An Interview with Robert Duncan McNeill

Star Trek Monthly
June 1999
by David Basson

© Star Trek Monthly

It's been a busy year for Lieutenant Tom Paris. Besides helming both the U.S.S Voyager and the Delta Flyer through uncharted territory, he's been thrown into the brig, continued his romance with B'Elanna Torres and confronted the forces of evil as the jet-packing holo-hero Captain Proton. In conversation with David Basson, Robert Duncan McNeill explains how Star Trek: Voyager's fifth season has taken both his character and the series itself up, up and away to new creative heights.

Delta Quadrant villains beware - there's a new hero in town. Brave, smart and, erm, completely in monochrome, Captain Proton represents the kind of space faring champion originally envisaged by Earth's Saturday morning matinees, way back in the 20th century. And as the star of Lieutenant Tom Paris' latest holonovel, the jet-packing space ace is always destined to save the day, beat the baddies and win the girl!

Since his debut in Star Trek: Voyager's fifth season premiere, Night, Captain Proton has swiftly become a firm favourite with the show's loyal viewers. He's proven equally popular with Robert Duncan McNeill, who has used the innovative holographic hero to showcase the lighter side of his familiar alter-ego, Tom Paris.

"I think the Captain Proton stuff is a wonderful idea for a running holodeck program," McNeill tells Star Trek Monthly during a break in filming on the final episode of the fifth season, Equinox. "They originally mentioned it to me before we started this season and I loved the idea from the beginning. It's just so well conceived, from showing it in black-and-white to the Thirties style art deco design and all the references to the old Flash Gordon/Forbidden Planet kinds of science fiction movies.

"I certainly think the fans get a real kick out of it," he muses, "because it pokes a little fun at the whole genre. And I really enjoy doing those scenes, because it gives me an opportunity to how Tom's sense of humour and his sense of fun. It's a chance for me to be really silly!"

The introduction of Captain Proton has been just one of the many highlights which viewers have been treated to during Star Trek: Voyager's fifth year. Under the supervision of its newly installed Executive Producer, Brannon Braga, the season has offered an unusually high number of bold plot lines and exciting character developments, and has also seen the return of such popular Star Trek stalwarts as the Borg Queen (Dark Frontier), Geordi La Forge (Timeless) and Species 8472 (In The Flesh).

Although McNeill finds it hard to say whether Star Trek: Voyager's latest season has topped its ground breaking fourth year, the actor clearly feels proud of the latest collection of tales from the Delta Quadrant. "I feel that every season kind of takes on a distinctive personality," he explains, "and this one has certainly given us a new shot in the arm; a new energy level. With Brannon Braga and the team here now, the stories have been more extreme in their concepts. We've had some science fiction stories this year that have really pushed the envelope a little bit.

"So I think that's given us a real new breath of fresh air here, and has resulted in some really memorable stories this year. There have been a lot of good shows this season, like the 100th episode. Timeless, which was just great. A lot of people have commented that there have beensome really memorable episodes this year, both visually and concept wise. People really enjoy these wild ideas like a planet made entirely of water [in Thirty Days]. One of Star Trek's strengths is the way it can explore really creative ideas. Brannon's brought a new kind of creativity to the show, and it has definitely felt like the Brannon Braga year."

Besides its increased emphasis on high-concept science fiction storylines, Star Trek: Voyager's fifth season has also utilised its regular cast much more successfully than its fourth season did. Whereas last season was dominated by Seven of Nine, storylines have been spread far more evenly this year, with everyone from Chakotay to Neelix all enjoying their moments in the spotlight. McNeill admits that he felt disappointed by the way that certain characters, including his own, were neglected last season, and explains that he is extremely happy with the way this imbalance has been redressed this year.

"I feel that the wealth has been spread around a lot more this season," he acknowledges. "Especially during the first half of the season, which I think really got back to using a variety of characters and a real complimentary group. Every character on Voyager has a unique contribution, and I think that some of the best shows are the ones that really take advantage of that. So, it's been a good season in that way.

"Its a good thing for us working on the show because everyone gets an opportunity to stretch a little bit. I know that in the past some of the fans have missed seeing their favourite characters a little bit. This year, however, all the characters have had a certain amount of attention, and that's been good for the show."

Tom Paris has certainly benefited from the increased use of the show's ensemble cast. Besides his regular appearances as Captain Proton, Paris has found a steady stream of new adventures at the helm of both the U.S.S. Voyager and its super-powered shuttle, the Delta Flyer. While the actor points to Bride of Chaotica, Course: Oblivion and Gravity as personal highlights of the season, he is most proud of the fact that his character has continued to develop and grow throughout the year. "I'm very pleased that Tom is still growing," he affirms, "because I think I would get very bored if I just played one note all the time. As an actor, that would not be a lot of fun.

"I think we've found a lot more nooks and crannies in the character recently," McNeill continues. "When they first started the series, Paris was created to be a real rebel. But everyone shied away from that very quickly, and what frustrated me was that they didn't replace his rebelliousness with anything else, so the character was undefined for a while. The great thing is that the writers have now replaced Tom's rebelliousness with a sense of humour, a sense of irony and a lightness. This is a character who views the crew's situation and their adventures with a sense of fun, and that's been very appealing for me to play."

Although Tom's insubordinate tendencies have largely been written out of the series, the character hasn't completely turned his back on his rebellious past. This becomes apparent in the fifth season episode Thirty Days, which sees Tom thrown into the brig and demoted following his decision to defy orders and take a stand for what he believes is a just cause. As far as McNeill is concerned, the episode clarifies the balance between Paris' rebellious qualities and his commitment to duty.

