Tom Paris with space background

Robert Duncan McNeill:
We'll Always Have Paris
by Steve Eramo
TV Zone Magazine
February, 2000

© Visual Imagination Ltd.

When Captain Kathryn Janeway was ordered into the Badlands to apprehend a Maquis vessel, she asked troubled rebel Thomas Eugene Paris to help her in exchange for a parole. Despite his troubled past, Janeway saw a great deal of potential in him and felt he deserved the chance to redeem himself. In his over five years serving as USS Voyager's ace pilot and auxiliary medic, Paris has gone from misunderstood outcast to trusted colleague. As a result, the character has become more viewer-friendly, according to Robert Duncan McNeill.

"When you first see Tom Paris in the show's pilot episode Caretaker he has this real rebel without a cause, lone wolf-type of attitude," explains the actor. "However, as time went on I think the show's writers and producers realized that this is a difficult quality to play over a prolonged period because it really doesn't allow the audience to get close to a character. Paris had a little chip on his shoulder that, in a way, became a big obstacle for the viewers.

"So they had to go in search of other traits to focus on, and one of the things I love is that they've made Paris sort of a class clown. This past season, in particular, he constantly came out with these ironic, sarcastic remarks which added some levity to the show. It makes a nice change to play a character who has a sense of humour and likes to joke with people and comment on a serious situation with a silly one-liner every now and then.

"Another aspect of his personality that they've begun to explore is his tendency to challenge authority," continues McNeill. "A perfect example of this is the fifth season episode Thirty Days in which Paris is demoted to ensign after he violates protocol when trying to help a race of underwater dwellers. I thought it was great that he was the one willing to get his hands dirty and break the rules and do it for a good cause. I'd like to see Paris be a little more proactive when it comes to fighting for something in which he truly believes. There's absolutely no reason why he can't be the hero every now and then even when he doesn't quite do things by the book. After all, even Captain Kirk bent the rules once or twice," he laughs.

Getting Back the Pips

Does the actor think Paris will be promoted back to lieutenant during Voyager's sixth season? "I honestly don't know," says McNeill. "I tend to forget about it because I don't see the pips on my collar when I'm acting but occasionally I'll remember that Tom's an ensign. lt just doesn't sound right, though, does it, "Ensign Paris." Lieutenant fits my character much better. Paris has been around the block and the term 'ensign' implies a slight naivété, so, yes, I think he needs his other pip back."

The one person aboard Voyager who can tease Paris about his demotion and probably get away with it is his half-Klingon, half-human girlfriend Lieutenant B'Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson). Like Paris, she dropped out of the Academy and joined the Maquis as a way of fitting in somewhere.

The two ex-misfits have been together ever since they declared their true feelings for one another in the fourth-season episode Day of Honor. Although McNeill enjoys his scenes with co-star Roxann Dawson, he has mixed feelings about the direction their on-screen romance has taken.

"At first, I was really excited about it," notes the actor. "I thought, 'Oh, boy, Paris is finally going to get to be the leading man,' and we played some of that out, which was fun. However, now it feels a bit like, OK, we've established that they're a couple but we actually don't deal with it much any more. It's rare that we'll have a scene that takes advantage of their relationship, and I'd rather the writers not bring it up unless it's integral to the plot.

"I'll admit that, yes, sometimes I think it would be nice to have Tom Paris freed up so that he can become involved in a new romance with a guest-star in a particular story. The same goes for Roxann's character, but we're both limited in that regard because of the emotional bond between Tom and B'Elanna."

There was some speculation prior to the start of Voyager's fourth year that Paris might begin a relationship with new arrival Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) instead of B'Elanna, but that was not to be. "Initially, I think some people were afraid of Paris and Seven getting together. Seven's obviously an extremely sexy individual and they wanted to steer clear of any situation in which it might appear as if Tom was trying to hit to her," chuckles McNeill.

"So the two of them didn't interact much when she first came aboard and, actually, I'm still not quite sure how Paris is supposed to feel about Seven. She butts heads quite a bit with certain characters, especially B'Elanna and Captain Janeway [Kate Mulgrew], but with Paris it's something far lighter. He's not at all intimidated by Seven and will occasionally tease her, as he does everyone else, in an attempt to help her cultivate her sense of humour. Looking at it that way, I guess they're more like brother and sister than anything else."

In the show's fifth season opener Night Paris invites Seven to join him and Ensign Kim (Garrett Wang) on the holodeck to act out a scene from a new monochromatic programme he has developed. It is a homage to the old Flash Gordon movie serials and features Paris in the role of Captain Proton who, with Kim as his loyal sidekick, battles the evil Doctor Chaotica (Martin Rayner.) This holodeck program is the focus of an entire episode, Bride of Chaotica!, and is also featured in Thirty Days, the filming of which McNeill will not soon forget.

