The Value of Tradition

A Review of the Star Trek: Voyager Episode 11:59

Is tradition valuable? Science fiction has generally strayed away from addressing this particular theme. Many within the genre adopt the stance that a "proper" attitude of progressive, science-based, future-oriented rationality has no need of tradition. One could cite numerous examples of this attitude in Star Trek episodes across all series. To contrast, 11:59 stands out as a unique episode, which no only addresses theme head on, but also displays a surprisingly nuanced approach to it.

The episode tells two interwoven stories. The first is set aboard Voyager and primarily concerns the captain's discovery than an ancestor of hers, Shannon O'Donnell, whom the captain believes was primarily responsible for the creation a structure called the Millennium Gate on Earth in the twenty-first century, was in fact, not involved with the project at all. Although, as we learn from the second story, her discovery is, in fact, mistaken. That second story shows us Shannon O'Donnell's actual involvement with the Millennium Gate project in twenty-first century Indiana, with Kate Mulgrew, the actress who plays Captain Janeway, also playing O'Donnell.

O'Donnell arrives in Portage Creek, Indiana in a beat up car that promptly breaks down as she's driving through the city. While her car is being repaired, she takes refuge in the only remaining small business open in downtown, Alexandria Bookstore. It is run by a man named Henry Janeway and his son Jason. Within a few scenes the primary character dynamics are established. Shannon is an engineer, progressive in her outlook, optimistic, someone who takes initiative, gets things done, and goes where she needs to in order to do so. Henry, on the other hand, has retreated into his store, where he avoids most human interaction and reads old books, primarily those works that come to us from Ancient Greece and Rome.

As we would expect, since we know that Shannon is the captain's ancestor, Shannon and Henry begin to get to know one another and move through all the typical stages of the courting process. As with all good romances, however, there is an obstacle to overcome. In this case, it is the Millennium Gate project. All the downtown businesses need to sell up in order for the project to go forward, and Henry's bookstore is the last holdout. "This time Rome repels the barbarians!" Henry triumphantly declares.

We learn early on that Shannon is both currently unemployed and low on cash. To her shock, she is approached by a businessman in Portage Creek who offers her a position on the Millennium Gate project. In return, he wants her to convince Henry to let go of his store. What unfolds from this turn of events is relationship tension that is at the same time a broader societal tension: do we preserve our traditions, or do we free up economic and social resources to fuel progress? The story succeeds in identifying that the tension can never be fully resolved and is at best a balance of both impulses. In the end neither Henry nor Shannon fully get what they originally wanted, but through compromise they are both able to get elements of what they wanted, and even more that they didn't expect.

I could write at length about the various levels at which the episode operates, but the primary one worth mentioning is the depiction of how history tends to slip through our fingers despite all our efforts to catalog and archive events. We can see this in the name of Henry's store, Alexandria Books, which recalls the ancient Library at Alexandria. We see it also in Captain Janeway's attempt to piece together Shannon's history from Voyager's archive. All she can find are references to the Millennium Gate project and the fact that Shannon worked on it, nothing more. Despite her family's assertion that Shannon pushed the project through despite hordes of resistant Portage Creek citizens, newspaper clippings instead depict the city's populace welcoming the project with open arms. Human history is messy, and, at a certain temporal distance, even alien.

My main negative critique with the story is one which I don't fault the writers for, since the script was presumably written somewhere around 1999, the year that the episode first aired. The Millennium Gate project is described as being both a commercial and scientific enterprise, the commercial portion being the element Henry latches onto and decrying as vulgar, while the scientific component clearly intrigues Shannon. The episode seems to be presenting the project as a kind of successful balancing of commercial and scientific interests. I do not fault an optimist of 1999 for this stance. However, if a similar story were presenting itself in 2019 as such, I would be much more critical. We have well passed the point where one should be reasonably imagining that the corporate world is capable of a harmonious balance with any other social concern, whether cultural or scientific. Today, such a sentiment can only be enormously naive. If anything 11:59 is interesting in that it takes us back to the world of the nineties, when it could still be imagined that corporate power could be reigned in, or at the very least tempered into cognizance of considerations other than profit margin.

In addition to being thematically well constructed, 11:59 is also one of the best written Voyager scripts, completely devoid of the bathos, spectacle, and awkward telegraphing that are common throughout most of the series. My opinion of this episode has steadily improved each time I have watched it. Like one of those good, very old books that Henry is fond of, this episode tends to grow better with age.

Categories: Television Narrative Analysis

Tags: Star Trek: Voyager