“I don’t know how I’m going to enter this into the log”: Where No One Has Gone Before (TNG) vs. Threshold (Voyager)

Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Where No One Has Gone Before” (season 1, episode 6)

where 1Written by Diane Duane and Michael Reaves; directed by Rob Bowman; first aired in 1987

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

A Starfleet scientist and his mysterious assistant come aboard the Enterprise to upgrade its warp drive, in spite of Commander Riker’s suspicions that the scientist’s science isn’t particularly scientific. Said scientist, Kosinski, is a pompous ass, but whatever he does, it worked on two other Starfleet ships, and it works on the Enterprise, too … sort of. During a test of the upgrade, his assistant, the Traveler, seems to be doing all the actual science, with some help from Wesley Crusher, and when he makes a mistake, the Enterprise finds itself going faster than Warp 10 – which shouldn’t be possible – and ends up a few galaxies away from where it started. Picard orders Kosinski and the Traveler to repeat what they did and get the Enterprise home, but the Traveler, exhausted and phasing in and out of existence(!), makes another mistake, this time landing the Enterprise so far away that space doesn’t even look like space anymore. The Enterprise is now a billion light years from where it started, in a place where thoughts become reality, causing kitties and Klingon targs and string quartets and lost loved ones to suddenly appear all over the ship. Picard orders the crew to use this to their advantage, focusing their thoughts on the well-being of the weakened Traveler so that he can, finally, get them back home. Which he does, after advising Picard to encourage Wesley’s impressive understanding of scientific concepts that elude other humans. The captain takes this advice to heart, and makes Wesley an acting ensign.

VS.

Star Trek: Voyager – “Threshold” (season 2, episode 15)

threshold 1Teleplay by Brannon Braga; story by Michael De Luca; directed by Alexander Singer; first aired in 1996

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

Near the end of this episode, Commander Chakotay half-jokes that he’s not sure how to even enter its events into his log, and Chakotay, my friend, do I ever know how you feel. But, well, here goes. Paris, Torres, and Kim are working on a way to break the Warp 10 barrier, both to get Voyager home, and, you know, for science. Paris begs Captain Janeway to allow him to fly the shuttle for the test flight, despite some health warnings from the Doctor. People in Paris’s life have always told him he would be something some day, apparently, and he wants to prove them right. Which he does, sort of; after successfully achieving warp 10 in the shuttle and returning to Voyager, Paris begins to mutate (or “evolve”, as the Doctor later puts it, in a strange choice of words). He rants about pepperoni pizza and losing his virginity (no, I’m not making this up), dies, and comes back to life. He grows an extra heart but loses his tongue, which doesn’t stop him from verbally abusing everyone around him. Finally, he escapes from sick bay, abducts Janeway, and takes off in the Warp 10-capable shuttle. The two of them pass the Warp 10 threshold and disappear, but Voyager eventually tracks them to a planet where they’ve “evolved” into salamander-type-creatures, and had little salamander-type-babies (again, not making any of this up). Janeway and Paris are swiftly and anticlimactically technobabbled back to their human forms, their babies are abandoned on the planet (!), and mercifully, none of this would ever be spoken of, in-universe, again.

where 7There’s always been some tension, right from the earliest days of Star Trek, between the franchise’s optimistic focus on going “where no one has gone before”, and its tendency to warn us against the dangers of going too far. This tension is evident in one of the differences between The Original Series’ first, rejected pilot episode, and its second, successful pilot: its first pilot, “The Cage”, warns us not to let technological and intellectual advancement isolate us from the wonders of the galaxy around us, while its second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, warns against humanity gaining too much influence over the galaxy around us. This contrast becomes even more interesting when we consider the title of that second, somewhat less optimistic pilot. “To boldly go where no man has gone before”, the dramatic conclusion to William Shatner’s legendary voice-over monologue from The Original Series’ opening credits, has become a mission statement for Trek’s utopian optimism, and its update from “no man” to “no one” in The Next Generation’s version of that opening monologue – and in the title of the early TNG episode we’ll be looking at here – served as a small, but symbolically important, indicator that TNG would not only carry that optimism forward, but would expand on its progressive political implications, as well. It’s striking, then, that the episode that gave us this phrase in the first place – the pilot episode that successfully started the whole franchise – is the story of a Starfleet officer gaining abilities no man, no one, had ever had before … and becoming a deadly threat because of it. No matter how much I might want to read the phrase as a call for humanity to break new ground, it seems that “where no man/one has gone before” originated not only as an optimistic call to action, but as a warning to be careful just how far we go beyond where we’ve been before.

