Star Trek: Voyager: The Chute   Rewatch 
June 5, 2017 6:30 AM - Season 3, Episode 3 - Subscribe

The episode that launched a thousand Tom/Harry 'ships.

All the bars and prison walls in the Delta Quadrant can't hold Memory Alpha prisoner in its own mind:

- The episode was a left-over from the first two seasons of Star Trek: Voyager and proved to be particularly problematic for teleplay writer Kenneth Biller. He explained, "It was sort of a left-over story from the Michael Piller era, and I struggled with it because it was a prison picture essentially. Michael wanted this to be an episode about Kim's humanity being tested. I thought it was basically an impossible task, because every single prison movie that has ever been successful that I can think of depends on one thing in particular, which is the passage of time. All take place over years, if not decades. Given the fact it would be impossible given the restrictions of our show to strand Paris and Kim for more than several days, it seemed therefore impossible to bring Kim to the brink." The solution that was ultimately decided upon was the addition of the clamp to the story, although this concept frustrated Ken Biller. "What we ultimately ended up doing was adding this idea of the clamp, which was this science fiction idea which would compress the passage of time. These alien captors had implanted the prisoners with neural devices that drove them a little nuts and made their violent tendencies come out. I ultimately agreed to do that, but I was very against it. It was saying, if Kim behaves violently in any way, he's under some sort of influence. It's not his essential humanity or his character that's actually responsible for this kind of behavior."

- Garrett Wang especially liked the story for this episode. "That was one of the most clear cut scripts that we've had," he said. "You have an arc which goes through the entire thing. You've got the fact that we are trapped in the alien prison ship and dealing with this increasing amount of tension by these implants in our skulls. The stakes were high in that episode, and I really enjoyed it." Wang further said of this installment, "'The Chute' was the first time I was given something with no dead ends. There was an arc from beginning to end for the character. It was so simply written, and it was so beautiful. There was very little extraneous information, and I loved that [....] The main idea – that the only way the prison population decreases is because of these devices on the back of the prisoners' heads that cause them to become more and more stressed, so that they kill each other – was great. Those kinds of stakes [...] made it feel real."

- Ken Biller was slightly puzzled by the popularity of this episode. "It's gotten an amazingly positive response," he said, "which kind of surprised me. It was not my personal favorite episode [....] But I think ultimately what people responded to in the episode was that the relationship between the two guys was so strong."

"This man is my friend; nobody touches him."

- Harry Kim, to prisoners about Tom Paris

"Tom, listen to me. I... I almost killed you."
"What are you saying? You're the one that kept me alive."
"I was ready to hit you with the pipe. Don't you remember?"
"You want to know what l remember? Someone saying, 'This man is my friend. Nobody touches him.' I'll remember that for a long time."

- Harry Kim and Tom Paris

Poster's Log:

Before I get into what makes this episode work, and what I think made it so popular, let's just get this out of the way: Trek has gone to the "You suck and your quote-endquote 'justice system' sucks" well many, many times before, going all the way back to TOS--in particular, "Hard Time", which aired earlier in the same year as this episode--and VOY has already made more than one trip to that water source: "Ex Post Facto" and "Resistance" both went there (especially the latter, with its middle-aged-white-dude alien spokesperson giving the official sorry-but-fuck-you response to Janeway & Co.), and even "Faces" had elements of it, with the prisoner who was driven insane by the cruelty of the captors, although this episode indulges in a little explicit religious imagery for Zio. (The actor who played Zio, veteran character actor Don McManus, also had a part in Shawshank Redemption.) The prison episode (and, by extension, prison break episode) is a pretty reliable dramatic set-up, with built-in tension and the opportunity for your guest actors to show off their chops, but as it's used in this show, there's also the element of the essentially blameless tourist who gets caught up in the tyrannical, corrupt, and/or hopelessly incompetent local justice system; it's likewise a popular plot (not just in fiction but in real life, as witness the Amanda Knox case), but also pretty problematic in terms of the familiar characters tut-tutting at the senseless cruelties of the foreigners. Zio may have been nuts and even have encouraged Harry to kill Tom when things seemed hopeless, but he also helped keep them alive and worked with Harry on his escape plan, and once the cavalry comes riding over the hill, it's like he was never even there.

