- Trek Galaxy's Voyager Tribute -
By Gregory L. Norris & Laura A. Van Vleet exclusively for TrekGalaxy.
Day 08 - A Date With The Doctor!
Beyond the security guards and the sound-insulated doors of Stage 8 on the Paramount Lot sit nine directors' chairs. They are the first things you see upon entering the dark and cavernous set where, for the past seven years, the ongoing adventures of a lost starship crew and its intrepid captain have been filmed. The chairs, each bearing a small golden star - and appropriately, one apiece, the names of Star Trek: Voyager's cast - sit empty, a silent reminder that the adventure is nearly at its end.
One chair belongs to Robert Picardo who, according to Voyager captain Kate Mulgrew, is 'the consummate actor', and who 'took a role that was one dimensional and transformed it into one of the most enduring heroes in all of Science Fiction history'. Today, with our stay in Hollywood winding down, we are scheduled to meet with Bob Picardo, whom we've interviewed many times in recent months for various news features (during one such talk, my grandmother, the fabulously talented poet Lovey Norris, even assisted us in conducting the interview!). Picardo, a soft-spoken, ever-gracious man, has already anticipated our visit. With a large bouquet of flowers and a thank you card in hand for him, we shake hands, exchanging honest pleasantries.
"For this interview, we've got about ten or so really good questions for you," I say.
Picardo chuckles, "I can't even think of ten really good questions at this point!"
He thanks us for our gift, asks about my grandmother, who is a huge Picardo/Voyager fan, then it's on to the inevitable, our talk about the last seven years, and this incredible voyage that will soon conclude.
"We were talking last night and both remembered on the E! Network in early '95, you hosted a special behind the scenes making of Star Trek: Voyager, which was really the first look we got of the ship and crew," I pose. "Can you take us back to that time and explain how you came onboard Voyager, and also, how did you make a holographic become so human?"
"I was doing a play at the Mark Taper Forum, which is really the premiere regional theatre in the Los Angeles area." Picardo recalls. "The play was called "The Waiting Room". I played a Doctor who had a terrible bedside manner, a role I had done before on China Beach, so I guess I was all warmed up for Voyager!" he laughs. "I really was very busy in the final preparations for this play, which dealt with women's health issues. I played a doctor who started out very unsympathetic and very close-minded, who then had his mind opened by developing his own health problems and becomes a much better caregiver. Looking back, it was not only good preparation for the way the Doctor was early on in Voyager, but also for the Doctor's growth throughout the entire series. My agent sent me the script for "Caretaker", Voyager's pilot episode and sent me out to test even though I wasn't fully available because of the play. Because of the play, I had no time to prepare for the audition. Often, an agent will Xerox only the scenes that you're reading for, which mine did."
"I read what it said when the Doctor makes his first appearance in the pilot script, which was, 'the Doctor, an Emergency Medical Hologram, shimmers into view, colourless, humourless…'. I thought, oh, great! This sounds like a lot of fun for potentially five years, maybe seven. So I read the scene and didn't get it, and I threw the script on the floor, unread. I was going to pass. Then I spoke to my good friend, Megan Gallagher, a successful actress I'd worked with on China Beach and she said she was reading for the part of Janeway. She also commented on what a wonderful script it was. I told her I didn't have time to read the entire script, and that they wanted to send me on this audition for the Doctor. I didn't get the joke about this character. It didn't seem funny to me, so I was going to pass. She said 'no, no - read the entire script'. And had she not said that, I don't know what I would be doing for the last seven years. At her recommendation, I read the entire script, which was fantastic. She told me I should consider reading for the part of Neelix, which looked like a plum character role. And I did, and I decided that was the role I wanted to play."
"You originally tested for Neelix?" Laura asks.
