Delta Flyers

As Voyager inches ever closer to home, Roberts Picardo and Duncan McNeill talk about the way forward...

by David Richardson
Cult Times Special #8
Winter, 1998
© 1998 Visual Imagination, Ltd.

Apparently, if you were to sit down and watch every episode of Star Trek -- the original series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager-- it would take you 455 hours. That's 19 days of your life -- not including any sleep. Of course, that figure is continually increasing: Deep Space Nine remains in production, and Voyager is steadily progressing through its fifth season.

Perhaps realizing that the demand for Star Trek product is not without its limits, Paramount have decreed that, when Deep Space Nine ends next year, there will be no replacement series immediately waiting in the wings to take over. For the first time in seven years, there will be only one series of fresh Star Trek episodes on television. For Robert Picardo, the actor who plays the austere holographic Doctor, that fact can only work in Voyager's favor ....

"Ultimately, it's a good thing for the show," he tells Cult Times, "because Deep Space Nine has its loyal fans, and we have our loyal fans, and then we have fans that watch both shows. But if either our show or their show went off the air I think it would benefit the other because there is that hunger among loyal Star Trek fans for new shows. If we're the only game in town, we're hoping they'll come over."

There's been much debate among viewers concerning whether the demise of Deep Space Nine will serve as the catalyst that resolves the starship Voyager's current predicament. For five years the ship has been lost in the Delta Quadrant, cut off from Starfleet, family, and friends. It's a storytelling device that has worked both in the show's favour and against, and many feel that the time is ripe for the series to pursue new adventures in the Alpha Quadrant.

Kate Mulgrew recently voiced her opinion that the ship would arrive home by the end of Season Five, and Picardo agrees with this line of reasoning.

"My prediction, three years ago, when everyone would say, 'Would Voyager make it back to the Alpha Quadrant?' I would say 'Yes, when Deep Space Nine goes off the air.' That was my prediction. I still think I'm going to be right. This is not based on any knowledge or fact, but I do believe we will find our way home at the end of this year simply because you got to have one original Star Trek show in prime time in the Alpha Quadrant.

"As far as whether it's good for the show .... When we returne to the Alpha Quadrant I think there are a huge number of stories [we can explore.]

Picardo has already considered how such a move would affect the Doctor's future, and predicts that an early story in Season Six will find the Voyager crew rallying around their holographic friend.

"The very first issue from the Doctor's point of view is that he would be deleted." he announces. "All of his additional adaptive learning would simply be wiped clean because, what's the point? He's designed for one use. This is an unprecedented situation where he has stepped forward and filled in for the organic ship's doctor. I think Starfleet's attitude would be 'Thank God, you're all home, let's blank this Doctor and reboot him so we can use him as a first aid kit again.' "

"It seems to me that my first sotryline would be for Janeway and the crew to testify on behalf of maintaining me -- rearguing the whole sentience thing, whether my combined experience and record of service warrant keeping me intacta as I am now. I hope they do -- otherwise they'll fire me and I'll be out of work!"

It's ten months since Cult Times last spoke to the actor, and it's comforting to see that he remains as bright and inventive as ever. While some actors on a series are happy to sit back, receive their scripts and do their scenes, it's obvious that Picardo thinks through the logic of his character -- and alay has a wealth of potential storylines and situations that he hopes the Voyager producers may one day use. When I acknowledge that fact, the actor laughs

"I've got a lot of free time," he jokes. "I have two young children, I don't get to go out at night, and my wife refuses to let me have a second and third wife even though I've told her I can afford them. So I have pleanty of time to sit and think about things that are somewhere between absolutely meaningless and completely obscure."

The wonderful idiosyncracies of the Doctor's character have inspired Voyager's writers to create some of the show's most inventive and off-the-wall installments. Just take Season Four's Living Witness, which found an alien race in the future activating a copy of his programme.

"I always get nervous when the writers say, 'This is a real tour de force acting performance for you.' They say that before you'e done it. It's like saying, 'Our expectations are ridiculously high -- here they are -- and just to make it as difficult as possible we're going to rewrite the words until the moment that you're speaking them on film."

"It was directed by Tim Russ, who did an absolutely splendid job," Picardo enthuses. "I'm proud of it, to me that's Star Trek at its best because it examines an issue that you couldn't examine in anything other than Science Fiction. It was revisionist history, because some people reinterpret history to pursue a present day political agenda. How can you have an actual witness from a historical event that happened many years ago when no one is alive to tell the truth about? It was a classic Star Trek situation: an event that happened 700 years earlier, and the Doctor can come back and set the record straight."