For all of that, though, it's still a very effective episode, in no small part because the Akritiri prison is a really awful place, in a way that I don't think that any prison in Trek has been, although the Dominion prison camp in "In Purgatory's Shadow/By Inferno's Light" and Rura Penthe in STVI come close; it's dirty and desperate and would be a pretty bad place even if the prisoners didn't have "The Clamp", which is the sort of eerily plausible thing that makes me hope that some of the more, ah, vindictive correctional officials in real life don't watch this episode. There's also a certain sort of timeliness to the set-up--given that Tom and Harry are scapegoated for a terrorist attack--due to the use of the space prison as a sort of Gitmo for the Open Sky terrorists. (Another missed opportunity, besides giving some closure to Zio, was to have Chakotay or one of the other Maquis maybe suggesting that they bounce the Open Sky prisoners out.)

But the real value of the episode, as hinted above, is in it being a very strong episode about Tom and Harry's friendship, and how that friendship is put to the test. (Contrary to the above-the-cut text, I don't think that it was more of a friendship, although I won't fault those who do; The Heart wants what it wants, after all. (Hear me out: Seven of Nine/Colonel Kira. Think about it.) This episode is important to Tom/Harry shippers in the way that "Resolutions" was for Janeway/Chakotay shippers.) Their willingness to sacrifice for each other--Tom's insistence that Harry should go on without him if given the chance (although he goes back on that later) having that tinge of sacrificial atonement that we've seen from Tom before, and Harry refusing (although, correspondingly, he also comes close to attacking Tom) because he's Harry, are in line with what we know about their characters, and Harry and Tom's corridor conversation at the end is genuinely touching.

Also, too, it's got something useful for Neelix to do, and a reminder that his janky little ship is in the shuttle bay for almost the entire show.

Poster's Log, supplemental: I know that this is crossing the fandom streams, but the twist of the prison being in space reminds me of the space gulag in Mass Effect 2, which you get to visit (and facilitate your own escape from) in the process of recruiting Subject Zero, aka Jack, one of my favorite characters from that franchise. It also has one of my favorite lines in Mass Effect, from Jack if you take the nicer conversation option with her when you meet her: "Shit, you sound like a pussy."
posted by Halloween Jack (5 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Particle of the Week: Acetylcholine in the hypothalamus
Pointless STO Comparison of the Week: A demoralizing Federation prison appears in the episode Facility 4028. It's not as deliberately cruel as the one here, but it's pretty depressing in its own special way.

Ongoing Counts: Rolled forward again.
* Maximum Possible Photon Torpedoes: 24.
* Shuttles: Down 3.
* Crew: 143.
* Other: 47 bio-neural gelpacks remaining, maybe 25-50% of the escape pods should be gone at this point.
* Credulity Straining Alpha Quadrant Contacts: 7
* Janeway's Big Red Button: 2 aborted self-destructs, 1 successful.

* The setup is dumb.

Like the aforementioned Ex Post Facto, this is an episode where the setup makes zero sense: Harry and Tom were on shore leave on Akritiri? Just them? Really? I mean, they could've at least suggested that more crew were on the planet, and recalled after the incident.

* The interior of the prison works okay.

I didn't know this episode was popular, but I can see it. The stuff with Harry and Tom is pretty strong, and taken as a standalone plot, the events in prison work okay. I also felt moved to look up Zio, (and Liria, the bureaucrat who thought Janeway would lower her shields, who has also been in everything). Pit and his gang worked. Zio also worked well enough - his crazy being subtler made some sense.

The clamp definitely felt like a cheat, and I don't think it was needed - they blew months on Resolutions for basically zero payoff. Have Tom get wounded and delirious and put Harry there for a couple of months and this whole thing would make more sense.

Unlike Resolutions, I actually felt character development happened here - this felt like a good moment for the two of them, probably because it reinforced a friendship that was already established, and kept throughout the show.

* Janeway comes off *really* badly here.

