“The Thaw” – VOY 2X23

Voyager does horror in this episode, which fans seem to either love or hate. I was curious to re-watch it with a feminist eye to see if it would reinforce or subvert the standard gender patterns we see in the horror genre.

Turns out it’s not bad on that front. In fact, the only remotely problematic moments from a feminist perspective come in the very first scene where Kim is practicing his clarinet while hanging out with Tom Paris.

Kim looks up from sheet music and smiles conspiratorially at Paris

Apparently Kim has a date to practice music with Susan Nicoletti.

Paris: Lieutenant Nicoletti? The one I’ve been chasing for six months? Cold hands, cold heart? 

Kim: Not when she plays the oboe.

So this gets an eye-roll from me for the cheezy bro conversation and Paris’ “cold hands, cold heart” line. But on the other hand, it implies Nicoletti is more into Kim because he shares an interest of hers, instead of Paris, who at this point in the series still makes it a habit of hitting on any woman with vital signs.

Michael McKean as the clown

Anyhow, let’s jump ahead to the meat of the episode. Voyager discovers a planet that has had an environmental catastrophe. They fine three aliens in stasis, but with their minds active and connected. Rather than risking brain damage by waking the aliens, Janeway decides to send Kim and Torres into their network to talk to them.

They occupy two pods where the aliens had died, apparently of massive heart attacks, and find themselves inside a bizarre circus-type situation.

Kim and B'Elanna look scared

In addition to the super-creepy Clown, they meet a woman referred to as “The Little Woman” in the credits. 

Verne Troyer, who played Mini Me in Austin Powers, has spoken out strongly against treating people with dwarfism like they’re oddities:

“We can do anything you can do. Don’t look at us like we’re circus people or these people that you make fun of…I hope we just show people that we’re very independent and that we can do anything that normal people can do.”

The actress who plays “The Little Woman,” Patty Maloney, does a good job in this episode, but I wish she had been cast in an episode that didn’t involve her literally playing a circus freak. 

Patty Maloney in "The Thaw"

Anyway, the Clown is part of the artificial environment that was built to sustain the aliens’ minds while their bodies were in stasis. He was created by their fears and is sustained by their imaginations. He killed the other two aliens by frightening them to death, and he maintains control over the others in this way.

B’Elanna and Kim convince the Clown to let one of them go back to Voyager to deliver his demand: he wants to live and therefore needs to keep the hostages. And if this was a traditional horror narrative I’d expect him to want to keep a woman, a “damsel in distress” with him.

As this Buzzfeed video that gender-swaps roles in horror movies points out, women in horror are often portrayed as the object for the villain’s violent and sexual fantasies. They are often depicted as helpless, endangered and sexualized, with the audience watching through the male gaze of the villain (think the shower scene in Psycho).

B'Elanna talks to The Clown

And yet, in “The Thaw,” that wouldn’t work. B’Elanna is clearly the harder to intimidate of the two, and the Clown believes Janeway cares more for Kim in a maternal way, so he decides to hang on to Harry.

With B’Elanna gone back to the real world, the Clown starts to worry that Harry hasn’t fallen under his control yet. He decides to change that by showing Harry his deepest fears, starting with growing old.

Kim ages rapidly, his skin wrinkled and hair white

This part is no fun to watch – geez, poor Harry – but it is interesting to compare to the last episode I reviewed, “And the Children Shall Lead.” In that episode, we see Uhura’s fear of old age, but it seems to be tied to a fear of losing her good looks, whereas Kim’s is about a fear of helplessness coming from his struggle to be seen as independent and capable. Not so stereotypically gendered as Uhura crying over her wrinkled face in the mirror.

Next, the Clown turns him into a baby to epitomize his fear of being seen as the “baby of the crew” of Voyager, and finally he puts Kim in the position of a little girl he once saw being restrained as she was about to be operated on in a radiation hospital.

Kim and the Doctor in the Clown's reality

Luckily, then the Doctor shows up to break the heavy/creepy moment and start negotiating with the Clown. The Clown, however, is not willing to give over any hostages.

But during the Doctor’s visit, one of the aliens gives him a hint that he takes back, which clues Torres into the possibility that she can dismantle the Clown’s environment and characters without hurting the hostages.

B'Elanna and Janeway try to hack the Clown's environment

Sadly, despite B’Elanna’s best skills, the Clown notices before she’s done and ends up killing one of the aliens in retaliation. To save the rest of the hostages, Janeway capitulates and orders B’Elanna to restore the whole environment.

I didn’t love this part – it’s a pretty big loss since one of the hostages still died, but at least Janeway seems to feel bad about it.

Using the Doctor as a sounding board, Janeway tries to really understand fear in order to figure out how to defeat the Clown. And then the Doctor tells the Clown that Janeway is offering herself in exchange for the other hostages. The Clown seems to get a big kick out of the idea and accepts.

This next part is the closest we get to that more traditional horror gender dynamic, as the Clown seems excited about Janeway’s arrival in an almost sexual or creepy romantic way. This is reinforced when he shows Janeway their picture in the mirror and says: “I’m not going to let you go, not after all this…Don’t we make a beautiful couple, captain?”

The Clown points to himself and Janeway in a mirror

But Janeway is anything but a damsel in distress in this scenario. She reveals to the Clown that her mind is on the system, but not in stasis, and her body as it appears to him is merely a hologram like the Doctor.

And as weird as this episode is, I really love this last scene and how Janeway just pwns this nightmare clown.

Janeway stares down The Clown

Janeway: You know as well as I do that fear only exists for one purpose. To be conquered. 
Clown: She tricked me. 
Janeway: Did she? Or was a part of you actually hoping to be defeated? Isn’t that why you allowed Captain Janeway to come here? Because you sensed she had the power to subdue you. 
Clown: No. She lied. That was very un-Starfleet of her. 
Janeway: Starfleet captains don’t easily succumb to fear. 
Clown: What will become of us? Of me? 
Janeway: Like all fear, you eventually vanish. 
Clown: I’m afraid. 
Janeway: I know. 
Clown: Drat.

This is actually a classic horror trope – “The Final Girl” – which refers to the resourceful, usually young woman who confronts and defeats the killer. Think Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween or Neve Campbell in Scream.

But it’s one of the more feminist horror tropes, as it forces the audience to identify with the female would-be victim as they “defeat the apparently indestructible killer, when no macho-jock or cop could.” 

As Dahlia Grossman writes at Bitch: “Many horror films have a sexually predatory killer at its center—it’s empowering to watch a woman fight and conquer her attacker….The Final Girl shows us that fear is survivable and conquerable.”

And in this case, Janeway is literally surviving and conquering Fear, personified by the Clown. And unlike the “scream queens” of slasher flicks past, Janeway is utterly calm and in control while she’s doing it.

Bechdel-Wallace Test: Pass. Janeway and Kes talk about the stasis tubes, Janeway and Kes talk to Torres about her plan to dismantle the Clown’s environment, Torres and Kes monitor life signs

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