Star Trek: Voyager “Threshold” (part 2 of 7)
The episode begins with Voyager’s navigational officer, Lt. Tom Paris, cruising through space in a shuttlecraft. Or actually, it begins with him not cruising through space in a shuttlecraft. But far be it for me to spoil the very startling surprise behind this astonishing teaser. We’ll cross that threshold when we come to it.
He’s moving along at warp speed, and counting off his acceleration from warp 5 on up to warp 7. He announces to somebody on the other side of a communications link that he’s reached “critical velocity”. In response comes the voice of B’Elanna Torres, Voyager’s chief engineer, telling him to “start up the new engines”.
Paris shouts out his own mini-countdown which eventually leads to him engaging “transwarp drive”. So, I guess in the future, pilots and astronauts will have to do their own countdowns? Budget cutbacks are a bitch.
The ship accelerates dramatically, and Paris is pinned back in his seat by G-forces. He yells out that’s he’s reached “warp 9.2… 9.3…” Unfortunately, he gets a warning beep that tells him his “vector’s drifting”. Maybe a guy named Victor will be along shortly to help him out in that department. So the voice of Harry Kim, Voyager’s perennial ensign, gives Paris an assortment of technobabble instructions and advice which, I assume, get Paris back on his vector, because he’s once again continuing his count-up. He yells that he’s reached warp 9.7.
The voices of Torres and Kim warn him about problems with his “structural integrity”, but Paris soldiers on. I think we all learned early on that integrity is not really one of Tom Paris’ high priorities.
Before long, he reaches warp 9.9. At this point, his count-up tacks on an extra decimal place; He starts yelling that he’s at “9.95” and then “9.99”. And we all appreciate the deci-countup, Lieutenant. At 9.99, he shouts, “I’m approaching the threshold!!” Is this the point at which he becomes interfaaaaaaaaaaaced?!?
But there’s trouble, because the shuttlecraft’s “nacelle” is pulling loose. In case you don’t know, and I sure didn’t know this myself until maybe a few years ago, a “nacelle” is that cylindrical thingee at the back of a Star Trek starship that glows bright blue, and gives us sweet, sweet warp power. Yep, somewhere along the line, the Trek writing staff actually saw fit to give a name to those things. But I suppose it was only inevitable. After all, somebody had to come up with “aglet”. So who am I to judge?
Anyhow, Paris yells that his ship is breaking up. Bright explosions go off all around him (with varying levels of realism, all the way from “actual pyrotechnics” to “superimposed sparkler”), and then…
Abruptly, we’re looking at Torres and Kim, leaning on a console and looking very disappointed. Pan over to Tom Paris, sitting on the floor. They’re all in a large, cavernous room with yellow gridlines on the floor. Therefore, we must be in the much-loved Holodeck, and what we just witnessed was really one of Tom Paris’ holographic simulations. And I can only assume this simulation included lots of hardcore sex, judging by the disappointed looks on everyone’s faces. Just out of curiosity, why is he sitting on the floor right now? Does this mean he fell on his ass when the holo-simulation ended? One can only hope.
“You’re dead,” B’Elanna says bluntly. Tom looks exasperated, and it’s off to the opening credits.
I have to be honest here, and admit I don’t care for the Voyager opening credits one bit. They’re way too laid back and dreary. And I’ll even concede that the Deep Space Nine credits are just as uninspired, and it’s entirely possible that if I listened to the Deep Space Nine theme song and the Voyager theme song back-to-back, I might not even know which was which. So I can totally understand why, when it came to Enterprise, they chucked the slow, orchestral, space-based opening sequence and went with a pop song. I just really wish they would have picked a good pop song.
Anyway, here are the opening credits to Star Trek: Voyager, in brief: Solar flare; Beauty shots of the ship (is it just me, or does Voyager look like a large, odd serving spoon?); Voyager cutting through a nebula, or some space fog, or whatever the hell they call it in the Trek universe; Voyager flying through (I think) an asteroid belt; Voyager cruising over the rings of a planet; Voyager flying away from a solar eclipse (DO NOT LOOK DIRECTLY AT ITARRRRRGH I’M BLIND); And finally, Voyager shooting off into warp, complete with the big, bulky, bassy sound of its nacelles folding upwards, and then the tiny, distant explosion of light that accompanies the jump to warp, and the bright spot appears next to what I think might be called a nebula in the real world. And that’s my stream of consciousness recap of the Voyager opening credits. Virginia Woolf, eat your heart out.
(Okay, I have to call bullshit on the shot of Voyager flying over the rings of a planet. Check out its reflection in the rings. Apparently, one starship can take up a significant percentage of the width of a planet’s rings. Now, I know this isn’t Saturn, but just for the sake of comparison, Saturn’s rings are thousands of kilometers wide. So, if this were Saturn, Voyager would have to be about as wide as the Earth itself, no?)
When we come back, Paris, Kim, and Torres are conferring in the Mess Hall. B’Elanna whines that whenever they reach the “threshold” in their simulations, the “subspace torque” rips a nacelle off. Now, what is this “threshold” thing that I’m hearing so much about?
Kim throws out suggestions that Torres immediately shoots down. Just then, Neelix, the ship’s official “Morale Officer”—and unofficial “Complete and Utter Pain in the Ass”—comes over and offers them coffee and free, unwanted advice. The short version of Neelix’s story is that he’s an alien who got picked up by Voyager in the pilot episode, and then quickly set to work on achieving his life’s goal of becoming the Most Annoying Star Trek Character Ever. Yes, even beating out Wesley Crusher. And Lwaxana Troi.