One thing that struck me here was just how awful Janeway is about the whole matter: she's just been presented with a gulag-using, kangaroo court employing bunch of fuckers and not only does she not know what the deal is with Open Sky, she doesn't want to know.

She has a default preference for dealing with Liria without knowing one single thing about the situation on Akritiri, she was comfortable sending senior officers there for shore leave without doing any research about their rules - a situation that's bitten Starfleet personnel in the ass on way friendlier planets, and she's happy extorting her own prisoners (offer of a bath and hot meal notwithstanding).

This read absolutely true to me both in terms of real life - a privileged person completely uninterested in how other people are suffering - and for Starfleet policy. Starfleet prefers to deal with recognized governments even if they suck - see their dealings with the Klingons, Cardassians and so on. However, that means Jack's complaint about the Maquis is spot on: Akritiri should've given some of them flashbacks about Cardassia's legal system, after her encounters with Liria. This was an opportunity to have Chakotay or B'Ellana at least point out how bad Federation policy about foreign governments sucks, and how unsatisfying the company line about non-interference is. (They could've even left the plot the same, but it would've humanized Janeway's decision if she'd had to argue her position instead of the show seeming to take the side that she was right to ignore what was going on in front of her.)

Overall, this reminds me a lot of Initiations: the plot works okay if you don't look too hard, and the dramatic situations presented hold up on the strength of the performances presented... but the privilege and cluelessness of the writers about the implications of the story they've set up really sticks out to me in retrospect.
posted by mordax at 8:31 AM on June 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

This one's OK, but it bugs me in a few key ways. I also wouldn't have guessed that it's popular; I can only assume that's largely got to do with the 'shippers.
But first, the good:

- Solid acting throughout. Guest crazy dude's performance here is a little bit… I dunno, arch?… but it fits the character so I'm fine with it. Most significant is Wang's performance; we will see him grow as an actor throughout the series, and this is one of the early standouts for him IMO.

- Related: good Tom/Harry friendship material, as Jack pointed out. (And I for one don't mind Trek continually revisiting prison reform as a topic, because that's right up there with abortion on the list of things humanity's never gonna stop debating. BTW, really good connection with Amanda Knox, Jack; there's a fascinating recent Netflix (NET-FLIX, not Neelix) documentary on that for those who are interested.)

- I enjoyed the chute concept, and particularly the Big Reveal about where the chute goes. This is like the third time I've seen this episode and it still elicited a facial reaction. That zoom out— it's almost like the end of Raiders. You go, "Whoah," and then you go, "Well, of COURSE it would be that." Really just a great moment, worthy of the other Treks being jealous of it.

But the story, as the post suggests, is just not suited to one episode. It might've worked a lot better as a two-parter, but then the challenge would be to avoid repetitiveness.

And IIRC, Voyager rarely pulled off grimdark as well as they clearly wanted to. My usual go-to example of an episode where DS9 didn't quite stick the grimdark landing (now there's a name for a gated community in a cyberpunk dystopia: "Grimdark Landing - Trespassers Will Be Derezzed") is "The Darkness and the Light", the one with the mutilated Cardassian tormenting a pregnant Kira. (Here's my comment in the FanFare thread for it, which, hey, appears to be nonspecifically addressing "The Chute"!). But even there, the dark feels more earned than here. Probably because the DS9 one is built (however weakly) on a solid foundation of established backstory for Kira, while here, we have Paris and Kim who have been established as… ummm… nice guys? Which is fine, I mean, good pairing to put in this situation, but it's just not gonna reach the depths the story concept demands. (The impact is also hurt IMO by the "clamp" notion, which might as well be called "the episode finale reset button.")

I also have a hard time getting past the fact that "Akrit'tar" is the name of a prison planet from a 1979 Star Wars expanded universe novel (the name of which is in turn borrowed from the archaeological site connected with the Atlantis legend). It's one thing to borrow a super-obscure name from another franchise, but it's another to attach it to a similar concept (the whole prison thing); I find it implausible that this is a coincidence. Maybe this is just me being a pedantic nerd.

Hear me out: Seven of Nine/Colonel Kira. Think about it.

