In which I’d rather have watched the Stargate version of this episode, but it had its moments.
Because it just wouldn’t be Star Trek if someone wasn’t playing an obnoxious instrument, Harry is practicing his clarinet, to the dismay of his neighbor, Ensign Beytart. There are fluid conduits in the walls that are transmitting sound which nobody thought of during the design phase. Since Voyager can’t exactly put in any shakedown notes, presumably at least one more Intrepid class ship will be built where the crew qarters are approximately as private as a college dorm. Harry is also using his clarinet to snipe the lovely Lt. Nicolette out from under Tom Paris, and no, that’s not actually a euphemism. And now that we have reminded you that our characters are human, Tom and Harry can be called to the bridge to participate in the plot.
The shift structure on this ship continues to elude me. Are they on-call for anything above routine flight operations? Are they actually on-shift but the ship runs itself most of the time? Either way, Janeway has found a planet that looks pretty gross. It used to be a major trading spot twenty years ago, and Kim detects that extreme solar flare activity 19 years ago caused glacial freezing. That is now re-freezing, but it’s estimated that 400,000 people died when they couldn’t evacuate. Janeway does a good job conveying dismay that we’re not allowed to linger on because there’s a signal coming from down there. The information dump feels clumsy, but at least we can hope that it’s in service of a really thick plot down the line, right?
So while there’s no lifesigns, there’s an automatic hail coming from the settlement’s Planner, Viorsa, and his automatic beacon. They set up deep freeze, set to thaw them four years ago, and asking alien ships not to interfere. When Harry goes looking, two kilometers below the surface, he starts detecting suppressed weak life signs. Since their timetable has already been ‘disrupted’ Janeway is just going to beam the stasis pods aboard.
There are three survivors, with two pods having dead occupants. There doesn’t seem to have been a pod failure – instead, the brains are all connected on a LAN – they put themselves into an artificial environment. This is a technology Starfleet once experimented with, apparently. There’s a clear technological lineage, but it seems odd that we’ve never heard of this tech before. It probably went horribly wrong, since Starfleet is no longer using it.
The computer was programmed to periodically show the outside conditions to the occupants, so they can ultimately make the decision as to whether or not to exit. They haven’t yet, so either the escape hatch is malfunctioning, or the occupants decided to just live there, or the computer gained sentience and doesn’t want them to go. The Doctor rules out the idea that they want to stay – the two dead ones show signs of panic-induced heart attacks. Since the crew can’t just pull them out without potentially unplugging their brains, Janeway decides to send Harry and B’Elanna into the pods, with backup life support, to try and get the others out. There seem to be as many safety measures in place as you could reasonbly expect (that is to say, I can’t think of any while drunk and with the knowledge that this is an episode’s worth of trouble) but at the end of the day, you gotta wonder how thoroughly they cleaned the corpse-stench out of the pods.
Not well enough, judging by Torres’ reaction.
They wake up in a receiving room clearly designed for low video card utilization, and quickly move into an orgy organized by Cirque de Soleil. Everyone is NPCs except for a guy who, let’s be honest, isn’t that much more sinister than any other clown you might encounter in conjunction with two dead bodies. Harry and Torres try, unsuccessfully, to integrate with the local NPCs, but the clown works to distract them with a dance routine and a pastel-colored guillotine. It is about now I start wishing I could skip episodes. Torres and Harry are mobbed into irons and dragged to the guillotine, but are saved just in time by the natives. Their persuasion is thusly – if the murder-clown kills the aliens, their allies will shut down the program.
The clown is the controlling AI, or perhaps an emergent function of all the passengers together, and it doesn’t want to let the passengers leave and lose his purpose, and his existence. As such, he refuses to let Harry and Torres leave, threatening to kill one of the locals if they leave. Since Kim and Torres won’t leave voluntarily, Janeway tries to revive them, and Harry reverses it from the inside.
So the wrinke here, and it has the potential to be a good one, is that in this case the computer entity our protagonists have to outwit isn’t just supremely smart, it also has access to their minds, so they can’t lie to it. It’s not supremely and faultedly rational, so they probably won’t be able to contradict it to death. But since the smart move is to let Harry or B’Elanna go and tell Voyager not to pull everyone out so that the clown can continue to exist, he has to at least consider it.
