Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II might just be the perfect episodes of Star Trek: Voyager.
Taken together, these episodes perfectly demonstrate the raw potential and strength of the third Star Trek spin-off. They are a boldly ambitious story of a ship that finds itself in hostile territory surrounded by a hostile force with superior firepower, all while playing into the recurring themes and fascinations of the wider series. Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II are effectively a story that finds history itself under threat, while emphasising Brannon Braga’s interpretation of Janeway by setting her against a similarly obsessive opponent.
The result is one of the most thrilling and engaging stories of Voyager‘s seven-season run, among the most satisfying of the series’ impressive “blockbuster” two-parters. Although the show is still being broadcast in the standard nineties 4:3 aspect ratio, it feels like a widescreen story. Part of that is due to the fact that the two-parter unfolds over three quarters of an entire year, part of that is the expanded room for storytelling, part of that is the fact that history itself hangs in the balance, part of that is the fact that Voyager itself feels at stake.
Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II do an excellent job capturing the essence of Voyager.
In many ways, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II can be seen as an extension of the third season’s experiment with Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II. These big mid-season two-parters would become a fixture of Voyager. Brannon Braga would acknowledge these stories as an attempt by the production team to “make Voyager more epic”, perhaps inspired by a combination of the success of mid-season two-parters in the later years of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the acclaim of The Way of the Warrior on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Nevertheless, the production team are still in the process of figuring out how best to execute these types of stories. Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II aired during November Sweeps, but aired a week apart with a cliffhanger between them. The story is still much structured as a two-part episode, with Annorax’s abduction of Paris and Chakotay coupled with the crew abandoning Voyager serving as a pivot point for the episode. The only subsequent mid-season two-parter to premiere on separate evenings would be Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II in the seventh year.
Later mid-season two-parters like The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II or Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II were all broadcast on the same evening as miniature feature films. Those episodes still had pivot points and clear delineation, but not to the same extent as Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II. In a sense, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II are still an early iteration of what would become a series standard.
Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II feels very much like a spiritual successor to Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II. Once again, Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky build a two-parter around a time travel concept, while providing a singular antagonist against which Janeway might test herself. Even the more successful trappings have been ported over from Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, including Janeway’s tendency for bad-one liners. “Chronowerx stock is about to crash,” Janeway goaded Starling. “Time’s up,” she taunts Annorax.
Of course, time travel is a recurring for Brannon Braga in general and Voyager in particular. There are any number of individual Voyager episodes that deal with the premise of time travel, from Time and Again through to Timeless to Relativity to Shattered. Even The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II touch upon the aesthetic of time travel using holodeck technology to transport the cast into the height of the Second World War. On Voyager, it seems like the timeline is always under threat and that history is constantly at risk of being subverted.
This fascination with the timeline as something that needs to be protected and curated reflects a lot of nineties anxieties, most notably the then-popular theory that the end of the Cold War represented “the end of history.” As such, Voyager introduced the idea that future versions of Starfleet had extended their remit beyond the exploration of space to the security of time. Voyager was a show that seemed to believe that the future could readily be extrapolated from the present, that the status quo was stable and that its characters lived within a perpetual “now.”
Most obviously, it is very difficult to reconcile the concept of a twenty-ninth century Starfleet protecting the timeline with the aborted twenty-first-century spin-offs. While Voyager imagines that the Star Trek universe will never fundamentally changed, the future of the shared universe proposed by Bryan Singer’s Star Trek: Federation or David Rossi, Doug Mirabello, and José Muñoz’s Star Trek: Final Frontier. Even Star Trek: Enterprise, despite being a prequel, suggested that the future of the Federation was not assured.
In many ways, this reflects a cultural difference between the nineties and the decades that followed. Star Trek has always reflected an American ideal of the future, modeled upon the “new frontier” proposed by John F. Kennedy. That future has tended to be inclusive and welcoming to other perspectives, but the Federation has long been tied to American self-image. In the nineties, the future seemed safe and secure. Naturally, that future looked a lot more precarious during the War on Terror.
However, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II is built around a threat to time itself. Annorax has developed a weapon that inflicts damage upon the timeline itself. In an interview with Cinefantastique, writer Joe Menosky likened the time ship to the Death Star from Star Wars:
Brannon said, ‘Time is a weapon. What does that mean?’ I said, ‘What if there was this big Death Star-like weapon, and you target a planet, and it blows it out of the time continuum? What you have done is erased a thread from the time continuum, everything resets, and suddenly the present is different.
The episode consciously plays into that comparison. The gigantic space laser evokes that iconic science-fiction weapon on mass destruction, as does the introduction of the vessel casting a shadow over the surface of an unexpecting planet. That is no moon.
