Jammer's Review

Star Trek: Voyager

"The Chute"

***

Air date: 9/18/1996
Teleplay by Kenneth Biller
Story by Clayvon L. Harris
Directed by Les Landau

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

"There's a massive struggle going on inside you—a battle to the death—between you and the clamp. You have to use whatever force you can to defeat it." — Zio

Nutshell: Ambitious, with some genuinely good moments. I still get the feeling the show could've been even more than it was, as it didn't have the dramatic payoff it really deserved.

Kim and Paris are wrongfully convicted of a terrorist crime and are railroaded into a violent, alien penal institution. Further, the two are equipped with a mental implant called "the clamp," which heightens their aggression and violent impulses. They must survive their new environment until Janeway and the Voyager crew can use diplomacy to straighten out the situation.

Somewhere inside "The Chute," a reasonably good Voyager installment, there's an even better show trying to get out. Often, this better show emerges, but the efforts of the truly inspired scenes are at times undermined by other sequences which are wholly forgettable. But first the good news: in a number of ways, "The Chute" works very well.

Part of what this show gets right, and in a big way, is its tone. This is one of Voyager's darkest episodes on record, and there is a lot to be said for Les Landau's atmospheric direction. Visually, the scenes on the prison installation are ominous, sometimes jarring, and intensely conceptualized—a mood created with some top-notch lighting and cinematography techniques. And Jay Chattaway's score has some atypically great movements that harbor emotion (could it be the producers are relaxing their counterproductive music scoring guidelines?).

The prison has no guards or fences—it's completely walled-in except for a force field-guarded chute that allows new prisoners to be dropped into the facility and also occasionally dispenses food rations. The prison is full of violent characters who seem to have no reason for existing except to terrorize one another. The show's opening scene, in which Kim slides down the chute into the prison populace, illustrates their way of "welcoming" new inmates, as they take turns roughly shoving Kim around. (Later, when food comes sliding down the chute, a violent outbreak erupts leading to the death of at least one man.)

Paris, who arrived at the prison a few days earlier, comes to Kim's rescue, and the two find themselves at the mercy of their new environment, with only each other to count on for support. This leads to another thing the show does nicely: it makes use of the Paris/Kim friendship, something that, in most shows, doesn't have the power and meaning that it comes to have here. This time these two depend on each other to survive, and on several instances one saves the other from probable death.

When, early in the episode, Paris is stabbed in the side during a fight with another inmate, it's up to Kim to deal with the other prisoners alone while, at the same time, making sure Paris survives. And that's another big plus about "Chute"—it gives Harry Kim a story with some substance. Finally, finally, finally the writers have given this guy something worthwhile to do. His last notable vehicle was "Non Sequitur"—a show from an entire year ago with a script and performances that I unfortunately did not find at all impressive. Part of the reason "Chute" makes a good Harry Kim show is because it doesn't treat his character with such a pedestrian nature like most Voyager scripts tend to do. This show puts Harry in action, as the prison life forces him to consider options he would never have to face on his starship. This is probably the biggest role Garrett Wang has had to carry on the show yet, and he delivers, creating a Harry we've never seen before with eyes that have burning intensity. (It's also surprising how different Kim's attitude seems when his hair is messed up.) Here's hoping this isn't the last time we see Harry written as a human being rather than an automaton.

One puzzle Harry tries to figure out is an inmate named Zio (Don McManus), who eventually takes Kim and Paris under his wing. He's been imprisoned for years and has survived the mayhem because he has a unique perspective on the prison machinations. He's the only inmate who has learned the "secret" of the clamp and can control its mental effects. He writes his thoughts on scraps of paper which he has compiled into a personal manifesto. At times Harry dismisses Zio as insane (even though the clamp seems to be driving Harry himself to the limits of sanity), but it's obvious that Zio is not simply crazy. His divine understanding of the prison is something that Harry cannot begin to fathom. One very intriguing shot features Zio staring up toward the ceiling with the opening of the chute in the frame behind him; the chute looks suspiciously like a halo. This framing is decidedly intentional, and the implications are interesting. Kudos to Landau for the subtext.

Meanwhile, Harry devises an escape plan: with a piece of conduit pipe, he rewires the chute hatch and disables the force field. Only problem is, once he does it, he crawls up to find a hatch that leads to...space. So much for crawling to the surface. The revelation here is accomplished with an impressive "tracking" shot that zooms out through miles of "virtual" territory. (If you saw it then you know what I mean.)

