Kes warned us about this, didn't she? And yet, here we are anyway, in The Year of Hell.
Voyager boots up its brand new astrometrics lab and they head into Krenim space. They're immediately hailed by a squirrely dude who really just wishes they would leave but can't actually make them. Then something changes. (Hint: It's history) Now the man who hails them is in control--in fact, he overpowers and attacks him. This is just the start of the Year of Hell. Voyager encounters all kinds of trouble. They lose most of their crew. They're forced to separate. Tuvok is blinded and Seven becomes his caretaker. Paris and Chakotay leave to look for help. Janeway is severely burned and permanently scarred. It's heartbreaking and, at the end, it's all gone. History resets and Voyager comes upon the same Krenim man who now cordially tells them to go about their business. And they do. And we're the only witnesses to their trials and tragedies.
This one has plenty of great stuff. Tuvok and Seven's relationship is a finely distilled, intense exploration of a friendship that seems (in all ways) logical. Janeway is a badass from start to finish but especially when she holds a piece of her own broken ship as a shield, tells The Doctor to expect severe burns, and rushes into the flaming bridge to fix the deflector. Chakotay and Tom's time spent with their attackers is interesting and believable and Annorax is a sympathetic baddie rendered with heart by Kurtwood Smith (of That 70's Show/President of the Federation fame). Year of Hell also isn't without humor--the "elixir of endurance" scene adds a bittersweet tinge to the whole thing.
Watching this one again made me think a lot about the inherent power alternate timelines seem to carry. I've written about them here a few times and they always stand out. The City on the Edge of Forever, The Inner Light, The Visitor, The Year of Hell, and Twilight. You (or I) could make a case for any of these being the most resonant of their respective series. Why is that?
As I mentioned above, at the end of this one, everything is reset. There aren't any real, permanent, physical ramifications. The toll is personal though. What's lost is felt. Sometimes by an individual (the captains in City on the Edge of Forever and Inner Light) and sometimes by us. We're left to remember what these characters have been through, the lessons they've learned, what they did or would do for each other. Seeing the fire-forged friendship between Tuvok and Seven flourish is thrilling and watching it disappear into the void of alternate history is heartbreaking.
We cry because Jake needs his dad, because Janeway needs her crew, because Archer needs T'Pol and T'Pol needs Archer. We cry because we've seen what could've been.
We cry over the same thought exercise expressed by the (in)famous Robert Frost poem, "The Road Not Taken." It's a uniquely human question. You only get one turn, one chance, one road. You're left with the aftermath of that decision and whether you're happy or sad you still sometimes wonder, What might have been?
Thanks to the wild, wonderful ways of Science Fiction, we (unlike Frost) get to see the other road and, if (alternate) history has taught us anything it's that the other road will just about always make us cry.