"The Chute"

Guest Reviewer: Ashley Miller

[Note]: Because of other commitments this weekend I may not be able to post my review for "The Chute" by Sunday. I'd intended to post this guest review with my own, but it can more than stand on its own. Look for my review on Tuesday or Wednesday.

rec.arts.startrek.reviews is a moderated newsgroup that allows people to post reviews of Star Trek episodes and other Trek-related items (films, novels, games, etc). There are several who do so regularly; my personal favorite is Ashley Miller.

Compared to Ashley, I'm an optimist. So when he likes an episode, I take notice. But that's not why I'm posting this review. This is, frankly, a review I could not have written--but I'm glad he could. He has kindly given permission for me to post his review here. I hope you'll enjoy his analysis and insights as much as I did. --Jim

      Date:  Fri, 20 Sep 1996 00:24:10 -0500
Newsgroups:  rec.arts.startrek.reviews,rec.arts.startrek.current
   Subject:  [VOY] "The Chute":  The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
      From:  "Ashley Miller" 

WARNING: The following article contains significant spoiler information for "The Chute". If you have not already seen the episode, think twice before continuing.

[VOY] "The Chute": The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Written by: Ken Biller
Directed by: Les Landau

The first "real" episode of the third season, and the verdict is...impressive. If this is the kind of change that Jeri Taylor wants to bring to Voyager this year, then more power to her.

The Good:

"The Chute" is easily the best installment of Voyager since last season's "Deadlock". And while there are those who might argue that this is simply damning the show with faint praise, let me put this into a different perspective. "The Chute" is the best episode of *Star Trek* since "The Quickening" on DS9. [And for those of you who -- inexplicably -- don't appeciate the virtues of DS9 either...who asked you, anyway? ;-)]

And for what reason do I heap this not-insignificant praise on the black sheep of the Star Trek family? Let me count the ways: 1) "The Chute" is literate; 2) "The Chute" is affecting; 3) "The Chute" is among the best produced episodes of the entire franchise. Being any one of these things would be enough to count a show as at least a marginal winner in my book. The fact that it manages to be all three is stunning given Voyager's spotty past.

What makes "The Chute" literate? A number of things, drawing on sources as diverse as Nietzsche, Campbell and even A.W. Tucker (who in turn drew on Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau). For those of you who are unfamiliar with Mr. Tucker, he is the economist who first explicitly proposed "The Prisoner's Dilemma" which was later formalized by Von Neumann and Morgenstern. In essence, the Prisoner's Dilemma describes the situation of two prisoners, locked in separate rooms and given a choice: cooperate (i.e., refuse to roll over on his comrade) or defect (roll over). The dilemma is this: if both prisoners cooperate, they both go free. If both defect, they both go to jail. But if one prisoner cooperates and the other defects, the prisoner who defects goes free while his hapless partner serves time. The question? To cooperate or defect.

Game theorists say that cooperation is actually the best choice, even though it may seem that the most attractive option is to defect. This is actually the core of "The Chute", summed up nicely by prisoner-cum-messiah Zio (nicely played by Don McManus) in his musings on the purpose of the Clamp: prevent the prisoners from cooperating. While the cooperation as envisioned here is superficially different from the scenario articulated by Tucker, it is essentially the same. In fact, it is taken to the next level: assuming that communication between prisoners is allowed, how does the prisoner who has solved the game communicate his findings to the other prisoners so that they *all* may "win"?

Fascinating stuff, but "The Chute" doesn't limit itself to esoteric Game Theory. In many ways, Zio has changed the rules of the game: by deciphering their meaning, he has altered them to suit his will. He is what Nietzsche would call a "Superman", a man whose will to power allows him to bend his universe to his whim. Zio is also an incarnation of Satan, who rules in Hell and dreams of the day when he can resurface. Yet Zio is *not* evil -- he is simply a man who has rejected sentiment and compassion in favor of utilitarianism. From his perspective, killing a wounded man is beyond mercy. It is a form of self-preservation and perhaps even a path to enlightenment.

And what of Harry Kim, the flotsam caught in this current of bleak brutality? Harry is, of course, the Hero. Not the kind of hero who flies about beating up bad guys, but the kind of hero who is faced with a challenge, goes on a quest and makes a moral choice. That Harry is a tragic hero is what makes his plight so affecting. As objective observers, we are afforded the luxury of simply witnessing Harry's innate humanity slowly destroy him. But as feeling human beings, how can we not put ourselves in his place and wonder if we would fare as well? How can we not understand his confusion and his pain?

Poor Harry is in a no win situation. On one hand, he can choose to accept Zio's knowledge and take his power for his own. An attractive choice, but for the price it exacts: Harry's soul. On the other hand, he can choose to continue his battle against the Clamp, recognizing that it will eventually claim his mind or his body. Make no mistake, this is not a glib and simple choice between good and evil. Zio is not some simple-minded tempter or demon. This is a choice between retaining what moral strength one has remaining, or jettisoning those morals in favor of a new paradigm.

Harry chooses "to be". And because his morals approximate our own, we simultaneously cheer his rejection of Zio and (we should) mourn that this victory is pyrrich: all things being equal, Tom Paris will die and Harry will die after him, broken and maddened by the Clamp. That this is *not* how things turned out is understandable given the format of the show, but that will be dealt with later. For now, suffice it say that the story ended as well as it could under the circumstances.

