June 12 2024


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Retro Review: The Chute

7 min read

Paris and Kim are incarcerated in an isolated prison where the captives are expected to kill one another off.

Plot Summary: Harry Kim falls through the bottom of a chute into a violent alien prison, where several inmates begin to attack him before Tom Paris steps in to declare that Kim is his, claiming Kim got Paris convicted of a bombing for which he was not responsible. Once Paris has dragged Kim to safety, he explains to Kim that they’ve been convicted and sentenced to life for a crime both are certain they did not commit. The prison is isolated, with food and new prisoners sent down the booby-trapped chute. The inmates have been fitted with aggression-inducing clamps that kill them if they try to take them off. The most reasonable prisoner, Zio, agrees to trade a pair of boots for a place where they can sleep and plan their escape, though Zio insists that escape is impossible. When Kim works on a means to disable the booby-trap on the chute as Paris again tries to protect him, one of the violent inmates stabs Paris. Kim successfully disarms and crawls up the chute, but finds that, rather than being underground as they had been told, they’re on a barge in space. Zio suggests that Kim kill the wounded Paris to save resources, warning that they’re part of a social experiment to see how prisoners behave when forced to fight. On Voyager, Janeway learns from the Akritirian government that Paris and Kim have been convicted in a terrorist attack carried out with a weapon that couldn’t have been made on their planet. Voyager tracks down a small ship carrying the materials to make such a weapon and brings its crew aboard, but the young brother and sister resist answering Janeway’s questions about the bombing. She threatens to turn them over to the Akritirians if they won’t help her rescue her crewmembers, though the Akritirian minister tells her that the case is closed and that Paris and Kim’s sentences cannot be revoked. Using Voyager as a distraction, Janeway takes Neelix’s ship to get Paris and Kim off the prison barge. The Doctor heals Paris, who forgives Kim for having contemplated killing him, recalling only that Kim told the other prisoners that nobody was allowed to touch Paris because he was Kim’s friend.

Analysis: I absolutely love “The Chute,” although it was originally advertised as the episode that would introduce a new, grittier style and more action-oriented storytelling to Voyager to please the much-desired young male demographic whom UPN sought as primary viewers. The previews promised fistfights, stabbings, and lots of shouting. But the previews did not show Kim holding Paris’s hand or the emotional declarations of friendship that constitute the main things I remember about the episode, which I notice on this rewatch is full of plot holes and unresolved story threads. Thus, “The Chute” is less impressive as a tough prison drama than an intense character study, and not the characters who often hold my interest. It’s a very well-directed episode, appropriately claustrophobic yet never stagnant, contrasting the dirty, dim prison with the cool, clean lines of the ship. Yet Voyager never seems homey or welcoming compared to the grunginess of the prison; quite the contrary, the ship looks boxy and formal, as opposed to the dangerous yet cozy tent city made of torn sheets and scraps of clothing aboard the prison barge. This is a corner of the galaxy run entirely by a martial mindset, whether it’s Janeway’s newfound Starfleet rigidity or the laws of the Akritirians, whose justice system is cruel and unfair, though we don’t learn enough about them to decide for ourselves whether they’re really tyrants or just trying to protect peaceful citizens from brutal terrorists whose demands remain vague and muddled. Both the Akritirian authorities and the Open Sky insurgents exist only as catalysts to this story, for even Janeway can’t be bothered to find out precisely what’s happening in their part of space despite having brought Voyager there to hunt up some necessary mineral or food on the surface of the planet where Paris and Kim get caught up in the bombing. She has no reason to believe the Akritirian authorities are using the bombing merely as an excuse to capture Voyager, since their claims that trilithium doesn’t exist on their planet appear to be true. Perhaps the legitimacy of the ambassador’s fury justifies the coldness and insensitivity with which Janeway approaches the very young rebels, but we’re given more reasons to sympathize with them.

Because I’ve complained in the past about Janeway making overly emotional decisions, I have no business now protesting her insensitivity and rigidity. But it seems like a bad idea tactically as well as from a seek-out-new-life-and-new-civilizations perspective to be so dismissive of the teenage bombers and the conflict in which Janeway’s arguably interfering, since they had made their getaway before Voyager dragged them back. Rather than having a potentially sympathetic Maquis officer talk to her captives – a young man with a sister about the same age as Kira Nerys when the latter joined the Resistance against the Cardassians, an enemy that resembles the Akritirians at least in the severity of their penal system – Janeway sneers that the pair need a bath. Admitting that her own crewmembers have been taken by the draconian Akritirians might lead the youths to tell her what they know, for even if they don’t trust her with the details of their movement, it’s unlikely they’d withhold knowledge of where Paris and Kim are being held, since no one ever comes back from the prisons anyway. That’s really all that Janeway requires to get her people back, but she chooses to be as inflexible as the Akritirian ambassador. After a full episode’s worth of watching her strut around in angry military mode, it’s more comical than impressive to see her come flying out of the chute with her big gun and her high heels. Why is this newly rules-obsessed captain risking her own life on a rescue mission? It’s pure luck that Kim happens to be near the chute when she arrives instead of caring for the dying Paris, and fortunate as well that she manages to keep her footing rather than dropping awkwardly to the ground like everyone else we’ve seen come out of the chute, at which point someone else could easily snatch her weapon, allowing a mob of prisoners to descend upon her. Starfleet is diminished when its leaders speak in certainties rather than exploring differences. Janeway’s contemptuous, “That’s not how we do things where I come from” – without bothering to elaborate on how and why she does do things, let alone to ask about theirs – doesn’t sound strong so much as intransigent.

Yet even Janeway’s not of much importance in “The Chute.” She’s only there to provide the rescue. The core of the story is the bromance between Tom and Harry, though that term did not exist when the episode first aired. It was a sweet exploration of the friendship between a onetime screw-up and the onetime nerd, but plenty of fans also called it what it looked like – a prison love story, starting with Paris’s declaration concerning Kim, “He’s mine,” which it’s hard to interpret as anything other than an erotic claim. (As Jennifer Pelland asked in her review, “Mine for what…shoe shines? Back rubs? General garden work?”) We know that Paris has been in prison before, and I’m betting that even in a nice clean futuristic one like Starfleet’s, men who identify primarily as heterosexual continue to take pleasure and comfort where they can find it. Maybe Paris is just trying to protect Kim from dangerous predators in what’s definitely not a nice clean futuristic prison – unless the Akritirians are almost entirely asexual, with food so scarce and acetylcholine levels amped up, it’s a good bet prisoners are trading physical favors for meals – and maybe the snuggling and hand-holding Kim offers the wounded Paris later is just gratitude. But everything about their pairing in this prison plays like intimacy, which is notable on a show as timid about sex as Star Trek. We’ve seen canon prison stories before – the Kirk/Spock bonding moments in “Bread and Circuses,” “The Empath,” and “Patterns of Force” gave rise to reams of the amateur stories for which slash fan fiction was named – but “The Chute” is crammed so full of hurt/comfort tropes from possessiveness to physical care that when it first aired, I wondered whether Voyager‘s writers were looking for a way around the franchise taboo on canonical same-sex relationships. We see two rumpled, sweaty guys practically sleeping in one another’s arms, something the actors don’t try to counter with resistant body language – Wang and McNeill are both far more convincing declaring their devotion than they are when they pretend to be fantasizing about the Delaney Sisters. All the drama – Janeway with her gun, Paris and Kim with their tenderness – undercuts the macho intentions of the action, leaving an episode that feels passionate and transgressive.

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