If only the writers of Voyager had taken that warning to heart during the production of “Threshold”.

threshold 2It’s one thing for an episode of Star Trek to simply be bad. After all, with hundreds of episodes across half a dozen different series, the odd stinker here and there is inevitable. But the word “bad” doesn’t really do “Threshold” justice; “baffling” would be better, or maybe “ill-advised”. It’s often been called the worst episode of Voyager’s seven-season run – which is debatable, of course – and it even gets lumped in with the most derided episodes in all of Trek, like The Next Generation’s “Code of Honor” and The Original Series’ “Spock’s Brain”. But “Threshold” stands out from those episodes in interesting ways, I think. It’s not built on an utterly flawed premise, like “Code of Honor”, an episode described by Jonathan Frakes, who was in it, as “a racist piece of shit”. And where “Spock’s Brain” is a pulpy, B-movie-esque romp right from the get-go, “Threshold” is roughly half-over before it very deliberately veers into that territory, after starting out as what could have been a pretty typical, even genuinely good, episode of Star Trek.  And this is why I ended up choosing to compare “Threshold” with TNG’s “Where No One Has Gone Before”, and not with another “worst of Trek” contender, like “Spock’s Brain”. Both “No One” and “Threshold” tell stories of boldly going not just where no one has gone before, but where no one has any business going … which is exactly what the creative minds behind Voyager did when they made “Threshold”.

where 3The Next Generation’s “Where No One Has Gone Before” tells this story much more coherently, though, and in a way that’s more consistent with what its audience would likely have expected from the show. Granted, “No One” comes very early in TNG’s famously rocky first season, when the show was still figuring out what its audience expected from it. But the episode is very much of this early era of TNG (while being one of its better offerings), in the sense that it’s clearly trying both to find that identity of its own, and to carry forward the legacy of The Original Series. The DNA of TOS is evident throughout this episode: the overbearing, not-as-smart-as-he-thinks-he-is engineer, Kosinski, is reminiscent of any number of bad admirals or bad ambassadors Captain Kirk had to deal with; the Traveler fits in nicely with all those advanced, enlightened life forms who regarded Kirk and his crew as primitive curiosities (even if he is a lot nicer than Trelane, and a lot less judgmental than the Metrons); and the episode’s literal take on going “Where No One Has Gone Before” feels very much like a continuation of the wide-eyed wonder Gene Roddenberry was going for with Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

where 2Meanwhile, “No One” is also clearly setting up elements of The Next Generation which are meant to continue throughout the series. This is most obvious in Wesley’s field commission to acting ensign at the episode’s end. Making “the boy” a member of the Enterprise’s bridge crew gives him an explicit reason to appear regularly on the bridge – and, therefore, on the show – going forward. This is one way in which TNG really was trying to distinguish itself from The Original Series: by providing an audience-identification character for younger viewers, in order to both heighten Star Trek’s sense of wonder, and, of course, to attract “the next generation” of viewers to the franchise. Now, there’s certainly a conversation to be had about the creators’ assumption that the default audience-identification character should be a geeky white boy. And even as a geeky white boy when TNG was first airing, I, personally, never connected with Wesley’s wide-eyed wonder anywhere near as easily as I did with, say, the comforting parental presence of Picard, or the touching friendship between LaForge and Data (elements of the show which hadn’t quite gelled yet in “No One”). My reaction to Wesley certainly wasn’t an uncommon one; dunking on the character continues to be the lowest-hanging of fruit for many Trek fans, and his transition from regular cast member to occasional guest star by the mid-point of the series seemed to have little impact on the show (with probably his best episode, “The First Duty”, coming after he’d left the show as a regular). Re-watching “Where No One Has Gone Before” now, though, I actually quite like the treatment of Wesley here. His immediate connection to the Traveler is genuinely kind of touching, even if the young white male who simply must be destined for great things is a well-worn trope (something we’ll get into below, when we look at Paris in “Threshold”). I find myself outright rooting for him when he finally stops putting up with being condescendingly referred to as “the boy” (“My name is Wesley, Commander Riker”), and the quick switch from annoyance to empathy it triggers in Picard (“He knows! … We all know”) is surprisingly touching as well.

