You probably remember it as “the clown episode.” Set near the end of Voyager’s second season, “The Thaw” features a classic Delta Quadrant scenario: Janeway & Co. stumble upon people in need, try to help them, and end up trapped in a deadly simulation controlled by the physical embodiment of Fear.
The premise of “The Thaw” is sound — perhaps, even, intriguing (how do you negotiate with an emotion?) — but like any episode whose climax ends with a whimpering, whispered “Drat!”, its execution leaves much to be desired.
Though Stephen King and American Horror Story have ensured that clowns belong on the list of mankind’s greatest fears, Voyager’s attempt to contribute to these pale-faced monsters engenders more annoyance than fear: Michael McKean’s high-pitched performance isn’t frightening, it’s downright impossible to bear. Furthermore, the episode’s surreal, circus-y theme comes across more “kooky” than “chilling.”
However, setting these obvious flaws aside, “The Thaw” makes one fatal mistake: it focuses on the wrong character.
Though initially both Harry and B’Elanna enter the program, soon after they arrive, the Clown sets B’Elanna free and makes Harry the victim of his mind games. What follows is a cringe-inducing demonstration of Ensign Kim’s greatest fears: first, he is transformed into an old man (to trigger his fear of death); then, the Clown makes him an infant (to prey on his inferiority complex); and finally, he’s strapped to a gurney and forced to listen as the Clown recounts his memories of colonists ravaged by nuclear holocaust.
Though the scene is meant to terrify, it falls flat; viewers are bombarded with so much information that they end up confused, not empathetic. This failure to communicate danger to viewers is fatal, because the entire episode hinges on the assumption that the Clown can scare his victims to death. If viewers don’t believe this — that is, if we aren’t at least a little scared as Harry screams atop that gurney — then the episode lacks narrative tension.
At first glance, this seems like an impossible problem, and the episode appears doomed from the start. However, the solution lies right beneath the writers’ noses: just replace Harry with B’Elanna.
The exchange works for three reasons. First, Roxann Dawson can sell an emotional scene. This is perhaps her greatest strength as an actor, as she proves again and again throughout the series (“Faces,” “Dreadnought,” “Lineage,” “Extreme Risk”). Even if the Clown and his lackeys stayed the same, Dawson would’ve delivered a memorable performance.
Second, B’Elanna’s fears are already established. Though “The Thaw” takes place in Voyager’s infancy, a lot of B’Elanna’s backstory has already been exposed: “Parallax” revealed her failure to graduate from Starfleet Academy, “Faces” explored her struggle to accept her Klingon heritage, “Dreadnought” showed that even her confidence in her engineering skills could be shaken — and all this without considering the smaller, side glimpses of her psyche offered in episodes like “Twisted” and “Resistance.”
Each of these episodes demonstrates B’Elanna’s huge capacity for fear. On the outside, she’s competent and kickass and knows she’s a good engineer, but on the inside, she’s bruised and broken and historically insecure. The Clown, privy to all of B’Elanna’s emotions, could prey on any of these fears, and — thanks to the groundwork laid in previous episodes — viewers wouldn’t be overwhelmed with floods of new information. They would be free to focus on the emotion of the scene.
Which leads me to my final point: B’Elanna’s fears are more compelling. There’s a theory called the power (or scandal) of the particular, championed by Christian theologians and rock’n’roll critics alike. Essentially, the power of the particular posits that the more specific a story, the more universal its application. For example: everyone is afraid of death, so making Harry afraid of death will elicit strong reactions, right? Wrong. When tugging on people’s heartstrings, the trick is to make it personal. Take a familiar fear — say, of rejection — and cast it in very specific terms, such as, “half-Klingon daughter feels unloved by human father, spends years trying to hide her heritage in hopes of winning his favor.” Now that’s a compelling story.
“The Thaw” has many problems, but a simple shift in focus could have solved more than one. No matter how you skew it, B’Elanna is a stronger, better-written, better-depicted character. But instead, we’re stuck with Harry, and what could have been a psychological thriller a la “Empok Nor” or “Distant Voices” is only a tepid episode full of circus freaks and clowns.