Nutshell: A lot of really good moments, although the ending still makes me want to say "I told you so."
I could be needlessly vicious and rip apart the time travel implausibilities of "Year of Hell," but what would be the point? The time travel motif is a firmly established device in Trekkian lore (heck, three of the Trek feature films were based on time travel), and the more you try to think about the piled paradoxes, the more futile and ridiculous the task becomes.
Some of the best moments of Trek have centered around time travel and the possible alternate realities that result from playing with the timeline. There's TOS's "City on the Edge of Forever," and TNG's "Yesterday's Enterprise" and the First Contact feature. There's DS9's "The Visitor," "Children of Time," and "Past Tense, Part I." What is the fascination Trek writers have with time travel stories?
For that matter, based on the reaction "Year of Hell, Part II" seems to be getting already, why is it that people are hating this episode simply because it "never happened"? I'll admit that I'm part of the problem—I thought that we were destined for an hour of by-the-numbers plotting, ending with a frustrating push of the Reset Button™, and my review of part one ended with some not-so-hopeful predictions about part two.
Okay, so my predictions concerning the ending turned out to be generally right. The episode does end with the expected reset to "Day 1," and, yes, it is quite frustrating that nothing that happened in these two episodes really has any repercussions. But, really, the case was similar with "Yesterday's Enterprise," and it was a great episode. Lesson of the week: The success or failure of a "what if" premise that exists outside conventional Trek reality ultimately comes down to whether the drama within the self-contained premise is any good.
So, "Year of Hell"? Well, good, but not great. It's no "Yesterday's Enterprise."
But nor is it the calamity it could've been. It's a bit unfocused, perhaps. If you take into account the first part, the second half completely shifts its focus away from the first's main theme. Part one had an element of family and tragedy when that family was lost, whereas part two doesn't really seem to care much about that any more. Part two focuses completely on the nature of Annorax and the time ship, and Janeway's determination to find and stop it. Ultimately, "Year of Hell, Part II" comes down to the analysis of two characters—Annorax and Janeway and the duality of their obsessions—which is where the real gold of this two-parter lies.
That's not to say the plot and time manipulation mumbo-jumbo doesn't get in the way in the meantime, because sometimes it does. One wonders if the implications of Annorax's ability to "change the fate of a single molecule" is pushing the envelope of all-powerful Trekkian inventions just a little too far. Based on the infinite possibilities that such timeline manipulation would have, one would think the effects would reach far beyond Krenim space, and probably far beyond the Delta Quadrant. But, like I said, such critical thinking on something as inherently ludicrous as a "time machine" is probably just silly. I'd rather take a look at Annorax, the creator of this machine.
For starters, I'd like to send out a big "Kudos" to Kurtwood Smith, an actor who demonstrates his absorbing screen presence while making Annorax a fully realized character. The writers, too, deserve praise for making this character more than a cardboard villain set on doing anything to fulfill his obsession. Annorax is definitely an obsessed man, but his obsession contains motivations much beyond a personal quest to fulfill his own problem. His problem—trying to restore the timeline so that his wife is restored as well—is certainly his driving concern, but within that is his problem of bringing her back while trying to "minimize" the destruction he puts on other civilizations. "Minimize" here is an extremely relative term. His calculations allow him to erase complete civilizations from existence—and then bring them back again. With each change in the timeline he affects billions, sometimes without intending to. In a sense, Annorax's ability to control time allows him to Play God in an almost literal sense, and one wonders exactly who has the right to be his judge. Chakotay? Paris? That's where things get interesting.
There's a scene with Annorax, Chakotay, and Paris that's really well done. He invites them to dinner, and they dine on dishes created by cultures that have been wiped from existence. A subsequent discussion between Annorax and Chakotay reveals the Krenim time manipulator as a tortured individual full of regret for what he did. He wanted a weapon to wipe out his enemies, but instead he opened a Pandora's box that wiped out his empire, his wife, and his own future. He simply doesn't see quitting as an option. He'd like nothing more, but he has to restore things to "the way they used to be"—the way they were before he irreversibly wiped the slate clean. His situation is akin to throwing ten million dice over and over again and getting the same results twice. But he can't quit until he rolls the dice and comes up with the right numbers. It's truly tragic. His technology gives him the power to undo and redo so much; yet, when it comes right down to it, all he can do is roll the dice and hope for the best. It's a very intriguing dilemma, and makes Annorax a very sympathetic character. Indeed, Chakotay is right—Paris cannot even begin to fathom what Annorax has been through.
