The Final Season Looms,
In the background, raucous children's laughter momentarily drowns out Robert Duncan McNeill's voice on the phone. Ah, the sounds of a vacation well earned. It's just days after Star Trek: Voyager completed filming on its sixth season cliffhanger, and McNeill is taking a moment from some quality family time to reflect on the past year.
Foremost in his mind is Unimatrix Zero, the final episode of the season, in which Tom Paris, McNeill's alter ego, is finally restored to the rank of Lieutenant after having been demoted by Captain Janeway as a disciplinary action way back early in the fifth season.
"I think it was about time, quite honestly. It's certainly nice to have that lieutenant precursor back there. I thought it should have been lieutenant commander, myself," deadpans the actor. "I don't think it affected my character, really, much at all. I think it just affected how audiences perceived him, just in hearing 'Ensign Paris.' Maybe it's my own issue, but I always felt that just the sound of that sounded a little naive in a way the character wasn't.
"With Harry Kim, he's still an ensign after six years, and even though he should have gotten one or two promotions at this point, it kind of fits his character. He plays more the naive character -- I'm sure Garrett would probably disagree and say no, he's grown, he matured and everything, but it still fits the essence of his character, to be the newer one. Tom Paris was never that."
Being without his true rank was a source of personal frustration for McNeill. Indeed, even devoted viewers might be hard pressed to recall exactly how Paris lost his title to begin with. "We did it in one episode, and [at the time] I said, 'when I come back, let's just forget it ever happened. Because no one's going to remember in the scheme of things. All they're going to remember is that he was an ensign for a year," observes McNeill, who himself is fuzzy on exactly what happened all those episodes ago.
However, unlike the events of Thirty Days, Paris' return to full status was just one element of the finale episode. "It wasn't really about anything that I did in this particular episode," notes McNeill. "It's just cumulative, I think, over the last year and a half since I lost my rank. I think [the producers] just felt it was about time. We'd certainly have these discussions at work. I'd talked to Brannon and the producers about the rank thing. And the fans mention it every time I go to a convention and every time I make an appearance anywhere -- that's the one question I always hear. So the way we dealt with itwas that it was just one of the opening scenes for the episode. We kind of started the episode off in a big celebration; of course, we get diverted to a crisis."
While it's obviously a source of angst that B'Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson) -- who also happens to be Paris' significant other -- was among the trio turned into a Borg, Paris' concern was not at the fore of the episode. "He was very upset about it. But as we've learned with this relationship in most of the episodes, sometimes it could be a whole episode just dealing with this relationship and their feelings when one gets in danger. They tend to try not to get too distracted from the plot by Tom and B'Elanna's feelings for each other and love for each other."
If there's anything that McNeill wants to see evolve in the final season, it's the relationship between Paris and B'Elanna, the ship's oft-feisty half-Klingon engineer. At first, McNeill had been excited about the pairing: "Here were two very strong-willed characters, two very opinionated characters who would have that -- I hate to use this cliche -- Moonlighting kind of romantic conflict, where they're constantly one-upping each other with a sense of humor and a sense of competition about it. But that never really developed."
Instead, the relationship has stagnated in the background in recent seasons. "We tried to put it in, but it really comes down to dialogue writing, and having the dialogue actually calling for that kind of stuff," admits McNeill. "One way or another, I'd like to see some change happen there, because the whole relationship has just been hanging around the last year or two, contributing very rarely to the show. I think [Tom and B'Elanna's scenes] tend to be either very dramatic, heartfelt kind of scenes we play out, or these highly conflicted scenes where we're fighting or arguing." He pauses thoughtfully, "It might even be better for us to go our separate ways and be available for other stories in other episodes, with romance with guest stars and other romantic adventures as we travel through the Delta Quadrant."
While other cast members -- and audiences too -- clamor for Voyager to return home before the end of the coming season, McNeill is in no hurry. "I don't particularly want to go back home, although I know a lot of people [do]," he confesses. And for Paris in particular, they say, 'oh, there are so many issues with his father,' and they'd love to see that actually played out and resolved. I have mixed feelings about that. Maybe as an actor some of that would be fun, but I don't think the character really wants to go home; I think he really enjoys being out here [in the Delta Quadrant]. I mean, that might be a real interesting side of his character to deal with this next year."
As McNeill notes, Paris' life pre-Voyager was no picnic. A rebellious soul, he'd already been in trouble -- marching to his own drummer and not caring much for authority, especially authority of the Starfleet variety. In some ways, it wasn't a surprise that this character should have eventually done something on Voyager that Captain Janeway felt was worthy of punishment. Getting his rank back at the end of Season Six heralds a sort of coming full circle for Paris, now.
