Oct 2, 2020
Star Trek: Voyager “11:59”
So Star Trek: Discovery finally ended its hit-or-miss first season last month, which means I’m free to return to recapping terrible episodes of Voyager. Lucky me?
My best guess is that the fifth season episode “11:59”, which originally aired May 5, 1999, is the result of Voyager‘s writers diligently compiling a list of every element that might possibly appeal to Star Trek fans, and making sure absolutely none of those elements made it into the final script. Essentially, it’s an episode of a sci-fi action drama that’s completely devoid of all three.
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The story takes place almost entirely on Earth, in the year 2000 (as a strange acknowledgment of the then-imminent Y2k eve), and features no time travel, nearly no futuristic technology or sci-fi concepts, and is almost entirely about normal people having mostly ordinary experiences. Which is not a completely terrible idea, considering Deep Space Nine’s “Far Beyond the Stars” explored similar territory and is one of the franchise’s most lauded episodes. But if you’re going to radically depart from what fans expect to see on a sci-fi show, you’d better make sure you’re giving them an episode that’s challenging or thoughtful or intriguing, or at the very least shows how our present world had an impact on Star Trek’s future. We get none of that here.
The script for “11:59” could easily be mistaken for one of those cheapo Christmastime made-for-Lifetime TV movies, with a cliché-ridden plot that’s mostly a take on a really old trope—which goes back at least to Frank Capra’s 1938 film You Can’t Take It With You, but is probably even older—where a big corporation wants to buy up an entire small town to make way for a lucrative construction project, but is stymied when one lone business owner refuses to sell out.
The only real twist here is that the big corporation is eventually seen as having a worthwhile vision and is leading the way into mankind’s glorious future in space exploration, while the lone holdout turns out to be a misguided curmudgeon who’s keeping his entire town stuck in the past. If this barest of twists on a musty old chestnut is enough to excite you, well, you might just be one of the masochistic few who enjoyed “11:59”.
We open on Neelix and Captain Janeway walking to her ready room, and Neelix is spouting random trivia about the Great Wall of China. He even knows it’s one of the only man-made objects visible from orbit, which is of course one of those science “facts” that everybody knows despite not being the least bit true. Neelix explains that he and Tom Paris have been swapping “cross-cultural trivia”, and now he knows all about Earth landmarks, while Paris is now an expert in “Talaxian geography”. Damn, things must get boring on this ship.
So Janeway quizzes Neelix about another famous Earth landmark called the “Millennium Gate”. She says it was built in the USA in “the 21st Century”, which at the time this episode aired was of course still the future! Neelix has in fact heard of the Gate, and describes it as a “self-contained ecosystem”, and Janeway adds that it was the model for a “colony on Mars”. She proudly says that one of her ancestors helped build it. Her name was Shannon O’Donnel, and she was one of the first female astronauts. According to Janeway, Shannon was also a famous entrepreneur, and the governor of Indiana personally flew her out on a private plane to break ground on the Millennium Gate.
Which leads into the flashback that will take up most of the episode, where we learn the actual reality of Shannon O’Donnel is… much different. According to a caption, it’s December 27, 2000 and the real Shannon is driving an old station wagon down an Indiana highway. And Shannon is also played by Kate Mulgrew, indulging in the equally ancient “identical ancestor” trope, because let’s face it, even the Voyager staff realized an episode without any regular cast members would have felt (even more) pointless.
As she drives, Shannon talks into a cassette recorder. You might think this means she’s a novelist or maybe a journalist, but nope. She just likes to record herself talking while driving. Clearly, this is so she can deliver lots of exposition to herself about seeing such amazing Indiana sights as the world’s largest ball of string and the world’s largest “beefsteak tomato”.
Suddenly, her car shimmies a bit and she says, “Oh no,” but it’s not clear if this is because her car’s about to break down, or because she sees a sign that the town up ahead is the future site of the Millennium Gate. And on this very non-teasing tease, we go to credits.
It’s now daylight as Shannon drives through town asking some crotchety old pedestrian where she can find a service station. They get into an argument, which causes her to rear-end another car. She has to confess to the other driver that she has no insurance, and no money to cover the damages, and the other guy just gets annoyed and drives away.
Shannon gets back in her car, and of course it won’t start. Soon she’s entering a local bookstore while she waits for the tow truck. She meets the owner, a guy named Henry, and his son Jason, who both decide she “doesn’t look like a corporate hitman” and allow her to hang out for a while.
