"LeVar Burton came by the set when we were doing the Voyager pilot," Robert Duncan McNeill remembers.
The Star Trek: The Next Generation actor dispensed some specific advice, McNeill reveals. "LeVar said to me, 'Enjoy every minute of this, because it flies by. If you go seven years, like we did with The Next Generation, you will *not* believe how fast it will race by.'"
Now embarking on his fifth year aboard Voyager, the ever-friendly McNeill is relaxing in his trailer on the Paramount lot. He's surrounded by photos of his wife and kids, as well as by an array of Trek paraphernalia and dozens of books about the inner workings of filmmaking. "I thought, 'Oh yeah, sure. It's an actor's dream to go seven years. If I can just do that, my life will be solved.' I don't know if my life *is* actually solved now, but the time has just flown by. LeVar was riqht about that," adds McNeill. It feels like yesterday since we started Voyager."
When Voyager kicked off, McNeill's cocky, proficient character Tom Paris was a Maquis rebel with a past that he didn't mind leaving behind. Over the years, however, Paris seemed to mellow. He wised up. He proved himself during countless crises. And he became romantically involved with B'Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson), the ship's often hotheaded half-Klingon/half-human engineer. "Paris has gone through some interesting twists and turns. We've seen his relationship with Janeway [Kate Mulgrew] change and grow. He used to *flirt* with her. We've seen his friendship with Harry Kim [Garrett Wang] grow. We've seen how his interest in Kes [Jennifer Lien] affected his friendship with Neelix [Ethan Phillips]. And now we have the Paris-B'Elanna romance going. I've heard people say lately that he's becoming a bit of a rebel again, and I don't know about that I don't know about that word," McNeill comments. "I think, regarding Paris, that the word rebel was misused by the writers during the first few years. It led to a lot of bad interpretations of Paris initially.
"Last year, before the fourth season, I told [then-executive producer] Jeri Taylor that I would really like to see Paris become an activist. To me, an activist is someone who will question authority, who thinks independently and who will break the rules if he believes in his cause. That, to me, is a more appropriate Star Trek rebel. That was pretty much the definition of the Maquis when the series started. The Maquis, though, had their own organized agenda. They were more like rebels. Paris doesn't follow any organized agenda, especially now. He takes each situation on its own merits and says, 'Look, do the rules apply here? Is this the best way to go?' That's what I tried to insist on when I met with Jeri. If the character was going to be rebellious, I wanted to do it in an activist kind of a way."
Of course, the Paris-related development of greatest interest remains his relationship with Torres. McNeill admits that as much as he adores Dawson and welcomes any opportunity to share scenes with her, he wasn't all that thrilled when he first heard that Paris and Torres would be romantically paired. He preferred the idea of a slow, steady build-up, of some cat-and-mouse antics. And, truth be told, he's still not happy with the liaison. "Honestly, there are so many great possibilities that haven't been explored. Sometimes when it was explored it was like, 'OK, let's check in with B'Elanna and Tom. How are they?' " he argues. "It was like a soap opera, very un-dramatic."
"I don't know specifically how they'll deal with Paris and B'Elanna this season. I do know that, in general, they want to sex up the show a little bit, heat it up. I would love to see some appropriate circumstances arise for Tom and B'Elanna to really enjoy their sexuality, to enjoy being a couple. There were very few opportunities last year, and the fact that Roxann was pregnant [in real life] understandably made it even more difficult to create opportunities for intimacy. We also had less time because we had to work Seven of Nine [Jeri Ryan] into the show, and that took a number of episodes. It's a new season now. Roxann isn't pregnant. Brannon [Braga, who assumed day-to-day control of Voyager from Taylor following her departure] wants to try new things. Seven of Nine has been established as a character. Hopefully, now, we can really do right by Tom and B'Elanna."
Paris figured prominently in three fourth season shows: "Day of Honor," "Vis a Vis" and "Demon."
In "Day of Honor," Paris and Torres, left for dead in space after a shuttle explosion, express their feelings for one another. In "Vis a Vis," alien metamorph Steth (Dan Butler of the sitcom Frasier) swaps identities with Paris, and in "Demon," Paris and Kim brave a toxic "Demon-class" planet to collect vital deuterium, and are then quickly transformed by the world's "inhabitants."
