He's the dashing pilot of Star Trek: Voyager, the boy wonder whose expertise and skill at the helm of the U.S.S. Voyager are matched by his wisecracking nature and occasional brushes with authority. So how has Tom Paris fared in the Delta Quadrant? Ian Spelling talks to Paris' alter ego, Robert Duncan McNeill, and finds out.
It's got to be the strangest phenomenon: actors finish a show, a movie, a television season, then move on to something else, be it personal or professional. But weeks later, in some cases even a year later, as the show airs or the movie opens, they're called upon to promote their work.
Take, for example, Robert Duncan McNeill. Stardate: in the middle of May, 2000. Unimatrix Zero, the season finale of Star Trek: VoyagerStar Trek: Voyager in general, and the light at the end of the ST:VOY tunnel.
"It's actually not that strange to be talking about work we've done," McNeill explains. "It used to be strange, but it's not anymore. We've done so many shows over such a long period of time. Some people are only now finding the show, so it's all new to them, even shows from the first and second season. Star Trek is so popularand the fans pay such attention to every detail that there's always something new for them to talk about with me, even with the old episodes.
"I don't even know what's on when or where," McNeill says of the show's scheduling. "First season episodes can be repeating in Los Angeles, while third season episodes can be repeating in New York. Then the new sixth season episodes are airing on Wednesdays, but they air again over the weekend. We're constantly making them and they're constantly airing.
"People in Europe are only on season four, and those episodes are new to them," he points out. "Star Trek is just so popular. It's its own kind of thing. Every episode we do -- from the good ones to the ones that aren't as well regarded -- has a long shelf life. I did a short film a few years ago, called The Battery. It won a Best Short Film award at a film festival in New York City and the festival organizer called me to be there and to talk about it. I hadn't seen it in a year or two. A lot of people were there and to them it was brand new. But it felt so old to me. I'd almost forgotten about it.
"Years and years ago I did the film Masters of the Universe with Courteney Cox and Frank Langella and some other good actors, " he adds. "and I just got a call that they're going to do a DVD version of the film. I was so young when I did it. I hadn't had my kids yet. It was well before Voyager. They want as many of us as are willing to sit down and record our memories of making the film, which they'd use as an audio track on the DVD. I told them to count me in if they actually do it. What's so strange about being an actor is that these things we do just live on and on and on."
While ST:VOY will surely live on and on and on, it's not over yet. The years, McNeill says, have simultaneously flown by and stood still. "In some ways the six years have gone by very quickly," he says. "In terms of the work it's felt quick. In terms of the work and the people, it's just unbelievable that we've done so much and spent so much time together. It's been a long time in the sense that I've got three kids now. My six-year-old son had just been born when we started Voyager. Now he's a little man. He's lived his whole life only knowing dad going off in the morning to do Star Trek. In that way, it's been a long time. I can see the memories flooding back every time I look at my kids."
And when he considers season six, what does McNeill think?
"I was pleased with it," he comments. "I think it was a good year for us. We had a bunch of good episodes and I'd say we had more good episodes than forgettable ones. The one thing I'd be critical of is that I think it was kind of a hump year. There wasn't a whole lot that was new. We didn't have Jennifer Lien leaving or Jeri Ryan coming on. We didn't have new show runners [producers handling the day-to-day]. There was nothing that was big news this season. We knew we had one more year to go and, complacency is definitely not the right word, but everybody was very comfortable. It was relaxed and I don't know that that's conducive to digging quite as deep as wew have in the past. It's a delicate thing to talk about, obviously."
So, too, is speaking about the development of both Paris as a character and the Paris-B'Elanna relationship. No one in the production offices at ST:VOY, however, could dny that Paris had a decidedly light season. He stood front and center in Alice and was an important factor in Fair Haven and Spirit Folk, the very entertaining Irish-themed episodes.
"One of the things I've discovered about Paris," ponders McNeill, "and I think the writers have discovered this too, is that he's a good utility character. He can fit nicely into a Harry Kim episode. He can fit into an episode with the Doctor. He can be a sidekick or a sympathetic friend. They didn't use him quite as much in those roels this season, but the writers know they can use him when they need him.
"I like that he's a utility player," he offers. "I get my one or two episodes a year, and I"m there doing my bit wherever else they need me. It's actually a good surprise because, based on who he was and what he was doing at the beginning of the show, nobody could have expected anything. Nobody could have known he'd fit in with basically every character.
"They definitely haven't done enough with Paris and B'Elanna," he decides. "That's how it turned out. For a lot of reasons, they're not anxious to make us a soap opera. Ongoing relationships are not what Voyager is about. A relationship is spice on our show. Deep Space Nine had long story arcs and had relationships that played out over a long period of time. Our show is more like the original Star Trek in that the stories are more independent of each other and aren't connected.