where 8And while treating its title as both a mission statement and a warning is reminiscent of The Original Series’ “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” The Next Generation’s “Where No One Has Gone Before” does so in a way that supports and develops a theme which was introduced in TNG’s first episode, and would remain important throughout the series. In “Encounter at Farpoint”, where we first meet this new Enterprise crew, Q judges their readiness for exploring the galaxy from a moral standpoint, questioning how far humanity has really come from its days as a “grievously savage race”. While Picard passes Q’s ethics test in that episode, the Traveler passes similar judgement on humanity in “Where No One Has Gone Before,” this time from an intellectual perspective. As he tells Picard, “You should not be here until your far, far distant future … certainly not until you have learned control.” This is a sentiment which would be echoed in one of the series’ most pivotal episodes, the second season’s “Q Who”, in which both Q and Guinan refer to the Borg as a threat humanity shouldn’t have faced until much later in our development.

where 6This idea that there is a sort of evolutionary arc humanity should follow in its exploration of space – basically equating our technological and intellectual development with our biological evolution – is a bit troubling, when I stop to think about it. Granted, it’s certainly not as big a mischaracterization of evolution as we get from the Doctor in “Threshold” (I’m no biologist, but I’m pretty sure evolution happens to groups, over generations, not to individuals). Still, it verges on a sort of essentialism that I’m uncomfortable with; the idea that there’s a set path societal development should follow has been used to justify a lot of racist, colonial nonsense in the real world, and feels very out of place in a fictional universe as humane as Star Trek’s usually is. But I suppose we could see “No One” as questioning this essentialism somewhat, given that the Enterprise crew not only survive skipping a few steps in their development, but manage to solve a problem that should apparently be beyond them, by taking advantage of the thought-manifesting nature of the weird space they find themselves in to get home (in the same way that humanity, ready or not, ultimately triumphs over the Borg).

threshold 7“Threshold” is also built on the tension between Star Trek’s passion for going where we’ve never been before, and its concern that we might end up where we aren’t meant to be … both in its plot, and in the experience of the viewer who’s just innocently working their way through the run of Voyager, and ends up wondering what, exactly, they’ve gotten themselves into. One of the most common criticisms of Voyager is that it’s too willing to ignore the most unique and interesting aspects of its own premise, and often seems to go out of its way to be a bland copy of The Next Generation when it could easily follow Deep Space Nine’s example, and give us its own original take on Trek. So, given how risk-averse Voyager usually is, it’s kind of amazing how committed “Threshold” is to some very strange choices. The body horror of Tom Paris’ gradual transformation in sickbay is a deeply weird thing to see in Star Trek, and is unintentionally (or maybe intentionally?) funny at times, but one thing it isn’t is boring. I can’t fault the makeup and prosthetics on Paris over the various stages of his transformation, which are so well done that they won an Emmy award (that’s right, this episode won an Emmy). And I certainly can’t accuse Robert Duncan McNeill of phoning in his performance as Paris, under all that makeup to boot. However over-the-top that performance can be at times, he is genuinely doing his best to take the script he was given and turn it into something worth watching. And, here’s the thing: I’d argue that “Threshold” is worth watching, which is why I’m reluctant to lump it in with other contenders for the title of Worst Episode in All of Star Trek. If you haven’t seen, say, TNG’s “Code of Honor” or “Shades of Gray,” or The Original Series“Turnabout Intruder” or “The Omega Glory,” I’d advise you to keep it that way, since those episodes fail in ways which are, to me at least, purely disappointing to watch. “Threshold” fails, too – it fails spectacularly – but it fails in ways which are kind of fascinating to watch.

