Sunday, August 21, 2011

Star Trek: Voyager--"Year of Hell, Part I"

I am going to be upfront about a point I usually criticize about VOY, but will not attack in the “Year of Hell” storyline. One of the most consistent complaints I have about VOY outside of the off kilter characterization is the Magic Reset Button. Too often the show allows its characters to suffer insurmountable problems only to completely restore the status quo in the resolution or completely ignore said circumstances in the next episode. I find the former usually more frustrating than the latter, but both constitute poor storytelling technique. “Year of Hell” demands a reset button by necessity, and I am okay with that.

Brannon Braga (I am as shocked as you are) and Joe Menosky have turned a general weakness into a strength by fitting it logically within the story. I would almost suspect ’year of Hell’ is a response to fan complaints about the Magic Reset Button, but considering kes got the boot a few months ago as opposed to Neelix or Harry, I cannot give the powers that be credit for being that responsive to fan desires. The plot of ’Year of Hell’ involves a villain with a grudge against time itself. Annorex, played with both menace and sorrow by Kurtwood Smith, has developed a weapon that can wipe people out of time to set places and events as if the missing people never existed. Annorex is on a quest to restore his family back to life, and lis unconcerned with how the entire universe might be affected in the process. Naturally, if events are being changed from their normal course, the resolution is inevitably going to restore the status quo. When that is know from the beginning, the journey to that point becomes key.

It is the journey that makes the story so good. The first element I enjoy is the scope. The episode skips ahead over a period of nearly three months as Annorex’s people, restored to full imperial power by his weapon, brutally savage Voyager. What is interesting is that Braga and Menosky do not take the most obvious route of killing off main characters immediately. While such an act would be intended to elicit a strong emotional response from the audience, it would actually come across as a cheap stunt. Instead, there is a slow build up of desperation. Extras we have never seen ort heard of before are killed. The Doctor has to seal of a exploding section of the ship, killing a couple crewmembers, in order to save everyone else. Increasingly large sections of the ship are destroyed. These are all elements we would normally expect to see in an episode. Here they start to build up so that we feel a rising sense of dread that maybe the Magic Reset Button will not fix everything. It is just at the moment you begin to think that a main character suffers a permanent loss--Tuvok is blinded in an explosion. Certainly, that will not stand, but things have built up so logically to that point, there is a sense of tragedy gnawing

Secondly, I appreciate the crew is facing a dreadful enemy that is not the Borg. It would have been easy to feature a year of hell with Voyager constantly under attack by the Borg, losing crew to both battle and assimilation. It might have been exciting, but using another race is original and promotes the idea the Delta Quadrant is a very dangerous place.

Does “Year of Hell, Part I” have flaws? Yes, it does. The most glaring is that Kes, who once traveled through time to the Year of Hell and gave janeway every bit of knowledge she had gathered about the Krenim, is never mentioned, nor is any of the intelligence she gathered. It is a terribly glaring absence. Why does the name Krenim not ring a bell with anyone? Worse yet, the temporal torpedo that caused Kes to travel through time in the first place shows up. This time, it is dealt with by Seven instead. How about some acknowledgement here? Another big flaw is a minor dispute between Janeway and Chakotay on how to proceed. With the ship barely functioning, Chakotay thinks like a Maquis--split the crew up into shuttlecrafts and life pods with a plan to meet up on the other side of Krenim space. They will increase their chances of survival that that way. Janeway, thinking like Starfleet, refuses to split the crew up. The conflict echoes their disagreement over how to deal with entering Borg space earlier, but does not handle the tension nearly as effectively. Animosity between the two would have added extra drama, but instead falls flat.

Granted, in the end, Janeway makes a fateful decision which damages Voyager so badly, she has no choice but to order all but the senior officers to follow Chakotay’s plan. As a bonus, Chakotay is kidnapped by Annorex, so even though his idea won out, he is going to have to be rescued by Janeway, so she is still going to come out on top. But you knew that already. Even you are right and Janeway is wrong, her awesomeness has to assert itself by her eventually rescuing you. Jeri Taylor approves.

I approve of “Year of Hell, Part I” myself. It effectively tightens the screws throughout to the point the inevitable Magic Reset Button is out of your mind. It is very atmospheric, with the lights out all the time, heavy debris scattered throughout all the regular sets, and high and mighty federation principles taking a backseat to triage in the name of survival. It is an ambitious effort, and in spite of some flaws, a very good one. I cannot award more than three stars because of the flaws, but it is still a personal favorite.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

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