Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II might just be the most representative episodes of Star Trek: Voyager.
Taken together, these episodes perfectly embody the restrictions placed upon 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. However, they are also a two-parter that wraps up with an incredibly convenient resolution that handily resets the status quo in a manner that allows the ship (and the series) to avoid any lasting consequences from this blockbuster story.
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. However, its sense of scale and scope exists very much in contrast to the episodes around it, a truly epic story that leaves no lasting mark. An audience member skipping from Scientific Method to Random Thoughts would be completely oblivious of the episode. For an episode of such weight, great care is taken to ensure that its passage causes no disturbance.
Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II do an excellent job capturing the essence of Voyager.
To be fair, it was decided quite early on that Voyager would be a show with a minimum of continuity and conflict. This was apparent even in the transition from Caretaker to Parallax. Although Voyager was nominally a series about two different crews learning to work together, that issue was quickly forgotten. By the time that Time and Again rolled around, coincidentally the first “reset button episode” of the series, these conflicts had been long forgotten. They would occasionally resurface in episodes like Worst Case Scenario or Repression, but they were never truly in focus.
There were several reasons for this. Most obviously, nineties prime-time television was still adapting to the idea of long-form storytelling after a decade of solid episodic dramas. Television writers and producers were not necessarily familiar with the form. After all, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine were still dipping their toes in the water at that point, tentatively attempting to construct long-form story arcs around the politics of the Klingon Empire and the emergency of the Maquis.
However, Voyager‘s rejection of continuity and conflict was rooted in more than just the limitations of contemporary television. Voyager was the first Star Trek spin-off to premiere tied to a television network, chosen by Paramount to headline the United Paramount Network as an attempt to crack into the television market place dominated by ABC, CBS and NBC. As such, Voyager was not just subject to the expectations of the studio producing it, but also to the demands of the network airing it.
Given that Voyager was intended to serve as the flagship of UPN, it made sense that the network wanted a show that was archetypal Star Trek. If Star Trek was to be a selling point for the young network, then that Star Trek show should conform to the expectations that television viewers had of a Star Trek show. Indeed, it could be argued that some of the challenges facing Deep Space Nine might have encouraged this attitude. After all, Deep Space Nine had tried to do something different with the Star Trek franchise, but had failed to secure an audience.
The problem was that many of the audience expectations for an archetypal Star Trek show ran counter to the ideas that made Voyager so interesting. The archetypal Star Trek show was about exploration for the sake of exploration, whereas the premise of Voyager was that of a lost ship trying to find its way home. The generic expectation of a Star Trek show was that everybody got along, but the core concept of Voyager was built around two diametrically-opposed crews. The stock Star Trek show was very clean and uncluttered, whereas Voyager demanded a much rougher aesthetic.
In each of these cases, the pull was towards a more familiar and comfortable Star Trek show, rejecting a lot of the aspects of Voyager that were challenging or provocative. Where were the debates about how best to get home? Where was the tension between differing perspectives? How come Voyager always looked like a luxury hotel, despite being lost and alone in uncharted territory? What happens when the crew hit an honest-to-goodness obstacle on their journey back to the Alpha Quadrant? Why doesn’t Janeway’s brief seem that different from Kirk’s or Picard’s?
Sadly, that was never to be. These ideas would involve more adventurous storytelling and serialisation, a more experimental attitude. In fact, the closest that Voyager came to this sort of storytelling was through these epic two-parters like Scorpion, Part I, Scorpion, Part II, Year of Hell, Part I, Year of Hell, Part II, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II. As Brannon Braga confessed in The Fifty-Year Mission:
Non-serialization was more or less a mandate. It wasn’t the way we did things. Honestly, that’s why I did these two-parters. I wanted to do three-parters and that was rejected. I was yearning to tell stories on a larger canvas and stories that required more than forty-five minutes. I have vivid memories of writing those two-parters with Joe Menosky, and it became part of what I was hoping Voyager could be. My influence on the show began in season four with the high-concept stories. Like I said, to me the Delta Quadrant should be the weirdest f#%king place in the world and weird sh!t should happen. It’s where the Borg live.
