Nutshell: Not riveting execution, but some good feelings and intentions.
"11:59" is a sincerely written reflection upon histories and feelings. It's without a doubt the quietest episode of the season, with no aliens, no action, no gimmicks, and no cheats. The most common complaint I've heard about this episode is that it's "filler." I don't quite understand such an assessment. Just how do you define filler? A story that doesn't advance us to ... what? A story that doesn't have ... what? Explosions? Aliens? An expensive-looking budget? A plot that gets us 10 years closer to the Alpha Quadrant?
"11:59" is different in that it doesn't follow the conventional Voyager pattern. There are no threats to the crew, no sci-fi anomalies. Just some ideas about the past, as Janeway thinks back to memories of her childhood, where she held an ancestor in high regard as her hero and inspiration.
She tells the tale of Shannon O'Donnel, a quiet, lonesome, and uncertain adventurer who sought a role in life that would offer an avenue toward the future.
The story is told in a sort of 400-year flashback, as we follow O'Donnel (played by Mulgrew) through the events of the days prior to New Year's 2001. O'Donnel, in her failing decades-old car, happens upon the small town of Portage Creek, Indiana. There she meets widower Henry Janeway (Kevin Tighe) and his son, Jason (Bradley Pierce). The town is caught up in a controversy involving something called the "Millenium Gate," an ultra-expensive, highly experimental futuristic community that a large corporation hopes to build in the area. The town wants the gate. But standing in the way is Henry Janeway, a man who values books and history and doesn't want to see the town leveled for some newfangled idea of the "future." He's adamantly refusing to sell his bookstore, and if he doesn't do so by midnight on New Year's Eve, the corporation will take their grandiose building plans elsewhere.
O'Donnel's car breaks down, and in order to pay the repair bill, she needs work. Janeway agrees to offer her board for a few days in exchange for work in the bookstore. The rest of the tale shows how O'Donnel's and Janeway's views of the world collide, albeit not in remotely unpleasant ways. Janeway lives in the past, O'Donnel looks toward the future, and a dialog opens between them that offers the viewer two reasonable viewpoints.
It might not be the most original story ever told, but it does make for an hour of friendly themes that are relevant to Kathryn Janeway as a character. One of the interesting aspects of the show is the way the captain holds this ancestor in hero status based on the obstacles she supposedly faced. But through the course of the hour Janeway comes to realize that her learned version of history might not have been the actual truth. Paris is also familiar with history, and he doesn't remember any O'Donnels being on any of the Mars missions, the history of which he has memorized. This leads Janeway to do some deeper research, until she realizes that O'Donnel was a relatively minor player in the Millenium Gate construction, and not quite the audacious adventurer Janeway long believed she was. (It's a revisit to the theme of historical accuracy that was the focus of last season's "Living Witness.")
The flashback story seems to capture some bits of atmosphere of a small Midwest town fairly well, and I appreciated the simple problems of the story and David Bell's appropriate musical accompaniment. We learn O'Donnel has had some tough career luck of late, and one of the corporate officials, Gerald Moss (John Carroll Lynch), offers her an opportunity to work on the groundbreaking engineering project—if she can convince Janeway to let go of the past. (But I must say that given the job market today, I find the idea of a brilliant, apparently respected engineer unable to find work to be slightly dubious.)
"11:59" invests a lot of time in the flashback characters. And perhaps the biggest problem with the episode is that it relies too heavily on the acting chemistry between Mulgrew and Tighe—a chemistry that comes off with mixed results.
There are some good scenes between these two, particularly where they argue their differences concerning the role of people and technology. Henry's son is an example of a youth who is more interested in the future than the past, which makes it pretty hard for Henry to remain so adamant. But despite the decent execution of several quiet dialog scenes, I don't think one key scene that really needed to work well ended up having the emotional payoff if seemed to want.
I'm referring to Henry Janeway's inevitable eleventh-hour change of heart, and especially O'Donnel's realization—through the taste of chocolate-chip cookies, no less—that she has developed such strong feelings for Henry and this town that she has to stay. The sequence is somewhat lackluster sentiment, and I wish it had been more believable. O'Donnel's realization doesn't seem heartfelt; it seems scripted. An earlier scene should've better established her feelings.
Fortunately, I think the impact of this tale on Kathryn Janeway—especially learning that history is not always what it seems—works far better. It's always something of a wake-up call to learn that your childhood hero was just a person with their own agendas and needs, and Janeway finds herself somewhat depressed by that all-too-simple realization.
The episode also knows that "family" is where its heart is at. Sentiment in the flashback sequences may have fallen somewhat flat, but I can't help but admit an affection for the group photo at the end—an image that speaks louder about the Voyager family unit than dialog probably could've.
"11:59" is a pleasant episode. It might not break much new ground and might lack emotional punch in a few important places, but it accomplishes its goal of telling a quiet tale about some people—with no strings attached. I'm inclined to think those who call it "filler" are mislabeling it. Perhaps it's simply an hour of peace, and a plot without the gimmicks we've come to expect.
Next week: Seven takes a trip through the fourth dimension.