Paris in the Springtime
Interview by Nick Joy
Starburst Star Trek Special #32
© 1997 Visual Imagination, Ltd.
Often found lounging about in the holodeck's rendition of a tropical holiday resort, Star Trek: Voyager's Tom Paris, alias Robert Duncan McNeill, was recently spotted at the less humid seaside venue of Blackpool, England.
McNeill was attending Wolf 359's The Mission, the 43rd British Star Trek convention, which in turn was supporting the NSPCC. Starburst took the opportunity to discuss his work on Star Trek's latest incarnation, focus on his new-found love for directing and try to dig-up any gossip about the Borg, Bujold, Berman and the Delaney Sisters.
Third Time Lucky
McNeill likes to be known as Robbie, and this is understandable on a show that is already over-populated with Roberts; "Doctor" Picardo is known as Bob and Mr. Beltran is simply Robert. Having just wrapped the third-season cliffhanger, Robbie looks back and considers the changes that have been made aboard the Delta Quadrant's favorite starship.
"They [the producers] said something to us at the beginning of the season about changing our tone a bit, changing the gears and not getting stuck in this depressed, negative, "Oh, we're lost, we'll never get home" feeling, and that we should be more adventurous and positive. As simple as that sounds, that made the biggest difference this year."
"The third season had the best scripts by far, and we made the best shows. I don't think that there were major changes in character or the premise of our show."
Paris does undergo subtle yet significant changes,l and these were viewed positively by McNeill. "I think for a little while that they got lost with Paris because they established his character as rebellious, very much a lone wolf, and then realized that they didn't like these qualities. They got scared that this Han Solo-like character was not going to last. Why would the captain give him the privilege of piloting the ship, all that responsibility, if he was such a rebel?"
One of the ways that the writers tried to change his character's direction was in the second season's "traitor" five-story arc. Paris pretends to be insubordinate in order to flush out the traitorous Jonas, who is selling technology and secrets to the Kazon. McNeill explains, "I was partially responsible for that arc, which I think was not executed very well. I gave them an idea for a Paris/Chakotay story where we were captured by aliens. Whilst in jail they offered us the chance to join them in some battle, and so Paris appears to defect. He says, 'Sure, I'll fly for you, I'm not going to spend time in jail any more.' Chakotay accuses him of selling out and at the end of the story Paris comes through, it was all a front, and he saves the day."
"That was my idea and they carried it through to this story arc, which was a mistake, because you might see an episode and then miss the one where I redeem myself, and for the rest of the season you think I'm still this rebel."
"Also, the things that they made him rebellious about were petty, like gambling in the holodeck or turning up late for work. Tom should be rebellious about things that are important - he's the one who says 'Wait a minute, the only way to solve this problem is to break the rules a little bit,' when others would just keep their mouths shut and go with the flow. It was such a failure to me that Tom should be so petty, I wish I'd put my foot down earlier. They were making him nasty to people for things that just weren't important, and that made the character less honest. If he's going to lie, then he'll do it for a reason."
Tom and Jeri
Tom Paris, descendant of generations of Starfleet admirals, has little to go home to. After an accident involving the death of a crewmate, Paris is court-martialled and joins the Maquis, but is caught on his first missionand sent to the Federation Penal Settlement where he is offered freedom subject to his piloting the U.S.S. Voyager through the Badlands. Given this troubled past, why would Tom want to return to Earth?
"Jeri Taylor [series co-creator/executive producer] and I had lunch last week and we talked about some of the backstory for Tom because there has been this very clear assertion that Tom's father was very pushy and demanding. It would be more interesting if the truth was that his father was not really demanding or pushy at all, and that only Tom perceived it his way; it was really Tom's own expectations that he was not living up to. The audience assumes that his father is this monster and the Paris family are dysfunctional, but that might not be so." Whether or not this shift in emphasis comes to fruition will soon become apparent in the next season.
Taking the Helm
A major change for McNeill, as opposed to Paris, was his opportunity to direct two third season episodes, "Sacred Ground" and "Unity." The former is a mystical adventure wherein Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) is forced to confront her inner psyche in order to rescue Kes from a state of limbo, and the latter details the long-awaited return of the Borg. "Sacred Ground" might have been low in optical effects, but how does a novice director handle the unwieldy dialogue?
"Making an episode is like building a house," explains McNeill. "You have to come up with a blueprint but then when you start building you might find that you really can't build it that way because the ground is sinking over there. As a director you have different tools to deal with difficult problems, and if the dialogue seems bad you just inject some humor into it, and this helps you to enjoy its badness! If there's a moment that's meant to be funny and it just doesn't seem to be working, then the more straight you play it the better it is, justby playing it honestly."
