“Year of Hell, Part 1″ (Star Trek: Voyager – Season 4, Episode 8)
The core premise of Voyager – a Starfleet ship trying to make its way home from the other side of the galaxy – is perhaps the most succinct and potent premise of any Trek series. It’s a simple and bold idea that lends itself to a nearly infinite variety of stories. Trek has always been about space exploration into the unknown, but its heroes are typically bolstered by the support network of being relatively close to a home base. No matter what happens during the episode, they set a course for the nearest starbase and warp away at the end. Voyager did away with that aspect, and I remember promises of a different kind of Trek show with more emphasis on survival and the challenges of making ends meet in regards to resources. There aren’t any starbases to resupply at or nearby allied ships to send distress signals – the crew of Voyager would have to bootstrap it, as they say.
It would be more accurate to say that this aspect was flirted with initially but mostly done away with in favor of more traditional Trek adventures. Fretting about energy reserves and rationing replicator energy were recurring plot elements in the first couple seasons, but were conspicuously dropped as the show progressed. The potential for showcasing the realities of the crew’s survival all alone in the Delta Quadrant were great but almost entirely unexplored (as were personal tensions with the Maquis crew members). For that reason (and many others), the show feels like a somewhat stale retread of The Next Generation, as opposed to its own unique thing. The ship just always seemed to have as much energy as it needed, an infinite supply of shuttlecraft and torpedoes, the crew were perpetually well-fed and properly manicured, etc. Corridors are typically clean and spotless, and the always-uniformed crew go about their duties like any other Starfleet ship.
“Year of Hell” is a pretty apocalyptic window into how things could have gone for the crew (the “Equinox” two-parter a couple seasons later also shows an alternate path with another, unluckier, and under-supplied Starfleet ship). Facing an insurmountable number of enemy ships with brutal weapons in an endlessly large and hostile territory, the ship and crew of Voyager are steadily worn down and beaten to a pulp over the course of a year (the day time stamps are a nice, foreboding touch).
The ships that carry out heroes are basically characters in their own way, so there’s something disturbing in seeing the graceful exterior of the USS Voyager scarred by irreparable battle damage, and its interiors smashed to absolute rubble (I always marvel at how the show’s backstage crew is able to believably destroy and mangle the sets, only to repair them for the next episode).
Much like the ship itself, the crew are put through the wringer, both physically and emotionally. A blinded Tuvok still performing his duties (with the help of a tactile computer interface) is a particularly somber detail (Seven being his personal assistant is cute). But like a lot of the show’s emotional character work, the beats in these episodes are somewhat clumsy. The Doctor is angry and ashamed for having to sacrifice two crewmembers, and he and Tom have an awkwardly literal conversation about it (“Physician heal thyself” Tom says, like a total idiot). A character being grumpy over something bothering them, someone else calling them on it, and then being told exactly what it is that’s bothering them seems very Writing 101. Some more nuance and subtlety would have been appreciated.
Janeway’s martyr complex is one of my least favorite aspects of her character (no one likes a martyr, least of all me), and we get some heaping handfuls of that here, as well as in the second part. Her forgotten birthday and Chakotay’s refused gift for her are decent concepts, but they’re a little inelegantly written and executed.
The story is a character-based one of extreme survival and struggle for hope first and foremost, and a science fiction one second (which I think is the ideal, where the sci-fi trappings bolster the emotional/character material). Though the Krenim use time as their weapon, the episode(s) aren’t actually time travel ones, which is a novel and inventive use of the plot device. Pointing a gigantic ship-sized gun at a planet and just deleting its people from history (so that they never existed) is an unimaginably monstrous idea, and one of the scariest threats ever depicted in Star Trek.
Kurtwood Smith is always great to see, and gives Annorax a subdued and coldly disaffected performance. It’s a smart choice to not even have him meet Janeway until the climax of the first episode, allowing the first part the time and space to flesh out the hell Voyager is going through. I love his flat, emotionless disposition towards the crew when he encounters them. He calmly explains that he must erase them from history with nary a trace of mustache-twirling cruelty, but rather a calculating coldness as well as a heavy weariness that has accumulated over the centuries. We’re used to seeing villains gleefully obsessed with wiping our heroes out, but Annorax flatly regards Voyager like a bug on his windshield. There’s a distant part of him that feels some regret over having to wipe out yet another group of people, but he’s labored for too long and is too obsessed with his objective to let it slow him down in the slightest. The parallel he draws to Janeway of both of them being far from their homes is a good thematic detail and shows that he is at least a thoughtful monster (the best kind of monster).
