Janeway Voyager Year of Hell

Year of Hell, Remember Nothing, & The Wish: lessons on hope

Only hope that is robust enough to engage with the reality of death is worthy of the name. [1]

I’ve always loved science fiction and fantasy for its way of playing with ideas – and there are plenty that play with dystopian alternate realities from which heroes and innocents are saved.

Three such SF&F stories have stayed with me over the years: from Star Trek: Voyager, Xena: Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (And consider this your spoiler alert if you carry on reading.)

With their different qualities, each story says something about hope – a topic that I keep coming back to and whose mention was no accident in my Twitter name @hope4greyplaces. However, what is also intriguing about these stories is some of the ways in which their understanding of hope differs from the Christian understanding and the theology of Juergen Moltmann. And, I dare say, the implications are far-reaching.

Hope in acceptance: Remember Nothing

Xena is a villainess turned champion-of-the-oppressed in mythical ancient Greece. In “Remember Nothing”, she is temporarily granted a wish by the fates: she can live the life she would have had if she’d never taken up the sword, only she mustn’t shed a single drop of blood. Xena is at first delighted by being able to see her previously-deceased brother and mother again, but distraught when she sees her best friend Gabrielle living bitterly as a slave. In the end Xena gives up her wish and returns to her former life; in doing so she is more at peace with her turbulent past.

Despite the episode’s name, Xena remembers everything – and in this respect the plot arc is very much a transforming “journey and return.” Xena is enabled to accept herself and her history, but not in a resigned and passive way. Rather it is an active kind of acceptance, an active waiting for something else, that manifests. She therefore still lives transformatively in her present towards a better future – both acting in hope and being in hope.

Health is not the absence of malfunctionings. Health is the strength to live with them.
— Theologian Juergen Moltmann, God in Creation [2]

Deliverance from devastation: The Wish

Buffy, as the title of the series suggests, protects the modern town of Sunnydale by slaying vampires. In “The Wish” a vacuously petty classmate, Cordelia, is approached by a demon who (uninvitedly) grants her exasperated wish that Buffy had never come to Sunnydale. Cue a very un-sunny town where the vampires rule unchecked. Cordelia is soon killed, but not before she remarks to Giles, Buffy’s would-be mentor, that “things were better” when Buffy was there. Giles then rummages his folklore, destroys the demon’s source of power, and Sunnydale is restored. Cordelia, however, remembers nothing.

I enjoyed this episode when I first saw it, despite being very perturbed by some of its imagery (you have been warned). I loved Giles’ hunt to discover Buffy, understand the truth and unmake the horror that had been wrought on the town. The mood is like the rekindling of a forgotten legend and reaffirming it as the true reality – similar, perhaps to what you find in Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Prince Caspian. Again there are resonances with hope – though this time this focus is on the discovery of hope and wholesale restoration from the starkest devastation.

Apocalypticism preserves the Christian doctrine of hope from facile optimism.
— Moltmann, The Coming of God [3]

The raising of the crucified Christ has nothing to do with bringing the best out of a set of circumstances; it has everything to do with beholding the sheer devastation and tragedy of death and accepting that only God can create a future out of that reality. [4]

Courage against injustice: Year of Hell

Set in the Star Trek universe, Voyager is a starship stranded in a very far-away part of the galaxy; led by Captain Janeway, the crew is trying to get home to Earth. In “Year of Hell” the ship is attacked by an alien, Annorax, who has been altering timelines for over 200 years in a quest to find one in which his wife still lives. He has no qualms about wiping civilisations from history as he searches. As Annorax keeps trying different permutations of time, Voyager is severely damaged and her crew suffers, with two of Voyager’s crew captured. After a ‘year of hell,’ Janeway destroys Voyager and Annorax’s time ship together – restoring the original timeline. In this timeline, Voyager’s crew has no memory of their ordeal, Annorax’s wife lives and he decides to spend time with her instead of working on his designs for a time-ship.

I liked “Year of hell” when I saw it. I particularly liked the first officer giving Janeway a gold watch, which at first she considers an unaffordable extravagance that must be recycled into the ship’s resources. But he disobeys her and later, after he has been captured by Annorax, Janeway finds the watch and chooses to wear it as a badge of honour in defiance against her enemy.

Hope finds in Christ not only a consolation in suffering, but also the protest of the divine promise against suffering… Faith takes up this contradiction and thus becomes itself a contradiction to the world of death. That is why faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience.
— Moltmann, Theology of Hope [5]

Interestingly, my friend didn’t like “Year of Hell.” He was dissatisfied that the culmination of the journey was to wipe out the journey altogether. To begin with, I disagreed. But later when I saw “2010” in Stargate: SG-1, where the heroes similarly have no memory of their heroism, I came away with a similar sense of dissatisfaction.

What was it that doesn’t work? And why doesn’t it work?

Recognising false hope

In some ways “Year of Hell” powerfully portrays the destructiveness that happens when someone (Annorax in this case) tries to grasp hope by relentlessly focusing on a particular, absolute goal (being with his wife). As the philosopher Gabriel Marcel once put it, “to hope” is different from “to hope that…” Annorax is therefore undoubtedly poorer than Xena who grasps hope through the very act of accepting her bereavements and her mistakes. (A similar arc can be seen in the “groundhog day” episode of Stargate SG-1, “Window of Opportunity.”)