Some Tom, Rick, or Harry
Star Trek: Voyager is a very stylized show, and works to a fixed, tried and tested formula. Did McNeill find his hands tied directorially in view of this?
"There are certain rules that Rick Berman [series co-creator/executive producer] has. You know editorially that he does not like to do certain things, so as a director you have to e awaer of that and not shoot film that will be rejected. You have to give him things the way that he likes them, but there are times when he is willing to break the rules, although you need to talk to him about it first. His rules are very specific and very clear. "In 'Sacred Ground' I wanted to use slow motion when Janeway gets lost in the whole 'vision quest' moment and collapses into a grave. I wanted to use a high-speed camera and show her falling in slow motion so that we could cut in with some of the tasks that she'd done. I talked to Rick about it, and he said, 'Okay, shoot it that way and we'll see, but give me another option to do it straight.' I shot it both ways and we ended up using the slow motion. Janeway gets bitten by a snake in a basket and starts to hallucinate before passing out."
Although he is spending more time behind the camera, McNeill assures viewers that he will still be spending a significant amount of screen time with his comic foil and friend, Harry Kim. The majority of their time together seems to be spent talking about women, and so the question on everyone's mind is of course, 'Will we ever get to see the fabled Delaney Sisters?' Robbie laughs, "I don't think so. I think its more fun to refer to them now and then."
Whilst on the subject of the female of the species, Robbie laments the passing of the Kazon, and in particular, Seska. "She actually comes back from the dead, in a very Sci-Fi way." Of course, in the Star Trek universe, death can be just a passing phase.
As a newcomer it might have been a daunting prospect directing accomplished actress Kate Mulgrew, but McNeill has nothing but praise for her. "Kate and I have been rather close since the beginning because our trailers are right next to each other at one end of the stage. The other cast members are at the other end of the lot -- I don't know why they split us up that way -- but I've been with her ever since she replaced Genevieve Bujold."
McNeill considers his words carefully before continuing, "I worked with Genevieve for two days, the only two days that she was with us. It would have been a different show with her as captain. It was a real mistake to cast her because she didn't fit into Starfleet at all. There's a real heroic quality that she was lacking; Genevieve's strength is in playing someone who has got a lot of baggage, demons, and neuroses, and she has done a lot of brilliant work in this field (i.e., Coma, Dead Ringers.) Starfleet's strength is in its classic heroic characters; they say what they mean and they speak their minds. They tend not to have these psychological Freudian places, and she has too much going in her head, which was very distracting to the story."
The Borg Are Back
Patrick Stewart did of course have the opportunity to exhibit his personal demons as Jean-Luc Picard /Locutus in Star Trek: First Contact, a movie that will primarily be remembered for the return of the menacing Borg. McNeill's second directorial assignment was "Unity," which marked the return to the small screen of the Borg after a four-year absence. The assimilating villains have changed in many ways since they made their exit in "Descent, Part II," and the prospect of helming a major 'villain' show might have frightened the most seasoned of directors. How did McNeill obtain such a choice assignment?
"Part of it was that they were extremely happy with 'Sacred Ground,' and the other part was just luck. I was not so much frightened that the episode was about the Borg, as I was because of what the story was about. With the Borg there's a certain expectation that the audience have because they are the ultimate bad guys. Previously there has been no humanity in them and this episode introduces a whole new concept about them -- the fact that they can be de-assimilated. They have a one-dimensional quality of pure evil, technology and humanity combined into this one machine, and in 'Unity' we crack that armor and show that they could be destroyed, whether by a natural disaster or a virus, or whatever."
The Borg are not the only 'guests' to enter the Quadrant last season, as the mischievious superbeing Q (John De Lancie) also made a return with immoral ideas about what to do with Voyager's erstwhile captain. Would McNeill like the opportunity to direct de Lancie?
"That would be tough, although the interesting thing about Q is that he can do anything or be anything, or go where he wants, whereas the Borg were so narrowly defined that there is a danger of not knowing where to expand. With Q you have established that you can do whatever you want, so you don't have to be careful with him."
When questioned as to how long he believes the show will continue, McNeill's guess is as good as anyone's. "I don't know. I think that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is going to six seasons, and I hope that we get to go to six because I dearly want to direct ome more."
"There is an end-of-season Borg cliffhanger ["Scorpion, Part I"] you know," teases McNeill. "It airs at the end of May in the U.S. It's going to be very interesting because at the end of the first episode we actually consider making an alliance with the Borg for a lot of different reasons. I don't know about the second part, we haven't shot it yet."
There's a certain twinkle in his eye that suggests taht he knows more that he is letting on, but as always with Lieutenant Tom Paris, you never know quite what to believe.