However, Annorax’s weapon explicitly weaponises history. It serves to write its target out of the time line. When it is deployed against a planet or an object, it is as though that object never existed. When Annorax targets the Zahl homeworld, he erases the entire species. The ships welcoming Voyager to their territory vanish into thin air, while the friendly Zahl official disappears from the bridge. In theory, Annorax never actually kills anybody with his weapon; he just renders them non-existent.
This manipulation is in pursuit of power and glory. Annorax claims to be pursuing “restoration” of the timeline that he believes to be true, of the world from which he came. However, the truth is that the weapon was developed to manipulate history in service of the Krenim Imperium. He confesses to Chakotay, “When I first constructed this weapon ship, I turned it against our greatest enemy, the Rilnar. The result was miraculous. With the Rilnar gone from history, my people, in an instant, became powerful again.”
In its own way, the suggestion of a malleable history is just as much a nineties obsession and preoccupation as the idea of a stable future. When Francis Fukuyama wrote about “the end of history”, he spoke to the idea that human political thought had reached its logical end point. However, those words apply just as easily to other deep-set anxieties about the nature of history and memory in the late twentieth century. The ending of the Cold War closed a chapter of history that stretched back to the Second World War, so the question was how best to remember that period?
The nineties marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Second World War, an event that marked the emergence of the United States as the world’s dominant social power. However, memory seemed particularly malleable. The Smithsonian’s plans for a commemoration to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb were scuppered by controversy over the narrative. Japan struggled to accept responsibility for its own atrocities. In April 1993, one third of Americans were reportedly open to question the existence or severity of the Holocaust.
In his introduction to Lying About Hitler, an account of the infamous libel case that David Irving took against Deborah Lipstadt when she accused him of Holocaust denial, Richard J. Evans suggested that the nineties had found the very idea of history under attack:
What is historical objectivity? How do we know when a historian is telling the truth? Aren’t all historians, in the end, only giving their own opinions about the past? Don’t they just select whatever facts they need to support their own interpretations and leave the rest in the archives? Aren’t the archives full of preselected material anyway? Can we really say that anything historians present to us about the past is true? Aren’t there, rather, many different truths, according to your political beliefs and personal perspectives? Questions such as these have been preoccupying historians for a long time. In recent years, they have become, if anything, more urgent and more perplexing than ever. Debate about them has repeatedly gravitated toward the Nazi extermination of the Jews during the Second World War. If we could not know for sure about anything that happened in the past, then how could we know about this most painful of all topics in modern history?
Evans might have a point. The nineties was an era of exploding multiculturalism and cultural relativism, a point at which postmodernism became part of the regular discourse. The ideological purity of the Cold War was discarded and it seemed like everything was open to question or discussion.
This anxiety was reflected in the pop culture of the nineties, most obviously in its obsession with conspiracy theory. After all, conspiracy theory is itself a distortion of the accepted historical record and a weaving of a narrative around those facts. Conspiracy theories also became increasingly popular during the nineties, perhaps reflecting the broader sense that the past was subject to scrutiny and question. There are any number of possible reasons for this, from the ease of spreading information over the internet to conspiracy theory’s popularity in popular culture.
Oliver Stone arguably opened the floodgates with the release of JFK in December 1991. Chris Carter also contributed to the paranoid mood with television shows like The X-Files and Millennium. Although this paranoia was primarily tied to conspiracy theory narratives of history, it also tied to the sense of existential unrest that informed everything from The Truman Show to The Matrix to Dark City. After all, if the past was prone to manipulation and distortion, how could anybody trust the present?
In many cases, these films and television shows suggested a deep-set uncertainty about the nature of reality itself. Reality and fiction blurred together, as facts and truth became malleable. As Michiko Kakutani argued:
This willingness to mix up fact with speculation encourages people to confuse verisimilitude with reality, and the tendency shows no sign of abating. The last few months alone have witnessed the broadcasts of three competing versions of the Amy Fisher story on network television and the rigging of a safety test of General Motors pickup trucks on an NBC News program. Novels depicting fictionalized versions of the Kennedy family’s travails have recently been written by everyone from D. M. Thomas (Flying In to Love) to Dominick Dunne (A Season in Purgatory). A television movie about David Koresh and the confrontation in Waco, Tex., has already been shot and is scheduled for broadcast next month, as is a movie about the World Trade Center bombing called Terror in the Towers.
In the view of veteran journalist Studs Terkel, the United States became a country without a history during the nineties. While the present was prosperous and the future seemed assured, the past was nowhere near as secure.