These two-parters were a compromise for the show, allowing the production team to tell bigger stories than were possible within the forty-five minute structure of weekly episodic television. Doubling the storytelling real estate allowed the writes a bit more room to work, and also a lot more leeway in how they structured these stories.
Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II are a great example of this. Much like The Way of the Warrior did on Deep Space Nine, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II take advantage of the extra space to offer little character moments and interludes between the action beats that serve to flesh out the show and its supporting cast. Although Janeway and Annorax are undoubtedly the primary focus of Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, msot of the cast get an opportunity to shine across the ninety-minute run of the story.
Historically speaking, Voyager has always been a plot-driven show, with its characters often squeezed out of individual episode plots to make room for more high concepts or ideas. Voyager episodes are driven by a series of events and plot beats, rarely affording the cast enough room to breath. This was most striking during the ill-judged attempts at serialisation in the second season, with Tom Paris’ arc in episodes like Meld, Lifesigns and Investigations driven more by the demands of the larger story than in the character’s broader arc.
With the luxury of more time to tell this particular story, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II are willing to share the spotlight. Indeed, there are a good twenty minutes of character-focused scenes that could readily be trimmed to produce a tighter and more plot-driven adventure. However, their inclusion significantly improves the episode. The cast of Voyager can often feel like two-dimensional cyphers, but Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II suggests that the cast could more interesting and nuanced than the show has suggested to this point.
Kim and Torres playing a guessing game in a broken down turbolift to pass the time while waiting to be rescued. Paris and EMH wrestling with the horrors of triage in war time, with the EMH grappling with the horrible choices that he has been forced to make. Tuvok blinded, trying to shave while Seven tends to him out of an unspoken sense of responsibility. Tuvok and Janeway sharing a quiet moment on the bridge before bidding farewell. None of these moments are essential to the plot, but they add texture to the world and to its characters.
Indeed, they recall the approach that Deep Space Nine has taken to character development, a willingness to allow characters room to breath within the structure of larger episodes. On Deep Space Nine, plot-focused primary plots often make room for smaller character-focused secondary plots. Kira and Dukat investigate a missing Cardassian freighter in Indiscretion, while Sisko deals with his girlfriend moving close to the station. Quark and Odo fight for their lives on a cold planet in The Ascent as Jake and Nog fight over their living arrangements.
This was particularly notable with the feature-length fourth season premiere of The Way of the Warrior, an episode consciously designed to serve as a second pilot for new audience members attracted by the addition of Worf to the primary cast. Despite its impressive epic scale, The Way of the Warrior found time for Dax and Kira to relax together while Odo and Bashir discussed Klingon opera and Garak and Quark meditated upon the nature of the Federation. There are shades of this to Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, with its willingness to let the characters breath.
In some ways, it has been suggested that Voyager was held back by the success of Deep Space Nine. The fourth season of Voyager aired alongside the sixth season of Deep Space Nine, which was really pushing the franchise into uncharted territory. However, the writers on Deep Space Nine enjoyed a rather tense relationship with executive producer Rick Berman. Although it is tempting to exaggerate the extent of this strained dynamic, it was clear that the Deep Space Nine writing staff were pushing the franchise well outside Rick Berman’s comfort zone.
To be clear, there was never a mutiny or a feud on Deep Space Nine. Ira Steven Behr has stressed that his relationship with Berman was always professional, while Rick Berman has made it clear that he also tried to support Behr in disagreements with the studio. However, Behr and his writers would occasionally strain against Berman’s direction and vision. Most notably, they promised that the Dominion War would last four episodes. It ultimately lasted a total of fifty-two episodes.