"That's a decision that was made and they've pretty much stuck with it, " the actor continues. "Very few storylines go more than an episode or two. They dug deep once with Paris and B'Elanna, and then they've referenced it in bits and pieces. You saw a little bit of B'Elanna being jealous in Alice, but a lot of the time Paris would say he's leaving for a big, dangerous mission, and B'Elanna barely seemed to notice.
"It would be nice, especially with this next season being the last, to really explore the relationship for one episode, to have it be the main story of an episode. If they're not going to do anything with the relationship, then let them be available to other people. Garrett gets the occasional romance, but they really haven't let Roxann and I do too much, together or apart. We love working together and the audience seems to like to see us together. So I'm with the fans on this one. I think they'd either like to see us really together or apart."
Looking back specifically on Alice, Fair Haven, and Spirit Folk, McNeill offers up praise for all three hours. "I know that Alice was not that well received and I'm not quite sure why that was," McNeill says. "It was a ship show. You had this alien that was a voice that became an imaginary image. It may have been too esoteric for people. I enjoyed acting it because it was a rare chance to chew some scenery, to be vulnerable and to go to extremes with my emotions.
"The Irish shows were fun. The sets were great. I especially enjoyed working with Ian Abercrombie on Spirit Folk. We'd done a play together 11 years ago and I hired him a couple years ago for one of the episodes I directed, Someone to Watch Over Me. They liked him and brought him back for Spirit Folk. He's been acting for a long time and I love his old theatre stories. I was thrilled that they brought him back for another show, because I felt like I'd found him for Star Trek."
As noted earlier, at the time of our conversation, McNeill hadn't planned to do too much during his off-season. He'd expected to make a couple of convention appearances. He'd professed a desire to tinker with the latest short film he'd directed, Nine Millimeters of Love, a "Cupid story a la Martin Scorsese," which stars Liz Vassey (a guest star in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Conundrum), Carl Lumbly (Cagney and Lacey, Going to Extremes), and Ethan Phillips. He'd wanted to produce more telemovies, as he did with the UPN saga Monster. He'd been keeping his eyes open for acting roles and directing gigs and, in the meantime, he'd intended to hang out with his wife and kids, play with the family's new dog, and relax.
It wouldn't be much of a surprise, truth be told, if McNeill's post-Star Trek future mirrored his sixth season summer hiatus. "I'd like to mix it up, " he says. "I love acting, but I see a whole lot of really good actors I know who are not working, who can't find anything. And I don't want to rely only on acting.
"Also, to be honest, I'd get bored just acting," he admits. "I enjoy developing projects, finding stories and raising money. I enjoy directing. It's an obvious name to use, but Jonathan Frakes is a good role model. He's producing and directing, and he's directing projects he's produced. I like being in charge of how something is conceived and financed, not just the shots.
"Once we're done on Voyager, I'll have more time to see what else I can do. I've missed some opportunities. I originally planned to direct Monster, but it was going to be shot in Australia and it wouldn't have been finished before I needed to be back for Voyager, so I couldn't do it. I had an offer to direct Dawson's Creek, but there wasn't enough time.
"But I can't complain because Star Trek has treated me very well," he decides. "I've had a job for six years. I got to direct and, hopefully, I'll get to direct at least one more before it's over. I'd love to do it, but I realize that Rick [Berman] and the studio have to put a limit on how many episodes they let the actors direct. So I'm very thankful for Star Trek, for all it's given me, and for everything I've gotten to do. I'll be prepared to move on, but I"ll miss it when we're done."
As the conversation reaches its end, it does so with McNeill contemplating ST:VOY's place in the Star Trek pantheon. And in contemplating the show, McNeill finds himself playing both cheerleader and protector.
"Everybody is constantly comparing Voyager all the other Star Trek shows," McNeill says. "Star Trek started it. The Next Generation rejuvenated the franchise. People ask why we don't have The Next Generation's numbers. Who does? There were only one or two other sci-fi shows on the air at that time. Now there's tons of sci-fi available for fans to watch, and they're only going to watch so much of it. If they don't like an episode of a show they may never come back.
"I'm very proud of Voyager," he states finally. "I think we're making good television and good sci-fi. We came on after Deep Space Nine, which very different from The Next Generation and the original Star Trek. That made Voyager vulnerable. But we are different in our own ways. We've got the first female captain as the star of a Star Trek series. We've got really good actors who are as good as anyone on the show.
"So I honestly think that, when it's all over, when we stop making the show, people will think better of Voyager. I think people will appreciate us more."