Jammer's Review

Star Trek: Voyager

"The Thaw"

***

Air date: 4/29/1996
Teleplay by Joe Menosky
Story by Richard Gadas
Directed by Marvin V. Rush

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

"How am I supposed to negotiate if I don't know what you're thinking?"
"I have a very trustworthy face."

— The Clown and the Doctor

Nutshell: Very bizarre, but it works. Scores points for being different, featuring intriguing surreal qualities.

The Voyager crew comes across a planet that has been destroyed by a natural disaster. Janeway beams up from under the planet's surface a five-person computer-controlled biological stasis system protecting the few remaining survivors of the colony that had been wiped out because of the disaster 19 years earlier.

According to a recorded message, the system was scheduled to revive the survivors four years ago. But for unknown reasons the survivors have not reawakened, and equally puzzling is why two of the five aliens are dead. There is no evidence of a malfunction or system failure. Ensign Kim studies the system and discovers the survivors' brains are all active—in a sort of 19-year-long dream state monitored by the computer system. Because pulling the plug and forcing the aliens out of their stasis could cause irrevocable brain damage, Janeway approves another option: Torres and Kim themselves go into bio-stasis to communicate with the computer system and the other alien survivors.

What they find on the other side is a strange, surreal, carnival world run by a crazed entity known only as the Clown (Michael McKean). The Clown is a computer-manufactured character comprising the aliens' fear of their own situation. In essence, the Clown has become fear itself—and holds the aliens hostage in the fantasy world. He has but one demand—to exist. Like Professor Moriarty (of TNG's "Elementary, Dear Data," "Ship in a Bottle"), the Clown is a computer simulation that has somehow taken on a sentient awareness and a desire to exist. Unfortunately, he exists only in the hostages' minds. If they were to leave, he would cease to exist.

He has the ability to literally kill the hostages by "scaring them to death" and causing deadly heart attacks. In the fantasy world, this is symbolically represented as the Clown executing the hostages via guillotine. (This is precisely what he did to the two dead aliens.) Another strike against Kim, Torres, and the hostages is the fact that the Clown can read minds (since he's tied directly into their minds through the computer). Now that Torres and Kim have shown up, the Clown demands that they stay—threatening to kill one of his hostages if they leave.

Yes, this was written by Joe Menosky, the guy renowned for his very weird concepts. And, yes, "The Thaw" is fairly weird. It's an effective mix of colorful goofiness and some interesting arguments surrounding the question of how to defeat fear itself. The weirdness is evident in the surreal production design of the Clown's fantasy world, and its population of circus-like characters and distinctive, geometrical objects.

The Clown, while a pretty funny guy, is obviously demented and unstable, and has a mocking nature that tends to push the other characters' buttons. Like with Q, everything is a joke to him (although B'Elanna and Harry are most definitely not amused), but at the same time, he will resort to deadly force when he feels his existence threatened. McKean is perfect for the role, bringing just the right mix of annoying humor and buried depth to the character.

The Clown agrees to release Torres so she can take his message of intent back to Janeway. Subsequent communications bring Doc into the picture, since he cannot be held hostage by the Clown. Some of the show's funniest moments involve Picardo and McKean facing off with their arsenals of dry sarcasm. Other scenes feature humor that is just downright bizarre. Take, for example, a scene of building intensity where the Clown is about to perform "surgery" on Harry but is suddenly interrupted by the Doctor, who appears out of nowhere and immediately says something that changes the entire mood of the scene. Another goofy laugh comes during Doc's delivery of Janeway's ultimatum for surrender: The clown and his entire group of misfits break into unrestrained laugher at Doc's notion, then stop on cue just as abruptly as they started. Very weird, but also very amusing.

The episode has a sense that might best be described as somewhere in the realm of Alice in Wonderland. While the Clown and his characters are cartoonish, they still manage to come across as fairly threatening. (In fact, the only missed opportunity is that the writers fail to supply the Clown with the line "Off with their heads!")