This was a recurring preoccupation for Voyager. Indeed, the show was built around the core concept of regression. Janeway is desperately trying to take her crew home, back towards the familiar and the recognisable. Even Seven of Nine is hoping to reawaken the lost little girl who was lost to the Borg. The theme becomes more pronounced in terms of individual episodes. The show leans heavily on the idea of time travel, suggesting that the past can be damaged and broken through direct interference.
Even outside of time travel, history is distorted and bent in Distant Origin, Living Witness and The Voyager Conspiracy. Memory and its connection to identity becomes a key theme of episodes like Remember, Latent Image and Memorial. It is worth noting that episodes like Remember and Memorial are heavily tied to the cultural memory of the Holocaust, perhaps the most high-profile victim of these manipulations and distortions. The memory of the Holocaust was also a focal point for movies like Schindler’s List or shows like The X-Files.
In Denying the Holocaust, Deborah Lipstadt even suggests that the nineties’ broader engagement with deconstruction and postmodernism had empowered Holocaust denial by rejecting the notion of historical truth as part of a broader uncertainty about the concept of absolute truth:
[B]ecause deconstructionism argued that experience was relative and nothing was fixed, it created an atmosphere of permissiveness toward questioning the meaning of historical events and made it hard for its proponents to assert that there was anything “off limits” for this skeptical approach. The legacy of this kind of thinking was evident when students had to confront the issue. Far too many of them found it impossible to recognize Holocaust denial as a movement with no scholarly, intellectual, or rational validity. A sentiment had been generated in society–not just on campus–that made it difficult to say: “This has nothing to do with ideas. This is bigotry.”
[A]ttacks on history and knowledge have the potential to alter dramatically the way established truth is transmitted from generation to generation. Ultimately the climate they create is of no less importance than the specific truth they attack–be it the Holocaust or the assassination of President Kennedy. It is a climate that fosters deconstructionist history at its worst. No fact, no event, and no aspect of history has any fixed meaning or content. Any truth can be retold. Any fact can be recast. There is no ultimate historical reality.
Ironically, this trend toward postmodernism and deconstructionism might be read in certain modern anti-intellectual movements, the rejection of the idea of absolute knowledge underpinning statements like the public “have had enough of experts” or suggesting Trump be taken “seriously but not literally.”
In some ways, Annorax and his time ship represent a very literal embodiment of this fear. Annorax has weaponised history, wielding it against the enemies of the Krenim Imperium. Those defeated are not simply killed, nor are they merely forgotten. They are wiped from history, erased from the continuum. Given Voyager‘s preoccupation with the themes of memory and time, Annorax immediately and effectively establishes himself as an antagonist of note. He may not have the pedigree of the Borg Queen or even the Hirogen, but he seems an important figure.
However powerful he might be, there is a very clear cost to the power that Annorax holds. Annorax and his men are trapped in a perpetual now, a bubble of the present that has become unstuck and detached from time. Nobody on the ship has any tether to what came before, because their reality has been rewritten and altered so many times. “That entire vessel’s in a state of temporal flux,” Kim reports. “It’s like they exist outside space-time.” Annorax and his crew have been engaged in their task for over “two hundred years.”
The crew are stuck in stasis. Never growing. Never aging. Never changing. “You surprise me, Obrist,” Annorax confesses. “After so many years, you still perceive time through conventional eyes. Never is a word that has no meaning here. As long as we stay on this vessel, protected from space-time, we have all eternity to accomplish our mission.” Even Obrist himself seems named in acknowledgement of this fact, a nod to Oberon. Oberon is king of the fair folk, also existing beyond the limits of time and space.
In Year of Hell, Part II, Obrist talks to Paris about the horror of realising that time no longer matters to him and that he has become completely untethered from the real world. He talks about the creeping sense of loss and despair as he tried to celebrate the birthdays of the people that he remembered, only for it to become too much. “Then one day I realised a century had passed, and for years I had been celebrating birthdays for the dead. Or for people who never even existed.”
Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II contrast Annorax’s crew with Voyager’s crew in a number of interesting ways. Most obviously, the two-parter goes out of its way to stress the importance of history to the crew of Voyager. This is reflected in a number of ways, from the continuity pay-off of revealing the new Astrometrics Laboratory after teasing it in Repulsion and Scientific Method to the history-themed questions while Torres and Kim are in the turbolift. Even Paris’ fixation on history comes in handy when he steals an idea from the Titanic.
