Rethinking the Reset Button

By Caillan Davenport
Posted at March 15, 2001 - 12:41 PM GMT

As I indulged in the rather sedentary pastime of channel surfing the other night, I happened upon an episode of the Australian police drama, “Blue Heelers.” Now, I’m certainly not a fan of cop shows in any of their infinite variations, but as I was desperately trying to avoid the ancient Greek translation exercises sitting on my desk, I’d take anything that was offered. The series, apparently Australia’s “top drama” according to the Channel Seven voice-over, revolves around a group of policemen and women in a country town. In the episode I saw, a young policemen from the city comes to the rural town, and proceeds to shake up the locals with his rather efficient policing methods, almost like an Aussie Seven of Nine, minus the catsuit. He doesn’t realise that sometimes it’s better to cultivate a relationship with ‘the people’ rather than beat them around the head with the rule book, which only ends up alienating the locals. Anyway, the matter comes to a head when some of the residents suspend him over the side of the local pub, and the young up-and-comer is banished to a desk job, never to be seen again. End of story.

Although I wouldn’t call it the most outstanding hour of television I’ve seen, it was quite entertaining, especially since I usually shy away from home grown Aussie series. My point here is that if this had been a Voyager episode, it would have been accused of using the Reset Button, inter-galactic scourge of good television. What is the Reset Button exactly? And what is a genuine Reset Button episode?

Well, I suppose the definition of the Reset Button is an episode in which the events never happened, full stop. “Year of Hell” is Voyager’s most genuine Reset Button episode, in which Janeway rams Voyager into Annorax’s time ship, and all of history is restored. The crew know nothing of what happened to them and they go on their merry way. On the other hand, there’s “Timeless,” where some of the events didn’t really happen, but they were remembered in future Harry’s message to his younger self. A comparison like this shows us that there is a marked difference between a self-contained episode and a Reset Button show.

Yet, Voyager is often accused of ‘always’ pressing the Reset Button, a response typical of a lot of the hyperbole flung at the series. If there’s anything I loathe, it’s the Unsubstantiated Generalisation. (This one ranks right up there with “Voyager has no continuity” and “All men hate Janeway.”) A true Reset Button would wipe the slate clean completely, with the characters having no memory of what happened, as in “Year of Hell.” However, does an episode like “Riddles” use the Reset Button? No, because the characters retain memories from their experiences.

Often-cited evidence for the Reset Button is that the characters never mention what happens to them in a certain episode again. For example, B’Elanna has never brought up her experiences in “Remember”. Does that somehow invalidate the quality of the episode? Recently, in “Human Error,” Seven said that her experiments on the holodeck were prompted by her experiences in the episode “Unimatrix Zero.” Does that suddenly make “Unimatrix Zero” a better episode? Of course not, and “Human Error” would have worked fine without out it. Just as there are good and bad episodes, there is good and bad continuity.

Season Seven could be characterised as the “season of dropped references.” Although I am immensely grateful for this because it gives me more anti-‘Voyager has no continuity’ ammunition, it hasn’t actually raised the quality of the episodes. If anything, they’ve decreased in quality. A perfect example of how to do continuity within stand-alone episodes can be found in “Imperfection,” the most powerful episode this season. The scene features Seven and B’Elanna in Engineering, as they discuss their feelings on the afterlife. It’s certainly only fitting that B’Elanna gives Seven advice on how to cope with mortality, especially given her experiences in “Barge of the Dead.” When B’Elanna expresses her hope for an afterlife, you just know that she is connecting to her prior experiences; after all that she went through during her near-death experience, it had better be true. Her soul needs something to believe in. That’s how continuity should be: understated and effective.

Now, even without that little comment in “Imperfection,” “Barge of the Dead” would still have been an excellent episode. The key to television is to tell a good story, and that is of paramount importance: it should be involving, interesting, and take the characters on an emotional journey. Then, at the end of the episode, the fact that the crew move on to their “next adventure” does not negate the quality of the story that has just been told. That’s how the original “Star Trek” and “The Next Generation” worked. That isn’t to say that they didn’t revisit prior experiences or plot threads from time to time: but the majority of the episodes were standalone. Yet they weren’t accused of “always pressing the Reset Button.”

Granted, times have changed. Story arcs are very en vogue. Two-thirds into its run “Deep Space Nine,” became highly serialised, and it worked extremely well. But a television series does not need to have that level of serialisation to be successful. If “Voyager” truly is “TNG in the Delta Quadrant,” to quote former Trek writer Ron Moore, then do those who say that “Voyager” always hits the Reset Button think the same for “The Next Generation” ?

The story should always be the key: everything else falls apart if that’s not in place. Soap Operas utilise continuing plot lines, yet they’re not exactly the paradigm by which we should judge television excellence. Reaffirmation of the status quo doesn’t “wipe the slate clean,” (ie: reset), it means that at the end of the episode, that story is over for the week. But that does not preclude returning to that plotline in the future. For example, the fourth season finale, “Hope and Fear,” is a fantastic bookend on the themes of the season, as Janeway’s decision in “Scorpion” comes back to haunt her. Similarly, in “Flesh and Blood,” the very real consequences of Voyager’s activities in the Delta Quadrant are explored. These are uniquely Voyager stories that work within the confines of stand-alone episodes, and yet transcend the Reset Button. Every story has to end somewhere, but that doesn’t mean that the events lose their power.

Somehow, “Reset Button” has become a catch-all term for self-contained episodes, and really, that’s an inaccurate assessment. Maybe it’s just a phase; I really don't know. But, as a casual viewer who happened upon “Blue Heelers,” I enjoyed the story the episode offered without it using an elaborate plotline to pull me in. Simple 'people' stories are just as good as any epic saga. Now, if after reading this, anyone feels like suspending me from a tall height, I’ll just press that Reset Button.

As I indulged in the rather sedentary pastime of channel surfing the other night...

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Caillan Davenport is moderator of the Trek BBS Science Fiction and Fantasy forum and is editor of the J-Team newsletter. His 'A Briefing With Caillan' column is published regularly here at the Trek Nation.