The other tale of obsession is Captain Janeway, and her character is the one that is best explored by the "what if" premise. The Janeway who has been through this year of hell is one tough and determined individual who will not back down to anything ... though I'm not so sure the story paints her all that sympathetically. I respected what this Janeway was trying to do as a leader, but the fact that she answers to no one and recklessly puts herself in such dangerous situations scared me a little bit. Are her reckless impulses and personal convictions always the best thing for what remains of the Voyager crew? I'm not so sure.
A scene where the Doctor relieves Janeway of command for her reckless behavior ends with Janeway refusing to yield ... and there's nothing Doc can do to oppose her. It says something when the captain herself refuses to follow chain of command. For a situation to become so desperate that Janeway embraces anarchy as a way to potentially solve the problem is evidence of a very volatile attitude. The story doesn't take the cut-and-dry easy stance by making Janeway's actions necessarily "right" or even justifiable; it makes her decisions questionable, which I find that much more interesting. Janeway is obsessive with pushing forward despite all odds, and the fact that she has lost her objectivity as a result is a pretty powerful statement. She's a heroine, but definitely not a faultless heroine.
The plot resolves itself in a fairly expected manner, although it makes some good moves along the way. Chakotay's attempts to bond with Annorax to help him calculate a timeline that puts Voyager out of harm's way while simultaneously rebuilding the Krenim empire brings about some of the best scenes. And the fact the story wrestles with the moral consequences of changing the timeline to "reset" the game (a reset we all knew was coming anyway) makes such a reset that much more tolerable—because at least the characters know what they're trying to do, rather than being jerked around by an arbitrary plot. Paris slowly recruiting key crew members of the time ship to unleash a mutiny against the captain is definitely a reasonable idea—for we knew back in part one that the crew, after 200 years of futile effort, are ready to end this game. (And I can't tell you how glad I am that this didn't turn out to be "Voyager crew members gain access to time ship controls because of bad guys' stupidity.)
That brings us to the ending, where I say "I told you so." We all saw it coming (except, I suppose, for the naively optimistic). The time ship's internal mutiny brings down the temporal shields, allowing Voyager and its allies to attack it while it's susceptible. Then Janeway rams her nearly-destroyed Voyager into it. Voyager and the time ship get blowed up real good (in a nifty visual display, if I may add), and the destruction of the temporal core causes a final "incursion" that resets everything to the way things were before Annorax started playing with time. I think. Voyager avoids its year of hell, at the very least.
This was inevitable and proves a little frustrating, but I can deal with it. What I don't like, however, is the fact that Janeway uses her convenient guess that destroying the time ship's core will reset everything to zero as a justification for her "heroic" suicide. This is not an acceptable end to the story. It's weak and arbitrary. For all Janeway knows, she could destroy the entire universe by destroying the temporal core. Or something. I'm not sure I understand what all was undone by destroying the time ship anyway. The final scene seems to indicate Annorax is stuck with his situation for all eternity—assuming his time ship ever existed, that is.
If Janeway's course of action proves to be the mother of all resets (and literal resets within the story, for that matter), one wonders why Annorax didn't simply destroy his invention long ago—though I'm guessing his fate is sealed based on the show's intriguing (if somewhat unclear) final scene, which shows him working at home on time manipulation experiments, apparently some 200 years ago. Can he avoid his destiny? I don't think so, but it's so hard to say. Did his role as "time god" ever exist if his time ship never existed? How could his time ship ever exist if it erased its own existence? What did that final incursion really do? Does the story even care? Should I even try? My brain hurts.
Speaking on narrative concerns, one complaint I have is that this episode did not have to take eight supposed months to unfold. In fact, if there hadn't been prompts flashed across the screen that said "Day [whatever]," I would've assumed this episode took place in a week. It certainly could have, for that matter. Based on the way "Year of Hell II" unfolds, there's virtually no reason for the events to have taken place over such a long period of time—other than, I suppose, to call this episode "Year of Hell." It's not detrimental to the story in any significant way, but I did wonder what the point of it was. Ultimately it comes off as a means to a nonexistent end.
But through all its shortcomings, we still have a solid two-parter here, featuring some good drama centering around the tortured Annorax and the reckless Janeway. Did any of it really happen? Who cares?
Next week: Based on the useless hype of the preview, I sure couldn't tell you ... but, whatever it is, "You won't believe what happens!"