threshold 6On the one hand, the fascinating failure of “Threshold” can be seen as a continuation of an ongoing issue for Voyager: its tendency to build an episode out of two or three partly-realized premises, instead of fully developing one central premise. Sometimes this results in an episode like “Deadlock”, which is solid and entertaining, but gives only superficial consideration to ideas which deserve more attention (Harry Kim and newborn Naomi Wildman both being permanently killed off and replaced with alternate-reality versions of themselves is no big deal, I guess). Other times, it results in extremely uneven episodes like “Coda”, where you can plainly see the writers give up on writing one story, shrug, and start writing a completely different story instead, mid-episode. I think it’s safe to say that “Threshold” falls into the second category. The tone of this episode is all over the place, even early on: the Doctor responding to Janeway’s request to wake up his patient by simply shouting “Wake up” makes me laugh out loud, partly because Robert Picardo’s deadpan delivery is genuinely hilarious, but also because it just seems to come out of nowhere, as if it were transplanted from a much more straightforwardly comedic episode. But there is a clear, “Coda”-like turning point in “Threshold” – probably the moment a delirious Paris screams “Pepperoni!” as if he were channeling Captain Kirk’s iconic “Khan!” – when one perfectly serviceable story idea transforms, like Paris himself, into something really, really weird.

threshold 4Which is why I wouldn’t tell you not to watch “Threshold”, if you haven’t already … though I completely understand if you’d rather get through the rest of your life without ever having to wonder if it’s possible to give informed consent after being transformed into a salamander-type-creature. With the exception of that final, cringe-inducing twist – and the accompanying line from Janeway, “Sometimes it’s the female of the species that initiates mating,” which is so awful it makes me feel bad for Kate Mulgrew having to deliver it – the episode is an enjoyably weird train wreck. But more than that, it’s a warning against the common misconception that good writing is all about coming up with good ideas. I’d argue that “Threshold” is at least built on a good idea – it’s the execution of that idea that takes the episode completely off the rails. The idea that the crew, facing a decades-long journey home, would experiment with breaking the Warp 10 barrier to shorten that trip makes a lot of sense to me; I understand that it’s a sore spot for fans more invested in the notion of canon than I am, but I’d argue that “Where No One Has Gone Before” clearly implies that it is at least possible to break this rule of the Star Trek universe (which, like all rules in all fictional universes, should only stay unbroken until someone thinks up a good enough story to justify breaking it). And I think that idea could have gelled nicely with an emotional arc for Paris, too. Like Wesley in “No One,” Paris bears the bittersweet burden of having people simply assume that a guy like him has got to be destined for great things. But “Threshold” could have taken that trope in a more critical and interesting direction (and does at least try to, I think). It could have really leaned into the irony of Paris living up to those expectations by doing “something significant” when he breaks a fundamental law of nature … and then becoming something “special” when he mutates. This episode’s seemingly out-of-nowhere body horror could have been a literal illustration of the ways in which privilege and societal expectations can turn people like Paris into monsters, even if their intentions are genuinely good. Maybe it even was going to be that, at one point. But then someone decided to give us salamander-type-creatures having salamander-type-babies, instead. And whatever else that choice may be, it isn’t boring to watch.

brightest 1Next week, we’ll see what happens when first contact with the Federation doesn’t quite go by the book, when we look at The Next Generation episode “First Contact” and the Short Trek “The Brightest Star”!

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