She’s says she on her way to Florida, and notes that the whole town appears to be closed down except for this one bookstore. Henry says it’s because he’s the last holdout against the construction of the Millennium Gate. Jason says it’ll be the “world’s first self-sustaining civic environment”, but Henry thinks that’s all marketing BS and he knows it’s really going to be a “glorified shopping mall”. Henry’s got fliers printed up to protest the construction of the Millennium Gate, and he says, “This time, Rome withstands the barbarians!” As we’ll find out, he’s prone to lots of overly literary and historical allusions, because he owns a bookstore, you see.
Shannon says she can help with his protest, insisting they can do “all this on a computer”, and guess what? She just happens to have a laptop computer with her. She says, “We can email every computer within a hundred miles! It’ll just take a few hours!” And I realize this was written in 1999 when the internet was still a new thing to most people, but geez. It’s not CB radio, guys.
Eventually, Henry introduces himself as Henry Janeway. Oops, spoiler alert: there’s obviously some romance in the immediate future between Henry and Shannon. Which ends up feeling weird because of what seems like a big age gap between the two. However, I looked it up and Kevin Tighe, who plays Henry, is only 11 years older than Kate Mulgrew even though he looks like he’s got at least 25 on her. Also, a guy in his late fifties having a young teenage son is just odd enough to add an extra level of confusion to the episode.
I’m sure a big part of why they cast Tighe is because he’s a TV veteran (you might recognize him from the 1960s show Emergency!), but he’s all wrong for the part, and at no point do I ever believe there’s any real attraction between him and Mulgrew. Though, one positive about Tighe’s casting is that it gives me an excuse to mention his landmark role as the owner of the Double Deuce in the 1989 Patrick Swayze film Road House, because to paraphrase Mike Nelson, all movies and TV episodes should be assessed on how strongly they relate to Road House.
Henry says he doesn’t need any help in his Millennium Gate protest, but Shannon really, really needs a job to pay for her car repairs, so he eventually gives in. Cut to the local bar while the two are emailing every computer within a hundred miles, and Henry explains that a Texas company came in to buy out every business in town, but the deal is only good if they all sell. So obviously, the other business owners in town have all turned against him.
And this plot thread, despite being the crux of the episode, doesn’t make much sense, and here’s why: Anyone who’s only just briefly passed through Indiana can tell you the state has more than enough wide open space to accommodate the biggest combo biosphere/shopping mall the world has ever known, without anyone having to tear down a single structure. There’s no reason whatsoever that they would have to build the thing on top of an existing town.
Henry asks Shannon if she has plans for this year’s “Millennium Eve”, but she intends to be asleep, just like on the previous “Millennium’s Eve”. Apparently, in the Star Trek universe, after the year 2000 celebration didn’t live up to the hype, and the “Y2k bug didn’t turn on a single light bulb”, the “hucksters” decided to promote the 2000 new year as the “true” Millennium’s Eve. Yeah, I think Voyager missed the mark on that prediction, but let’s face it, none of the Star Trek shows have a great track record when it comes to predicting the near future. What’s that? You don’t remember the millions of people “bombed out of existence” prior to genetic supermen taking over the planet back in the ’90s?
The bar shakes, and everyone runs out to see foreboding construction equipment heading down the main thoroughfare, and they all look concerned.
Cut to an “Action News” report where a reporter on the street is speaking to Gerald Moss, identified via chyron as the “Millennium Gate Spokesman”. Moss says that lone holdout or not, they plan to go forward with building the Gate. And Moss is played by John Carroll Lynch, who at the time was Drew’s cross-dressing brother on The Drew Carey Show. And seriously, can’t you imagine an actual Lifetime movie from the ‘90s starring Kate Mulgrew, Kevin Tighe, and John Carroll Lynch? The only thing that would make this more plausible is throwing in Yasmine Bleeth and one of the kids from Home Improvement as Henry’s son.
Henry shows up and heckles Moss, so the reporter immediately runs over to interview Henry instead, because a live TV report is the perfect time to aim the camera at whatever nutcase happens to show up with an axe to grind. Henry talks about the town, which we learn is named Portage Creek, and he says he wants to protect its “heritage” and its “past”. Moss retorts that his company is trying to give the town a “future”. Moss than admits if they can’t reach an agreement, they’ll have to move the Millennium Gate project to another city. Like, say, Canton, Ohio. So that’s pretty much what’s at stake in this episode: either the Millennium Gate will be built, or… the Millennium Gate will be built. A couple hundred miles to the east.