The clear sense is that Voyager is stronger than Annorax, because it still has that sense of history and continuity. To be fair, there is something quite disingenuous about this, given that Voyager is a show that has consciously avoided any attempt to introduce long-form storytelling or continuity. In some ways, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II position their criticism of Annorax as a criticism of the show itself. In this two-parter, the crew of Voyager are stronger for the sense of history denied to them by the rest of the show’s run.
Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II even explicitly compare Annorax to Janeway. While Janeway has been physically dislocated from her home, Annorax has been cut off from his home. In his manipulation of history, he has found himself lost and alone without any stars that might guide him back to where he belongs. “You’re a long way from your world,” Annorax tells Janeway during their only exchange. “In a manner of speaking, so am I. Unfortunately, only one of us can go home again.”
Annorax is a very compelling character, one who feels very well developed and explored for the limited screen time afforded to him. Annorax is a character very much in the tradition of Henry Starling, and a product of the same logic that will lead to the recurring use of the Borg Queen or the introduction of Captain Rudolph Ransom in Equinox, Part I and Equinox, Part II. He is a character who is clearly intended to contrast with Janeway, serving as a singular antagonist. Voyager might find itself battling anonymous Kremin ships, but Annorax is the villain of the piece.
The casting helps a great deal. Ed Begley Junior did great work as Henry Starling, and John Savage will turn in a brilliant performance as Rudolph Ransom. Annorax is played by veteran character actor Kurtwood Smith, who approached the character as Shakespearean in nature:
Well, I think that way of the Star Trek shows in general, because of the stories and because of the scope. That’s why so many of the actors on those shows are really trained actors. Rene Auberjonois and Armin Shimerman and Jeff Combs… I knew a lot of those guys from before, having done theater with them, so I knew about their classical backgrounds and such. I think that helps in those kinds of shows, because of the size of the characters and the size of the stories.
Smith played Annorax as a tragic figure, a lost man blinded by his own hubris. This is a man who believes that he can tame the timeline itself, and force it to serve his own purpose without recognising the cost of such vision.
In fact, Annorax is characterised in decidedly poetic terms. When Obrist assures him that their mission is almost complete, Annorax is more reflective. “Complete?” he muses. “If I told you to count the stars in the cosmos would the task ever be complete?” He approaches his manipulation of the timeline as an artist more than a scientist. “Past, present and future,” he tells Chakotay. “They exist as one. They breathe together.” Annorax is prone to talk in grand and sweeping terms, to the point that is fun to imagine what his log entries might sound like.
“When I tell that Time has moods, a disposition to be intuited, I’m not speaking metaphorically,” Annorax confesses to Chakotay. “Anger is one of it’s moods. Anger and the desire for retribution, vengeance. Time itself has tried to punish me for my arrogance. It has kept me from my wife, denied me my future.” Annorax is a man raging against the cosmos, insisting that the universe return his lost beloved. In some respects, this is the biggest difference between Annorax and Janeway. Annorax is portrayed as a romantic, whereas Janeway is a pragmatist.
Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II consciously and repeatedly contrasts Annorax with Janeway. The luxury of Annorax’s exile provides a compelling counterpoint to the hardship imposed on Voyager, although it also might play as a commentary on life on Voyager every other week. The shot of Annorax toasting to Chakotay with Malkoth wine in Year of Hell, Part II even cuts to the crew of Voyager toasting with “the Elixir of Endurance.” It is very effective and clever storytelling.
Annorax is presented as a romantic, a man who is unwilling to compromise and who has turned his ship into a mausoleum. Annorax’s poetic sensibilities are juxtaposed against Janeway’s pragmatism. Annorax ensures that his ship is stocked with relics of long-lost civilisations that can be used to host lavish banquets, while Janeway struggles to accept even a small pocket watch memento from Chakotay because it could be put to more practical use. “That watch represents a meal, a hypospray, or a pair of boots. It could mean the difference between life and death one day.”
Annorax aspires to a “full restoration” of the way things were, unable to accept any deviation from the historical record. His motivation is obviously selfish, longing for the restoration of his own wife, but he will not let his crew go home until he has set things back to the way that they should have been. Janeway, in contrast, is willing to adapt and compromise in order to get her own crew home. In fact, Year of Hell, Part I even features Seven of Nine and Harry Kim finding a literal shortcut back to Earth.
The juxtaposition of Janeway and Annorax is fascinating, if only because they are both presented as individuals completely devoted to their objective. The third and fourth seasons marked a point of transition in the characterisation of Janeway, away from the more introspective and nurturing leader of the Jeri Taylor era towards the more determined and fixated commander of the Brannon Braga. If Annorax is monomaniacally fixated upon the restoration of things to the way they were, then Janeway is equally invested in getting her crew home.
