Jammer's Review

Star Trek: Voyager

"Year of Hell, Part I"

***

Air date: 10/5/1997
Written by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky
Directed by Allan Kroeker

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

"If I told you to count the stars in the cosmos, would the task ever be complete?" — Annorax

Nutshell: A solid, entertaining hour ... but I'm extremely leery of the obvious "RESET" that's surely coming next week.

Part one of "Year of Hell" has some solid stuff. In a word, it's entertaining. But there are two fundamental problems that keep this from being a standout offering:

  1. There are a lot of elements about this show that remind me of the "Basics" plot setup. Big events build a situation of an impossibly large scale of consequences, but with enough loose ends that it's obvious we're being toyed with and that part two will reverse everything by conveniently utilizing those loose ends.
  2. The emotional impact is somewhat undercut by the fact that this is a story last season's "Before and After" already successfully tackled. The difference (and what could be the two-parter's undoing) is that this chain of events comes purported as existing in "real" Voyager experience, rather than as one person's artificial experience. And since the effects will be wiped clean next week, I'm not so sure where that leaves us.

So, what we have both despite and because of these facts is a refreshing "what if" premise. Anyone who thinks these events will have lasting consequences in the terms they're given is either truly gullible or fooling themselves. This show is what it is: an interesting mix of slick sci-fi and good characterizations (if not completely engrossing) resulting from the "what if" aspect.

The episode's format is fresh, beginning with the ominous "Day 1" appearing on the screen as the story begins. By the time the show ends we've covered nearly 2 1/2 months in some very hard times of the Voyager crew. On day one, the crew arrives on the border of space occupied by a race called the Krenim, a group first alluded to in last season's "Before and After." In that episode we were foreshadowed this "year of hell" by Kes, who was jumping through time and discovering facts in a "what if" premise of its own.

Now the "what if" is really happening—or so it seems. The Krenim don't initially appear very threatening. But after a mysterious change in the timeline (which we'll deal with in a moment), the Krenim ships promptly open fire. Their weapons have a "temporal" quality that allows them to pass through Voyager's shields, putting the Federation starship at a distinct disadvantage.

Question of the week: Didn't Kes tell Janeway and the crew about the future Krenim attackers in "Before and After"? I thought so, but apparently that's no longer the case. I thought the first time the word "Krenim" was uttered here the crew would be stricken with a mortal fear and would do everything possible to avoid a confrontation. Nope. But, then again, the changes in the timeline caused by the first "incursion" that wipes out the friendly Zaal alien race makes any number of alternate realities possible.

One complaint I have about the Krenim attackers is that they're a little too ... well, boring. In "Before and After" they were faceless, fearsome enemies with neat ships; here they're typical humanoids with neat ships. I didn't fear them the way I did in "Before and After." And the situation that pits the Krenim against Voyager is a little forced. The Krenim are the usual xenophobes who will hear nothing about a starship crossing their territory. They're aggressive and arrogant; and in the altered timeline they abuse their power and beat up on anyone incapable of defending themselves from the temporal weapons. That's okay, though. I can live with this premise even though it wasn't built upon the most interesting enemy civilization. What makes this episode work in the end are the effects the premise has on the crew and the slick subplot involving the Krenim time ship.

Yes, that's right—I said time ship. Commanded by an obsessed Krenim man named Annorax (Kurtwood Smith), the crew of this ship has separated itself from society and is protected from the effects of time. They have technology that can alter the timeline in any number of ways. Annorax's intent is to rebuild the Krenim empire by wiping its conquerors out of existence. Precise calculations are necessary for the time ship to alter history to the desired effect. Annorax has been trying to perfect his restoration of the Krenim empire for centuries ... and he has all eternity to get it right.

The time-alteration stuff isn't particularly new (though it benefits from some neat visuals), but what makes this work is Annorax's interesting, obsessed character and especially Kurtwood Smith's engaging portrayal of him. Smith has always been an actor that I've found extremely watchable (his appearance as President of the Federation in Star Trek VI was welcome), and here he's wielding a low-key obsession that is nearly always kept reserved. He's a patient, determined man; and although the episode doesn't say it in so many words, it's obvious he lost a family or someone else important to him at the hands of his enemies centuries ago—enemies he now wants to erase from the space-time continuum.

