“Isn't it enough to sit and be sociable? We're good company!”
So says “Old Woman,” a projection of the Nechani Spirits that are responsible, perhaps, for loosening Captain Janeway's hardline devotion to scientific reason. She is played by Estelle Harris, who celebrates her 85th birthday this week.
Harris was already well known as “George Costanza's mother” by the time the Voyager episode “Sacred Ground” aired in 1996. She'd been in more than a few movies and television shows prior to her debut in the notorious Seinfeld episode “The Contest,” but her grating voice and embarrassing demeanor made her a star. (Her other biggest role – that of Mrs. Potato Head in Toy Story 2 came later.)
The very unusual episode was the first one directed by Robert Duncan McNeill and while it is hardly the most action-packed, it wins a lot of points for trying something new. It begins with Voyager in orbit around a friendly planet, getting ready for some R&R. (Yeah, that never goes well.) B'Elanna Torres, Harry Kim, Neelix and Kes are getting a tour of some holy religious sites when Kes “hears something” and is drawn to a sacred shrine of some sort. She is soon zapped by an energy force and nothing the Doctor does seems to help.
With Kes' lifeforce draining, the Nechani monks refuse to allow Voyager to take scientific readings of the shrine. Of course, Janeway could use force, but this is not her way. (This conundrum certainly echoes TNG's “Justice” and foreshadows Enterprise's “A Night in Sickbay.”) Thanks to Neelix's research, she learns about a legend of a King who was able to undergo a ritual to rescue the life of his son, who was in a similar predicament.
With that, Janeway presents herself to the religious order to undergo their ceremony. Since Janeway is far too diplomatic a captain (and far too good of a person) she doesn't roll her eyes too noticeably. She sees a play and goes for it, opening herself up to whatever experience her Guide might give her. And that Guide is a woman you may recognize.
No: not George Costanza's mother. This episode has all sorts of surprises. It's a different mother - Lena Dunham's mother from Girls, or, if you are more old school, the mother from Freaks and Geeks.
Becky Ann Baker gets far more screen time, though before Janeway's physical challenge she comes upon a waiting room where Estelle Harris is sitting with two old men. The implication is that they are there, simply “waiting” to get called by the Spirits, something that Janeway has no time for with Kes in her condition. Even though Harris tones down her shrill Mrs. Costanza voice, it is a scene that's certainly played for laughs – something of a comic spin on Franz Kafka's Before the Law.
(Here's as good of a time as any to point out that Harris' on-screen husband on Seinfeld, Jerry Stiller, is father to the real-life Star Trek fanatic Ben Stiller. Did you know his company is called Red Hour after the episode “Return of the Archons?” Did you catch his character watching the episode “Arena” in the movie Tropic Thunder? You have to wonder if Ben knows that his Dad's longtime pretend wife is part of the larger Star Trek Universe. If anyone is friends with him on Facebook, please ask.)
After Janeway thinks she has achieved what she needs to rescue Kes there's a bit of a switch. Kes does not get better. She returns to the planet's surface and has a second conversation with Harris and her two comrades. There are implications that they, themselves, may be the Spirits but, more importantly, the lesson is that only if Janeway has faith will Kes be healed.
Janeway, a Federation Captain is not likely to throw away her belief in science for some far-flung Delta Quadrant religion, but here's where the show gets tricky. Janeway has pure faith in science, even though science hasn't done what it is supposed to have done with Kes. She feels that she knows that enough study will explain why, but Harris and company equate this as just another kind of faith – a belief in something without seeing it.
The show ends as you might expect. Janeway takes a leap of faith, Kes is saved, then later the Doctor whips out a whole bunch of technobabble explaining it. “Very scientific,” Janeway says of his recap, but something in her voice expresses that she is changed by the ordeal. She's not exactly upset... she's just unsure.
“Sacred Ground”'s conclusion is a lot like the Robert Zemeckis film Contact that was released the following year (based on a pre-existing Carl Sagan novel.) It makes a compelling argument that full-throttled belief in science is not that dissimilar from a religious faith. It's a juicy topic, and a serious one, which is made all the more palatable and entertaining by the surprise supporting role from Estelle Harris.
Let us know in the comments if you remember seeing this episode, and if you were wondering what the heck Costanza's mother was doing in the far reaches of uncharted space?
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, ScreenCrush and Badass Digest. On his BLOG, Jordan has reviewed all 727 Trek episodes and films, most of the comics and some of the novels.
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