“Threshold” is the Reason I Became a Trekkie (And It’s Good, Actually!)
If you’ve spent any amount of time amongst other Trekkies, eventually this question will come up: what was the episode that got you into Star Trek?
A lot of my friends have cool answers. For some of them, it was a classic like “Best of Both Worlds” or the new movies. For others, they started a show from the beginning, either streaming or when it first aired. But not me. The episode that made me a fan, the episode that sucked me in for twenty-five years of watching and enjoying this franchise, was Voyager‘s second season episode “Threshold”.
Yeah – that “Threshold”. For some reason, I watched the lizard babies episode and decided yes, give me more of this, please!
I’ve shared this anecdote with other fans over the years, and it’s grown into something of a running joke. “At least you started at the bottom. It could only improve from there!” is a common refrain. I learned from my fellow fans that this episode was bad, actually, so I started automatically skipping it during rewatches. Somewhere along the way, I forgot what appealed to me about this weird little forty-two minutes of television. I never revisited it until a few weeks ago, when I was (lovingly) peer-pressured into rewatching it.
And you know what surprised me the most? It was actually kind of good.
Don’t get me wrong, the lizard babies were still as strange as they ever were. I paused the episode with seven minutes left and went for a walk before coming back to experience the mind-bending weirdness. But minus the ending, it was a solid episode with all the same ingredients as my favorite Voyager episodes.
What “Threshold” Gets Right
“When I was a boy, my father used to tell me that I was special, that one day I’d do something significant. My teachers at school, all the kids, everyone used to say, Tom Paris is going to do something important when he grows up. Obviously, that didn’t happen.” – Tom Paris, “Threshold”, Star Trek: Voyager
Voyager was always at its best when telling character-driven stories. While TNG usually solved problems by reversing the polarity of something, Voyager’s crew more often struggled with the demons from their past and found solutions by confronting their personal failings. Most of the main characters were flawed – deeply so – but those flaws and their individual struggles to overcome them kept me watching week after week.
“Threshold” is exactly this kind of story. The heart of this episode is never really about passing the Warp 10 barrier; it’s about how it might affect Tom Paris. Just when everything seems to be finally working out for once in his life, the story throws a sharp and ironic twist at us. In classic sci-fi form, his personal struggle is reflected in his physical transformation into a horrifying latex monster. Sure, he passed the barrier, but it cost him his life… and then his tongue… and then his sanity.
Before and after the monster antics, “Threshold” shows us Paris’ character growing for the better. He’s a valued and respected member of the crew. He’s developed a friendship with the mercurial Lt. Torres, who goes from dismissing him as a “pig” to showing genuine concern for him as he gets sick (huh, wonder where that is going…).
In this episode, Paris isn’t the cynical, friendless felon from the pilot who shrugs off his father’s rejection. Passing Warp 10 isn’t the magic solution he hoped for, but the events of this episode push him to realize that he’s not going to fix his life by impressing others with his accomplishments. Rather, he needs to find that peace within himself.
This episode won an Emmy… for make-up. And it was well-deserved. The special effects absolutely sell the body horror. A++. No notes.
Okay, The Ending is Still Weird
I understand wanting to make a bold decision and put a button on the end of an episode. “Threshold” is consciously patterned after old monster movies which tended to end with the death of the monster and frequently the discovery of its eggs (signalling to the audience that this story would be continued). Also, they obviously weren’t going to permanently kill Paris.
Salamander babies might have seemed like the only workable solution, but that awkward “sorry I abducted you when I was out of my mind, turning into a lizard” conversation is hard to watch. The episode makes the situation even weirder by ditching the slimy things while everyone vows to never speak of the incident ever again. Even the episode itself is trying to distance itself from its own ending before the credits roll.
I’m not going to pretend this final act belongs in the halls of great storytelling. My forgiveness towards this episode only goes so far. Although, when I look at this bizarro story in contrast with other bad Star Trek episodes that didn’t age well over the years, “Threshold” doesn’t look quite so bad. For better or worse, this episode is just as weird as it ever was.
So, Why Voyager?
It’s almost cliché at this point to say I watch Star Trek because of the optimistic view of the future it presents. Voyager maintains this theme with its own particular twist. There’s always hope they’ll get home and do extraordinary things along the way. Unlike most of Trek, Voyager is mostly a ship of failures, in one way or another. They are felons and drop-outs and greenhorns and rebels. Despite this, they still succeed. Given a second chance and room to breathe, Voyager’s various problem children even excel.
I’ve failed at a lot of things in life. I didn’t live up to the potential all the adults in my life kept telling me I had so much of, when I was younger. But Voyager taught me that my past doesn’t have to stop me from succeeding in the future. This show reminds me that the future is still bright and full of so many extraordinary things I’ll get the chance to do. Hopefully, I won’t turn into a salamander along the way, but it turns out there’s a cure for that.
Whatever else “Threshold” is (🦎🦎🦎), it’s an episode that reinforces this theme of second chances. It was a message that appealed to me twenty-five years ago as it still does today, and I’m happy to keep coming back to revisit it.