Once Harry discovers the hatch, he realizes it may be possible to escape on a ship when one comes by to deliver rations. None of the other inmates believe him. They mock him, they sneer, they say there's no way out. This leads to perhaps the least successful scene between Harry and the other prisoners, as Harry says the obvious: "We can do it, if we work together!" A tad underwhelming in terms of drama.

Fortunately, what's not underwhelming is Zio's constant badgering of Kim to get rid of (read: kill) Paris, whose injuries and lack of food have practically reduced him to a babbling, incoherent invalid. And when Harry comes back to the shelter one day to find Tom dismantling the escape pipe device, he assaults him with such startling ferocity that the scene exhibits more energy than the last four episodes of Voyager combined. Harry's loyalty to Paris, however, wins out, and when Zio informs Harry that he will have to become a killer if he plans to survive, Harry says he'd rather die instead.

But amidst the interesting dialog, dark overtones, and impressive production, there's a significant problem here: the plot. The details of this whole situation are really, really tired, and they really should've been dropped in favor of more relevant material. Just how many times, for example, have we seen Star Trek characters sent to prison by alien governments for crimes they obviously didn't commit? Or terrorist factions who call themselves "patriots" and butt heads with the captain? Or stubborn, obnoxious governments who threaten to open fire if discussions about releasing unjustly convicted prisoners isn't immediately ceased? Or scenes in the conference room where characters discuss how to deal with these stubborn, obnoxious governments? The alien official here did not have to be written with such obvious, cliche-ridden, hostile hard-headedness for this show to work, so why was this phony progress inhibitor needlessly inserted into the story? (On an unrelated note, where exactly did Kim get that pipe he used to disable the force field?)

In fact, the entire B-story involving Janeway's mission to retrieve her officers is so painfully stale that I couldn't help but watch it with cynical disinterest. This side of the show interrupts the prison-set scenes on several occasions, and every time it feels like dead weight that's holding down the story.

Janeway's final rescue of Kim and Paris was okay (although it was awfully convenient that Harry and Tom happened to be by the chute when it happened). The scene made reasonable use of Neelix for a change (and without being annoying, too, if you can believe it), and the way his shuttle darted off after the rescue was kind of fun. Unfortunately, this action ending was quite bad in one sense: it completely displaced a possible (and what would've been much preferred) final scene involving Zio and Kim. The failure to bring closure to Zio's character and this side of the show left me feeling that the creators' whole idea of Zio was uncertain. There was no payoff to speak of, and it just did not feel finished at all—and that's a terrible shame considering the potential.

Overall, I liked "The Chute." It was a show that seemed to spew attitude and have some left to spare. The production was phenomenal, as were the director's touches. Zio was an interesting character even if not completely realized, and it was definitely nice to see Harry get a long-overdue vehicle. I only wish the story and the payoff had been as solid as the ambition was. "Chute" seemed to have high aspirations, but the plot workings just didn't seem to want to see it through. Yes, the episode was good, but it could've been so much more.

Previous episode: Flashback
Next episode: The Swarm

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9 comments on this review

Nic - Wed, Dec 9, 2009 - 1:49pm (USA Central)
Believe it or not, Harry Kim was always my favorite character during the show's original run, and this is one of his best episodes. Wang, McNeill and McManus (Zio) gave outstanding performances. In a way, this episode was a lot like "Hard Time" (both explored what it takes to make us forget out humanity), and in both cases I think it's okay to go along with a tired and incredulous plot device to put the characters in this situation.
Destructor - Tue, Apr 19, 2011 - 8:27pm (USA Central)
Amazing episode, will always be in my VOY top ten. Very dark, very intense, exploring a very interesting series of issues. And I *loved* the non-prison scenes because every single one of them was a case study in Janeway-being-a-badass.
Nick - Tue, Sep 6, 2011 - 10:07pm (USA Central)
Couldn't agree more! One of my favorite Voyager episodes. I only wish they had focused more whole episodes on the Kim/Paris relationship. And no, not for slash reasons LOL!
Arachnea - Sun, Dec 23, 2012 - 1:21am (USA Central)
Unlike Nic, Kim is not my favorite character. However, in this particular episode, I liked his growth: the naive young ensign who's been sheltered from bad thing all his life before coming aboard the Voyager must fight - both mentally and physically - for his life (and his friend's) in extreme circumstances.