Make no mistake, wishing is recognised as an important component of hope because it engages the imagination to work creatively within reality. But according to the Jesuit author William Lynch, it can be tainted with the instinct to wish for absolutes, which:

is the father of the hopeless and adds that special feeling of weight that hopelessness attaches to everything it touches.[6]

It’s fair then to say that “Year of Hell” appropriately contrasts Annorax’s wishing for an absolute against the fighting spirit of Janeway and her crew.

But – and it’s a big but – the redemption of their pain is to erase the events altogether.

That is where I think the episode falls short.

The crew display their courage, yet they are denied the opportunity to have their character and identities formed through the events they suffer. Similarly (and possibly worse) Annorax neither grows to accept loss, nor faces the consequences for his attitude and actions. I would levy similar criticism against “The Wish,” where neither Giles grows in his courage nor Cordelia recognises her selfishness. (Though her character does develop over the course of the series.)

Moreover, both “The Wish” and “Year of Hell” seek to capture a sense of how world-encompassing devastation is and offer a vision of how that destruction is overturned. However, in both instances, the solution is not the bringing of life out of death, but the avoidance of death in the first place. In this respect, their vision of hope could not be further from the Christian hope – which holds that Jesus was crucified.

Is this just fiction and fantasy?

Now, you might ask what purpose there can be in discussing science-fiction and fantasy stories such as these. You could also say I’m over-analysing them – since both “The Wish” and “Year of Hell” depict timelines that are in some sense an unnatural diversion resulting from a person’s actions. But the truth is, our understanding of hope hugely shapes how we live our lives and how we reckon with suffering and death. And there’s a lot of suffering and death to be reckoned with. Reality is full of characters whose actions are real and cause real and far-reaching harm, whether knowingly like Annorax or unwittingly like Cordelia.

We need to ask ourselves then what our vision of hope looks like and how we can live in hope in a way that allows imagination to intersect with reality, and holds the present in tension with the future.

There is one answer I keep coming back to: resurrection.

As has been recognised by the theologian Tom Wright, the church and society has been “drifting into a muddle and a mess” about what the ultimate Christian hope actually is.[7]

There is some of this confusion in the visions offered in “The Wish” and “Year of Hell.” There, suffering is wiped way, but in the Bible the promise is that all tears will be wiped away (Revelation 21:4). This is far from an academic distinction, but a practical one that shapes how we comfort those who suffer and reckon with our own suffering. For if hope is seen essentially as an escape, then there is a sense in which life in this life loses meaning.

In the last few years, I’ve found it remarkable how many stories I’ve read of abuse survivors who say that they have been formatively shaped by their experiences. They don’t pretend that those experiences are in some way acceptable, but their claim to be “survivors” rather than “victims” reflects both a recognition of their historic pain and the fact they have found life on the other side of it.

Now it’s important to recognise that not all people who’ve experienced abuse will share that perspective. Some may still be wrestling with their pain as Xena does, others still within the (necessary and healthy) stage of denial and others simply unable to know what to make of it at all. Much care is needed to kindle hope among those who are teetering on the edge of hopelessness.

But it also seems to me that there is something of the essence of resurrection in the attitude of those who do see themselves as survivors. Moreover, this essence is lost when Christians try to whitewash hope and make it the erasing of history.

As a Christian, I believe we need to articulate a hope that says God can and will create a good future out of our devastated reality, on a scale and with a grandeur that we could never achieve for ourselves. For this is a hope powerful enough to hold our complete identity – body, soul and history. This is a hope that points to the resurrected Jesus who, in his wholeness, bore his history in his hands and side. This is a hope that mysteriously lives through suffering and death and lives out of them.

This is a hope worthy of the name.

The resurrection hope makes people ready to live their lives in love wholly, and to say a full and entire Yes to a life that leads to death…
In expectation of the resurrection of the dead, the person who hopes casts away the soul’s protective cloak in which the wounded heart has wrapped itself, so as not to let anything more come near it. We throw ourselves into this life and empty ourselves into the deadly realm of non-identity by virtue of the hope that God will find us in death, and will raise us and gather us.
— Moltmann, The Coming of God, [8]

The quotes and ideas cited in this post are taken from a book “Living Hope,” written by Methodist minister Russell Herbert, which explores a practical theology of palliative care for the dying. The book leverages much of the theology of the theologian Juergen Moltmann. The version of the book I read is an out-of-print version from Epworth press, published in 2006, though a re-edited version has been published by Kevin Mayhew.

[1] Living Hope, p59
[2] Moltmann, God in Creation: An Ecological Doctrine of Creation, ET, (trans. Margaret Kohl), London: SCM Press, 1985, pp274, 272-273. Here Moltmann borrows quotations from I. Illich and D. Rossler. This quote was cited in Living Hope on p99.
[3] Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, ET, (trans. Margaret Kohl), London: SCM Press, 1996, p234. This quote was cited in Living Hope on p105.
[4] Living Hope, p105. Here Hebert is analysing Moltmann’s The Coming of God
[5] Moltmann, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology, ET (trans. J. Leitch), London: SCM Press, 1967, p21; italics in the original. This quote was cited in Living Hope on p108.
[6] Lynch, Images of Hope: Imagination as Health of the Hopeless, New York: Mentor, p106. This quote was cited in Living Hope on p41.
[7] N.T. Wright, For all the Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed, London: SPCK, 2003, p xiv. This quote was cited in Living Hope on p48. (If you want to explore Tom Wright’s theology of hope though, I’d recommend Surprised by Hope, also published by SPCK.)
[8] Moltmann, The Coming of God, p66-67. This quote was cited in Living Hope on p122.

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