There's a really good scene where Annorax's first officer remarks that the Krenim empire in the altered timeline is thriving at 98 percent of what it "should" be. Annorax isn't satisfied (probably because the colony he's personally interested in restoring was part of the two percent that didn't return). He quietly announces that it's a failure, and orders his first officer to begin the calculations anew. When his first officer objects, Annorax remains calm and determined, and convinces his first officer to follow his orders again. Just how many times they've had this conversation is an interesting issue in itself. Annorax has an aura of conviction, a power of personality that motivates his crew to continue, even in a hopeless plight for perfection. It's affecting through Smith's performance, which is one of the best aspects of this episode.

This plot has relatively little to do with Voyager's dilemma (other than the timeline machinations and the ending of the episode). Most of the story focuses on Voyager extreme troubles over a 73-day period. The ship takes severe damage. The production crew does a great job of ripping the ship apart for this episode; it's quite convincing. The episode also benefits from believable special effects. The exterior view of an explosion of an entire deck made me wince, and the battered Voyager hull in the exterior shots supplied a striking visual difference.

Most important in this episode, however, is the effect this has on the crew. If there's one sense that "Year of Hell" exhibits, it's that the crew is a pack of survivors. Everyone manages to do their job well even throughout the constant hull breaches, crew losses, and other hopelessness. That's not to say there's no change, because there is, most notably in Janeway. She's determined with every fiber of her being to see to it her crew survives these attacks, but she has also become grim, sullen, and almost hatefully adversarial toward the Krenim aggressors. This is one no-nonsense Janeway.

This isn't, as Chakotay once said, "business as usual"—and for once, it truly feels that way. It's the little details that make the big difference in "Year of Hell." Such details include a promoted Neelix; a blind Tuvok; Harry and B'Elanna playing a trivia game while waiting for rescue in a stuck turbolift (The first warp ship at First Contact was the Phoenix, answers Seven of Nine—the Borg were present during those events. The reviewer grins.); and the shattering of Janeway's lucky teacup (read: in-your-face symbol of the week). There are interesting dynamics to be found in the character relationships, especially the teaming of Tuvok and Seven, which works particularly well. A lot of the good stuff in the episode comes down to little bits of dialog here and there—though I don't feel the need to discuss them all, much of the Janeway/Chakotay interaction worked (especially Chakotay's symbolic birthday gift to Janeway), in addition to a good scene between Doc and Paris.

The only thing I don't fully understand is why it is Voyager is in this situation in the first place. After the first attack, one would think there was the option to turn around and go another direction. If Voyager did turn around, why would the Krenim follow? The episode never really makes it clear how it is Voyager got so deep in over its head in the first place. Perhaps the change in the timeline made Krenim space extend far beyond where Voyager had initially entered it, trapping them well inside hostile borders.

Never mind. After more than two months of gathering data from the attacks, the crew finally finds a way to defend itself from the Krenim's temporal weapons. Unfortunately, using such technology interferes with Annorax's time-alteration calculations, leading him to promptly track down Voyager and attempt to erase it from existence. I especially appreciated Annorax's regret that he had to neutralize Voyager. He realizes that Voyager is an innocent victim, but it doesn't matter—he has a mission to accomplish, and he's going to do it.

Voyager is miraculously able to escape, but not before Annorax beams away Tom and Chakotay (and it's loose ends like this that are certainly going to drive the plot next week—I just hope it's not as transparent as "Federation crewman gains unauthorized access to the time ship controls"). With the Voyager in shambles, however, Janeway orders what she hoped would never happen—the evacuation of the ship and separation of the crew. Only a skeleton crew will remain on Voyager—everyone else will take escape pods and shuttles in different directions, hopefully to be reunited on the other side of Krenim space.

Without a doubt, the theme of the week is the Voyager family. The writers have really been pushing the crew as a unified family this season so far. From "Scorpion II" and "The Gift" to "The Raven" and now "Year of Hell," it looks like the new direction of Voyager is one that centers on interesting sci-fi discovery (like the time ship in this episode) by one big family trying to get home. I can certainly live with that as a mission statement; I just hope the sci-fi interest can be interesting, like this episode manages—rather than hokey like last week's "Scientific Method" turned out to be. Janeway's speech about the subdivision of the family is heartfelt, though a little too stilted toward the end.