While Picardo has been well-served by scripts throughout the run of the series, the same has not always been true for Garrett Wang (Kim), Ethan Phillips (Neelix), and Robert Duncan McNeill (Tom Paris). All three suffered throughout Season Four, as the introduction of Jeri Ryan led to a surfeit of scripts that focussed on Seven of Nine, at the expense of the more established players.

"My biggest complaint last year was not that she had a lot of screen time, but every time we had a problem it took Seven of Nine to fix it," explains McNeill. "I felt that we had a lot of smart characters, and if you want to make an ensemble cast of nine heroic characters we should make heroes of all of them. Not make fools of some and a hero of just one. We all needed to solve problems, we all needed to have heroic moments where we could bring in our unique contribution and last year it seems like we all became incompetent and it took Seven of Nine to save the day. It was a formula that wore very thin by the end of the year."

Writers certainly seem to have a problem with the ongoing complexities of Paris's character. When he was first introduced in the pilot episode (Caretaker) the Lieutenant was imprisoned by Starfleet, a member of the renegade Maquis. Captain Janeway offered Paris a chance to redeem himself on her mission to the Badlands, before the ship was propelled many light years away from home.

"Tom is a man who has made mistakes," explains McNeill, "but he hasn't allowed these mistakes to ruin his life. He's got another chance, and is going to do everything in his power to earn back respect and gain admiration.

"[The writers have] always struggled with his rebellious side -- trying to make palatable as a series regular, but still be rebellious. If he's too rebellious, he can't be an officer on the bridge. It's the most interesting side to him."

McNeill is delighted to reveal that the producers have accpeted an idea for a storyline he proposed three years ago, which clarifies some of the finer points of Paris's nature.

"I told them, 'Rather than think of him as a rebel or troublemaker, think of him as an activist. Think of him like these guys who lay down on the tracks in the rainforest or whatever -- because they really believe in a noble cause they're willing to break the rules, they're willing to risk their lives. That's the kind of rebel he is.' Finally, this year they came up with an interesting story that basically took that idea and re-established his rebellious side. In the years past he was gambling in the holodeck so he got in trouble, he mouthed off to somebody for no reason ... it was very cocky, but it just wasn't very attractive.

"I think Brannon Braga relates to this character a lot more than Jeri Taylor did. Jeri related very well to Captain Janeway, to B'Elanna Torres. Brannon, now that he's running the show, I think he sees himself a lot more in the Tom Paris character, or Chakotay. That's been a good thing for my character."

Despite the departure of Taylor as the executive producer at the end of Season Four, and her replacement by Brannon Braga for Season Five, don't expect any instant major changes to Voyager. Judging by the eight episodes broadcast in America at the time of going to press, the series has retained its most popular elements -- Species 8472, the Borg, stories about crashed shuttlecraft! -- while ensuring this time every single principle character gets a fair share of the action.

"I think the show is great so far," enthuses Picardo. "The second episode, Drone, is one of the best shows we've ever done. Jeri Ryan is extraordinary in it. A guest actor plays the Drone, the offspring between Jeri's character and the Doctor, and he's very talented -- one of the best guest actors we've ever had. I think it's got everything a good Star Trek show should have -- a fantastic situation that you would never have imagined, explored logically and intellectually with humour and pathos at the end. Seven's final shot will definitely bring a tear to people's eyes."

The biggest news for my character this year is they've come up with a holodeck that is possibly the finest holodeck ever created," beams McNeill, referring to a scenario that makes its debut in the teaser for the opening episode, Night.

"It's a retro Sci-fi story called 'Captain Proton,' and Tom creates this Flash Gordon hero. Everything is shot in black and white and Dr. Chaotica is the villain and he's like the villain from Flash Gordon. I wear a big leather jacket with a rocket pack on the back, and khaki pants and I look just like the Rocketeer. That's been the most fun, because it really lets me just be silly, which is what I do when we're not shooting anyway. It lets me bring a lot of myself to the character."

"That will gratify all long time Science Fiction fans -- not just of Star Trek but the entire genre," continues Picardo, "because we're really having fun with the whole notion of our vision of the future in the 20th century, especially on film, and how far we've come since the '30's and the '40's. Tom programs it so it mimics a Buck Rogers type show, because he is interested in 20th century notions of what the future will bring.