Like Khan (Star Trek’s most popular and beloved villain), Annorax is gripped by self-defeating obsession. His myopic desire to restore his people’s empire to existence (but more importantly, his dead wife) has driven him to do unimaginably awful things for a very long time. In a franchise that values the best, positive traits of humanity, its villains are often people who lack those qualities. Starfleet officers respect life and seek out new civilizations to expand their own horizons; Annorax ruthlessly destroys these things in a regressive effort to get back what he once had. The needs of all others are sacrificed for the one; to call it extreme selfishness is putting it mildly.
By contrast, Janeway is propelled by an equally myopic and unshakable drive to protect her people (and anyone else in the path of danger). By the episode’s end, she makes the difficult choice to separate her crew in order to increase their collective chances of survival. The sight of all the escape pods flying off is a forlorn sight to cap a very forlorn episode.
- The story of the episode was first shown in the third season episode “Before and After,” in which a time-travelling Kes witnesses this period of Voyager’s journey. At the end of that episode, Janeway smartly asks Kes to tell her everything she remembers about the Krenim, presumably so that they are prepared to meet them. But as far as we see, that was completely forgotten about by this point.
- We see the astrometrics lab for the first time, which is a pretty cool set and reminiscent of the dizzying room Picard and Data did space stuff in for Star Trek Generations. I love the big galactic map.
- The design of the Krenim timeship is really cool. It looks big and mean, and seems to draw some inspiration from Babylon 5.
- Kurtwood Smith also played the president of the Federation in Star Trek VI, as well as Odo’s predecessor in “Things Past.”
- I appreciate the drama of it, but separating the crew into tiny and slow escape pods seems ill advised, to say the least. If Voyager herself can barely handle the Krenim, what chance do these little things have?
- Star Trek: First Contact reference! (Seven’s “The Borg were present for those events” line when Kim and Torres are talking about Zefram Cochrane’s ship).
- The Doctor is responsible for this particularly hilarious line: “Who would’ve thought that this eclectic group of voyagers could actually become a family? Starfleet, Maquis, Klingon, Talaxian, hologram, Borg… even Mr. Paris.” There should be a supercut of people dunking on Tom.
“Year of Hell, Part 2″ (Star Trek: Voyager – Season 4, Episode 9)
With the particulars of the story established, the second part focuses more on the personal stories of its two opposing lead characters, Janeway and Annorax. As stated by Annorax himself at the climax of the previous episode, the two commanders are each trying to find their way home, and there’s a nice thematic parallel to their opposing efforts. Annorax is singularly focused on his mission for a particularly selfish goal, while Janeway goes out of her way to be self-sacrificing for the needs of her crew. And each is stubbornly resolute in their determination despite the hopeless odds.
Annorax’s shift in tone to the problem presented by Voyager is interesting. Taking a softer and friendlier approach, he wines and dines the captive Chakotay and Paris in the most disturbing and megalomaniacal way possible – a meal composed of the last remnants of civilizations he’s wiped out. Holy shit, dude – this is you trying to be friendly? Why not use the skulls of children instead of wine glasses while you’re at it?
Annorax is able to woo Chakotay with the promise of sparing Voyager while minimizing any further destruction to other peoples. It’s an OK effort, but I don’t really buy that Chakotay would be suddenly on board with helping him out in any way, and the resulting subplot is odd. We have to remember (since apparently the writers don’t) that this guy was a Maquis renegade. This is a group of people who rebelled because their home was signed away in a treaty by a distant power, and who tirelessly fought against an oppressive and violent foe who wanted to wipe them out. Annorax is a million times worse than the most brutal Cardassian, so it seems very out of character for Chakotay to even consider helping him. Tom, the one who isn’t a former Maquis actually acts the way a Maquis should and tells Annorax to shove it, which is respectable.
Again, Annorax’s softened approach is interesting, and you almost get the sense that the guy is just lonely. After spending 200 years on his ship with the same crew doing the same mission over and over, perhaps he’s glad to see a couple new faces. He fixates on Chakotay, sensing an ability to perceive the intricacies of time, which seems more like projection than anything tangible the first officer exudes. It’s a little thin, but it at least provides some story and opportunity to flesh out Annorax’s character a bit more.
However, the fact that Chakotay actually gets wrapped up in the mission of altering time is silly. He even resists Paris’ attempts to engineer a mutiny, citing sympathy for Annorax’s tragedy. It’s just dumb and a fridge too far. We find out that Annorax’s obsession is focused on bringing back his dead wife, who he inadvertently killed with his temporal tamperings (that’s the name of my all tambourine Trek tribute band). Paris, the voice of reason, lays it out plainly – yeah, that’s sad, but he’s spread that misery to every member of his crew and the entire region of space, and it’s absolutely monstrous.