Although much of "The Thaw" is unrestrained dementia, there is also a solid story percolating somewhere in here. The last act in particular finds success in evaluating fear and its intangible qualities. Janeway's analysis of the topic is particularly well-written. The questions she raises ("Isn't there more to fear than a simple demand to exist? Why do people enjoy dangerous sports or holodeck adventures with the safety off? Why, after all these centuries, do children still ride on roller coasters?") make a lot of sense, and contribute a believable, logical line toward the episode's denouement. The conclusion, where Janeway tricks the Clown into releasing the hostages in exchange for herself—revealing later that she is merely a holographic image—is a neat gimmick that makes a surprising amount of sense under the circumstances. Particularly impressive is the final thirty seconds of the show, as the Clown fades away into nothingness as Janeway remarks that fear's only reason for existence is to be overcome—such that it eventually vanishes.

This episode is a pleasant surprise. It manages to be goofy, strange, and humorous, and still holds up to a reasonable amount of scrutiny. I'll have to admit that the madcap nature that seemed to be imminent once the characters entered this bizarro world had me in a certain dread at first. (It's hard to execute concepts like this without looking quite silly.) But, fortunately, "The Thaw" pulls everything together and makes it worthwhile.

Previous episode: Innocence
Next episode: Tuvix

Season Index

37 comments on this review

rob - Wed, Mar 12, 2008 - 10:32pm (USA Central)
i totally disagree with this review. i've been a star trek fan for 30+ years now, and when i think of "worst episode ever," this is the one that always comes to mind. never mind "spock's brain." forget "imaginary friend." this one takes the poop cake. an evil clown. an EVIL CLOWN. from the DELTA QUADRANT. redefines "worthless" and "embarrassing." it's 7 seasons of VOY crap like this that killed the franchise. totally abominable.
Joe - Fri, Mar 21, 2008 - 9:00am (USA Central)
VOY didn't kill the franchise. Capt. Archer took care of that.

At the end VOY was far more popular than DS9. But thats the thing with Voyager. YOu either love it or you hate it.
Mark - Thu, Jun 12, 2008 - 12:02pm (USA Central)
I just watched this episode for the first time in re-run and I have to agree with you on this one. I loved the atypical nature of this one and the ending was well played. All too often, the show has to hit a magic reset button because things went boom, so it's nice to see a subtle ending for once.
Occuprice - Fri, Jul 4, 2008 - 1:53am (USA Central)
I could never put my finger on why I liked this episode so much, but I think Jammer sums it up nicely.
impronen - Mon, Jul 28, 2008 - 12:06pm (USA Central)
I found this one decent. The "evil clown" -thing (a BIT of a cliché, I might add) has been done so much better in other tv and movies. Besides, my fear isn't grey and middle aged. Fear is young, virile and energetic - dressed in black with touches of red or yellow.
Rob in Michigan - Sun, Sep 21, 2008 - 8:17pm (USA Central)
I'm glad I'm not the only one who appreciates this episode. I thought it was very well done, turning the aliens' unconscious fears into a surreal manifestation used to keep them in fear. I also loved Janeway throughout as well as the Doctor/Clown interaction. Especially, I loved the denouement ... "It was very un-Starfleet of her!"
Jake - Sat, Oct 4, 2008 - 11:13pm (USA Central)
I agree that Picardo & McKean were nicely matched. I wonder, though, why didn't anyone suggest that Suder stay with the Clown? I also wonder why the Clown is so adamant that ALL the hostages stay with him ("If that one gets sick & dies... NO! I need them all.") and then changes his tone when the Doctor says that Janeway will be the only person who'll stay with him (I'd say the Clown had the hots for her, but he never even lays eyes on her until the episode's end).
Fido - Thu, Jan 8, 2009 - 5:00pm (USA Central)
This episode was awesome. Especially Kate Mulgrew's cold-hearted portrayal of Janeway in the last scene. :)
Bligo - Thu, Jul 16, 2009 - 5:24pm (USA Central)
@ fido ; "portrayal"

Sounds like you thought she was acting ;)
Nic - Sun, Jul 19, 2009 - 8:52am (USA Central)
I think this episode is a masterpiece! Definitely in my top 5 of Voyager... and Top 10 of all Star Trek. Getting to the heart of the human experience... facing of a personification of our most primal emotion. Just brilliant!