"Yes. I called my agent and told him I was turning down my Doctor audition and asked to read for Neelix. I went in and read for his character, very successfully. I played Neelix kind of as a 'dry drunk in a twelve step program', who had a weaker side and was trying to be a better guy, but he just couldn't always do it and kept sliding back to his basic, weaker self. I did all the no-nos of auditioning. I had props. I carried a flask that had water in it. My children were young then, so there was baby powder everywhere in the house. I loaded up a handkerchief with baby powder, and in the scene when Neelix first comes onboard Voyager and he's trying to spruce himself up because it's such a nice ship, I dusted myself off and raised a cloud of dust just like Pigpen in the old Charlie Brown cartoons." Laura and I share a good chuckle at the actor's revelation. "So I did all these hammy things, and they laughed at what I did! I was called back to make a test deal.
"When I went to do the test, I couldn't get an answer on how bad the Neelix makeup was going to be. I kept thinking that 'humanoid', as Neelix was described, would be like Spock from the original series, just a pair of ears. I finally decided that the only way to discover what the makeup was going to be like was to see the designs. So I called Mike Westmore [Voyager's creature makeup designer] without letting the producers know. I said, hi, I've done major makeups in movies, I'd like to come see the makeup designs. He told me it was okay to come by to see what they were planning, and it was then that I discovered the makeup was major. It was basically the Neelix makeup you see today. I discussed it with my wife, and told her I thought I could do it without the makeup driving me crazy. I figured she had a vested interest if I went crazy and started murdering people because of the makeup," he adds with a dry chuckle. "We decided that I could handle it. The Neelix makeup didn't have a neck appliance, which is the one thing I hate the most when I wear prosthetics. I went in and tested, hoping to win the part. I never met my competition for the role of Neelix, because they had a special session for me due to the play. I read and did not get it?
"Wow!" Laura gasps. "And what happened next?
"My agent called me right after I lost Neelix and said the producers really wanted me to read for the Doctor, that there was something in my voice they kind of envisioned for his role," continues Picardo. "I said the immortal words, 'I don't get the joke', but let me think about it. My wife convinced me it would be a good job, so I read the lines with her a few times, I went back to test, and I became the only actor on the show who read his part only once during an audition. Again, I did terrible things that you're not supposed to do, such as adlibbing. I made a now-famous joke where the Doctor's final line in the script was, 'I believe somebody has failed to terminate my program'. I took a long, deadpan look around the room and said, 'I'm a Doctor, not a nightlight!' They all laughed big-time. I didn't know at the time that I was channelling Deforest Kelly.
Robert Picardo as Voyager Holographic Doctor. "I took a long, deadpan look around the room and said, 'I'm a Doctor, not a nightlight!' They all laughed big-time. I didn't know at the time that I was channelling Deforest Kelly."
|"That's how I got hired, completely by chance. I sort of bluffed my way through the pilot, having no idea what I was doing or going to do as the Doctor, and then with surprise, I saw the pilot and learned the audience was reacting well to the Doctor and his exaggerated distaste for everything. In the first episode after the pilot, it started to dawn on me what the arc of the character might be, and where the source of his ill humour came from. It was like a big revelation to me, to finally have an insight into why he acted the way he did."
"How much of the Doctor was Robert Picardo's acting, and how much was the invention of the writers?" I ask.
Picardo says, "I started working on other ideas for the character, and things became evident in the writing. As we proceeded together, I think the writers wrote to the strength of whatever it was they liked in my performance. It became a mutual creation. Mine was the most undefined character in the pilot, and also the one they had the least idea of what to do with. When we were first hearing story pitches, one of the writers said nobody wanted to pitch stories involving the Doctor. Nobody had any idea of the concept of what the character was going to be or how to write for him. After the fifth episode when the Doctor looked at Kes and he told her he wanted to have a name, everyone understood his journey of entitlement, and by the middle of season one, everybody was coming in with Doctor pitches and wanting to write for him."
"I remember thinking in the second episode when the Doctor was shrinking - somebody, get in there and save him before he vanishes!" I chuckle.
