The Good: Moments of actual character work, Acting
The Bad: Miserable sense of tone, Stale plot, Pointless overall, Boring
The Basics: In a disappointing prison story, Kim and Paris find their lives in jeopardy from insane inmates and each other.
Star Trek: Voyager lived (and died) by some fairly convenient platitudes that illustrated either a high sense of morality or a complete inability for the writing/production staff to acknowledge any sense of reality for the characters aboard the fledgling starship Voyager. So, while on other Trek series, principles like "leave no (crew)man (or woman) behind," are noble and good, on Star Trek: Voyager they seem overblown and cumbersome. If Captain Janeway were a politician, she might be accused of being out of touch with her constituents. But then, it's Star Trek: Voyager, not the more accurately titled "Star Trek: Derivative." I mockingly call it that because Star Trek: Voyager seemed creatively inept and by the time "The Chute" came around, the idea had been done in one form or another before, including recently on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine with the brilliant episode "Hard Time" (reviewed here!).
Harry Kim and Tom Paris find themselves imprisoned aboard a floating gulag in space, convicted of being terrorists on an alien world nearby. Imprisoned with virtually no chance of escape, Harry optimistically decides to hold out for rescue and Paris adapts as best he can to prison (which ought to be familiar to him). However, there's a rub; the crewmen (along with every other inmate) are outfitted with collars that are designed to make the prisoners go insane and Kim and Paris find themselves attacked by outsiders and each other. While Janeway works to prove the pair's innocence and find them, Kim works to stay alive and keep a wounded Paris from dying.
"The Chute" refers to the implied escape route from the gulag, which Kim works hard to get up after spending much of the episode disabling the shield around it. Sadly, this goal is not terribly interesting, especially once the viewer knows what is beyond it (which we learn well before Kim and Paris). But more than that, the episode is remarkably inconsistent as far as the concept behind it.
Kim and Paris are outfitted with devices to make them go crazy. Suspending for the moment the idea that a culture would go through the effort to incarcerate people just to make them go crazy and kill one another as opposed to just executing them outright, the idea is inconsistently applied. Paris succumbs to homicidal thoughts and paranoia surprisingly easily, which seems odd given his free spirit nature and roguish tendencies. But Harry Kim is remarkably resilient in the face of the rage that is supposedly burning inside him.
The thing is, this could be the most extraordinary characterization for Harry Kim and/or StarFleet Officers ever. The problem is, it just doesn't work here. Kim has been portrayed - rightly or wrongly - throughout the series thus far as green and something of a lightweight. He's not particularly strong or clever nor really much of anything other than a "yes-man" to Janeway (having met actor Garret Wang on many a convention, this is a testament to his gifts as an actor because he is nothing like that!). Kim has shown no special discipline to make him suddenly exhibit near superhuman abilities of restraint here.
Indeed, Paris seems the much more likely candidate for an ability to resist based on will - not so much discipline, but the idea that he won't be pushed around - alone. In later episodes of Star Trek: Voyager, Paris exhibits his will in such a way that would seem to imply that he is capable of resisting this type mental anguish (notably "One" and "30 Days"). But more than that, Paris with mental problems has been done in the series before, in the first season's "Ex Post Facto" (reviewed here!). One wonders if the reason Kim becomes the hero here is because most of the audience would actually care if Tom Paris were killed or went crazy whereas if Paris had to kill an insane Harry Kim in self-defense, most of the audience would probably shrug it off and move on. Yes, it's not easy being Kim.
The resulting episode is one that feels long and ponderous. Kim and Paris are plagued by criminals all around, people who go crazy at a moment's notice and wig out on them. Act after act, it is more of the same as Kim and the audience wait for the pair to be rescued. Sadly, there's never a genuine doubt in the mind of the viewer that they will be rescued because Janeway is working diligently to get them out. It never enters the equation that there might be a timetable to getting home and these two crewmembers might be lost enough not to jeopardize the other crewmembers for.
And the real disappointment for fans of the series here will once again be an utter lack of consequences for the developments of this episode. Next week, Harry Kim and Tom Paris will be fine, without any mental hindrances. We get that the show goes on, but if the conditions Paris and Kim are surviving through are truly so terrible, there ought to be some sense of that in episodes that follow.
Lacking genuine menace and a sense that Paris or Kim might actually buy the farm this episode, "The Chute" becomes an overblown psychology play that falls flat. It's a noble attempt, but it still squeaks by with little enthusiasm and less sense of purpose because the mood and pacing are just not there.
In fact, what the episode does have going for it - almost all it has going for it - is the acting. Garret Wang is convincingly noble and forceful in the episode. He is so powerful in his performance that it almost seems like he is playing an entirely different character here. Wang plays "on edge" wonderfully and this is easily one of his best performances of the series. Say what you will about Harry Kim and his blandness, but given the opportunity to shine, Wang will invariably live up to the challenge.
Robert Duncan McNeill gives a fine supporting performance as Tom Paris, though his best moments are playing fatigued and wounded and surrendering center stage to Wang.
The performances aboard Voyager are typical and nothing stands out there as remotely memorable.
Ultimately, this is just an episode that falls flat from its goals. It's not suspenseful enough to keep the viewer engaged and lacking that, it's an extraordinarily tough sell. Not even possible to recommend for fans of psychological horror or thrillers or even drama, this pure science fiction piece is likely to even disappoint fans of the Star Trek franchise.
[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek: Voyager - The Complete Third Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the entire season here!
For other Star Trek episode and film reviews, be sure to check out my Star Trek Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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