One thing I'd better make clear is that "Year of Hell" didn't rivet me to the screen the way I expected it to. I was interested, yet, surprisingly enough, I wasn't really moved much emotionally by the plight of Voyager's desperation. A better word for my state of mind might be "intrigued." That's too bad considering the richness of the material. I think a big part of the problem is that I'm worried not only about the inconsequence resulting from wiping of the slate next week, but that the crew won't even remember what it's been through—which would render all of this virtually pointless. That's a problem I'll have to tackle next week, though. For now, I'll try to push it out of my mind and enjoy the "what if" premise on its own terms.

Next week: The mother of all reset button plots? I'm guessing so. Or, to quote Garak, "I always hope for the best. Experience, unfortunately, has taught me to expect the worst."

Note: In trying to show off Voyager's action and special effects for next week, the wonderful preview people have screwed up again. Anyone paying remotely close attention can figure out generally what's going to happen at the climax of part two's plot (and don't read on unless you want to read speculations that could turn out to be spoilers). Janeway's going to ram her battered starship Voyager into the Krenim's time ship (shortly after saying "Time's up" as a tagline), causing a major explosion and a temporal anomaly that will reset everything to ground zero. Mark my words: It will happen. But, then, what else could you expect? We certainly can't have the Voyager lying in ruins.

Previous episode: Scientific Method
Next episode: Year of Hell, Part II

Season Index

16 comments on this review

stallion - Tue, Nov 13, 2007 - 2:36pm (USA Central)
If you take away the plot of the guy changing history this episode represent what Voyager should had been. I enjoyed Voyager but I can't help but think what could had been if the show was done properly.
Daniel - Thu, May 22, 2008 - 1:44am (USA Central)
I read that there was a scene at the beginning of the episode where Janeway remembered Kes's warnings about the Krenim, but it was cut out of the final episode. If they cut a scene that blatantly important to continuity, it makes me think that all of Voyager's problems might have been cause by "The Guy Who Decides Which Scenes to Cut Every Week".

Just think about it, what other scenes might have been cut? There might've been scenes where they showed the Borg baby dying, revisited the Doctor's holographic family, or showed Tom actually talking to his father in "Endgame", Starfleet dealing with the Maquis in Season 7, Unimatrix Zero actually hurting the Borg collective and becoming relevant, explaining the tractor beam in "Voyager Conspiracy", Kes actually getting some character development...maybe even a scene where Harry Kim didn't act like an idiot for once. It could've been a completely different series if not for that cutting room guy.
Tim - Mon, Jun 2, 2008 - 10:48pm (USA Central)
It took me a long time to warm up to this two-parter but it eventually became one of the episodes I go back and watch the most. I think I didn't like it because it ruined what I thought would be an excellent story line: A real "year of hell". An entire season of Voyager crossing through Krenim space, the periodic attacks, the ship in ruins, making new allies to help repairs or combat the Krenim...Maybe even forcing everybody but the senior officers to abandon ship for a few episodes. That would have been something. But once I got over the fact that storyline was never gonna happen, I warmed to this episode.
Jake - Mon, Jun 9, 2008 - 4:03pm (USA Central)
For someone who claims to dislike time travel & time paradoxes, Janeway sure manages to encounter them quite a bit, doesn't she?
Occuprice - Tue, Jul 1, 2008 - 6:04pm (USA Central)
Ah, Tim! Now you've made me realize just how much this idea could have done for Voyager! I've always liked this episode, but now I can't help wishing they'd done the season!
bob - Fri, Oct 3, 2008 - 4:47am (USA Central)
Was that suder I saw during Janeway's farewell speech at the end?
Jake - Fri, Nov 28, 2008 - 2:00pm (USA Central)
Despite the always-watchable Kurtwood Smith, this two-parter doesn't hold a candle to the Krenim's brief appearance in "Before and After" (with a reset button ending I saw coming a mile away).
Am I also alone in thinking that Doc's speech at the beginning was irksome and seemed like something an irritating character like Neelix would say?
Jay - Sat, Dec 4, 2010 - 9:38am (USA Central)
It's a fun episode for what it is, but it's hard to believe that the Q would tolerate meddling of this magnitude, or at the least, not undo everything as he does it.
Nic - Sat, May 28, 2011 - 9:33am (USA Central)
I don't think they could have sustained this storyline for an entire season, for the simple fact taht as Jammer mentioned the Krenim aren't interesting enough villains. If they wanted to destroy Voyager, they probably could have done it, so you have to assume the reason they constantly attack and let them survive is out of pure sadism.