The clown, as stated before, is an emergent property of an adaptive program designed to work with the locals to create their environment. It built itself over time, off their fears, until it became this. Its weakness is only that there’s a few-minute delay before the system can parse the thoughts of its occupants. We’re not going to quantify that any more, but the clown decides to let Torres out and keep Harry captive, playing on Janeway’s soft spot for poor, young, naive, boyish, stupid Harry.
Janeway’s first plan is to try to find a way to let the clown exist without hosts, but it’s not an option. Next, they can’t speed up the resuscitation any more than about ten minutes, which is ample time to get someone beheaded. Thus, she jumps to figuring out a strategy to negotiate with the clown-manifestation of fear. Neelix suggests a solid fifteen minute set with a strong callback bit to go out on – laughter in the face of fear, and all that. This suggestion doesn’t go over all that well. Janeway tells Torres to try to rig up the system to run without hosts, and meanwhile works on getting a method of negotiation that doesn’t involve putting someone in his power.
The Clown starts in on the psychological torture, by making Harry an old man, then a young little baby in Starfleet jammies. Then after working on some basic fears, he starts in on childhood trauma. While the Clown has a masturful command of Harry’s fears, he’s kind of terrible at knowing how shackles work. Apparently having your ankles chained together stops you from moving your legs closer together in this simulation.
Now, before we can spend too long thinking about how, if the Clown is an amalgom of the fears of his hosts, then killing people connected to the simulation diminishes him and he should therefore be treating his hostages a tad more gently, the Doctor shows up to start the negotiating. Quite an elegant solution – I was assuming they’d hook the machine up to the holodeck or something.
Now, the Clown can’t read the doctor, and doesn’t know quite what he is. We’ll gloss over how they managed to feed his program into the system without the system being able to interpret him, and just point out that since Harry knows the Doctor is an artificial intelligence, there’s a limited window here to fool the Clown. He won’t treat with the Doctor – the artificial input they’re offering is too much at the mercy of Voyager, and they could turn it off at any time.
The Doctor delivers one of Vioris’ suggestions – re-calibrating the optronic pathways in the system. This wouldn’t actually do what Vioris suggested it would do, but it would allow Torres to disassemble the environment and gain some leverage. The Clown didn’t notice the deception at the time, and Janeway sends the Doctor back to keep distracting the Clown with nifty counteroffers while Torres disassembles the environment around him. Once the Clown realizes what’s happening, the stasis pods put up a force field. There’s a struggle, but Torres doesn’t quite manage to shut everything down before his heart fails.
And of course, this is a serious heart failure that they can’t resuscitate him from, unlike that time Picard merely got a serrated shard of metal rammed through his. That was barely a scratch, after all. Once the Clown starts in on the next hostage, Janeway orders the rest of the program restored and does not, for example, order as many engineers as possible to gather around the stasis pod computer with an optrinic disruptor in each hand and knock this thing out in six seconds flat.
Now Janeway is feeling super guilty, and starts reasoning through the nature of fear, as it pertains to thrillseeking. We see the end result of this – the Doctor delivers a time crunch ultimatum – let the hostages go in exchange for Janeway, or she shuts down the program and risks needing to feed Harry with a sippy cup for the next 70 years. The Clown agrees.
Once Janeway hooks in, the Clown gets a little melodramatically… excited. Then, in comes Janeway, sporting the demeanor that Starfleet captains get in preparation for, or once it sinks in, that they’re responsible for every life on their ship. Janeway has a use for fear – its what helps people assess risk. It’s a survival mechanism, but a trained and experienced mind like that of a Starfleet captain isn’t generally subject to fear. She masters it.
Or wait no, it was all a trick, it’s just a hologram of Janeway, programmed to respond as she would have, while Janeway is providing false input to the system while not being in stasis. I have mixed feelings about this, and I’ll explain.
On the one hand, the technological solution is as solid as technobabble ever gets. It makes sense, it was even vageuly foreshadowed enough not to be completely scenario-breaking. But on the other hand, when ‘Janeway’ shows up, she starts to give an actually very good monologue about the nature of fear, and the fact that it goes nowhere is very, very disappointing.
Back on the first hand, Janeway is a Starfleet captain, but she’s not superhuman. It would also be exceptionally poor writing for her to just happen to be the one person on the ship who can resist the Fear Clown, although I guess Tuvok wouldn’t have made as tempting a hostage. But back on the first hand, it was such a good monologue they wasted. It makes a fine switcheroo, but it’s ultimately so unsatisfying.