"Playing the tough guy, the loner, got kind of boring -- and unattractive after a while," McNeill offers. That's why, he adds, "I think the humor was really important to develop the character. Paris' sort of way of speaking up is being sarcastic, ironic, Everyman's point-of-view. I think we've learned that a unique quality he brings to the show. But I also think that when we see the rebellious side these days, it's going to be for a cause. He's going to have a real issue, and a real, valid point to make. And he may break the rules and ignore protocol, but it'll be for a cause these days, as opposed to [how it was in] his past. His backstory has been that was generally selfish and sort of a lone wolf, and I think that's definitely now, going into our final season, something that's changed. Although, I don't want him to get to be too much of a goody-goody. We have to keep check on that," McNeill laughs.
While McNeill has kept tabs on his character, he has welcomed the sixth season's numerous opportunities to play Paris with a light and humored touch.
"I enjoy doing light comedy. I haven't, in the past, done a lot of sitcom work, but I enjoy comedy -- especially character kind of comedy, lighthearted scenes. All of the Ireland stuff was a lot of fun. And I really had a thrill last year when I got to direct Someone to Watch Over Me, because it was a real romantic comedy, which is a style I really enjoy. We did a lot of [humor] this year. And I think that's what the audiences look for after they get to know the characters as well as they have over the last six years. And I think that's what the audiences look for after they get to know all of these characters as well as they have over the last six years. They want to see the characters having fun with each other. And they enjoy watching the show and want to see the characters having a good time as well, and not always in a heavy duty crisis. So I think it was a good thing for the fans, as well."
The continuing holodeck adventures of Tom Paris provided a key source of humor for Paris this past year, what with the two episodes set in the quintessential Irish town of Fair Haven. Paris' Holodeck stories began as an innocent enough diversion, but over the years, it's evolved into quite a signature point on the series. "They just [decided] to use the Holodeck to explore his 20th Century buff thing," he explains of the origins of Paris' Holodeck pursuits. "It seems that back early in the first season or second season, I was doing Sandrine's Bar, and it seemed to me like I was constantly doing these Holodeck scenarios. He must have too much time on his hands. I don't know. I'm glad that it happened that way, but I'm not sure they consciously thought it out. Paris has always been one of the characters who has enjoyed life. Tuvok is a little too straight and logical, and B'Elanna's a little too serious to be the one playing in the Holodeck, Chakotay's got his command, as does Janeway, Seven's not going to do it -- who's left? Me, Neelix, and Harry. So I really enjoy the fact that they've let Paris be the one that's created so many of these, because I get to be involved in those stories."
The season took off with a rush, but then faded a bit in McNeill's memory. "It seemed like at the beginning of the season, I didn't have a lot of stories that were all about Paris, but I seemed to be working everyday, and was deeply involved in most every episode, the first six or eight of them," the actor remarks. "Then it really slacked off for a while. I think my memory of this season is kind of strange in a way. It seemed to me that every season before,we had had some major goal or some new infusion of something -- whether it was Jeri Ryan coming in a couple of years ago, Brannon Braga taking over the next year, Michael Piller leaving early second season -- there always seemed to be something that brought everyone's focus to the same place each season. This year, there wasn't anything like that. And for better or for worse, it was a very easygoing season, if that makes any sense."
His personal favorite episode to work on was Alice in which Paris takes a shine to an abandoned and possessed alien shuttlecraft Voyager acquires from a junkyard dealer. "I really enjoyed 'Alice,' mostly because in the past they've given me episodes that are real externally driven as are most of our shows. As sci-fi shows,they need a very strong plot that's complex and that the characters have to struggle with the logic and the challenges that this plot gives them. But Alice to me, was not plot-driven -- it was a real mind show," observes McNeill. "It was all about what was going on in Tom's mind. Because ultimately, that was the plot, that was the story -- it was all in his head. So it was a real pleasure for me to do something like that, where I got to do some very emotionally full scenes. And you can't always tell when you're doing an episode whether the whole show is going to be good or not, that's sort of out of your control. That has more to do with the writing and the story and all sorts of other things. But that one was one of my favorites for the whole series, because it just gave me so many multiple chances to play some really great scenes."
The emotionally-charged Memorial in which Paris and other crew members experience memories of being at war on an alien planet struck a chord with McNeill, who likes the fact that a Voyager episode actually dealt with the consequences of violence. "It takes a heavy emotional toll, and I thought it was a real good episode that way. We tend to shoot these phasers all the time, where every series regular on our show pulls his or her phaser out when we go on some away mission, and we just shoot 'em up, we just blast away and leave bodies behind us. I know it's all pretend, it's laser guns and it's all make-believe, but if we want this to really have integrity, we should deal with what that feels like to kill people, to kill aliens or whatever. I always felt that we were a little cavalier about it."