Sensitive Problem

"My butt caught on fire," he recalls. "We were shooting a blue screen sequence in which Captain Proton is flying through Space. I was up on a teeter-totter basically strapped in around the waist with a jet pack on my back. I had on all these layers of protective clothing and the special effects guys told me, 'Don't worry, you're absolutely safe. This [jet pack] is just like a big sparkler.'So I get all ready and they said, 'Once we light these fuses they're going to burn between 30 and 45 seconds and we can't stop them. We might film the scene a second time until they fizzle out.'

"They lit the pack, turned on the wind machine and the director [Winrich Kolbe] began filming. About 15 or 20 seconds into the dialogue my butt suddenly started to get very hot. Five seconds later my pants were fire and everybody was running over to with fire extinguishers and buckets of water. They got me down off the teeter-totter and I had two big blisters right on the most sensitive parts of my anatomy. I actually have a framed picture in my trailer of that moment just before I screamed, 'Stop!,' that the special effects people gave me. I have a great deal of sympathy for actors from the old days who had to do stunts like this without the aid of computer-generated special effects. I'm sure many of them wound up with burnt butts like mine. Needless to say, we won't be having any more live flames shooting out of my jet pack," laughs McNeill.


Despite the unexpected singeing of his posterior, the actor still calls this episode one of his favourites from this past season. "Thirty Days was interesting in that the original draft ended with Paris going into the brig. We shot that script as is but for whatever reason it turned out to be 10 minutes short, so the writers had to take another look at it. They came up with the idea of using the brig as a framing device and started the story with that and then played it out in flashback form as a letter to Tom's father. So I went back with a second unit and filmed all the additional footage in the brig with my character recording the letter. I felt the changes made for a stronger and more complex story with many more emotional layers than the first version."

Hollow Pursuits

"I loved Bride of Chaotica! It was a very unusual episode for Voyager but we managed to pull it off and the fans responded very favorably to it. Course: Oblivion was a fun episode to do because we got to see Tom and B'Elanna marry, but since it was in an alternate reality we didn't have to continue that scenario in the show. I thought the scene in sickbay when B'Elanna is dying was so well-written and it was a joy for me to play opposite Roxann in it.

This story is also memorable for me because at the same time I was prepping to direct an episode of a children's series called The Journey of Allen Strange for Nickelodeon," adds the actor. "I was so busy with Voyager, though, that my first AD [assistant director] on Allan Strange had to come to Paramount so that he and I could discuss the episode that I'd be directing. So I'd finish this really big dramatic scene with Roxann and then sit down off to the side of the set and go over the Nickelodeon script with their assistant director. I was a bit schizophrenic that week," he jokes.

McNeill holds the distinction of being the first Voyager cast-member to direct an episode of the series. He made his debut behind the camera with the third-season episode Sacred Ground, and a few months later he assimilated the Borg into the programme when he directed Unity. During the show's fifth season he directed Someone to Watch Over Me, a bitter-sweet tale in which the Doctor falls in love with Seven.

"One of the biggest challenges I faced with this episode was that some of the elements that Science Fiction traditionally relies on were not in the script," he says. "There were no spaceships or moody Sci-Fi scenes, it was a real character-driven plot. It was a story that could easily have worked in any television series or any film set in any time period. There were some moments that took advantage of the fact that the Doctor is a hologram and Seven is half-Borg, half-human, but the essence of the story was human feelings.

"It was as close to a traditional romantic comedy as Star Trek has ever gotten, and as such it relied on the spontaneity of the actors. Comedy works the best when it's fresh, so I would constantly be reminding myself to try to help the actors find the nuances in a line or play around with a scene. Most importantly, though, I wanted to make sure everyone was having fun. Fortunately, we had wonderful guest-stars including Scott Thompson from Kids in the Hall, who did a terrific job. There was also Brian McNamara, a peer of mine whom I've known for years who's charming and very funny, and Ian Abercrombie, Elaine's boss on Seinfeld, who played an alien monk. They're all strong actors and, along with the Voyager cast, I felt that was the key to this episode. I focused on the actors and their characters and the humour and I think it turned out to be a good show."

In the Future...

Although he remains passionate about acting, McNeill relishes his work as a director and hopes to direct more of his own projects in the future. "I know Star Trek has had a positive influence on so many youngsters by telling tales of morality in a Sci-Fi wrapping, so I'd like to do something along those lines. What I'm learning as a director on Voyager and these other shows will certainly help prepare me for that," enthuses the actor.

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