In The Fifty Year Mission, writer Bryan Fuller suggests that Berman made a conscious effort to rein in (the relatively inexperienced) Brannon Braga on Voyager in part as a response to his difficulty controlling the more veteran staff on Deep Space Nine:
In season four, the entire season was going to be Voyager getting its ass kicked and the show was really going to go to a gritty and rich place of “we are out of our element and we are in danger and all we have is ourselves”, Janeway being this situational, ethical leader who was willing to do whatever it took for her people to survive in these circumstances. And it was so much bolder than what you saw. That’s not to say that there weren’t some great episodes in that season. You had the Year of Hell, but Brannon had so many bold visions that were brushed aside by Rick just not seeing it and not wanting Voyager to be as gritty and bold as Deep Space Nine.
There is something more than a little disappointing in all of this, as Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II suggest Voyager at its most adventurous and its most provocative. It would have been interesting to stretch that idea further than two episodes, to really explore the concept and its implications.
After all, Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky had originally pitched an extended arc in the show’s third season. The original plan had been for Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II to stretch over multiple episodes. In fact, there are hints of this in the finished two-parter, as Braga and Menosky throw in ideas that simply don’t have room to breath; the footage of Voyager at the end of Future’s End, Part I goes nowhere in Future’s End, Part II, while the militia subplot in Future’s End, Part II feels like a surreal tangent from everything else going on around it.
There is something similar at work in Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, although to a somewhat smaller extent. Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II have fewer narrative dead ends. Instead, they have plot points that feel like they could easily merit a closer examination or a more thorough handling. There could easily be an entire episode dedicated to Voyager hiding in the nebula; the “coalition with the Nihydron and the Mawasi” comes out of nowhere; Annorax’s hunt for Janeway feels under-developed; Chakotay’s seduction to Annorax’s cause seems rushed.
It is no surprise that Brannon Braga originally conceived the story as much more epic in scope, telling The Fifty-Year Mission:
One of the criticisms the show got was the fact that there was little carryover from episode to episode. There was a two-part episode called Year of Hell, which was arguably the best two-parter we did. My original pitch for that was, “Let’s do a season called ‘The Year From Hell’ where Voyager gets its ass kicked and the entire season is Voyager barely surviving”, and we would play a real continuity between episodes. I don’t remember the specifics, but I know it was rejected and it did not become a serialised show. So I said, “Okay, I’ll do a two-parter that takes place over the course of a year”, and that’s the closest I ever got.
Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II could be seen to represent both the ambitions of the limitations imposed upon Braga’s vision for the show.
Indeed, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II very clearly signal Braga’s inevitable ascension to the role of showrunner at the start of the fifth season. Braga’s promotion to the head of the writing staff would cast him as a guiding force for the television franchise, remaining a remaining a hugely influential figure for the following seven years. During his time directing the Star Trek franchise, Braga would frequently find himself trapped between the potential embodied by Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II and the restrictions that they so effectively embodied.
It should be noted that Braga would return to the very basic premise of Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II during his final year as showrunner on Star Trek: Enterprise. During that third season, Braga would finally get to deliver a year-long arc in which the eponymous starship was forced to wander alone through hostile space where it was perpetually hammered and humbled by aggressive alien powers while caught in the middle of a battle for the timeline itself. There is an endearing symmetry there, from Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II to Zero Hour.
Of course, the fact that it took Brannon Braga six years to finally fulfill that early ambition is in many ways an indictment of the final years of Voyager and the first years of Enterprise. it is also a reminder of the big crippling flaw that nestles snugly at the heart of Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II. It is the same essential flaw that gnaws at the show’s most promising episodes, from Deadlock to Fair Trade to The Gift. It is the same flaw that makes Voyager so heartbreaking, knowing that every bold and ambitious gesture will inevitably (and hastily) rolled back.