P.S. Jake, remember that as the Clown can read people's thoughts, he has learned a lot from Janeway by looking at Kim & Torres' memories of her. So it is very possible that he had the hots for her before meeting her... or that, as her hologram suggested, he sensed that she had the power to subdue him.
Banjo - Sat, Aug 8, 2009 - 7:35am (USA Central)
Whoa. My first time through Voyager and I just hit this episode. Easily one of my favourites so far (I think it will be hard to beat), with superb performances (McKean is always great, though... I was thrilled to see him here). Janeway is SO "un-Starfleet" but for once it serves her character well rather than make her seem reckless and stupid (but why couldn't she show this kind of utter ruthlessness with - say - the Vidians or Kazon?!). TNG's Picard could be tough when he needed to be, but this episode is perhaps the best schance to show that Janeway and the Delta Quadrant could give us a VERY different sort of captain. The ending is dark, and not just literally, and wonderfully played and paced (I was floored that they ended THERE, and not with some trite follow-up "we defeated our fears" speech at the end). I was also surprised and impressed that they let the poor "messenger" die and didn't save him "in the nick of time" as Trek normally might. All in all, impressive and very cool.
Boris - Wed, Mar 3, 2010 - 2:00pm (USA Central)
This episode has one of the best endings in all of Trek. It's up there with DS9's "Sacrifice of the Angels".
Hapworth - Sun, May 30, 2010 - 12:58pm (USA Central)
The story here is decent enough, but the overall look is so spare (read: cheap) that it significantly affects the viewing experience. In fact, the set design of "The Thaw" reminded me of ST: TOS, where any given room on any given planet or spaceship, was ridiculously austere: a couple pieces of angular furniture and no wall hangings to be seen! Throw in a host of funny-looking extras wearing garishly bright costumes and you have a recipe for chaos.

It might sound like I am being too nitpicky, but the devil is in the details. We have seen more or less contemporaneous episodes of DS9 where the DS9 station is transformed into the past, nightmarish world of Tarok Nor through dramatic lighting, refugee costuming, and a strong sense of cinematographic vision. "The Thaw" needs more style in order to enhance the existential crises embedded within its narrative. Actually, just from a logic point of view, more style is needed. How can one suspend disbelief and accept an advanced alien culture (a culture that can not only place its people into stasis but provide virtual reality as well) that is unable to design a techno-reality that rises above a bad mime performance?
Dan - Mon, Feb 28, 2011 - 6:20am (USA Central)
Just saw this episode for the first time. What I would have liked is a bit more ending with what happened to the rest of the population on this planet. Are all the people(except the 2 in stasis)dead? The fade to black left me wanting. As far as the clown, he just reminded me of Q and one of his games he played on TNG.
Destructor - Sun, Mar 27, 2011 - 7:11pm (USA Central)
This episode is a bit draggy and frustrating at times (couldn't the Clown have spent a bit more time, oh, I don't know, SCARING people?) but the ending is *excellent*. I wouldn't have changed that final blackout scene for anything, it was absolutely perfect for the episode and really, apart from the premise, is it's saving grace. I will forget the draggy parts, but that ending is something I think of often.
Skeptic - Fri, Apr 15, 2011 - 11:49pm (USA Central)
Deems to be a very polarizing episode. Had I not watched the original series, I probably wouldn't have liked it. But this episode is such a throwback to the original series. In a good way.
enniofan - Sun, May 1, 2011 - 3:36pm (USA Central)
damn. just watched this...holy hell..McKean would've made a damn good Joker methinks.

and it's episodes like this that are what make watching Voyager so infuriating.