I'm not saying I can't SEE it, but— neither of them know how to have any fun. They'd just stare icily at each other all the time. (Not that THAT doesn't have a certain appeal, of course.)
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 4:49 AM on June 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

Addendum: Maybe I wasn't just being a pedantic nerd about this episode ripping off the SW expanded universe. I just remembered Lusankya, an Imperial prison (named after the Soviet prison "Lubyanka") which is first presented to readers as an inescapable underground prison…but then there's a big reveal that it's actually a ship, specifically a Super Star Destroyer buried under the surface of Coruscant.

Hhhhuh. Is there just a really small, finite number of prison story concepts in the world of fiction?
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 7:00 AM on June 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

It should have been obvious that this episode was part of the bulk ordered under Piller's watch, since when you deal in bulk, you almost always include free shipping with the order.

I have to say this is both a better and worse episode on rewatch than I remembered from first viewing. The Tom, Harry, Zio stuff is better than I remembered, while the rest is worse. So my overall feeling about it is roughly the same, just more specific in my attribution of credit and blame.

It seems really evident to me that this is an episode that suffered, or at least was significantly altered due to being handled in more of a committee approach. The stuff between Janeway, the Akritiri, and the bombers simply doesn't make sense as is, but seems clearly designed to elicit some analogy or otherwise present a meaningful examination of values. What ended up on screen does neither effectively. It only makes Janeway look bad, so unless that was the desired goal, something got left out or wasn't thought through very well.

I don't really want to dwell on her decisions as mordax already touched on that, so I'll just say they don't fit "non-interference" values, any consistent moral framework, and are shoved aside by the story in the end before any potential values could be determined. It isn't just Janeway either, as has also been mentioned, Chakotay and the other Maquis and Tuvok don't come off well either, or more to the point come off as blank when they shouldn't have. There was perhaps an interesting dilemma that could have been examined here but they instead chose to avoid it at the cost of character consistency and meaning.

It's hard to do grimdark with a show like Voyager as character continuity and general tone tend to really limit what can be done. There are ways to get around that, like TNG did in The Most Toys episode, where Data may have killed Faju at the moment of transport at episode's end. They leave it ambiguous enough to maintain the general tone of the show since we don't know Data kills Faju for certain as it isn't seen, but it is clearly likely that he did. Here, for example, the moment Harry is about to bash Tom with the pipe could have been handled differently or similarly to the Data moment, if they wanted to go that route, but perhaps at the cost of some part of the Harry/Tom romance. A better option would have been to keep the relationship between state and terrorist group more ambiguous and have Janeway actually forced to make a decision on a side, only to have yet another act or acts of violence occur that calls that decision into question. Perhaps there was something like that in the episode to begin with as it would make more sense that way, but as it is, the solution and rescue is severely lacking.

I didn't mind the clamps, they added a nice bit of physical dramatization in Tom's constant scratching and without them it's unlikely they could have gone as far as they did with Harry since that, as I suggested above, would have a lingering cost they wouldn't want to pay.

Along with the failure to better dramatize the state/terrorist conflict and individuals better, they also failed to really develop the prisoners very well, other than Zio. Leaving things strongly formulaic and far too familiar. Even Zio falls into the "every prison has a crazy guy" trope that they've used before in the B'Elanna splitting episode, and which is lazy way to add color or interest to the setting without doing the work of trying to think through more serious character interaction and belief that would accompany more reasonable prisoners who could still act in violent fashion, "alien" to someone unfamiliar with marginal lifestyles.

Still though, Tom and Harry were good. I actually thought McNeill was particularly strong, and since they haven't focused too much on Paris lately, this provided a good opportunity to see something interesting from him. He and Wang really do work well together, so from that alone it's good to see episodes devoted to the two of them. Harry and Tom really do click together, so shipping them only makes sense. Which is something that might have occurred to Janeway too, hence her urgency in finding them before Harry really got to sink his hooks into her amphibious baby daddy.
posted by gusottertrout at 7:59 AM on June 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

It should have been obvious that this episode was part of the bulk ordered under Piller's watch, since when you deal in bulk, you almost always include free shipping with the order.

posted by Halloween Jack at 8:59 AM on June 7, 2017

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