Indeed, even the horrors of Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II are hastily undone at the end of the episode. There is a solid argument to be made that a lot more of Voyager should have shared the aesthetic of Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II; the beat-up ship trapped in hostile territory under constant threat of enemy action, forced to scavenge for parts and take shelter where it could. After all, those episodes of Voyager that hinge of the crew’s desperation – like Phage or Manoeuvres or Fair Trade – always feel shallow and exaggerated.
There is a sense of weight and cost to Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, a sense that Janeway’s decision has weight and that her decisions have consequences. There is a sense of danger to the mission. After all, Janeway led her ship and crew through Borg space without breaking a sweat in Scorpion, Part I, Scorpion, Part II and The Gift. There is something refreshing in seeing a version of Voyager that is not so invincible, that has taken such a pounding without resources or support that even “micro-meteroids” pose a serious threat to the ship.
Even the characters are allowed to be damaged, to carry scars that reflect their experiences. Early in Year of Hell, Part II, Janeway throws herself into a fire to save the ship. The EMH treats her, but acknowledges that scarred tissue will remain. “You suffered third degree burns to approximately sixty percent of your body,” he reports. “I’ve healed most of them, but without a dermal regenerator I couldn’t repair all the damage to your skin. You’ve been left with scars on your face and arms.” Heroism has a price; saving the ship comes at a cost.
In fact, Tuvok is blinded during a Krenim attack. In Cinefantastique, Brannon Braga acknowledged some minor frustration with how the character’s disability was handled:
“He was supposed to be more damaged than that. We were actually going to have him blind and missing a leg, and we were going to do a Forrest Gump-type of digital effect. He was going to have many physical problems, but for production reasons, we ended up with just blindness, which I think is unfortunate because of the Geordi LaForge connection.”
It is a fair point. Deep Space Nine is still more than a year away from crippling Nog in The Siege of AR-558. Actually scarring a regular character in so severe a manner would be a bold storytelling choice.
Unfortunately, Voyager is not a bold television show. All of the brave decisions made over the course of the two-parter are promptly reversed at the climax of Year of Hell, Part II. Janeway steers Voyager into a final confrontation with Annorax, with saboteurs disabling his temporal shielding. Janeway rams Voyager into his time ship, destroying it in a massive explosion that effectively resets the timeline and sets everything back to the way that it was at the start of Year of Hell, Part I.
Logically, it is interesting to wonder how exactly that works. Then again, it is interesting to wonder how Annorax’s time weapon works at all, in purely practical terms. Thematically, it makes a lot more sense. More than that, the ending of Year of Hell, Part II could be seen as the culmination of a recurring theme across the previous three seasons of the show, the idea that the timeline is self-healing and will inevitably reset itself. This is suggested by episodes like Time and Again, Deadlock and even Future’s End, Part II.
The ending to Year of Hell, Part II was somewhat divisive among the production team. Writer Joe Menosky discussed the decision with Cinefantastique:
“Brannon wanted to keep the ship wrecked for the entire season, and he didn’t want to end with a reset. The studio didn’t want to do that. Rick Berman didn’t want to do that. So we didn’t do that. I wanted at least a couple of people to know what had happened. We actually wrote this ending even though we didn’t shoot it, where time is reset, the weapon is gone; we know what has happened to us through some complication I can’t even remember. When we meet up with the next Krenim, Chakotay asks offhand, ‘Have you got a colony called Kyana Prime?’ And the guy says, ‘Sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ The idea was that time had in fact in some ways punished Annorax. Everything was reset except that. That was denied him, so it was this great, final, tragic moment. That was written and never shot because Rick said it was too complicated, and he was right. I can’t even remember the tortured reasoning we had so that some of us could remember. Rick said, ‘Just plow Voyager into the weapon ship, and reset the timeline, and nobody remembers.’ That was the simplest solution.”
Year of Hell, Part II ends very cleanly, allowing the restoration of the status quo so that Random Thoughts could flow nicely from Scientific Method.