Upon hearing about the possibility of the Gate being moved to Canton, Henry goes back to Shannon and his son and happily says all they have to do is wait out the Millennium Gate developers for a few days. But Jason is worried about still having to go to school with all the bitter neighbors’ kids. He says the developers promised to build them a better school, to which Henry responds with a hilariously sinister, “Whose side are you on?” And from the sound of his voice, I’m guessing Jason’s about get the hose again.
But Henry apologizes and we cut to that night, where he’s set up a candlelight dinner date with Shannon, and he takes them to “Paris” by propping open a book with paintings of the city. And in case you don’t get what they’re going for here, Henry says he doesn’t need to leave Portage Creek and travel to exotic locales, because his books can take him anywhere.
They’re almost on the verge of getting awkwardly flirtatious when Henry tells her, a bit belatedly, that her car’s been fixed. She plans to leave in the morning, but Henry begs her to stay for a while to show Jason “a few tricks on the computer”, and she’s starting to like Henry so she can’t help but say yes.
Thankfully, we get a breather from these sub-romcom antics as we head back to Voyager, where Janeway is looking at old photos of the Millennium Gate in Astrometrics. And as always, it’s completely ridiculous that the Voyager crew is using Astrometrics for this kind of stuff. It really has become the place people go where they want to see things up on a big screen.
Also, what’s up with the design of the Gate? I get that’s it’s supposed to be a futuristic structure, but why does a “self-sustaining ecosystem” need to look like something they might build in Dubai? Or the Stratosphere in Vegas?
Janeway wants Seven of Nine to help reconstruct the historical record of Shannon O’Donnel and her contributions to the Gate. Seven sees all this as (everybody say it with me now) “irrelevant”, since Shannon only shares “a small fraction of genetic material” with Janeway. So in this week’s installment of teaching Seven of Nine what it means to be human, Janeway explains that genealogy can have a real impact on a person, and she wouldn’t have become a Starfleet captain if not for Shannon.
Cut to the mess hall, where Seven is doing historical research as ordered, and she overhears Tom quizzing Neelix about the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. When Neelix can only think of six, Seven pipes up with the Lighthouse of Alexandria (Alexandria also coincidentally being the name of Henry Janeway’s bookstore), and how exactly does being asked to research events of the early 2000s make you an expert on the ancient world, anyway?
Neelix sees that Seven of Nine is doing research into her own family tree, and she’s learned of an ancestor named “Sven ‘Buttercup’ Hansen” who was a “22nd Century prizefighter”. Neelix cracks a joke about how the name “Sven” is just like “Seven”, and this scene just gets more painful from there. The point is, Seven can’t find any record of Shannon O’Donnel in Federation databases, so Neelix suggests searching non-Federation databases, where they find a photo of an elderly Shannon with her family. And Henry seems to be long gone by the time this picture was taken, which only reinforces the notion that he’s much older than her. And also, while I hate to say it, if this photo was taken more than 25 or 30 years after the events of the flashback, this would place it rather uncomfortably close to the established dates of World War III in the Star Trek timeline.
Neelix and Seven present the photo to Janeway, who’s still deluded about Shannon’s contributions to the Millennium Gate project. She asserts that Shannon had to overcome the opposition of an entire town to see the thing built.
This returns us to the year 2000, and another Action News report about how there’s an impending deadline for Henry to sell out. For reasons of artificial drama, he has to agree to the deal by exactly midnight on January 1, or else the project moves to Ohio. Moss, the spokesman guy, runs into Shannon in the local bar. It turns out he used to do “media relations” for NASA, and he knows Shannon once trained to be an astronaut but didn’t make the cut. He called around and found out she got laid off from her aerospace job, and now she’s just getting by and even sleeping in her car. He offers her a job as “consulting engineer”, but she quickly figures out this is a ploy to get her to change Henry’s mind. Regardless, a job is a job and she intends to think about it.
Cut to footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and Shannon waking up in bed. Was that a dream? Does she always dream in grainy stock footage?
She walks out to find Jason playing games on her laptop and tells him to try “Matrix of Doom” and gives him tips on how to beat the game. You know, it’s pretty amazing that Shannon is so down on her luck that she has to sleep in her car, and yet she can still afford a laptop computer, in the year 2000. The cheapest laptops back then were, what, $1500 at the very least?