Janeway and Annorax are both tragic figures, their obsessions rooted in a sense of guilt and responsibility. Annorax’s use of the weapon against the Rilnar separated him from his wife. Janeway’s decision to destroy the Caretaker’s Array stranded her crew in the Delta Quadrant. Although these epic two-parters tend to feature a singular antagonist to stand in opposition to Janeway, only Rudolph Ransom comes close to working as effectively as a mirror to Janeway. (The Borg Queen more specifically reflects Janeway’s relationship to Seven.)
Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II play into this juxtaposition of Annorax and Janeway in a number of different ways. In Year of Hell, Part II, Chakotay quickly falls under the sway of Annorax, perhaps reflecting how quickly he fell under the sway of Janeway in Caretaker. Chakotay seems to abandon Voyager just as quickly as he abandoned the Valjean, his willingness to follow Annorax perhaps an acknowledgement of how eagerly he embraced Janeway. Chakotay adapts surprisingly readily to life on the time ship.
Annorax is portrayed as a character barely holding on to the threads of his sanity, a man who has become completely consumed by his devotion to his mission and his dedication to his objective. However, Annorax’s instability is very clearly compared to that of Janeway. The EMH repeatedly suggests that Janeway is pushing herself to a mental breaking point, suffering with “traumatic stress syndrome”, a psychological condition with symptoms including “obsessional thoughts” and “reckless behaviour.”
Even the particulars are paralleled. Annorax’s tendency to talk about time as a living organism with a discernible will is cited as an example of his instability. “This guy thinks that Time has a personal grudge against him,” Paris insists. “That’s called paranoia, Chakotay, with a hint of megalomania.” However, Janeway similarly anthropomorphises Voyager. “Why do I get the feeling you’re testing me, Voyager?” Janeway asks of the ship as she prepares to charge into a burning deflector control.
Tuvok even acknowledges her irrationality. “I have never understood the human compulsion to emotionally bond with inanimate objects,” he states. “This vessel has done nothing. It is an assemblage of bulkheads, conduits, tritanium. Nothing more.” She responds, “Oh, you’re wrong. It’s much more than that. This ship has been our home. It’s kept us together. It’s been part of our family. As illogical as this might sound, I feel as close to Voyager as I do to any other member of my crew. It’s carried us, Tuvok. Even nurtured us. And right now it needs one of us.”
Given the lengths to which the teleplay goes in order to compare and contrast Annorax and Janeway, it is interesting that the two characters never actually share the same physical space. In fact, they only directly converse with each other at one point over the entire hour-and-a-half story, over the viewscreen at the climax of Year of Hell, Part I. It is a striking storytelling choice, but one that works surprisingly well. This lack of interaction only makes the two-parter seem larger, the scale of the story so vast that its two opposing forces only get to converse once.
“I was happy with that show,” says Smith, noting that when they started shooting the episode, the second half of the two-parter hadn’t been written yet. “When I started the job, I didn’t know it was going to have a happy ending. He isn’t a villain, as far as I’m concerned; he’s an extremely bright man who’s gotten himself caught in this situation, and the only thing he can do is keep moving ahead. The moral and ethical problems that he’s faced with haunt him all the time. I think he just got single-minded in his purpose and feeling guilty about what he did initially, but it was tricky to find that balance.”
Though the episode took on epic proportions as Janeway and Annorax began to resemble Captain Ahab and Captain Nemo, the two characters never shared the screen, so Smith never worked with Kate Mulgrew. “We had one scene where we were talking to each other over the comm, but we didn’t film that together. They had done hers first, and they showed me her side of the conversation before I did it, so I was able to see what she was doing. I could see she was being very strong and angry, so the best thing for me to do was to try to go the other way.”
It is a credit to Smith that the conversation works as well as it does, Annorax’s more understated obsession contrasting with Janeway’s more emotional responses to the situation.
Of course, this aspect of Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II is likely a nod to Star Trek II: The Wrath of the Khan. After all, the second film in the franchise was only growing in stature during the nineties, emerging as the definitive big-screen Star Trek story. After all, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home had exerted as much of an influence on the franchise’s thirtieth anniversary, with Star Trek: First Contact hybridising the second and fourth films in the franchise, while Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II were a gigantic homage to the fourth.
Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II wear their influences on their sleeves. Annorax and Janeway are positioned as Kirk and Khan. Like Kirk and Khan, the two characters never share the stage and only communicate over the communications system. Like Khan, Annorax ignores the counsel of his subordinates by pursuing his obsession. Like Kirk, Janeway seeks refuge from her opponent by hiding inside a nebula. While The Wrath of Khan casts Khan as Captain Ahab, this two-parter casts Annorax as Captain Nemo.
Even the two-parter’s themes and ideas play as an homage to The Wrath of Khan. The theme of time is obviously more literal (and related to time travel) in Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, but there is a strong thematic overlap. While McCoy’s gift of those glasses and Spock’s gift of A Tale of Two Cities to mark Kirk’s birthday were both acknowledgement of the passage of time, Chakotay’s gift of a pocket watch to Janeway is a much more overt expression of that same idea.
Similarly, the idea of familial dissolution that runs through Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II also reflects the feature film franchise. Torres’ toast to “distant friends” at the start of Year of Hell, Part II recalls Kirk’s sad toast to “absent friends” in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Similarly, Janeway’s decision to run Voyager with just the senior staff also feels like an extended homage to the third feature film. Much like Kirk eventually sacrifices the Enterprise to restore the status quo, Janeway destroys Voyager to reset the timeline.
The influence of the feature film franchise on Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II is striking. In particular, the episode owes a sizable debt to Nicholas Meyer’s reinvention of the franchise. As Duncan Barrett and Michèle Barrett discuss in The Human Frontier, the script is saturated with nautical metaphor:
The nautical atmosphere of Year of Hell is striking. Through small details, an overall impression of a sailing ship is built up, and explicit allusions to the age of sail are manifold. The episode opens with Voyager celebrating the development of a new ‘astrometrics’ facility, which uses Starfleet and Borg techology to map the stars ten times more accurately than their existing system – allowing them to shorten the journey home. As Chakotay puts it, “Before there were maps and globes, let alone radar and subspace sensors, mariners navigated by the stars. We’re returning to that tried and true method.’ Later, he offers Janeway a highly symbolic birthday gift – he has replicated the pocket watch of a nineteenth-century British Navy captain whose ship was thought lost in the South Pacific but eventually limped home with its crew intact. Janeway, however, tells him it must be recycled: so short of materials are they that it might save a life. In the following episode, after Chakotay has been taken captive by the Krenim commander, she finds it in his quarters (he has disobeyed her orders and kept it) – and at this point she decides to wear it.
Throughout the course of the double-episode, Voyager takes such a battering that a new defensive system is developed: ‘transverse bulkheads that set up emergency force-fields between all decks and every section in the event of a cataclysmic hull breach.’ ‘I was inspired by an ancient steamship,’ says Tom Paris modestly, claiming to have made some improvements since the time of the Titanic. It is also Paris who reveals to Chakotay the desperate state of morale on the Kremin vessel by another nautical reference: ‘Does the name Captain Bligh mean anything to you?’
This seems like an overt reference to the franchise’s reinvention at the hands of director Nicholas Meyer, who was famously inspired by the adventures of Horatio Hornblower when crafting his own distinct approach to Star Trek.
Even the soundtrack adds to this cinematic flavour. The short scene of Janeway standing alone on the bridge late in Year of Hell, Part II features a short sample from A Busy Man, from Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack to Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. It was also borrowed as the primary theme of First Contact, bringing it all a full circle. In some respects, the fourth season’s recurring characterisation of Janeway as obsessive and emotionally invested is as much an inheritance from First Contact as the Borg Queen, playing the character akin to Picard from that film.
Indeed, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II could be seen to demonstrate the emergence in the late nineties of The Wrath of Khan as the most defining and iconic of Star Trek narratives. The film had always been very influential and highly regarded, but it comes to cast a particularly long shadow in the years following the death of Gene Roddenberry and the success of First Contact. In some respects, this represents a sea change in how certain aspects of Star Trek‘s mythology were treated.
Up until the release of First Contact, the most influential and successful film was generally perceived to be The Voyage Home. In unadjusted terms, it was the most successful of the original Star Trek films. It was the film that made The Next Generation possible. It very clearly influenced big “event” episodes like Time’s Arrow, Part I and Time’s Arrow, Part II or Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II. In fact, it very clearly influenced the subplot of First Contact. However, its influence was very clearly diminishing at this point in the run.
In contrast, The Wrath of Khan saw its stock greatly increase. Following its obvious influence on the primary plot of First Contact, the second Star Trek feature film clearly inspired episodes like Year of Hell, Part I, Year of Hell, Part II, Bliss, Borderland, Cold Station 12, The Augments and films like Star Trek: Nemesis, Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness. Although this approach led to a number of satisfying episodes and films, it also became quite exhausting.