"'Demon,' actually, was one of those surprise shows that you do every once in a while. I didn't expect it to be that great," the actor says. "But I think the combination of visuals, premise and everything else [produced a great episode]. People said that 'Demon' ended up being one of the better shows of the season. That really did surprise me."
"I wish 'Vis a Vis' had gone further than it did. I thought the idea of somebody switching bodies was such a great premise and as an actor, selfishly, I just wanted to do some scenery chewing. But I felt that the show just didn't reach that level. In an effort to preserve the plot twist that Steth wasn't the real Paris, they made him so much like the real Paris that it wasn't as dramatic as I wished it could have been. I had suggested that we expose him a little earlier so that he could really enjoy the chase. 'Yeah, I'm not the real Tom Paris, and what are you going to do about it?' I would have loved for him to have taken Janeway hostage. It would have been a great opportunity for the fans to see the body of Tom Paris, the person they're used to seeing as Tom, doing things that were completely out of character. I wish it had gone further, but it was still an interesting show."
"'Day of Honor' was a wild show to shoot the way they had me and Roxann rigged up in the air," he continues. "[Director] Jesus Trevino was very inventive. It was the episode that really got the Paris-B'Elanna relationship going. Though I wished we had spent more time building up to them getting together, that show was very well done. The revelation that they loved each other came out of a situation, and that's the way I like to see it develop. As I said before, I don't just want us to check in on Tom and B'Elanna every few episodes. If we can see how their relationship grows out of being forced to deal with situations, how they react in pressure situations, I would be very happy."
Season five of Star Trek: Voyager opens October 14 with "Night."
In that episode, the Voyager crew find themselves bored and rather irritable as the starship travels through a lifeless portion of space they've appropriately dubbed "The Void." Paris factors into the show's teaser, which centers on a Holodeck program that casts him as Captain Galaxy, a stylishly dressed, jetpack-sporting hero who does battle with the evil Doctor Chaotica. It's all played out in a lively 1930s, cliffhanger style and was even filmed in black-and-white by director David Livingston. Two episodes later, in a Cliff Bole-directed, dramatic B'Elanna hour entitled 'Extreme Risk," Paris designs an Art Deco-ish new shuttle that he christens The Delta Flyer.
McNeill isn't sure yet about plans for future episodes, but he fully expects to direct his third Voyager -- on the heels of "Sacred Ground" and "Unity" -- later this season. What kick does he get out of directing? "For one, it really helps keep the experience of doing Voyager fresh for me. Also on television, when you're an actor, finally getting time [in front of the camera] is so rare that it can be creatively unsatisfying," he explains. "At least as a director you can be more creative. You get all your prep time. You have time to think things through, though not nearly as much time as you might like. You get much more input than you do as an actor. You can have input on what the sets will look like, on what the costumes might look like, on who's cast in the guest star roles. So you have a lot of influence on the outcome of the show. Actors, in a way, are the very bottom of the creative process. That's ironic. You're the one up there on the screen, but everything has been decided before you walk on the set. That's why I like to direct, so that I can be active in deciding everything. Creatively, that's very fulfilling."
The future, it can be said, is in McNeill's own hands. Literally.
As he speaks, McNeill furiously fills out an express mail form. He's racing against the clock to enter his 25-minute short film, The Battery, a coming-of-age drama about two brothers who play minor league baseball, in a film festival. "I hope that directing will be a big part of my future. Beyond everything else I was just saying about directing, I enjoy shaping a story. I enjoy getting performances from actors. I'm a bit of a gadget freak, so I love the technical side of it. So, who knows," Robert Duncan McNeill says, smiling. "I would love to direct features. I might like to follow in the footsteps of LeVar and Jonathan Frakes and come back to direct Star Trek shows after Voyager is done. Obviously, Jonathan is the model for any would-be director. Look at what directing Next Generation ultimately did for him. Who knows? Maybe I'll get my chance, too."