When they wanna ramp up the intensity, the Voyager team does a damn good job at it.


Matthias - Mon, Aug 22, 2011 - 7:43am (USA Central)
The videogame Fallout 3 recycled the basics of this setup for a segment where you become trapped in an endless idealized 50's style suburb ruled by a sadistic AI intent on making the people in stasis torment each other endlessly. It was a lot of fun and a highlight of the game for a lot of people (it's even in black and white, and you get the option to buddy up with the AI if you like by doing some tormenting of your own.).

Where was I? Oh yeah, Voyager. The whole endless carnival was suitably nightmarish but all that waffle on the concept of fear was completely extraneous. As soon as the one hostage mentions the lag between thinking something and the AI becoming aware of it you know there's a vulnerability there big enough to drive a (hover)bus through and all the stoner-level philosophy is just delaying his inevitable undoing.
Cloudane - Sun, Nov 27, 2011 - 11:44am (USA Central)
Just caught part of this on Atlantic... eh I dunno, I was never really fond of this episode.. it's a bit TOO weird, the clown guy a bit too annoying and it revolves a bit too much around the hapless mr. Kim.

Ha, interesting point on the Fallout 3 scene. I actually enjoyed that but I think it had a good balance of surreality, fear etc and never got to a point where it was "annoying". Plus it had a major plot development attached to it.
TDexter - Mon, Jan 16, 2012 - 4:18pm (USA Central)
I thought that this episode was excellent, and my only critique is that the set design does look like it's from the late 1980s. Although I suppose that it is difficult to portray something that is both "surreal" and "abstract" (read: computer-generated) with much verisimilitude.

Other than that quibble, strong performances all around and a compelling theme to boot.
Bryan - Fri, Sep 28, 2012 - 4:16am (USA Central)
An above average episode that was truly different from the norm- The ending scene with Janeway and the Clown is epic!
Jamis - Thu, Oct 4, 2012 - 2:14pm (USA Central)
I've made poop that was more creative that this episode. Clowns are creepy and disturbing anyway, but this one is unwatchable. Suck it Voyager.
trlkly - Sat, May 11, 2013 - 7:38pm (USA Central)
Interesting how people the only people who dislike this show are the ones who seem unable to articulate why. I'm all for diverse opinions, but if you can't back your opinion up, it's stupid.

The only exception is the one comparing this episode to TOS sets, but that's just a matter of missing the entire point. The episode was supposed to look that way--mysterious and sparse. It's only a problem if it were in the real world, which it wasn't.

And to dumb all this down for the haters: Smart people seem to like it, but dumber people don't. Interesting.
Lt. Yarko - Thu, Jun 13, 2013 - 6:36pm (USA Central)
>> i've been a star trek fan for 30+ years now, and when i think of "worst episode ever," this is the one that always comes to mind.

I know there is no accounting for taste, but you, sir, are out of your gourd. When was the last time you watched The Squire of Gothos or any of the many just-as-crappy original series episodes? A similarly clownish but malevolent super-being plays around Q-like with the Enterprise and her crew, but then finally just turns out to be a whimpering spoiled child? You have GOT to be joking that that was better than this.

(I know I am responding to a comment from 2008.)

Anyway, I liked the episode for its weirdness and for McKean's performance and interaction with the doctor. Yeah, the tech was in a nowhere land, but I didn't care because the surrealism of it was entertaining.
Niall - Thu, Jul 18, 2013 - 1:27pm (USA Central)
Just seen this for the first time in a decade. Still amazing, stands up better than ever. A true high-concept tour de force - superb script, superb performances, superb direction and productionn. By turns hilarious and profound. Without a doubt one of Voyager's top 10, and one of the must-watch episodes of Trek as a whole. It stands alone as a piece of drama, of theatre, on its own terms.
Nancy - Thu, Jul 25, 2013 - 12:48am (USA Central)
I didn't find this episode enjoyable at all. Instead of finding "Fear" frightening, I found him campy and annoying. The "scary clown" concept is trite and tiresome. The threat of "scaring to death" with a guillotine as punishment was also laughable; people don't automatically have heart attacks in the face of execution, even when it's real. Plus, if "Fear" is so determined to have the maximum amount of people in stasis to prolong his existence (as he himself states), why would he kill any of them? When the story begins, he's already killed 2 of 5. Along those same lines, as someone else pointed out, it also makes no sense that he's suddenly fine with having one hostage as long as it's Janeway. There is no effort to explain this, forcing those who appreciate the episode to engage in fan wanking in order to attempt a justification. Also, the saving of only five of a civilization and what happened to them is given next to no explanation. Those are just a few of the problems; there are many more.