"That episode kind of fulfilled an idea that i pitched to the writers maybe a year ago," he reveals. "I said, 'I'd love to see an episode where Tom Paris broke all the rules, but he did it for a cause he believed in.' In the past, Tom usually broke the rules for no reason, and that was a mistake. That kind of rebel is not an honourable rebel. But there are people on Earth right now, like political activists and environmental activists, who break the law for a reason, and that was the kind of quality I wanted to see in Tom. He's somebody who breaks the rules for a reason, and for something he really believes in, and he doesn't care what the rules are if he feels he is right. I felt Thirty Days was a good episode because it showed that quality. It was good for the character."

While Star Trek: Voyager's writing staff may sometimes have problems grappling with the complexities of Tom Paris' character, they've been much more assured in their handling of Tom's relationship with his half-Klingon crewmate, B'Elanna Torres. Their romance has been warmly embraced by the show's viewers, most of whom would like to see a lot more of the couple together on screen. "Tom's relationship with B'Elanna has developed into a very subtle reference," notes McNeill. "We don't play a lot of episodes that focus on that relationship, because when certain situations come up, we can look at those situations from the perspective of two people who are romantically involved and who care about each other.

"For instance, in Course: Oblivion, B'Elanna and Paris get married - albeit with a science fiction twist. Tom then had to face the death of B'Elanna, which hopefully will turn out to be a wonderful scene. So I think it's great to have those two together. When the time is right, we can use that relationship to look at situations from a different perspective.

"I don't think it would be that interesting to follow the relationship like a soap opera," he asserts. "We're not just gonna play scenes about all to day-to-day emotional roller coasters that couples go through. It's just not what Star Trek does best. Other shows like Melrose Place do that so much better than we do. What we do is wonderful science fiction stories, and it's great to have a relationship in the world of Star Trek and use it in the way we do best."

Despite his enthusiasm for Tom and B'Elanna's ongoing romance, McNeill does admit that he occasionally wishes his character hadn't made a long-term commitment to Voyager's engineer. "There's a part of me that sometimes gets a little jealous that Harry Kim, Chakotay and even the Doctor get to play these wonderful episodes that are deeply romantic," he confesses. "They can play the role of the romantic lead man, and it's not something I've had the chance to do in quite a long time.

"It's ironic because [the producers] originally brought in my character into the mix to fill that role, but then almost immediately decided that a 'ladykiller' isn't an attractive man for the 24th century. So they decided to make Tom probably the least [romantically] active of the men on the show, possibly out of fear that he would otherwise send the wrong message to someone watching. I think that's a bit of a shame, because it's always fun to play that classic romantic leading man."

Love it or loathe it, romance has been a big part of McNeill's assignment to the Delta Quadrant recently. Not only has his character continued to date B'Elanna Torres, but behind the cameras, McNeill also helmed a romantically charged fifth season installment of Star Trek: Voyager entitled Someone To Watch Over Me. Marking his third directorial outing on Star Trek, Someone To Watch Over Me promises to represent a complete change of pace from his earlier offerings, Sacred Ground and Unity.

"It's a take on the Pygmalion story," McNeill reveals. "It's a My Fair Lady kind of episode, with the Doctor teaching Seven how to date. It was a lot of fun, because it was a really different sort of episode to what we normally do, which is fight the bad guys. We have two very naive characters in terms of love and relationships, and exploring that whole subject was very interesting.

"The episode is a romantic comedy," he explains. "In fact, it's almost a musical comedy in a way, with singing and piano playing and things like that. There's a fun duet with the Doctor and Seven of Nine singing You Are My Sunshine. So we got to shoot it in a different way and play it with a bit of a twinkle in the eye. Making the episode was a lot of fun and I think it's going to be a really memorable show. I really enjoyed that one."

Directing is one aspect of Star Trek: Voyager which keeps the experience fresh for McNeill, and an occupation that he has started to pursue away from Star Trek sound stages. Last year, he helmed a short film, The Battery. More recently, he directed an episode of Nickelodeon's prime-time television series, The Journey Of Alan Strange, and is set to shoot further installments of the show during Star Trek: Voyager's hiatus. "I really love directing," he enthuses. "It's just great to be at the heart of the creative process. I would really love to direct more episodes of Voyager, but our producers have a lot of obligations and I completely understand that. I'm just grateful to have received the chances I have with Star Trek."

Following the hiatus, Robert Duncan McNeill is looking forward to starting work on Star Trek: Voyager's sixth season. He remains extremely proud to be a part of the show and savors the time he spends with his cast and crewmates. In fact, his sole disappointment surrounding the series is that it doesn't seem to receive the respect and appreciation it deserves from within the entertainment industry itself. "The world of Star Trek, within the entertainment industry, is something of a deserted island," he says. "We certainly are a recognisable brand and viewers around the world know us very well, but I think it's very surprising that people in the industry we work in don't look at Star Trek actors with a whole lot of [appreciation]... it's doesn't mean the same thing as being on Friends or ER for five years, and I think the disparity is very frustrating.

"I get really annoyed when I go for a meeting and the casting director or producer or whatever says 'So tell me about yourself. What have you been doing?' And they have no idea. I'll say 'I've been on Star Trek for five years,' and they're like, 'Oh wow, I haven't seen that!'.

"But you know what? The bottom line is, I don't really care what people in the industry think that much, because I know what we've done is great work. And when you look at the whole picture, I'm much happier that I've been able to do Star Trek: Voyager than most of the other shows I could think of. It's been a really great experience.

"So I'm grateful to have been able to be a part of it. And hopefully we'll be able to do it for a lot longer."

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