Picardo laughs, too. "That was the show where I had all those scenes with Kes, where I complained to her about how I was for emergency use only, and how I was now being utilized for all these banal and irritating details. That episode was the first major insight into the character's attitude, because he felt he was under-appreciated. My understanding of him grew very quickly after that. He was, on one hand, like an unhappy child and a cranky old man put together. He was a child that wanted to be appreciated and be part of a group, applauded for what he could do and both treated and welcomed into their ranks as an equal. But when he wasn't, he had this patina of arrogance and disdain for everything else because he was not being appreciated or recognized. It was fun to have that child-like underbelly, but the crusty and cranky exterior."
"What would you like the Doctor's ultimate fate to be in the final episode?" Laura poses.
"I think there should be a certain amount of recognition for the fact that he has greatly exceeded his original design and purpose, and I would hope some kind of reconsideration for the other EMH Mark 1's that have been condemned to such a menial life once they were decommissioned as medical holograms for the fact they were colossal failures," Picardo says. "I think it would be nice if Starfleet looked again at his technological brothers and perhaps gave them a better fate in light of what the Doctor had succeeded in accomplishing. I think that would mean a great deal to him."
"We just spoke with Kate Mulgrew, and she talked about how painful it has been saying goodbye to Janeway, and saying goodbye to all of you," Laura says. "Are you experiencing any similar regrets?"
Picardo takes a deep breath. "I agree with Kate. She and I have become close friends, and I have close friendships with many of the people in the cast. And even the ones that I'm not as close to I have very warm feelings for. I'm going to miss everyone," admits Picardo. "In a way, it's the people that you don't tend to socialize with often, yet you're spoiled by in having the opportunity to see them all the time, those are the ones that you're losing because you haven't established the pattern of being with them away from the set the way I have with, say, four of the cast members. So I know the ones that are closest to me, I'll continue to see. But it will never be with the kind of regularity again now that we've shared that everyday working experience. I feel a lot of sadness about Voyager coming to an end, on many levels. It's obviously, the longest job that I have had, and I would guess, the longest any of the others in the cast have had. I don't think even Kate's soap job [on Ryan's Hope] lasted this many years. The longest I'd ever had before this was on China Beach, which only lasted three and a half years."
"Another thing Kate discussed was a reunion, as a lot of Science Fiction series do," I say. "She found that comforting, the idea of being with the cast again."
"There will be certain opportunities," says the actor. "In fact, we're doing a convention in England in July of this year where six of the nine of us will be together, including Kate. And there will be other times in the future where a significant number of the Voyager cast will make appearances at the same time, hopefully all of us, which would be great. A convention, as nice as it is to see everybody and have dinner together, is not the calmest, most reflective opportunity for a reunion."
"Could you talk about your friendships among the cast?" Laura asks. "In particular, Kate Mulgrew, who came into the show at a critical point in the beginning?
"Kate is a natural leader as an individual, and I know she's said it's because of her role as an older child in her family. Kate exudes comfortable authority. She can wear the mantle of power very well and take charge of a situation, as she did beautifully coming last minute into this crew that had no captain. It's just a reflection of her particular strengths as an individual that she naturally leads. She expresses herself very clearly. She's a good listener. She's a compassionate individual. And she's very decisive. She says this is what I'm going to do and does it. There are certain qualities of Janeway that she's revealed as aspects of her own personality. On the other hand, there's a tremendous romantic streak to Kate, and it's a wonderful quality that didn't get a lot of play on our show."
"And the rest of the cast?"
"I probably socialize the most with Johnny Phillips, Roxann [Dawson], and Kate. But I'm friends with everybody."
"What will you regret most after Star Trek: Voyager wraps?"
Picardo takes a thoughtful pause. "I have to say, seeing the people, my fellow cast members and the crew, who I've lived with day after day for seven years. That's what I'm going to miss more than even the acting work, because I assume there will be more acting work to come. I've had a great time doing this, but it will be fun to play other roles as well. But I will miss the people the most. I certainly won't miss these space suits," he jokes, reaching for his hips. "Or the fact I've have no pockets for seven years. There are a few things I won't miss, like some of the techno-babble. The people, though, that's another matter."
The bustle of Stage 8 continues around us. I lean closer and ask, "What are your future plans?"
