Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Monday, June 25, 2007
Trekdom: Interesting. Television shows are products of their cultural context, meaning that they illustrate the perceptions and unconscious assumptions of their writers and audiences. But, Trek, unlike many shows, openly challenged the prejudices of viewers with preachy episodes like “Let that be your Last Battlefield.” Couldn’t it be argued that, while Trek unconsciously reflected mainstream racism of the late 60s, it consciously challenged that contemporary racism at the same time? Shouldn’t it be celebrated for what it attempted to do?
For a better sense of of my critical fandom, I'll leave you with some of my Trek favorites:
Kirk: Spock, you want to know something?, Everybody's Human. Captain Spock: I find that remark... insulting.
Favorite Character: Data, the super-white android that fights for equal rights!
TOS episode: Journey to Babel (in terms of race... in terms of storytelling, "The City on the Edge of Forever")
TNG episode: The Chase (in terms of race... in terms of storytelling, The Inner Light and All Good Things...)
Trekdom: Thank you so much!
Thursday, June 21, 2007
In the spring of 1980, Gene Roddenberry sat down to write a 60-page outline for a sequel to the first Star Trek feature film. Unlike The Motion Picture, the next one, he hoped, would be a Gene Roddenberry script, not a creative mishmash that went through the hands of countless other writers and studio executives. This would be the film that he wanted to make, and no one could claim co-writer credits or file grievances with the Writers' Guild. Committees be damned! Trek was his baby, and he was confident that Paramount would welcome his storyline with open arms and open wallets.
What was his grand idea? It involved time-travel, Klingons, and a beloved American president: JFK. After losing ships to V'GR, Klingons locate the "Guardian of Forever" (seen in "The City on the Edge of Forever"), and they diabolically use the time portal to travel back to 1963. These rogue Klingons succeed in stopping the assassination of JFK. Perhaps they kidnap Lee Harvey Oswald, or maybe they abduct the president and feed him Gagh! Somehow... they keep JFK alive. Only the insiders who've read the unpublished script know the full details. But, apparently, this change in the timeline is extremely detrimental for the future of humanity, and by the 23rd century, the Klingons reign supreme as an unstoppable intergalactic imperial force.
Fortunately, Captain Kirk once again saves the universe... by letting someone die. Travelling back in time, the noble captain ensures that JFK gets his head blown off in Dealey Plaza. "The climactic moments of the film," according to William Shatner, "would find Spock standing on a grassy knoll in Dallas, firing that infamous `phantom shot'... thereby guaranteeing a brighter future for all of mankind."
Prior to this cinematic climax, viewers are treated to Captain Kirk and JFK fighting, arguing, and then becoming close friends as the handsome and young commander-in-chief tours the spaceship Enterprise.
According to Trek insider Susan Sackett, this idea wasn't as hokey as it sounds, because the script contained many sensitive and tender moments, as well as interesting scifi concepts. And, in all fairness, was it really that worse than Kirk going back to the 1980s to save whales?
Paramount rejected the idea, and they soon turned to Harve Bennett to produce The Wrath of Khan. Roddenberry felt extremely hurt, and he took the rejection and demotion to "executive consultant" personally. An ensuing period of intense depression was accompanied by increased alcohol and cocaine abuse.
But, he didn't give up on the idea. He polished and resubmitted it for Star Trek III. It was immediately rejected without explanation. Roddenberry claimed that they just didn't like the idea of time-travel. So, when he learned that the fourth film would involve time-travel, he submitted yet another draft only to face yet another rejection.
Paramount insiders have not spoken publicly about those rejections, but we can guess their reasons. The idea WAS hokey. However nostalgic it may have been to see characters from Star Trek living in the actual sixties ("Double Groovy on You too!" Kirk screams), it was not an entertaining premise, especially when audiences were asked to applaud the death of JFK, because it safeguarded a future of human spaceflight!
It was also not original. Despite Roddenberry's assumption that no one else could claim writing credit, one can imagine an irate Harlan Ellison jumping on every soapbox he could find to denounce yet another bastardization of his original script, "City on the Edge of Forever." Roddenberry was simply combining the plot of "City" with the embarrassingly bad season 3 TOS episode "The Savage Curtain," in which Kirk hobnobs with none-other-than Abraham Lincoln (who calls Uhura "a charming Negress").
Any fan who attacks Harve Bennett's movies as "not in the spirit of TOS" should take a few moments to imagine the Star Trek film that Roddenberry would have made: Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and JFK
*Author's note: Some sources claim that Kirk and Spock attempt to stop the assasination of JFK. It is possible that different versions of Roddenberry's script contained different narratives.
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Trekdom Review: James Van Hise's 1995 The Unauthorized History of Trek.
James Van Hise has written many books on the history of film, television, and comics. He has also edited a collection of prose called Midnight Graffiti , which contains previously unpublished stories by Stephen King and Harlan Ellison, among others. Throughout his career as a writer, he continuously comes back to a favorite topic: Star Trek.