It is interesting to wonder whether this transition between The Voyage Home and The Wrath of Khan reflects a broader change in popular culture, in line with the rising cultural cache of nerdier properties at the end of the nineties. After all, the twenty-first century would usher in an era of superhero adaptations and belated sequels and reboots of beloved nerdy properties as the entertainment industry began catering to a certain nerd demographic whether through crowd-sourcing film concepts on-line or staging a take-over of Comic Con.
Part of the focus on more niche and nerdy audiences at the turn of the millennium was an increased sense of seriousness. There was a sense that these character and concepts were almost sacred artifacts to be treated with the utmost respect and dignity. Fidelity became a watchword. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were much more faithful to the source material than Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns. Zack Snyder could claim that he “saved” Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen from a less faithful adaptation.
In some ways, the shift away from the more “pop” influence of The Voyage Home to the more “cult” influence of The Wrath of Khan could be seen as an example of this broader transition within popular culture. After all, The Voyage Home is a much sillier movie than The Wrath of Khan. It is a very broad comedy that makes any number of very goofy jokes, and there’s always a fear watching it with non-fans that they are laughing at the film rather than with it. In contrast, The Wrath of Khan is a more literary and serious film, more reflective and sombre.
Still, whatever the reason for the shift, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II arrive at the point in the franchise’s run when The Wrath of Khan is becoming the defining and over-arching Star Trek story. Part of that includes the conscious attempts to problematicise Janeway, to present her as a character with very serious flaws and one capable of making mistakes. After all, The Wrath of Khan was a film that consciously called Kirk out for his hubris, while First Contact treated Picard as a man wrestling his demons.
The third and fourth seasons edge closer and closer to painting Janeway as a reckless and unreliable commanding officer. There were traces of this in the badass action hero who drove Macrocosm, but it really comes to the fore through her commitment to an alliance with the Borg Collective in Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II. It is consciously reiterated in her desperate last-minute gambit in Scientific Method. And it plays out again in her refusal to admit defeat and her suicide-by-starship in Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II.
These early episodes exploring this characterisation of Janeway are careful to acknowledge the ambiguity of her decision-making. Chakotay questions her in Scorpion, Part I and consciously undermines her in Scorpion, Part II. When Janeway makes her reckless decision at the climax of Scientific Method, she has been driven almost insane by the Srivani experiments. Even in Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, the show is careful to make it abundantly clear that Janeway has been pushed to the very edge of sanity and reason by her circumstances.
In fact, Tuvok seems to suggest that Janeway might be making the wrong decisions. In Year of Hell, Part II, Seven questions the logic of Janeway’s commitment to keeping the crew together. Tuvok offers her only one piece of advice, “Remember this guideline: the captain is always right.” Seven responds, “Even when you know her logic is flawed?” Tuvok hesitates. “Perhaps,” he concedes. This is a very daring and controversial characterisation for a Star Trek series, one willing to call out the lead character for their potentially flawed judgement.
It should be noted that not even Deep Space Nine went this far in adding ambiguity to Sisko in episodes like For the Uniform and In the Pale Moonlight. One of the bigger issues with (the otherwise intriguing) For the Uniform was its reluctance to call Sisko out on his more controversial decisions and obsessions, while In the Pale Moonlight worked so brilliantly because it focused on Sisko’s self-doubt more than the doubt of other characters. In contrast, the fourth season of Voyager is more willing to call Janeway out for her decisions.
To be fair, approaching the lead character in such a way is a risky storytelling choice in the long term. Most obviously, it runs the risk of undermining the audience’s faith in the character. Janeway has to be able to lead her crew, and if she repeatedly makes questionable decisions and falls prey to her own obsessions, then there eventually need to be narrative consequences for those decisions. At some point, Chakotay or Tuvok or somebody needs to actually stand up to Janeway, offering more than just the arguments of Scorpion, Part II or Equinox, Part II.
However, there is a creeping danger in the opposite direction. Eventually, if this approach to the character is not developed into a larger story, it becomes normalised. This is largely what happens over the extended run of Voyager with the characterisation of Janeway. What is presented as extreme and questionable behaviour in Scientific Method and Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II becomes par for the course. What is initially Janeway under stress gradually becomes Janeway’s default behaviour.