Picardo has many. "I'm working on several different projects, and a few of them are close to happening. I am developing a family movie with a science fiction twist for me to star in. I have a producer interested and we're bringing it to the family-oriented cable outfits, probably the Fox Family network. I have a book proposal, which I've submitted to Simon & Shuster, and which I've gotten very good early feedback on but it's not definite yet as to whether or not we're going to do it. It's a novel written by The Doctor, in character. I have two or three other things pending, but even if they were to happen, there would be scheduling conflicts that would have to be worked out. It's a fairly exciting time. I don't know which of these things is going to happen first. The sci-fi movie project is called Virtual Bob, but it's all I can tell you for now," he quips.
"Having not really come from a science fiction background, how has your opinion changed about the genre since joining Voyager?" asks Laura.
"I was not really a fan of science fiction before, or a fan of futurist fiction," Picardo admits. "I'm a huge horror buff. I love horror movies. Now, it's impossible to work on a show like this and devote yourself to it completely for seven years and not develop an appreciation for science fiction story telling. I love how we can tell a story in ways that you can't in something that's set in the present, or in a completely realistic setting. I like how we can deal with an internal human issue without the external trappings of the contemporary, or whatever contemporary elements can obscure an essential issue. The example I often use is you cannot tell a romance story in this day and age without the realities of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. But if you want to tell a story between two people and you set it in the future, you can just tell the story of the romance and not have to deal with any of the contemporary issues that make romance difficult in the early twenty-first century. Or, if you want to tell a metaphorical story about the AIDS epidemic, and how medical care should never be withheld according to any stigma attached to any particular illness, you can tell that story more successfully in science fiction than by setting it in the present and having to cope with attitudes of prejudice toward certain issues by people. So, yes, I have grown into a fan!"
"Voyager fans love the Doctor," I state. "What do the fans mean to you?"
Picardo answers, "The fans have been good to me. I've met a lot of really warm and wonderful people who love the show and seem to like my character in particular. I can't respond to all my fan mail, but I've tried to read all of it with the help of someone who works through it with me. I am grateful that so many people saw beneath the Doctor's crusty veneer and found him an interesting and dimensional character."
"He's become easy to embrace," Laura says. "Can you take us into the Doctor's daily world in terms of your schedule and preparation?"
"The hardest period that I remember of work was the year both DS9 and Voyager were being shot, and the last Star Trek feature, Insurrection. They were all happening at the same time. Rick Berman was so strapped with work because every line that is ever spoken on screen on Star Trek goes through his hands. We were getting our final versions of the scripts - well, we weren't getting them, to be honest with you," Picardo laughs. "We'd get them, and they'd be rewritten a lot, right before we shot it. So we couldn't learn our lines until the last possible moment. That made it very difficult. I remember one night in particular when I got a script around 9:30 at night, and I think I had six and a half pages of solid dialogue out of the eight and a half page day, and I had a call at six am the following morning. These pages showed up at 9:30 at night! That's hard to do. I was learning my lines driving to work. I could have killed myself, but fortunately, I didn't. I also learned them in the makeup chair, and sometimes I taped lines to objects on the set, which I don't like to do, things like consoles, chairs. The cheesiest thing I did during that time was I taped my lines to the top of the clamshell bed. I pressed the button and the lines rolled up!" he chuckles. "I could read them, but the camera couldn't see them because it was on the other side of the clamshell when the bed came up."
"Do you have a favourite memory from your time on Voyager?" Laura asks.
"One holiday night, we were all stuck here. We all went into Kate's dressing trailer together. This is the only time in seven years that this happened," Picardo recalls. "I had just given Kate a gift basket for Christmas filled with things for making martinis - a shaker, vodka and mixers and olives and other things to put in them. We were all hanging around filming this imaginary wedding scene between Paris and Torres, the parallel reality story set on the melting ship. We had nothing to say or do in it, really, because the scene was without sound. Kate broke out the martinis, mixed them, and gave everybody a drink right before the last scene. It's my fondest memory. We were all sitting around in her trailer, laughing and joking, which is not something we would ever do any other time. But because of that particular night, right before the holiday, we all had a cocktail then went back and shot the wedding scene. Not all of us, but four or five of us were feeling sort of goofy," he says deadpan. Laura and I again laugh. "It was fun, because there were such warm feelings in the room. We had such a good time, laughing, sharing each other's company, and as I said, it was so completely out of character. None of us would do that while we were working, which leads me to believe I probably shouldn't be talking about it."