Shannon and Jason have bonding time, and he talks about how his mom died when he was young, blah blah blah, and Shannon talks about watching the moon landing as a young girl and how much it inspired her. Then the bookstore gets a phone call, which turns out to be a wrong number. And just like all the talk of the moon landing, this call never becomes important.
Henry returns to the bookstore, and it seems there’s a live camera feed outside his store courtesy of Action News, which even has a “Countdown to Midnight” clock at the bottom of the screen.
Henry’s brought back books and a newspaper, and said newspaper even features an article about Henry being a holdout. Shannon says she’s spent some time looking into the Millennium Gate, and she now understands it’s more than just a mall. It’s actually an “experimental biosphere” and it could be a worthwhile project that might help scientists create habitable environments on other worlds.
Henry wonders what’s caused this sudden change of heart, and Shannon admits to the job offer. He gets pissed off, but she says she can’t keep living in her car. Henry says she can live with him, but she doesn’t want to get “stuck here”. Henry takes great umbrage at the suggestion that he’s “stuck here”, and tells her to pack up her stuff and leave.
Jason gets upset at his dad for making Shannon leave, so he bails on him to go to “Aunt Pat’s”. And then the Action News camera captures Henry outside the bookstore yelling at Jason to come back. So I’m guessing this is the perfect live feed for people who find C-SPAN too nerve-wracking.
We get another breather from the boring 21st Century melodrama and go back to Voyager. The whole senior staff sits around somebody’s quarters while Harry Kim relates the story of one of his ancestors who was an explorer in the early days of space travel. And you know an episode is dull when a story from Harry Kim is the most lively thing about it.
He says the year was 2210, and “Uncle Jack” was piloting a sleeper ship where everyone was in stasis except for him, and Jack was alone for months on a journey to a distant star. But when they reached their destination, Jack discovered the star was just an “EM echo of a distant galaxy”, so he immediately turned around and went back to Earth. And when they got back, the rest of the crew woke up and got confused thinking they never left orbit. End story.
Quite the story, no? It gets laughs all around, and I have to point out that the notion of sleeper ships going on months-long journeys in the year 2210 completely contradicts the movie First Contact (which came out three years before this), where warp drive was invented almost 150 years earlier. This could almost be excusable, except for how exec producer Brannon Braga co-wrote First Contact and also gets a “story by” credit here.
Soon, it’s Paris’ turn to share info about his family tree, and he says his distant relative was the first pilot to orbit Mars. Janeway thinks that Paris’ ancestor must have known Janeway’s ancestor. But the name “Shannon O’Donnel” doesn’t ring any bells with Tom. And with his encyclopedic knowledge of all Mars missions ever undertaken, he knows nobody named O’Donnel was ever involved in colonizing Mars.
And with that, Janeway’s world comes crumbling down. Later in her ready room, Chakotay pays her a visit and she jokes about having a “holographic engineer”, Neelix being a Cardassian, and a crew member named “Seven of Twelve”. The belabored point she’s making is that everything she knew about her history was wrong, and now she’s wondering how people in the future will try to piece together the lives of the crew of Voyager. Okay, that’s sort of interesting, but this show already addressed that like a year ago; it’s the whole plot of the previous season’s “Living Witness”.
Janeway’s been going through historical accounts of the 21st Century and finding them all biased. As in, the Vulcans only talk about how “illogical” humans are, and the Ferengi talk about Wall Street as if it’s “holy ground”, and the Bolians “express dismay at the low quality of human plumbing!” Yeah, that’s totally like the Bolians! …Right?
All Janeway knows is Shannon O’Donnel once trained to be an astronaut, but wasn’t part of any Mars missions. She was involved with the Millennium Gate, but only as a “consultant.” Also, it turns out there wasn’t any real opposition to the Millennium Gate, and according to a newspaper article she just found (the same article we saw back in the bookstore), whatever opposition that existed was coming from one man: Henry Janeway. So now Janeway is crushed, because an ancestor of hers didn’t lead the project, but instead stood in the way.
Back in the year 2000, we learn from another Action News report that it’s now two minutes and 39 seconds until midnight and Henry is still holding out. The reporter says she’ll have more live updates as they happen, and I’m sure the entire tristate viewing audience is glued to their TV sets here.
