“Threshold” and Consent

Paris' tongue falls out as he mutates in "Threshold"“Threshold” from Voyager manages to be simultaneously famous and infamous. Famous for the body horror make-up, including Tom Paris’ tongue falling out of his mouth, and infamous for the transformation of Paris and Janeway into ‘space salamanders’ who then have three baby ‘space salamanders’ that are never mentioned again in the series and ignored by Trek until Lower Decks. Yet, the final scene of the episode has somehow slipped under the fan radar – even though one line in particular comes off as either a rape joke at worst or a question of consent at best. Trek often has a rough relationship with properly discussing sexual assault or consent, but this may be the most egregious example. Possibly the gender roles have influenced fan perception, but if it is viewed sans the gender identities of the leads, it really becomes clearly unsettling due to the power dynamic between Janeway and Paris, not only as captain and crewmember, but as son of her mentor and protege of his father. Add in the fact they had no previous hints of romantic or sexual interest in each other and it is one of the most uncomfortable plots in Trek history.

In the premiere, “Caretaker,” Janeway goes to Paris to offer him a deal in order to save Tuvok, her most trusted officer who went undercover on a Maquis vessel which has now vanished. She mentions Paris’ father, Admiral Paris, was her mentor and later episodes in the first season reveal that she had great respect for him. This sets up an interesting dynamic when coupled with Tom’s less than optimal relationship with his father – could Janeway impart knowledge from the older Paris to his son in a way that Tom could learn from his father and, if Voyager ever got home, repair his relationship with his father?

Janeway and Paris talk at the beginning of "Caretaker"

Yet this dynamic makes their space salamander encounter even more awkward. How many people in Admiral Paris’ position would be upset that their protege had a sexual encounter with their younger child that resulted in grandchildren or grandchildamanders? Imagine if the genders were reversed – Calvin Janeway and Tina Paris, for example. How fast would the audience call out the “creepy older man” for taking advantage of the “naive younger woman”? Modern audiences look askance at examples of relationships between Picard or Kirk and crewmembers under their command, so why doesn’t the audience treat Janeway like her male counterparts? While a reasonable question could be raised whether either Paris or Janeway were able to properly give consent due to their rapid – especially for Janeway – transformation into space salamanders, the presence of the baby space salamanders clearly indicates genetic material from Paris and Janeway combined somehow.

As the Vagina Museum thread from last year points out, there are multiple forms of salamander copulation found among the salamander species on Earth. Although it would be safe to assume that being space salamanders their copulation habits might be even stranger than their Earth cousins, the copulation habits of Earth ones are already very odd. There are simple ones where Paris would have created a sperm pack that Janeway would have used her entrance to take into herself, then there are ones with mating rituals, including ones with Paris having to hold Janeway down, a dance ritual meant to entice Janeway into taking the sperm pack, even ones where smacking each other on the snout is de rigueur. Based on how awkward Paris and Janeway act after the Doctor has returned them to their human forms, their copulation may have been on the kinkier side!

Paris and Janeway in sickbay after they're turned back into humans

Human copulation, not space salamander copulation, ended up being a genuine consideration as Voyager tried to return to the Alpha Quadrant. As the crew spends more time in the Delta Quadrant, Paris constantly references dating and looking for partners. He even tries to talk his new friend Harry Kim into double dating with the often mentioned, but only once-seen Delaney sisters. Paris brushes aside Kim’s qualms about cheating on his girlfriend, Libby, as Voyager is in the Delta Quadrant and unless they find a way to speed up the journey, most of them will be dead by the time they return. Paris even implies that everyone on Voyager will need to pair off soon so that children are born before too long so that Voyager can become a generational ship. At no point does Paris express a romantic or sexual interest in Janeway.

Space salamanders in "Threshold"

Much like Kim, Janeway has a partner back home, Mark, and seems to be genuinely conflicted with the idea of not staying faithful to him, especially as Chakotay and Tuvok both come to her with thoughts about the romantic life of the crew. The former is more awkward about it as Voyager is a limited dating pool and a bad break up may impact the crew’s abilities to work together to return to the Alpha Quadrant. Tuvok, however, seems to view the answer in much the same way Paris does – the crew may need to face the possibility that they will not see the Alpha Quadrant, but their children will. At no time does Janeway express romantic interest in any of her crew; her and Chakotay often seem to be on the edge of something, but given her role as his Captain she never lets it get beyond intimate friendship, and they end the series as close peers. She seems to view Paris as a protege or underling, nothing more.

Star Trek has several episodes that fans consider bad for various reasons, including special effects that haven’t aged well, outdated sexual mores, and many others. “Threshold” manages to have award winning special effects that still look impressive, but has a very awkward final scene that calls into question the consensual nature of the ‘mating’ of space salamanders Janeway and Paris.  There is a very uncomfortable line that implies Janeway was the one who instigated the mating, which possibly makes it worse since she is Paris’ captain and previous to this episode neither expressed romantic or sexual interest in each other. This is yet another episode where Trek fails to properly discuss consent or sexual assault. This may be influenced by the genders of the participants as the line is meant to come off as a joke.  Within the episode itself, there is another scene where Paris tries to force Kes to kiss him as a dying man’s last wish and it is also very uncomfortable.

  1 comment for ““Threshold” and Consent

  1. I don’t think most people consider the matter of consent in this episode because I don’t know if it’s really relevant. I know we’re told that that these are higher level humans (an idea that I find ludicrous). But Janeway and Paris have no memory of what occurred, so I don’t think consent is really an issue here. It’s not Salamander Janeway taking advantage of her subordinate or Salamander Paris taking advantage of a female. I’ve always seen it as a simple biological urge by mammals, such as dogs mating.

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