"You're safe. Robbie McNeill told us it was his happiest memory from his time on Voyager, too," I say.
"Well, since it was only a one time thing, I guess it's safe to tell," Picardo quips.
"Do you have a funniest memory?"
"One of everybody's favourite funny memory was the time when Tuvok was supposed to appear naked on the bridge, because he was having a dream that he'd walked on the bridge with no clothes on. Tim [Russ, "Tuvok"] rehearsed the scene wearing a robe, but when he walked onto the bridge where we were all standing, when he took the robe off, we learned he had borrowed a long, black knee sock from wardrobe and had stuffed it fully. He was using this stuffed knee sock as - how shall I put this - an enhancement to his natural charm. The other eight of us were supposed to look at him, and of course, seven out of the eight of us dropped our eyes and glanced down at his program enhancement. I was the only one who looked him dead in the eye, because my feeling was I had no interest in Tim's real or virtual manhood," Picardo laughs. "I won the prize for not being distracted. That was a fun night."
A capable writer himself, Picardo holds a story credit for creating the sixth season episode, 'Life Line", in which the Doctor's program is sent back to save the life of his creator, Lewis Zimmerman. "If you could pen the ultimate 'Doctor' episode of Voyager, what would it be?"
"I always wanted to do a show about the Doctor receiving a gift, and having no place to put it," the actor says. "I wanted somebody in the crew to give the Doctor a small token of esteem, some simple, insignificant gift, and it ends up unravelling his entire life onboard Voyager because he has nowhere to put it, and no personal space whatsoever. He appeals to Janeway for quarters, but is denied for whatever reason, such as a power shortage, and then he makes a passionate plea on his need for personal space. He is granted a corner of Sickbay and he puts his little gift there, only it looks lonely all by itself. He then decides that it would be nice to put something with it, and he begins collecting things. Once he has one object, he wants more objects. This whole little section of Sickbay becomes something of a shrine to his interests and friendships. The story is really a metaphor for how we go through life collecting things, and even to use the fact that when the Doctor is deactivated, any real object falls out of his hand in the same way that when we're 'deactivated', when we die, all of our physical objects just fall away. So I wanted to do a story where the Doctor became obsessed with material wealth."
"What a great story!" I enthuse.
"Thank you," Picardo says. "I pitched it to the producers several years ago, and have thought about trying to get them to consider it again, only now it's too late. I came up with it when Seven of Nine was first begin introduced to the crew, and I was becoming more of her mentor and less a hologram in search of entitlement. Then we revived those really this year with the holographic rights stories. It was an idea I always wanted to do, but we never did."
As Picardo answers, he gets his call to the set. We need to quickly wrap things up, but with timing ever perfect, we've reached the last question on our list.
"If you could take one prop from the set to remember your time here, no matter how big or small, what would that be?"
"Of course, everybody would love a medical tricorder, but that's more for the Star Trek lore of things. What I would really love to have is the Doctor's desk chair, because I have fond memories of sitting in it. That's what I like to have, and in fact, I've offered to buy it, though I'm sure I'll never get it," Picardo states.
We have one final exchange. Like Mulgrew, Dawson, McNeill and many of the cast, Picardo has played a significant role in our professional careers as TV journalists. There is a sense of closure now, the truth that Voyager's adventure is nearly over.
"We'll talk again," Picardo promises as we say goodbye.
Laura answers simply, "Good voyage."
Filming on the second to last ever episode of Star Trek: Voyager, 'Renaissance Man', continues, and we head on - to Ops, where Garrett Wang awaits us.