This episode is brought to you by America’s turn-of-the-millennium malaise.
It’s hard to think of another Star Trek episode which has aged so badly while being so inoffensive.
“11:59” takes us back to a well Voyager has visited often: did you know that history is biased, historical records are rarely complete, and our understanding of the past is nearly always driven by some sort of agenda?
This version of that story is refreshingly low in its stakes: Janeway learns that the ancestor who inspired her was not a heroic astronaut and explorer, but a nice lady who was down on her luck and living out of her car in the final days of the 20th century. This is a celebration of small people, and small towns, and small yet remarkable lives. It’s deeply sincere. Even the corporate boss is quietly decent.
Unfortunately, that America no longer exists, and maybe it never did.
So let’s get the weird stuff out of the way first
In 1999, Voyager gave us this, an episode about a former astronaut candidate who is living out of her car, driving across the midwest to get to Florida.
In 2007, a former astronaut packed up a frankly alarming bag of weapons, allegedly donned adult diapers1 and drove from Texas to Florida with a plan to assault her former lover’s new partner.
There is no connection between the two, and one should not remind me of the other, and yet, here we are. I thought it was just my brain making weird and silly links, but then Ben and Adam mentioned the 2007 incident in their recap of “11:59”, and I went, “Oh no, it really is a thing.”
But the small town is a bigger problem
Just as “astronaut” is no longer a signifier for “hero”, “small town America” is no longer shorthand for anything wholesome, welcoming or decent.
I like America, and I have visited small towns in the midwest and liked them very much, but when I think “small town in the midwestern United States”, I think opioid epidemic, I think rust belt. I think that Flint, Michigan, is majority Black and still doesn’t have safe drinking water. I think Donald Trump and MAGA and the 6 Jan insurrection.
(I have a similar problem with the “small town model” colony world in the season 2 finale of Strange New Worlds, only it’s even worse there, because, like, that was made in 2022? They should know? What they are suggesting? The New New York Times sends reporters to a diner on Parnassus III to see what voters really think about Gul Dukat. Is it just because I’m not American, and I am in fact a coastal elite city-dwelling Australian with access to public healthcare? It wouldn’t be the first time my context has been wrong for Understanding Star Trek.)
“11:59” knows that small town America has a problem. Portage Creek is desperate for the Millennium Gate, not just as a brand new shopping mall, or a place of scientific research, but for the infrastructure and work it will bring. And maybe if benevolent corporations had really invested in such projects across the United States, I wouldn’t be sitting here thinking, “Okay, but this majority-white Indiana town went full MAGA in 2016.”
I shouldn’t fault the Voyager writers for not having crystal balls. It was 1999, The End of History. They weren’t to know that by December 2001, America would be gearing up for a fresh Forever War and the idea of an unemployed aerospace engineer would seem absurd. They understood that the American dream was teetering on a precipice; they just wrote a story about how it could be preserved.
I am absolutely committing the sin of presentism, but at the same time, this project is about revisiting Voyager through modern eyes. In 1999, this was a very nice episode about two people finding love at the turn of the millennium. In 2023, it’s both naive and unbearably bleak. One day, I hope, it will resonate again.
(Did “11:59” ever resonate with anyone? I do not remember it being popular or widely acclaimed except as a vehicle for Kate Mulgrew. Who delivers a great performance, but that’s just Tuesday.)
Then there’s the Henry Janeway problem
This is the small town problem, but individualised: a man who is obsessed with Classical history, who talks about being born in the wrong era, who has proudly never left his home state, is no longer a charming eccentric but a walking red flag.
And just as I see Portage Creek awash in a sea of MAGA hats, I have trouble envisioning a future where Henry Janeway and Shannon O’Donnell are really happy. In a few years, his bookstore will be wiped out by Barnes & Noble and Borders, and then they in turn will be wiped out by Amazon, and he’ll start out watching the History Channel, end up watching Fox, and then the only question is whether he’ll die of covid before he has a chance to march on the Capitol.2
That’s the worst case scenario, and probably an absurd prediction for a guy who doesn’t seem to own a television in 1999. But I can’t shake the idea that Shannon is merely settling for someone who offers security and a modicum of respect. Which are not bad foundations for a relationship! But he treats her ambitions and life’s work with such contempt that I have trouble seeing long-term happiness on the cards beyond Shannon’s obvious love for her stepson and eventual children.
None of this is to say that “11:59” is a bad episode!
If you love stories with low stakes, where the regular characters are just hanging out being friends, this is probably the episode for you. I really enjoy those scenes of friendship and camaraderie, and Seven learning about Sven “Buttercup” Hansen, and Neelix and Tom playing trivia games.
- Shannon O’Donnell’s wood-panelled station wagon is a whole aesthetic MOOD. Bring those back, car gods!
- This episode has a bunch of Hey It’s That Guys among the guest cast, but special shout out goes to Bradley Pierce, who played one of the kids in the original Jumanji and voiced Chip in Beauty and the Beast. It’s his work as Jason Janeway that makes Kevin Tighe’s Henry likeable.
- There is absolutely no possibility that Janeway’s Aunt Martha has already gone digging through spaceancestry.com, realised that the family legends of Shannon O’Donnell, Heroic Astronaut, were inaccurate, and quietly buried the knowledge.
This is not a bad episode, but it’s one of those cases where knowing what the real world looks like makes it hard to enjoy. By all means give it a look, especially if you’re a Kate Mulgrew aficionado (and who isn’t?), but if you look up “filler” in the dictionary, you might find “11:59”. Three cold beers out of five.