Voyager rewatch 3.03 – “The Chute”

Harry Kim has a very bad day (again).

Given how often shore leave for Starfleet officers seems to end in terrorist attacks and arrests, it’s a miracle anyone is ever allowed to leave their ships at all. Shore leave seems almost as dangerous as travel or or from a conference.

But we never learn, so this time Harry and Tom’s vacation is broken up when their resort is bombed, killing forty cops, and they’re arrested, charged, found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment, all before the first scene.

The A plot of “The Chute”, set in the alien prison, is nice, tight and claustrophobic. It closely follows the beats of a prison movie, right down to the homoeroticism — but since that’s a genre I know nothing about, I’m just repeating what I’ve read elsewhere, and can’t really offer anything intelligent on the subject.

What “The Chute” is, to me, is a fantastic character study of Harry Kim, as he goes — over the course of a few days — from wide-eyed prison n00b to violent, paranoid and dangerous inmate. The tight passage of time is explained by the clamp: a wee device implanted in each prisoner’s head which keeps them in a state of high anxiety and ultimately drives them mad.

So this is one of Star Trek‘s “what makes us human [etc]?/there but for the grace of Q…” episodes — but it’s not one of the Starfleet officers doing the pontificating, but Zio, a long-term prisoner and would-be cult leader who has achieved a sort of zen state. And Zio is so far from being a straightforward, sympathetic character that, at one stage, he is literally framed with the red lights of the chute around his head like a demonic halo.

Every now and then, the Voyager writers would remember that Garrett Wang is a fantastic actor. The rest of the time, they’d largely ignore him; I’ve heard stories that Rick Berman didn’t care for the character of Harry, and actively disliked Wang for reasons which might be related to racism.

Here, he’s the lynchpin for the whole A-plot. Tom is around, and Robert Duncan McNeill is perfectly fine, monologuing about food and name-checking the Delaney sisters so the homoeroticism doesn’t get too overwhelming, but Tom is taken out by a knife wound around the halfway mark, and where Harry started out under his protection (did I mention the homoeroticism? Tom literally claims Harry as “his”), the positions are reversed.

I’ve seen criticism that “The Chute” doesn’t really get down to the nitty gritty of Harry’s motivations, but I disagree — he’s obsessed with the idea of escaping from Space Alcatraz, and, just as he’s unable to let go of the idea of Voyager getting home,  he can’t let go of this idea either.

I have this idea that good characterisation comes when a character’s strengths are also their weaknesses. Harry’s strengths are his determination and perseverance, but here they blind him to reality, alienate him from his best ally, and would have gotten him killed if Janeway hadn’t turned up just in time.

Which brings me to … the B plot!

One has to assume there’s something in Janeway’s coffee this week

From her first scene, she is more than usually implacable. There’s nothing placable about her at all as she declines to participate in the Akritiri’s sham diplomacy and instead goes after the true terrorists herself.

And this makes sense! “Basics” part 2 marked a turning point in her character where she went from merely holding her crew together to actively and fiercely protecting them. Now she’s lost two more people, and these yahoos want to board and search her ship! After the Kazon? No way.

Going after the guilty parties: fine. But when she learns that they have the location and access codes for the prison, and blackmails them into handing that data over — that feels like … not a step too far for Janeway as a character, but a strategy which should, at least, warrant a raised eyebrow from Tuvok.

I wish this subplot had just a little more time to breathe, to let Janeway get to know the terrorists as people, and work with them that way.

I also wish we had gotten the earlier version of the script, where fourteen-year-old Piri was the only terrorist. Apparently the network had qualms about depicting a teenage girl who was capable of such violence, even though she’s about the same as as Kar, the Kazon youth who tries to murder Chakotay in “Initiations”.

Her older brother — you guys couldn’t even manage a sister? — is a much less interesting character, and I like the idea of Janeway’s foil being an adolescent girl. As it is, we get the perfection of Mulgrew’s reaction when a teenager calls her a coward, but little else.

Introducing: Bessie

Janeway’s strategy for rescuing Tom and Harry ultimately boils down to brute force: she slides down the chute with a phaser rifle, followed by Tuvok and a security detail with regular hand phasers. (Why don’t they also get rifles? Best not to ask.)

This marks the beginning of a new take on the character: Janeway as action heroine. And I really works for the character, especially since the other aspects of her personality — scientist, engineer, strategist — aren’t forgotten. (As opposed to Star Trek: Picard, which depicts Seven as a sort of brute force type, what you’d call a tank in video games,, but doesn’t give her a chance to be the scientist she also was.)

I’m pretty sure it was Jim Wright who decided that Janeway’s favourite phaser rifle was called Bessie — and, now I think of it, I think he might have been the first to point out the demonic halo given to Zio. Bessie is an icon, and we’re lucky to have her.

No prison reform this week

Here’s a problem unique to Star Trek: by the rules of the show (and its universe) they can’t simply dismantle the terrible alien justice system, or even free the other prisoners. Nor can they provide the Open Skies terrorists with the means to do so.

A conversation about this would be repetitive — we’ve seen it before in many Treks, including Voyager, and we’ll see it again. Yet, without that conversation, it feels like Janeway has just abandoned these people without so much as a twinge of regret. Our heroes are free, but the terrible system persists.

And that is, in its way, realistic. But it’s unsatisfying.

Other observations

  • There are a LOT of mullets in that prison. If the lights were higher, I suspect we’d find it’s populated primarily with Mad Max cosplayers.
  • One cannot help but suspect that DS9 would handle a teenage girl terrorist a little better. Not least because, being syndicated, there was no network to have qualms.
  • From Harry and Tom to Janeway and Chakotay, this is one of those eps where framing for a 4:3 aspect ratio is a GIFT to shippers.

In conclusion

Another good episode — the sort where even the quibbles can be explained away via off-screen characterisation, if you’re into that — and a showcase for Garrett Wang’s talent. Three out of five manifestos.

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