Shannon and Moss meet up again in the bar. Shannon says she wasn’t able to get Henry to change his mind, so she’s heading to Florida as originally planned. But Moss tells her the job offer is still on the table, and he wouldn’t have put it out there unless she was qualified. He says she can come work for the Millennium Gate project in its new location in lovely, scenic Canton, Ohio.
Jason enters and begs her to talk to his dad, but Shannon says there’s nothing she can do. So Jason has the typical “jilted by potential new mommy” dialogue, along the lines of “But I thought you liked us!” Unfortunately, Shannon has to leave anyway.
She’s soon back in her car, once again narrating her life to a cassette recorder. As she passes the “Now leaving Portage Creek” sign, we get the pivotal moment of the episode where she… brace yourselves… reaches into a bag of cookies and eats one. I’m not kidding. This really is the pivotal moment of the episode.
Cut to her returning to Portage Creek and the bookstore. There’s a big crowd outside, and Moss is giving another interview to Action News when he sees Shannon walk up. He tells the crowd to let her through, and the best part is the reporter snapping her fingers at her cameraman and spitting out, “Get this!” Yeah, you surely don’t want to miss a second of this pulse-pounding action.
Shannon heads into the bookstore, and again pleads with Henry to reconsider. He wants to know why she came back and she responds, “It was the cookies.” It’s always the cookies, isn’t it?
She explains that she has a tradition of buying chocolate chip cookies before setting out on a road trip. But this time, she didn’t enjoy the cookies at all. Henry sums up my feelings about this episode when he says, “Well, uh, what does this have to do with… anything?” She confesses that the cookies weren’t any good because he wasn’t there with her. And that’s how you know it’s true love. Don’t be fooled by the fact that they’ve only known each other for four days. Or the total lack of physical affection between them.
Henry jokes that he prefers oatmeal raisin cookies, and he would, wouldn’t he? Shannon has decided to turn down the job offer and stay with him, but she can’t work in a old, dilapidated bookstore. So he finally relents, suggesting that he can maybe “reopen [his] shop” inside the Millennium Gate. Yep. Henry will continue to sell actual, physical books, which as we all know are destined to become the hottest commodity of the early 21st Century.
It’s only one minute until midnight (I guess that counts as a title drop), and Henry comes running out to agree to the deal, and everyone cheers. Hooray for big soulless corporations bulldozing small towns! Though, according to the dialogue, this apparently means that Shannon driving away from town and coming back all happened in less than a minute.
Back on Voyager, a sullen Janeway gets called to the mess hall, where the entire senior staff has decided to celebrate “Ancestor’s Eve”, a holiday that Neelix just made up. Neelix gives Janeway the framed photo of old Shannon. Janeway is still bummed that Shannon wasn’t an important figure in space exploration, but Seven points out that Shannon inspired her and “historical details are irrelevant”. With the irony being that Shannon actually was instrumental in getting the Millennium Gate built in Portage Creek, just not in a way that would have been recorded for posterity.
The Doctor pulls out his ginormous holographic camera to take a picture of everyone, and then the camera zooms in on the portrait of Shannon so we can see the terrible old age makeup on Mulgrew. Predictably, the portrait comes alive as Old Shannon briefly interacts with, let’s say, her grandson. And from the looks of the kid, Alfred E. Newman was probably one of Janeway’s ancestors, too. The end.
There you have it: a completely inconsequential episode of Voyager that I’m pretty sure even the hardest of hardcore Trek fans skip on any binge rewatch. “11:59” has no drama, nothing at stake, and everything in the episode is a foregone conclusion from about two minutes in, so there’s no suspense and no surprises either. According to an interview with writer Joe Menosky, the idea for this episode started out as a potential guest appearance for Whoopi Goldberg playing Guinan in the year 2000, and meeting up with Janeway’s ancestor on Earth. That sounds like a lame premise, but still about a million times more interesting than “11:59”.
On the positive side, the performances were mostly good, and it was interesting to see Mulgrew in a more vulnerable role, not whipping around her command bun and doing all the usual hardass captain posturing. And I suppose one could praise the writers for taking a risk on a story with no sci-fi elements. But then again, the previous week’s episode was a bit risky as well, as the entire story focused on the Doctor teaching Seven of Nine about dating, with a couple of musical numbers [!] thrown in for good measure, which didn’t exactly make for riveting TV either. Taking risks is to be respected, but at some point, the Voyager staff should have realized that their risks really weren’t paying off.
Next up: How long is it until Discovery comes back, again?