After so many Trek seasons, some ideas are bound to be recycled and, when they are well used to explore important themes, I don't really mind.

What bothered me was Janeway's decision to offer a "hostage exchange". It really looks like meddling in another society's affairs, even if two of her crewmen have been wrongly accused. Knowing the swift and inaccurate justice system this government have, Janeway should have given proof (traces of the trilithium on the cargo shuttle), but not sending two young beings to something somewhat worse than a death sentence with absolutely no knowledge of the political situation.
Aggresors - Tue, Mar 19, 2013 - 10:13pm (USA Central)
The Voyager crew and Janeway are just amazing at being aggressive! With each passing episode I find a reason to scratch my head at how janeway handles things. This episode what bothered me the most was how she handled the 2 freedom fighters on the bomb making transport shuttle. So we got a group who is trying to liberate themselves from a oppressive government, Janeway doesn't give a damn about that or their entire planet, denies to work with their government and decides to TAKE Those 2 onto voyager ship because we need information.... and they aren't willing to work with us. Bah she is all over the place, her way or no way, and her way steps over everyone else! Then she thinks she is nice or something? "Give them hot food and a good bath" Lady you just took us from our ship and put me in prison im not too happy about the bath and food. Put me back on my ship so i can go blow up some more oppressive government is what im thinking!
Caine - Sun, Oct 20, 2013 - 5:40pm (USA Central)
I loved the Kim/Paris part of this episode!
Finally we see Wang give Kim some intensity, and he does it surprisingly well, at that! His struggle to keep sane, and to not let his aggressions get the better of him, was very well done! Until now I've found Ensign Kim (and Wangs performances) to be incredibly bland and boring, but this was something else!

Janeways way of treating the whole situation seemed to me to be rather egotistical and non-Starfleet-like. Her way of treating the two "patriots" she kidnaps (yes, kidnaps) from their ships made me think of the ever so famous Star Wars line: "You rebel scum!".
inline79 - Wed, Jan 8, 2014 - 5:56am (USA Central)
Very unusually, I disagree strongly with much said above. "The Chute" not only bored and depressed me, but I feel that it is far too dark and without a positive outcome to really belong in Star Trek. Maybe this was a reject from "Space: Above and Beyond"! (gasp!)

Though Wang tries, his performance is just that - trying. What we learn is sad: in the future, never go to alien planets because they will throw you in jail in their wacky legal system where you will die. You can try your best to escape, but you will fail miserably so the lesson, as a certain Homer S. once said: never try.

The prison scenes dragged on for much too long, The presence of Zio is seemingly meaningless - Harry breaks his promise to "take him with them", and frankly *I* almost threw something at Harry during his ridiculous "Let's cooperate" speech. I do appreciate how Kim/Paris get together time here a bit like TNG's "Attached", but that alone doesn't save this episode.

Outside the prison our Bad Captain made things no better. Though capturing the real terrorists, she treats them no better than the jerk Ambassador treated her. Is THAT how we humans do things? My way or I kill you? What kind of lesson is that to us viewers? Sheesh! Picard would have negotiated the Crown Jewels out of that Ambassador...

I would have also accepted the "CIA" solution to this situation: when diplomacy fails and you don't want war, secretly back the terrorists to get what you want. That's the American Way, right? ;)

Sigh. I think i'll watch "Threshold" now to cheer myself up!
Corey - Fri, Mar 7, 2014 - 7:30pm (USA Central)
Have to agree with the above two comments (though I think Jammer's right about the planet-side scenes). Janeway didn't handle the situation well at all. On one level her aggression is understandable - she's the hyper protective mother and her crew are her babies! - but as a diplomat she's utterly incompetent in this episode.
Vylora - Sun, Aug 24, 2014 - 5:29am (USA Central)
This easily one of the best Star Trek prison stories with an interesting take on prisoner experimentation and seclusion. The forefront of the episode, however, concerns the bond between Paris/Kim to outstanding and, in two scenes, heartbreaking effect.

The parts that take place onboard Voyager pretty much moved along as expected but not unreasonably so. Mostly nothing standout here but nothing bad either. Any decisions made flowed logically enough and was much better than just giving up and moving along home.

Fantastic direction, great dialogue and performances and a very interesting and well-played guest star in Zio. Like Jammer, I would liked to have known his fate. Otherwise, great job all around.

3.5 stars.

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