On Voyager, things continue to be Very Bleak, and the story focuses on Janeway’s obsessive need to plow forward. This episode really doubles down on the martyrdom of the captain, and is one of the first (but definitely not the last) episodes to do so. Like a lot of character development on Voyager, it’s somewhat rough and clumsy. Janeway forces them to leave the relative safety of a nebula and hilarity/destruction from a meteoroid cloud ensues. She personally does some technobabble stuff to save the ship and gets severely burned in the process. The Doctor expresses concerns for her mental health, attempts to relieve her of duty, and she threatens to deactivate him. When the time to launch an assault on Annorax comes, she literally says out loud that she will go down with the ship. And does! It’s all very concerning.
Whatever statement the writers are trying to make with her character is a little muddled. They seem to want to paint her as monumentally brave and self-sacrificing, but also suggest that she’s being foolhardy and taking excessive risks? I don’t think you can have it both ways, and it highlights an issue with the character that persists through much of the series. It’s suggested that she’s fallible (as we all are), but sometimes to a pathologically dangerous extent that drives her to do excessively risky things. Which would be a daring and interesting statement to make, but the writers don’t ever truly commit to that idea because she always gets proven right in the end, or her actions get glossed over and forgotten.
For example, leaving the nebula is a bad idea due to the defenseless state the ship is in. Seven is the only one with the wherewithal to say it out loud and Tuvok all but agrees with her in private. And immediately, the ship gets thrashed by a cloud of small rocks. The Doctor’s assessment of her mental state is accurate, but the episode just shrugs and keeps going because it’s not truly invested in exploring her potentially unstable condition. She succeeds in getting her death wish, and is able to reset everything, so no harm, no foul, I guess.
There’s the emergency airplane wisdom of helping yourself first, so that you are able to help others; if your mask isn’t on properly you won’t be able to get anyone else’s on and you might both die. We’ve seen before in Trek that one of the unfortunate qualities of being captain is that you have to put others in harm’s way (Troi learned this lesson in getting her commander rank). In the grand scheme of things, the captain’s life is actually more important than others, and a leader that doesn’t accept that can be less effective and even dangerous. By refusing to take proper care of herself, Janeway is putting the lives of her crew at risk. On multiple occasions she has put herself in harm’s way rather than ordering someone else to do so, and instead of seeming noble it comes off as foolhardy. Like the Doctor says, “You’re the captain – delegate!”
These two episodes are often hailed as the best of the show, and I would agree they’re definitely near the top of the list. The “reset button” stories of Trek often make for the best episodes because of the fact that they take huge dramatic risks and push the characters to places the weekly format doesn’t allow them to (TNG’s “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “All Good Things,” DS9’s “The Visitor,” Voyager’s “Timeless,” Enterprise’s “Twilight”). It’s a clever way to have your cake and eat it, too.
Thus, this two-parter gives us a dramatic and extreme story of survival and destruction without having to deal with any of the fallout. There’s something a little pat about how everything turns out perfectly after Annorax’s ship is destroyed – Voyager is fine, the Krenim are curt but not bloodthirsty, and Annorax gets to live with his beloved wife (or does he???). But at the same time, because of the hell everyone has gone through, the clean and convenient bow is a welcome reward and pleasant note to end on.
- As much as I like the idea of the timeship and its mechanics, it doesn’t seem to hold up to reasonable scrutiny. I don’t see how Annorax wouldn’t just increasingly screw things up over time and make it basically impossible to accomplish his mission. By deleting more and more places, peoples, civilizations, etc., especially after two centuries, you’d basically be left with nothing. There are only so many peoples in the region of space the Krenim occupied; after this long how is anything still left? It’s like if you’re trying to fix some computer code and you keep deleting blocks of it. Eventually, you’ll just be left with a blank file, right? Unless the timeship has the ability to undo its erasures, which isn’t specified. But if all it can do is erase, it seems a blunt and useless tool at restoring things.
- As not thrilled as I was with Janeway this episode, I did like her little speech and emotional farewell to Tuvok at the end. That extra squeeze she gives him, knowing that she won’t see him again, is heartbreaking. I wish that the depth of their friendship was explored more throughout the series.
- Janeway finding (and keeping) the watch is also a really nice scene.
- I love the alien ships that fly right in front of the timeship and get promptly erased.
“Now whatever you do, don’t fly directly into the sights of this giant history-erasing cannon–”
[ships fly directly into the sights of the giant history-erasing cannon]
“What did I JUST say?”
- “Put Janeway out of her misery.”
Despite what I said about Annorax not being a traditional mustache-twirling villain, this is a pretty great mustache-twirling villain line.