I have to say Janeway's decision at the end doesn't make sense. Even a very damaged Voyager would be safer than a tiny little escape pod with no warp drive. And all those faceless crew members could surely help conduct repairs? Especially given the fact that the Krenim Imperium is no longer a threat.

It's still a pretty riveting episode, though. I didn't guess on first viewing that the timeline would be reset (in my defense I was eleven years old at the time) which made it much more enjoyable.
Destructor - Sun, Jul 10, 2011 - 8:07pm (USA Central)
I LOOOOVE this two-parter, one of my favourite Voyager episodes ever, primarily because of the Annorax character- probably one of Trek's most effective and sympathetic villains.
Cail Corishev - Tue, Sep 11, 2012 - 6:51am (USA Central)
Nic, I was thinking the same thing when Voyager was hiding in the nebula, apparently safe as bugs in a rug. Surely the crew would have preferred to have been there helping B'elanna make repairs, rather than floating through hostile space waiting to be used for target practice.
Jack - Tue, Jan 15, 2013 - 1:08pm (USA Central)
I'm with Nic & Cail...escape pods are meant to get yourself off a ship in danger and to some stable haven like a space station or another vessel. They aren't meant for general space travel...I would think the occupants would go insane in short order by the cramped quarters and the lack of something to do.
WK - Sat, Mar 23, 2013 - 9:16am (USA Central)
I also thought I spotted Suder in the farewell speech. And how is Kim an expert quiz master on 20th century film when professed his disdain for passive viewing entertainment in Future's End? Knowing there was a huge reset button waiting at the end of part II took the tension out of what could have been an interesting story. The ship all banged up should have been what Voyager had become if the writers and producers actually gave a toss.
Jay - Sat, Dec 7, 2013 - 7:58pm (USA Central)
The Krenim have supposedly been at this for two centuries, but it only now occurred to them to aim their weapon at the Zahl homeworld, right when Voyager is coming into the situation?
M.P. - Tue, Nov 4, 2014 - 8:12pm (USA Central)
The escape pod dilemma always bugged me; even when I first saw it. I would have appreciated a throwaway line saying that they were in a star system with a habitable planet; and that Voyager's life-support systems were so badly damaged that they no longer could support a full crew. Janeway kinda sorta states that in the end; but doesn't fully.

@Jay: They probably already wiped them out, then wiped out another species which brought them back, rinse and repeat. This cycle is explicitly mentioned in part II.

Overall, this is a depressing two-parter for all the wrong reasons. First and foremost this really should have been the entire premise of Voyager. At the end of the series the ship should have looked the way it did in this episode. If they had to have a fixed-up ship; I would have gone for Borg tech fixing the damage. Just imagine; Borg armor filling in hull-breaches (The Gift has a neat visual of what this might look like) and Borg technology all throughout the ship. Borg panels, Borg conduits, ect. Would have been awesome and more consistent given what we know about Borg technology automatic regeneration compared to regular Federation metal.

I do agree that this could never have been a full season with how insanely dull the Krenim are. Drop the standard humanoid appearance and give true depth and a good reason for why they are stuck in their territory and maybe it could have worked.
Riker-kick - Mon, Nov 10, 2014 - 6:42pm (USA Central)
The concept of a 'Year of Hell' was not necessarily created based on the Krenim being antagonists throughout, but possibly on that of Voyager being kicked from pillar to post over the course of a season. In fact I suspect the time aspect may have been added specifically to make the idea work in the short term. I could be wrong, but the trouble here is that such a scenario is entirely believable due to the writers tendency to take the easy road with Voyager.

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