"It has appeared again to great amusement in one or two other shows, and the very next episode we shoot features that set very heavily. It includes a wonderful guest actor, Martin Rayner, who plays Doctor Chaotica, who is basically the politically correct version of Ming the Merciless."

During the time that Cult Times visited the set of Voyager the studio was recovering from the effects of a fire the previous night, which had damaged the standing set of the ship's Bridge. The whole area was sealed off while repair crews attempted to salvage the remains, and scens taking place on the Bridge were rescheduled for a later date.

"We were shooting on Stage Nine," recalls McNeill, "and they were setting up a meal on Stage Eight because we were working very late hours, so they had all the tables and a few people had started eating. We were just about to break for dinner and as we were walking to Stage Eight they yelled, 'Fire, get off the stage!'

"I didn't see it. It was a light that blew and the sparks got some of the dust on fire. After four years there was a lot of dust on the top of the set, so there was a lot of damage. They've been working around the clock on that."

Fortunately, the small-scale disaster did not delay production on Latent Image, a story that focuses predominately on the Doctor.

"According to the writer, it is the birth of the Doctor's human soul!" offers Picardo. "It's a very interesting episode: it starts out like a mystery story. I'm solving a mystery and then I find out that the culprit in the mystery happens to be Captain Janeway.

"Janeway has done something terrible, thoughtless and inhumane to me and my programming, completely diminishing my whole self-image as an individual, and when I discover she did it I challenge her. She explains that she did it to save me from destruction, and in order to show me how she saved me, she ahs to restore the memories she has protected me from.

"In facing these memories of an event that actually happened, that she has blanked from my memory because of the powerful effect they had on me, I experience the same complete psychotic breakdown that I had before. The Doctor can't face the outcome of one of his actions that cost the life of an innocent crew person, so he has a tail-spin to lunacy. It's basically a Sophie's Choice moment that has rendered the Doctor wounded, and he has to cope with that and face what he did, face the kind of contradictions that the human mind seems to be able to embrace and still continue on. It's a big show for me as an actor because I get to play all different sorts of colours, and I get to make a step forward that in theory makes me closer still to a complete human being. All I know is that I've got a lot of lines next week!"

For his part, McNeill seems happy that the new season is embracing Paris's character, and that Voyager is an ensemble show once more. He's also been allowed to expand his talents by serving as a director on the show, a role that he first filled in Season Three's Sacred Ground.

"The first one was an episode they didn't have a lot of faith in, " he confides. "They actually apologized when they gave me the script. They said, 'We're sorry this one is onot what we wanted to be. We're sorry it's your first one and you're getting one that's not so strong.' It actually turned into a great episode -- Captain Janeway was trying to save Kes, who was dying, and Janeway had to go through a spiritual journey."

While many of the cast of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine set a precedent by directing episodes of their own series, McNeill was the first member of Voyager team to work behind the camera.

"Everyone was very supportive," he reveals. "Of course, they teased me, but I really fell very fortunate that everybody was really open to me directing."

How did he find time to juggle the dual commitments of both directing and acting in the episode?

"I was in it briefly, " he responds, "I was in it more in the beginning, and I said to them, 'Give more stuff [to the other characters] because I don't want to have a lot of acting to do in it.

The second show was Unity and it was the first time we had the Borg incorporated in our show. We found this planet that had this mish-mash of human and alien species and they were all deformed or mutilated, and Chakotay starts to fall in love with one of them and realized that they were all ex-Borg. It was a great episode, a real action episode."

At the time of this interview, McNeill was waiting to begin work on his third assignment [ed. note -- "Someone to Watch Over Me," a Doctor/Seven episode].

"There's a lot of people to keep happy on the show," he says, "not just actors but other people on Star Trek who want to direct. Rick Berman has been in a very awkward position to make sure he keeps everyone happy. I would have liked to done more. Last year I didn't get to do one and I was really disappointed. I don't know what the next one is -- I haven't seen the script yet."

When asked which of the two jobs he likes the most -- acting in Voyager or directing for the series -- McNeill ponders for a moment.

"I don't know," he admits. "This year has been a lot of fun acting on the show. Maybe a couple of years ago I would have said, 'Yeah, I would rather direct,' because I was a lot more challenged directing than most of the time when I was acting. But I've had a lot of great opportunities with the character lately."

Perhaps he speaks for the whole cast when he says of Season Six, "There's going to be some good shows."

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