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:
- 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.
- 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.