Robert Duncan McNeill:
Fly Me To The Moon

Starfleet's former bad boy
Tom Paris turns his life around

by Steve Eramo
TV Zone Magazine
November 2000
© 2000 Visual Imagination Ltd.

Star Trek: Voyager's Tom Paris thought he had it made when Captain Kathryn Janeway offered him a chance for parole from a Federation prison. All the ex-Starfleet officer and Maquis rebel had to do was help her and the USS Voyager find his former Maquis colleagues and he could return to Earth a free man. Unfortunately, he did not count on being lost in space along with the ship and its crew. As Conn officer, Paris has spent six years piloting Voyager on a long and often perilous course towards home. The experience has helped him mature into a fine officer and made a new man of him. Actor/director Robert Duncan McNeill, who plays Paris, looks forward to his character's continued development as Voyager enters its final season.

"Over the years, I think the writers and producers have been very clear on the things that I like to see in Tom Paris and the direction I want the character to go in," says McNeill. "I wanted him to be someone who maintained his edge yet became more responsible and more of a leader. After all, he's a bridge officer and part of the command team. Someday down the road this character is going to grow into a person who will, hopefully, command his own starship. He's going to have to use all of his strengths along with some Captain Kirk-like qualities, which include the willingness to break the rules when necessary.

"So that's the kind of growth I've wanted to see in Tom Paris, and we've made some positive strides in that direction. I also think Tom's sense of humor, which can be ironic and sarcastic at times, has also helped define who he is. That's something I feel I brought to the character from the very beginning and have tried to keep it alive over the past six seasons.

"One thing that the writers are planning to focus more on this year is the romance between Tom and B'Elanna Torres [Roxann Dawson]," adds the actor. "That's been a concern of mine for awhile. They've had this relationship but we haven't really explored it and used it as well as we might have. However, we're finally going to make some headway this season. Fans will see some things on Voyager that they've never seen done before in terms of relationships on Star Trek. The ideas the writers have come up with are big and are going to be great fun to play."

In Voyager's sixth-season cliffhanger Unimatrix Zero, an old friend of Seven of Nine's [Jeri Ryan] bring her to a virtual reality world called Unimatrix Zero. It is a place within the Borg collective where a small percentage of drones go during their regeneration cycle. There they can act and think like individuals. Seven's friend asks her for help to stop the Borg Queen [Susanna Thompson] from discovering its location. McNeill and the rest of the Voyager crew returned to work in June to film the conclusion to this story - the seventh season opener, Unimatrix Zero, Part II.

"Honestly, I have very few scenes in this one," says the actor. "Even though it's a very big episode and one I'm sure the fans really will enjoy, most of the action takes place on the Borg cube. If you saw the first part of the story, you know that Janeway [Kate Mulgrew], B'Elanna and Tuvok [Tim Russ] have been assimilated. In part two they're on the cube doing their Borg thing. Meanwhile, Seven of Nine is trying to intercede and help them, so those of us left on Voyager don't have much to do. We do our typical "intense Space acting" on the bridge, but storywise the episode mainly focuses on those four characters.

"I had much more to do in the second episode we shot, which is called Drive. That was a lot of fun for me. In it Voyager discovers an area of space where different alien species get together and compete in shuttle races. Those scenes were done in a fashion similar to that of the Star Wars pod-racing ones. Naturally, Tom Paris joins in with the Delta Flyer and he has a blast zipping around space. In the midst of that, there's a great B-story with Tom and B'Elanna trying to figure out where their relationship is going. As I mentioned, the writers have some exciting plans for these two this season that could possibly include marriage, children, and who knows what else. We'll just have to wait and see."

McNeill starts chuckling when recalling the costumes he and Garrett Wang [Ensign Harry Kim] wore for a holodeck scene in another seventh season episode. "One day I came to work and noticed that the costume department had made Garrett and me hockey uniforms, but they didn't look like what you'd expect. They had the full helmet, hockey sticks, gloves, shoulder pads, et cetera, but it was all done in a spacesuit kind of style.

"They were, how can I put this, interesting. Garrett and I did not have a very amusing day walking around in those outfits," he jokes. "Our costume people come up with some quite wonderful and very creative things, but every now and then you'll get a costume and think, 'Oh my God, do I really have to wear this?' I liked my Captain Proton outfit much better."

Besides his work in front of the cameras on Voyager, the actor has also had the opportunity to direct three episodes of the series -- Sacred Ground, Unity, and Someone to Watch Over Me. He is looking forward to directing at least one more before the show ends. "Directing Star Trek was a goal and a dream of mine for a long time," says McNeill. "I'm very thankful to everyone here for allowing it to take shape and finally happen."

Are there any specific challenges McNeill has found directing a science fiction show as opposed to a straight drama or comedy? "When you direct a more contemporary program you find 'real life' idiosyncratic moments that you can use to add to the story," he explains. "Star Trek is a fantasy series, as such it has a very sterile environment. So you can't allow 'real life' things to happen on such a show. For example, on a starship there can't be certain noises. If there's a scene in the mess hall you can't have plates banging on the table. You also can't have the actors talking and eating at the same time. That's just not done on Trek.

"So you're constantly struggling with how to keep the actors at ease and appearing natural while trying to stick to the show's established parameters. It would be great to do some of the more modern, hip types of photography you might see on NYPD Blue or ER. Unfortunately, that wouldn't be in keeping with the style of our show. Sometimes Star Trek can be very limiting for a director. However, there are times that you can use the special effects and fantasy elements to your advantage. So it can be a double edged sword, but bottom line you do your best to embrace any challenges and find ways to make them work for you."

Away from the Voyager set McNeill has been busy working on a number of other projects including a short independent film called 9mm of Love. "It's a spoof of the classic hit-man movies," says the actor. "The people at Paramount Studios have been very supportive and generous enough to let me use many of their facilities and resources to make the movie. In fact, we shot it on the New York street backlot here at the studios. I'm putting the finishing touches on it and look forward to it making the various film festival rounds.

The actor also had the chance to show off his vocal talents this summer when he sang the national anthem at a Philadelphia Sixers game [ed. note: the team was actually the Phillies.] "I was in town for a Star Trek con and the Phillies called me and asked if I'd sing the national anthem. I said, 'Sure.' I'm a huge baseball fan so it was a real treat for me. Ironically, James Darren [Vic Fontaine, Deep Space Nine] was at the game too, He was a guest of the Phillies' managers and sitting in one of the owners' boxes. As a local he had had the opportunity to sing the anthem there before, so I hung out with him beforehand to get some tips."

Although the past six years have seemed like an eternity for the crew of Voyager in terms of their journey home, according to McNeill the time has passed by at warp speed. "I remember talking to Rick Berman [Voyager co-creator and executive producer] right before we began filming in June. I asked him if he thought the time had gone by quickly and he told me 'For some reason, Voyager has gone by faster than The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine.'

"For me, it seems like we just started last year. We still have quite a few episodes left to shoot for this last season, which is great. Overall, I've had lots of fun doing Voyager and there is very little if anything I regret about it. You always want to be the number one show on tv and I'm only sorry we didn't quite make it. However, I think people who were initially resistant to the show have come around to really love it. In fact, they did so relatively easily and I know from doing cons that we've built a whole new generation of Trek fans. So it has been a wonderful experience."

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