At least some of this might be down to the influence of Kate Mulgrew as a performer. Mulgrew famously considered herself locked in a battle with Jeri Taylor over authorship of Janeway in the first three seasons. In the fourth, as Brannon Braga’s voice rose from the choir, Mulgrew came to feel more comfortable. In fact, asked about her work on Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, Mulgrew singled out this two-parter’s characterisation of Janeway as ideal:
That was fun! It was great, to leave the sets and work in a “real” surrounding. We were at Venice Beach in casual clothing, it was really great! But it wasn’t as good as in Year of Hell this season. I had the most fun doing this episode. That’s how I like my Captain: hard, brave, frightened and sensitive.
It seems likely that a lot of Janeway’s subsequent characterisation was heavily influenced by Mulgrew’s affection for the version of the character who appeared in Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II. While that approach to the character works very well in the context of this episode, with the ship falling apart around her, it becomes more troublesome when it becomes standard operating procedure.
One of the more interesting aspects of Janeway’s characterisation in Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II is her uncompromising commitment to holding her family together no matter what the cost. It is an aspect of Janeway that comes up repeatedly under the pen of Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky, the idea that the crew’s cohesion is effectively Janeway’s top priority and that she is utterly unwilling to accept that the crew might drift apart or that the ship might not actually get home.
After all, it is this version of Janeway who was willing to forge an alliance with the Borg in Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II in order to get her crew a little closer to home. It was this version of Janeway who unilaterally decided that Seven of Nine would become a member of the crew in The Gift, with little regard for the Borg drone’s consent. When Chakotay proposes splitting the crew up in Year of Hell, Part I, Janeway rejects it out of hand in much the same way that she rejected his idea of slowing or stopping down in Scorpion, Part I.
“Abandon ship?” Janeway responds. “The answer’s no. I’m not breaking up the family, Chakotay. We’re stronger as a team. One crew, one ship. The moment we split apart, we lose the ability to pool our talents. We become vulnerable. We’ll get picked off one by one. Now I say we make our stand. Together.” She reiterates, “As long as Voyager’s in one piece, we stay.” Although Janeway does eventually order the crew to abandon ship, it is only when the hull threatens to come apart at the seams.
Indeed, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II even suggest that Janeway has constructed something of a collective on Voyager that stands in contrast to the Borg Collective, a single entity working to a single purpose. “Seven decks have been rendered uninhabitable and we’ve had to relocate the crew,” she reflects in her logs. “Quarters are close, nerves are frayed, and I’m not sure what’s more difficult to maintain. Voyager’s systems or the crew’s morale. What’s important is that we’re together, working toward a single goal.”
Janeway’s will is absolute. In Year of Hell, Part II, Tuvok and Seven reflect on that. “You should also know that my trust in Captain Janeway is absolute,” Tuvok advises Seven. “The decision you or I might have made is irrelevant.” Seven even suggests that Janeway holds as little regard for the individuality of her crew as the Borg Collective, acknowledging, “As a Borg, I submitted to a single authority, the Collective. Over the past several months I’ve been encouraged to think and act as an individual. It is difficult to know when to restrain myself.”
In some ways, this provides an interesting contrast between Voyager and Deep Space Nine. In many ways, Deep Space Nine is a television series more interested in a wealth of different perspectives and opinions finding a middle ground. In contrast, Voyager is about the imposition of a singular vision. After all, Deep Space Nine is much more willing to break up its crew for a longer period at the start of its sixth season than Voyager is at this moment in time. It is a fascinating comparison.
In Quality and Creativity in TV, Máire Messenger Davies suggests that this recurring theme of cooperation across the run of Voyager might have been a conscious reflection of the lack of that quality behind the scenes:
I want to end by referring specifically to Star Trek: Voyager, interestingly, with its woman captain and several female senior officers, the most consistently cooperative of all the series in its storytelling. There were behind-the-scenes problems with its production, some of which resulted in Piller’s departure. Many storylines in Voyager sound like a desperate appeal for everybody to get along. The recurring theme of the reconciliation of the rights of individuals with the needs of the collective was put particularly succinctly by Captain Janeway in a fourth season Voyager cliffhanger, Year of Hell, Part I (which at times felt like a particularly problematic writers’ meeting): ‘The moment we split apart we lose the ability to pool our talents … One ship, one family.’ Or, to put it another way – ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.’
It is a valid argument, and there is no doubt that the tensions behind the scenes had a very heavy and direct influence in how Voyager developed as a television series.
However, part of the reason why Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II work so well is down to a willingness to actually push these ideas to their logical conclusions. Janeway might not want to break up the crew, but what if she has to? What if everything comes apart? What if Janeway’s desire to push forward no matter what the cost takes a horrific toll on both herself and the ship? These are the kind of big bold questions that should have been part of Voyager from the beginning, and Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II provide the chance to air them.
Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II are in many ways the perfect Voyager episodes.