Paris gets all snooty and condescending, because what could a numbnut like Neelix know about “quantum warp theory” or “multispectral subspace engine design”? Neelix sits on down and butts right into the discussion anyway. So B’Elanna takes over for Tom, completely patronizing on him and demanding that he stick to his lackey role and bring them more food. Look, I hate Neelix as much as the next guy, but there’s no reason to be this much of a dick to anyone.
When he blows her off, B’Elanna goes to look for food herself. But first, she continues tonight’s lovely Evening of Condescension by smirking and whispering to Kim, “Fill him in.” And oh man, there are so many juvenile places to take a line like that, but I won’t be going there. At least, not for a couple more scenes.
Neelix points out to the two men that he’s actually held productive positions on starships in the past. And they had absolutely nothing to do with food service, honest! He mentions how he was once an “engineer’s assistant” on a something-or-other freighter. Which, I’m assuming, is why he’s currently a glorified fry cook.
Paris has had enough of Neelix’s prodding, and finally fesses up: They’re trying to break the hitherto unheard of “maximum warp barrier”. Kim says, “Nothing in the universe can go warp 10!” Which is news to—just for starters—several dozen writers who penned past episodes of Star Trek shows.
Kim calls warp 10 a “theoretical impossibility”, and says it’s like having “infinite velocity”. Neelix asks if this means they would be going “very, very fast”. Yes, Neelix. Much like being on the surface of the sun would give you a very, very dark tan. Paris points out that warp 10 really means “you would occupy every point in the universe simultaneously!” So if Voyager could achieve warp 10, he theorizes, they could get home instantly.
I guess Braga and Michael de Luca, who came up with the story, were trying to draw parallels here with Chuck Yeager famously breaking the sound barrier—after all, there was a time when no one really believed humans could travel faster than sound—or Einstein’s theory that nothing in the universe can travel faster than light. Which, warp mechanics aside, has yet to be disproved. (And the odds are slim, but perhaps they’re also referencing man’s ability to penetrate “the space barrier”.) But even as a Star Trek story, taking place in a universe that already plays fast and loose with science, this concept is massively flawed. To be honest, the idea was probably doomed from the start.
Okay, so the obvious thing to get out of the way first is that on Star Trek, we’ve seen vessels travel faster than warp 10 plenty of times. Nothing prior to “Threshold” would indicate there’s some kind of “maximum limit” to warp speed. And sure, I know that in a forty year old franchise, things get retconned all the time, but this was a pretty weird thing for Braga to pull out of his ass. Why have a limit on warp speed at all? Even if the episode hadn’t turned out to be complete shit, this isn’t exactly a concept that adds a whole lot in the way of future story potential. And why warp 10, and not warp 20 or 100?
But even if there is a “maximum warp speed”, it opens up all kinds of questions. Like, what happens at warp 9.99999? Wouldn’t you still be traveling pretty darn fast at that speed? Couldn’t Voyager try to stay at warp 9.99999 for as long as possible, and see how far it gets them? On top of that, in this episode the characters will constantly refer to traveling at warp 10 as “transwarp”. But they’ve known since the later seasons of TNG that the Borg already have transwarp. So… what makes them call it a “theoretical impossibility” here?
In my mind, the crucial mistake of “Threshold” was overthinking the scientific aspect of Star Trek, which is usually the most ludicrous part of the show. The point of Star Trek was never really to explain how future science might work, but to show how ordinary humans would react in situations far beyond the realm of possibility as we currently know it. I think it’s terrific that Trek has used concepts and technologies that are becoming more feasible by the day. But for me, it’s incidental to my enjoyment of the show. Certain elements of Star Trek just weren’t meant to be treated as real science.
From the start, warp speed has been one of those things—like Stardates and Universal Translators—that was never meant to be examined this closely. All we needed to know, as viewers, was that warp speed was really fast, and if the captain said they were traveling at warp 10, we understood that was faster than warp 9. This attempt to put theories and rules and limits and boundaries on warp drive was, in my opinion, taking things too far. “Threshold” is even more misguided than that TNG episode where we learned warp speed was actually tearing apart the fabric of space, or some such nonsense.
Still in the Mess Hall, Paris expositionizes to Neelix that it was Voyager’s discovery of a new kind of dilithium that prompted this experiment, or inquiry, or research, or whatever you want to call it. So there you have it. This was all made possible by random chance, finding “a new form of dilithium”, a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Viewers Like You.
Kim tells Neelix about that problem where the nacelles get torn from the ship. This reminds Neelix of how he was once traveling through “a dark-matter nebula” and lost a nacelle, too. Paris and Kim roll their eyes, but Neelix proves that he too can provide his own load–and I do mean load—of technobabble. His incoherent ramblings prompt a semi-epiphany for Tom Paris: “What if the nacelles aren’t being torn from the ship? What if the ship is being torn from the nacelles?” Um, yeah. Is this me touching you? Or is your nacelle touching me?
Anyway, “depolarize”, “velocity differential”, blah blah blah, “depolarization matrix around the fuselage”, yadda yadda, and as you probably already guessed would happen, Paris and Kim figure out exactly how to resolve the problem. Other things you might have predicted happening in this scene: 1) Paris subsequently calling Neelix a “genius” for no good reason, 2) Neelix expressing total bewilderment once they’re gone, and 3) Neelix grabbing a random piece of food off the platter that B’Elanna is carrying once she finally returns. This isn’t exactly groundbreaking stuff here, folks.