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, cliché-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.