However, unlike trlkly, I do not have the arrogant presumption to declare that everyone who disagrees with my assessment is less intelligent than I am. I find that those who are truly intelligent understand concepts such as subjectivity and thus treat differing opinions with respect. On a more personal level, I daresay I could hold my own intellectually with a poster whose devastating critiques consist of calling other posters "dumb," "stupid," and "haters."

Back to the episode: I did enjoy the final scene, simply because it meant I would no longer have to endure that wretched clown.
Joseph Soltero - Tue, Aug 27, 2013 - 10:50pm (USA Central)
I think the reason that the Clown so easily accepted Janeway as the sole hostage (after earlier refusing to remain with only one because that one could get sick or die) is that Janeway is new to him.

Up to this point, he's known the minds of only the five aliens, but after a decade, he may have grown tired of them. Perhaps that's why he killed two of them—in part to punish them for trying to leave, but in another part in order to give the remaining three a fresh experience of fear. You can even see the Clown's reaction when he first starts sensing Janeway's mind, almost like a euphoric high from a drug.

If I'm right, though, I do wish the writers had made the reason clearer.
Caine - Wed, Oct 16, 2013 - 8:56am (USA Central)
I ended up really enjoying this episode!

It started out with me facepalming when the bridge crew on Voyager used the sensors to determine everything that had happened to and on the newly discovered planet down to the total number of people that had lived there long ago. Wow ... bitchin' sensors!

I started groaning when we first saw the "nightmare" - it looked so crappy that I was close to stop watching the episode.

But then we met Mr. Fear. What a charismatic performance by Michael McKean! To me, he's what carries this episode more than anything else. Through his character I started getting into the whole nightmare concept, and it dawned on me that the set design kind of looks like a twisted version of a children's show (like Teletubbies or Barney).

I can understand why many people would thing this episode sucks - it seems to be one of those "either it seduces you or it makes you vomit" kind of episodes, and so much hinges on how you react to the look and "feel" of the set and Mr. Fear. I, for one, ended up being seduced by it.

I really liked the ending - Mr. Fear slowly vanishing into oblivion as Kim and the two aliens slowly got eased out of the program, waking up.

This episode DID make me wonder why Janeway would so easily accept "killing" Mr. Fear - a sentient being fighting for survival - without any speeches about the Prime Directive. Sure, Mr. Fear was the Bad Guy here, but he is also a unique "lifeform". What makes the aliens, or even Voyager's own crew members, more important than his continued existance in the eyes of the Prime Directive?

All in all, though, a very different, quirky and good episode.

Mark Huther - Sat, Nov 23, 2013 - 11:02am (USA Central)
I almost alway agree with these reviews but the thaw was one of the worst episodes, second only to sub rosa in my opinion.
inline79 - Mon, Nov 25, 2013 - 2:00am (USA Central)
Someone above remembered Suder - but I don't think the Clown would have gone for someone like him vs Janeway. Courage defeats fear, and that's what the Captain should have more than anyone else.
Well done, Voyager!

Oh and I hope they got to keep those stasis chambers as a reward. Score!
Adam - Fri, Jan 31, 2014 - 7:34am (USA Central)
I really enjoyed this one. Very good episode. Something different, and surreal, and cleverly written. McKean was both amusing and terrifying as the Clown. I especially enjoyed the final scene of the episode, with Janeway's deception.

