible way home, only to have it jerked away at the last minute. It’s also another episode that shows characters undergoing massive physical changes, only to revert back to normal in the closing minutes, without so much as a mark on them.
And it’s another stupid DNA episode, where a person’s DNA “rewrites” itself, somehow causing that person to mutate. Brannon Braga, screenwriter of “Threshold” (not to mention executive producer of Voyager and Enterprise) has written over 100 episodes of Star Trek, including the TNG episode “Genesis”, another stupid DNA story that features Troi mutating into a fish and Riker regressing into one of those GEICO cavemen. That episode was completely absurd, but it’s sheer genius compared to “Threshold”. (Also among Braga’s 100+ episodes is a charming little teleplay titled “Sub Rosa”, but I think I’ve said all I ever want to say about that episode.)
These days, it’s somewhat uncommon to hear the people involved in Star Trek actually badmouth the franchise, or diss particular episodes. Thankfully though, some candid comments have made it to print, mostly from Robert Beltran and Jolene Blalock. And recently, the old TNG crew have been pretty forthright about where things went wrong with Trek. And why not? What have they got to lose after Nemesis went belly-up?
But even given all that, it’s still exceedingly rare to hear somebody badmouth a Star Trek episode on the DVD box set itself. That’s the case here, because the special features disc of the Voyager Season 2 set includes a semi-hidden clip of Brannon Braga discussing “Threshold”. He actually refers to this episode as “a royal, steaming stinker”. And when the guy who wrote the episode says that, it’s pretty hard to disagree. But I’ll save the full text of Braga’s comments for the end of this recap, where it’ll be slightly more in context. And if you’re lucky, you’ll even get to see the actual video of his comments, courtesy of YouTube.
Despite his regrets over “Threshold”, after Enterprise was canceled Braga developed a sci-fi series for CBS about aliens rewriting people’s DNA. And he called it… Threshold. Was he hoping the show would become such an outrageous success that it would completely overshadow the Voyager episode of the same name? If so, it backfired, because the show didn’t make it past ten episodes. One can only wonder what next Brannon Braga failure will be worthy of the “Threshold” name.
Threshold the series featured a lot of people from Trek (most notably Brent Spiner as a regular), but it seems Braga learned absolutely nothing from the cancellation of Enterprise. This isn’t Star Trek, Brannon. You’re not guaranteed seven seasons. If you want to make it past 13 episodes, you have to give the audience something they haven’t seen before, and most of all, you have to do it quickly. (But to be fair, the other two “alien invasion” series from the 2005-2006 season, Surface and Invasion, didn’t last much longer than Threshold.)
Love him or hate him, Brannon Braga has written some great Star Trek scripts in the past. But no writer can continue to be interesting when they’re telling the same story over and over again. Which is certainly the case here. But the worst part is that “Threshold” is a story that didn’t need to be told the first time—back when it was called “Genesis”—much less told again.