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The Thaw

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The Thaw

WARNING: Those of cold ways, watch your step: VOY's "The Thaw" is coming, and bringing spoilers with it.

In brief: Um ... check, please.

Written by: Joe Menosky (teleplay); Richard Gadas (story) Directed by: Marvin V. Rush Brief summary: An attempt to save some humanoids trapped in stasis leads to a bizarre virtual-reality encounter with a manifestation of fear -- a malevolent clown.

Before I begin, a quick caveat. Between the time "The Thaw" aired and I began writing this review, I was involved in a rather substantial car accident. I'm fine, but my car is likely to be totaled -- and as a result, my mood while writing this review is not the best. I'll try to keep things as objective as possible, but I can't promise anything under the circumstances.

That said ... I believe the phrase "what were they *thinking*?" might apply to "The Thaw". It's difficult at best to pull off the "let's give an emotion a physical form" idea -- when it's wrapped in packaging that includes the tired and overused virtual-reality idea *and* a circus atmosphere reminiscent of some of the least watchable portions of TNG's "Cost of Living", I'm not sure there's any combination of directing and cast that could pull off the idea successfully. "The Thaw" isn't a good episode ruined by some lousy work -- it's just a poor conception from the start, I think.

Let's start with the initial poor choice that got the episode started. If you're a Starfleet officer, you find a planet rebuilding itself, and a recorded message saying "please don't bug us", one would think that common sense would say that you *leave them alone*. Even if common sense didn't do it, the Prime Directive surely would. Even given the slight mitigating factor that the colonists were a bit overdue in reviving themselves, you'd think that a few years' margin of error is acceptable. Basically, I think it was a big mistake to get involved in the first place. When, in addition to that, Janeway decides, "well, gee, let's bring the entire setup aboard instead of going to it and preserving their culture intact", I have to start wondering whether she got her commission out of a Cracker Jack box. This is not prudent thinking, and not even particularly intelligent thinking at any level. (And I'm not even going to start on the idea of "hey, these three people are in stasis and can't get out, so let's send someone else into stasis to find them." Yeah, *real* bright, that one.)

Then Kim and Torres entered the "artificial environment" of the colonists' hibernation system, and the carnage began. Given Joe Menosky's name on the script, and some of the things he's done in the past (TNG's "Masks", DS9's "Dramatis Personae", etc.), I was pretty much expecting weirdness -- but frankly, circus weirdness with no real point is not to my taste. If it's an artificial environment created by the colonists' thoughts, was there ever any explanation given for the carnival-like atmosphere? Not so far as I recall -- there was a mention of the clown's "origin", yes, but not the general surreality.

As for the clown ... well, I suppose the best face I can put on it is that Michael McKean tried his best. Having enjoyed McKean's work from time to time (most notably in "This is Spinal Tap"), I figured that if anyone could salvage the idea, it would be him. Unfortunately, that wasn't enough. McKean's performance had major echoes of Jack Nicholson's turn in "Batman" as the Joker -- but Michael McKean, much as I enjoy him on occasion, is not Jack Nicholson, and the atmosphere wasn't "dark" enough to support even the sort of menacingly demented spin Nicholson would have had. As a result, 95% of the time that the clown was on screen, my sense wasn't one of menace, but of simple silliness. I could see exactly what he was *trying* to do -- but there wasn't any way for him to do it.

After that, the episode boiled down to the hostages being terrorized inside the system, while Janeway and company worked on rescue attempts outside the system. Virtually all had their flaws. The one exception, I think, was the clown terrorizing Harry Kim with his "hospital" recollection. That was probably one of the few moments when the episode came close to what it wanted to do: presented fear as powerful, memorable, and dangerous. (The Harry-as-old and Harry-as-infant moments, on the other hand, were dull.)

The escape attempts, however, had the all too usual sloppy work making them up. First, there was Torres's "optronic pathways" gambit of trying to remove the environment. While the idea in general was good (and the clue dropped well by Thomas Kopache's Viorsa), the idea that only Torres could be in there working on it was silly beyond belief. If you have two, you cut your time in half and likely save people. Second, Janeway's response to Viorsa's "execution" struck me as questionable at best. Since the strong implication was that severing all the pathways would knock out the environment, and Torres only had a couple of them left, the sensible course is to *do it* and save the other three, not knuckle under.

Lastly, there was the "Janeway trades herself" gambit and hoax. This is one that I liked despite some of the sloppiness. (The sloppiness was that we're suddenly told that the pods are modifiable to let Janeway do what she did, when there was absolutely no evidence of that.) Iffy though it was, I thought it was a clever trick to pull, and made good use of the time delay the clown had in reading others' thoughts. Some of the final scene also worked well -- not necessarily the lines themselves, but some of the direction. The slow fade to darkness was particularly effective.

All in all, though, the best I can say about "The Thaw" is that it was better than I expected it to be when I first heard about the "demented clown" idea. That's damning with pretty faint praise, but it *is* praise. I wouldn't recommend "The Thaw" except to diehard Voyager completists, but that still puts it up above things like "Threshold" and "Elogium".

So, some tidbits:

-- Most atrocious line: "We're his canvas -- his blocks of marble. With us he practices his ghastly art." Good Lord -- did someone watch too much "Bram Stoker's Dracula" or something and go nuts with the dialogue?

-- Boy, it's convenient that with almost all of the environment gone, the guillotine was still perfectly functioning.

-- I'm not even going to mention the total nonsense of having a massive weather shift create *and destroy* glaciers in the space of 19 years. Nope, not going to discuss it.

And, wrapping up...

Writing: A weak idea to start with, wrapped up in really weak plot workings. No, thank you. Directing: The surreality didn't work, but I'm not sure who's to blame for that. The closing scene *did* work from a directing point of view. Acting: Michael McKean tried; I'm not certain about the rest. (Robert Beltran looked particularly tired in one scene; of course, given the let's-make-Chakotay-look-like-an-idiot lines he had in it, that may not be a surprise.) OVERALL: A 3, mostly for McKean and the strength of the ending.

NEXT WEEK: What do you get when you cross Tuvok with Neelix? Show all work. (Physicists, please remember to use the right-hand rule when you answer this question.)

Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.) tlynch@alumni.caltech.edu <*> "Who is she to tell me what I have to do?" "She's the one out there with the OFF switch in her hand." -- the Clown and the Doctor (they're detectives!) Copyright 1996, Timothy W. Lynch. All rights reserved, but feel free to ask... This article is explicitly prohibited from being used in any off-net compilation without due attribution and *express written consent of the author*. Walnut Creek and other CD-ROM distributors, take note.

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