To be fair, there is some sense of ambivalence about this tidy resolution. Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II repeatedly make a big deal out of the hardships inflicted upon the crew. Characters are forced to consume rations and share rooms, while replicator rations are very carefully employed. However, once everything is reset to factory settings at the end of Year of Hell, Part II, all of that is casually brushed aside. Those scenes serve to underscore the luxury in which the crew operate on a week-to-week basis.
“I think I’ll replicate a bottle of Saint Emillion for the occasion,” Janeway remarks once Seven announces that the astrometrics lab is finally available for the crew to use. Given that Janeway heavily chastised Chakotay for using his replicator rations to make her a birthday present in Year of Hell, Part I, that line feels almost like an acknowledgement of just how heavily Year of Hell, Part II has set back the clock. The tough decisions and the compromises are washed away. Year of Hell, Part II ends with the promise of business as usual.
To be fair, there are any number of reasons why this is a bad storytelling choice within the context of the episode itself. Most obviously, it denies any of the characters the opportunity to grow and evolve based upon their experiences. There is a sense that Janeway essentially embarks upon a journey of self-discovery over the course of Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, finding out exactly how far she will go in order to complete her mission to get the crew home. Taking that away from her feels almost malicious.
The same is true of many members of the supporting cast. Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II use the supporting cast in a very clever way, but all of that seems lost in the reset. It might have been interesting to see how abandoning those crew members in Year of Hell, Part I affected the EMH in the long-term, although the fifth season would offer a variation on this in Latent Image. It would have been compelling to watch Seven grow closer to Tuvok, and to see Janeway nursing guilt for what happened to him.
Instead, all of this is lost. It is one of the most unsatisfying moments in the seven-year run of Voyager, watching all that potential evaporate. Indeed, the creative decision has come under considerable criticism. Star Trek: Discovery writer Kristen Beyer explained why she worked so hard to bring the two-parter back into continuity when writing the Voyager relaunch novels:
“Ever since I first saw the Year of Hell episodes I wished that the writers had found a way for the crew to remember the events, when they restored time,” said Kirsten.
A fascinating prospect for sure, she went on to say; “…the fact that the audience were the only ones who were going to remember this massive, heart-breaking adventure just felt like such a waste.”
Veteran Star Trek illustrator Rick Sternbach points to the episode as his favourite episode of the series, but he also pauses to acknowledge that this in spite of “the fact that Voyager was obliterated but all was set back to ‘normal’ at the end of the two-parter.” The conclusion is a palpable disappointment, particularly given the skill with which the rest of the episode is executed.
Then again, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II are perhaps the most Voyager of episodes. The two-parter serves at once to demonstrate the raw potential of Voyager as an addition to the Star Trek mythos and also to showcase how readily Voyager falls short of that potential. It teases a glimpse of everything that Voyager could be, only to explain why the show will never embrace those fantastic possibilities. It is Voyager in a nutshell, particularly at this stage of its development.
The third and fourth seasons of Voyager hint at a show with much more ambition than it will ever realise, episodes and stories that seem primed as stepping stones towards a more compelling and interesting television series that inevitably retreat from those provocative choices. Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II is perhaps the perfect encapsulation of this recurring trend on Voyager, a show intent on squandering a compelling and fascinating premise.
Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II demonstrate everything that Voyager could be, the tale of a lone Federation ship stranded on the other side of the galaxy without support and forced to make their own way through hostile alien territory on the way home. Unfortunately, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II also demonstrate that Voyager could never actually be that show, however interesting that show would be.
The status quo is restored at the end of the episode. The standing sets are tidied up. The uniforms are cleaned. The studio lighting is turned way back up. The characters are reunited. The computer-generated model is restored to factory settings. None of the characters even remember how things could have been different, which feels almost like a tragedy. Then again, perhaps the greater tragedy is that the audience does remember; the audience has seen that potential realised and then dismissed.
Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II are in many ways the most representative Voyager episodes.