It reminded me a bit of TOS , this one. When VOY wanted to, they were capable of producing a really damned good episode.
Susan - Fri, Feb 7, 2014 - 2:52am (USA Central)
@ Adam, yes, this one definitely reminded me of TOS. It was original for sure, and it had that same off the wall sort of good but cheap look to it, and it was definitely wierd, TOS did a lot of weird, lol
Dave - Sat, Feb 15, 2014 - 12:56am (USA Central)
Not many Star Trek episodes give me the chills. This one did, just like with The Next Generation's "Frame of Mind", where Riker seems to go insane. As the clown faded into the dark, and then finally the episode, I started laughing, and only had one word to say. Awesome.

I thought the clown accepted the Dr.'s ultimatum because of the threat of ending the program, not necessarily from knowing or wanting to know the captain. Perhaps because the fear controlled them, but I didn't see why those help captive thinking other thoughts wouldn't or couldn't dissolve the representation of fear. I actually was thinking the episode might end differently, with Tuvak going in and being able to control his emotions so well and to help the others calm their thoughts as well.

I thought the idea of wanting to stay (either from fear or from pleasure) in a dream instead of the physical world was definitely a worthy theme. Having your brain connected to a computer to get input and being able to interact with others within a dream, who are also dreaming, is definitely a tech-enough idea for an episode. Even though there were silly clowns...
K'Elvis - Wed, Mar 12, 2014 - 12:23am (USA Central)
One thing the episode did well was to keep you unsettled. In the simulated reality, things aren't always where they are supposed to be - it doesn't have to, because it isn't real. For example, the dwarf is standing next to Kim one moment, and then across the room the next.

The Clown didn't feel like fear, more like a psychopath having fun at other people's expense. It's more like it used fear for it's own entertainment. The clown can't afford to kill people. It's not a parasite that can move onto a new host. It only can live as long as it's hosts live. Then again, perhaps it can't help itself, and is too irrational to act in its own best interest.

I don't see why the one alien died: so what if he had a heart attack? Get him out and get him to sickbay. 24th century medicine should be able to take care of a heart attack, and it wouldn't really have affected the story.
SlackerInc - Fri, Aug 8, 2014 - 1:41am (USA Central)
"I thought the clown accepted the Dr.'s ultimatum because of the threat of ending the program, not necessarily from knowing or wanting to know the captain."

Yes, this was my understanding too.

Interesting, the level of polarization around this episode. I'm basically with Jammer: three stars. So I don't quite get the POV of those who name it one of the best episodes ever, but I'm closer to them than the ones who call it "worst. episode. everrrr."

McKean's performance was absolutely key here: in a vacuum, the "scary clown" schtick has definitely been overdone and usually not well. But he really nailed it. Good script too and well done by Mulgrew and Picardo. Garrett Wang did a good job with Harry Kim this episode--fleshed out the character more than usual.
Vylora - Fri, Aug 22, 2014 - 11:41am (USA Central)
Intriguing, strange, entertaining, brilliant. The amalgamation of fear is utilized in its many aspects from creepy to sinister to terrifying with doses of black humor in the range of subtle to outlandish. Fantastic performances and dialogue and an incredible ending. Very risky episode, indeed, but they pulled it off in spades.

Yes. I absolutely love it. Hands down one of my favorite Trek episodes.

4 stars.
Kyle - Fri, Sep 26, 2014 - 1:30pm (USA Central)
Didn't care for this much the one time I saw it, but there are so many positive responses above I may have to give it another shot (been several years since I last saw it).

One thing that I do remember about this episode was that one of Harry Kim's fears was never being able to hit the high G-sharp in the Mozart concerto. Funny thing is, the Mozart clarinet concerto has no high G sharp - it maxes out at a high G, which Juilliard trained Harry should be able to hit easily. Harry Kim-as-great clarinetist is always an amusing thing for me when watching Voyager.

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