McNeill's post-Voyager plans are sketchy now -- after all, he has a year before he has to think about it but he does have some directions in mind. "I would love to direct and produce more. It's been a bit frustrating the last year or so, because I've had multiple opportunities to do some things outside of Star Trek, and I haven't been available. And also, as an actor, I'd love to go and do something really different than a TV show for a while. I'd love to do a play. I'd love to go back to New York, just because there's a certain intensity that you find in the theater back there,not that it's better or worse, but there's a different intensity doing theater in New York than in other places."
His most immediate plan is to enjoy this hiatus with his family, which includes his wife and three children, ages 2,6, and 10. "Because our hiatus happens in the springtime, my kids are still in school, so we never seem to have the same vacation except for Christmas. We do get two weeks at Christmas, which for the past six years has been our only guaranteed family time otherwise, the kids are in school, and we can't really travel much during hiatus because of school," explains McNeill. "So I don't really have any vacation plans. I have a couple of Star Trek related trips to Australia and New York, Detroit. Conventions and some appearance things for the network.
"And my latest thing, of course, is getting a new motorcycle, so that's big news for me. I'll be spending a lot of time riding my new motorcycle,if all works out. I love my old motorcycle, I thought I'd have it my whole life, it's a Harley Davidson Road King, it's a classic, and it's wonderful," he enthuses. "But I've just gotten bitten by the bug to get the newer stuff. I'm mostly a weekend motorcyclist -- I don't commute on my motorcycle -- but I love to go on road trips up in the canyons and ride."
In spite of his appearance of taking it easy, McNeill has a busy slate for his hiatus. He also plans to promote The Battery, a prize winning short film he made two years ago that's still slated on the film festival circuit.
"My film had won best short film in the New York Independent Film Festival, and because it won that award, it's been invited into this festival in Santa Monica in April. So I'll be involved in that, screening my film and hopefully doing some publicity with that," he says. "And also finishing up another film I did this past fall, which I also wrote and directed and produced. I'm trying to finish that one up and get that one into the festivals shortly. The name of it is Nine MM of Love, and it's kind of an action-comedy spoof of a classic Scorcese hit man movie. It's a lot of fun, it's an action comedy, it's got some surprises in it, it's got some really cool '70ís Isaac Hayes-kind of music in it, it's a lot of fun. So both of my short films are keeping me busy with different appearances for that."
Still, R&R is high on McNeill's priority list.
"Bob Picardo and I were talking, and he actually put it best. He said that this could be our last hiatus for a long time that we know we have a good job to come back to, and we don't have to work," says McNeill thoughtfully. And that comment hit home with him. "I've actually turned down a couple of things that I didn't think were worth taking time away from the family for. I'm kind of looking at just doing my own film projects, doing some good reading, and spending some time with my kids. Because next time this year,when the series is over, I'm sure I'll be worrying quite a bit and wondering if I'll ever work again and all of those things. I can stress out next year.This year, for once, I'm going to take the whole hiatus."
We caught up with McNeill, of all places, in a recording booth in Burbank -- taking his turn taping dialogue for Activision's upcoming "Star Trek: Elite Force" multimedia game. The director led him through the paces: dialogue lines all recorded solo, to be spliced together later with castmates' lines per the voluminous script -- which, just as with its TV counterpart, goes through an evolving process -- in depicting a special tactics team defending the ship against alien boarders while trapped in an odd vortex.
Players should know that all the guttural noises they hear are just as authentic -- recorded by the cast, too, they provide the game's response to players who don't pay attention when they shoot or bump a character!
"We do a lot of that in looping, when we go in and 'sweeten' the sound, for our show," McNeill laughs. "We do a lot of the grunting and groaning when the ship gets hit by other ships firing at it, we have to go in and do the 'uhh' and the 'oooh' and the 'argh'. And this looks like a great game!"
Although on hiatus now from Voyager, McNeill is swamped this April week trying to finish final prints of his short action-comedy titled 9mm of Love, slated to twin-bill in Los Angeles wiht his earlier short, The Battery. Both include Voyager castmate Ethan "Neelix" Phillips; the second, shot on the studio's New York street, also has Sean O'Brien, Liz Vassey, and Carl Lumley as the hitman.
While Voyager's acting call means he had to turn down three directing offers last year, McNeill did get to produce a script he'd read and liked called Monster, a self-referential spoof of '50's screamers, as a UPN television movie. -- Larry Nemecek