Beyond that, "The Chute" contained other elements with Campbellian implications. First among these is Harry's pipe, an essentially magical object which physically represents personal power. In this case, it is the power to defeat the Chute; i.e., the power to render it impotent. As such , it has all the totemic qualities of the Holy Grail, Excalibur or even (gulp) the Sword of Kahless. But a brilliantly dealt story reverse (among many such reverses) reveals that the pipe's power is at best a means to an end: a rung on the ladder to the understanding already achieved and offered by Zio.

That understanding is also a symbol from this perspective, as is Zio himself. Much as the Doctor served for Lon Suder in "Basics", Zio is Harry's Mystic, the man who offers knowledge which can either rebuild or destroy. But unlike the Doctor (or Yoda/Ben Kenobi in the Star Wars saga), Zio is a Dark Mystic. Again, not evil but wholly different from our own conception of what is moral. This, I suppose, is the Hero With a Thousand Faces by way of Beyond Good and Evil.

The remaining quarter of the story is equally effective if not as rich. The Voyager's attempts to locate and rescue Tom and Harry is pulled off with some panache, and serves the characters well. This goes double for Captain Janeway, who manages to be tough, commanding and likeable all at the same time. From her refusal to be boarded by the Akritirian soldiers to her ultimate rescue operation, Janeway is consistently intelligent and engaging. And I must admit to a small cheer as she burst out of the Chute and took back her babies from the demons.

All of this brings me to "The Chute" as a production. In short, this little television show looked for all the world like a short feature film. The production design was outstanding, as was the cinematography. The technical crew, including the effects people, did a terrific job of capturing and expressing the scope of the story. And Les Landau (my personal favorite) locked onto the mythic essence of it all and brought it out with singular verve.

I was struck especially by two scenes. The first was the scene where Zio revealed his manifesto to Harry. While he spoke of revelation, understanding, enlightenment and power, the red light of the Chute illuminated his countenance in a dark halo. Symbolism? You betcha. The second scene was the great ascent, as Harry and Zio made their way up the Chute to experience what can only be called a shocking revelation. Everything about this sequence worked, from the operatic musical score to the final, truth-revealing zoom-out from the end of the Chute. Fabulous stuff, cementing my opinion of Landau's abilities to enhance or simply tell a story with images. There were certainly other instances of this -- the teaser had one line of dialogue and still managed to be effective -- but these two best illustrate the director's unique POV.

Smaller things...Both Garrett Wang and Robert McNeill were at the top of their form this week. I especially enjoyed the discussion of food as Harry worked on the Chute, as well as the episode's coda in which Paris pays moving tribute to his friend's loyalty and intended sacrifice. Good stuff.

The Bad:

The major problem with "The Chute" is unfortunately inherent to Star Trek as a genre. One of the major limitations of the format is that it can only rarely allow an appropriate payoff when one of its major characters goes the "tragic hero" route. These types of stories (and especially this one) usually require the death of the central character, something which the demands of weekly television cannot accommodate.

This is not simply a matter of how I would have approached the ending of the story in a different way. This is a matter of weighing a "post hoc" conclusion against a clear and inevitable "proper hoc" conclusion. The "post hoc" conclusion is what we saw: the protagonists are rescued at the last second, just before the moment of truth. The "proper hoc" ending is what we didn't see: the secondary character or observer (in this case, Paris) is rescued just *after* the moment of truth.

The tooth-gnashing irony of this is that an otherwise impeccably conceived story is rendered impotent, and thus an abject failure. Although Ken Biller does the best he can under the circumstances (there is *no way* he would be allowed to kill Harry Kim...again), it doesn't change the fact that the ending we got is not the ending we need. Frustrating, but true.

Is it enough to recognize that had Janeway *not* intervened, Harry would have died? If I look at it "sideways", yes. But that's a forced perspective. If I examine the scene head on, there is no way that I can avoid the dramatic or narrative truth.

Other than that, the only thing which struck me as ill-conceived was the young Akritirian terrorist. Her character and dialogue were cliched, and her delivery was less than compelling. I also take some issue with the interior of Neelix's ship. The production design here is the only part of the show that seems rushed, chintzy and uninspired.

The Ugly:

Neelix's ship. It's no wonder he's been hiding it on the Voyager.

My Score:

Despite my own serious objections to the resolution, I simply can't ignore the quality of the set-up. And if I want to be fair, I certainly can't hold an inviolable fact of life against Ken Biller's teleplay. This, I suppose, is the price we pay for the comfort of seeing our favorite characters week after week. There is a limit to what their creators can visit upon them.

Still, I can't call "The Chute" a classic either. As much as I like it, I can't overlook the fact that it is deeply flawed. "The Chute" is also not for everyone -- this is not a space comic book like last week's "Flashback" or parts of "Basics, Part II" -- this is difficult stuff. It requires active viewing and reflection to be fully enjoyed. It is also one of the grimmest, bleakest episodes of Star Trek in thirty years. That alone could be enough to turn off many people.

In summation, I'll say this: greatness must flirt with failure. Meditate on that, and I'll see you next week.

THE CHUTE: ***1/2 (out of four)


The Doctor loses his marbles as an alien swarm descends on the ship.

"You want to know what I remember? Someone saying, 'This man is my friend. No one touches him.' I'll remember that for a long time."
--Tom Paris

1996, Ashley Edward Miller. All rights reserved, and most of the lefts too. --

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Last Updated: September 21, 1996
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