His 1995 The Unauthorized History of Trek makes a nice companion to his other Trek works, which have focused on the movies or exclusively on 24th century Trek. This book, in contrast, takes readers through many of the behind-the-scenes festivities, from the making of "The Cage" to the last seasons of The Next Generation. With its detailed breakdown of each season, together with synopses of memorable episodes, the text is useful as a reference guide for writers and Star Trek fans.
The book is strongest when covering the TOS years, which is understandable considering that we have many more sources, especially memoirs, that differ greatly from "authorized" Paramount publications. Nevertheless, many times, the author glosses over controversies, feuds, and myths. When Van Hise moves on to discuss TNG, his narrative almost entirely matches "authorized" histories that glorify Gene Roddenberry without delving into the darker aspects of his personality. Indeed, a fan that is well-versed in "what really happened" will be disappointed by the expectation that Van Hise's book is unique or provocative. One may get the impression that Paramount simply refused to let him use "Star Trek" in the title, which, by definition, made it "unauthorized."
Considering that the book was originally published in 1991, these weaknesses are of course understandable. Many of the details of Roddenberry's life did not become public until after his death. And, the mid-1990s witnessed a slew of published memoirs, especially Justman and Solow's Inside Star Trek, an indispensable source for historians of Trek. Clearly, the author revised the 1995 text by incorporating some brief discussions of Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Yet, it is obvious that he ignored newer publications, especially Joel Engel's 1994 Gene Roddenberry: The Man and the Myth behind Star Trek.
Van Hise can also be faulted for an ominous lack of critical analysis. Many subjects are briefly celebrated without a hint of critique, such as Star Trek's use of a racially-integrated cast. These sections will be frustrating for any fan who does not automatically swallow Roddenberry or Paramount propaganda. Overall, the tone is entirely "gushing," for lack of a better term.
Also, readers looking for analyses of Star Trek within the broader context of Vietnam and the Cold War will be sorely disappointed, as will fans looking for an objective discussion about gender, race, or other issues.
Last but not least, the book contains many factual errors, such as stating that Roddenberry was a science-fiction aficionado from childhood onwards, that he was head writer for Have Gun, Will Travel, and that Leonard Nimoy had no personal objections to returning as Spock for The Motion Picture.
Despite these flaws, the book makes good use of original sources, especially newspapers and magazine articles. Although the lack of citations could make those documents unusable for some writers, the primary sources are a must read, especially for those of us born after 1969.
*reviewed by Jared B.
*To purchase Van Hise's Unauthorized History of Trek at Amazon.com, click here.
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Monday, June 18, 2007
“Yes,” Bennett answered, “I can certainly make a better movie.”
“Can you make it for less than forty-five fucking million dollars?”
“Fine, do it.”
Harve Bennett then left the chairman’s office thinking, “I’d better watch some Star Trek.” He had never watched an episode on television. His familiarity with Kirk and crew amounted to carrying his sleeping children out of a movie theater in 1979. He knew Gene Roddenberry as a producer who kicked him off a television set in 1965 after calling him a “meddling network executive.” Otherwise, he hadn’t worked with Roddenberry, and he was not a Star Trek fan.
In 1991, Harve Bennett met Gene Roddenberry for the last time.
“Sure,” Roddenberry replied.
“That’s true,” Roddenberry admitted.
“Absolutely, of course,” Roddenberry promised.
The Great Bird never uttered a kind word about Harve Bennett, who has become one of the least celebrated torch-bearers of the Star Trek franchise. Praise is long overdue. Without Bennett, Trek may have flopped into oblivion with Roddenberry or someone else at the helm. Although it is probably a good thing that Paramount never ran with his script about Kirk and Spock’s academy days, Bennett still deserves much credit for saving Star Trek from the abyss. Under his leadership, Trek became hugely popular in the 1980s, breaking into the mainstream with much beloved movies, especially The Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Robert Picardo: Well, first of all, my performing the song parodies began as an impulse on my part to entertain the fans at conventions. I thought that if I made it fun for me, it would be fun for them. I think a lot of actors burn out on the Q and A aspect of Star Trek stage appearances. They can just become quite by rote. My initial notion was, if I worked at something that amused me and felt sort of creative and like I was having a fun time, the fans would respond to it. So, my first song parody which was, “What’s My Name?” grew out of the fact that I played a character on national television that had no name and that they’ve made an actual story-point out of him trying to decide on a name. It seemed amusing to me that a computer program could be indecisive.
So, it started as an outgrowth of talking about the role in front of fans and then as a way of making kind of a comic comment on it… and also to sing, which is something that I love to do and hadn’t had the opportunity to do onstage for some time. So that is how it developed, and yes, I certainly satirized the commercialism of the franchise in one of the songs, “I’ll Be Sold for Christmas,” which I think is pretty amusing and kind of dead-on…
You know, I think there was an impulse, a subconscious impulse to hold onto my own image. Once you’ve licensed your face away to a studio-owned television and movie franchise, there is a sense of a loss of control when they take your face and put it on book covers or make toys out of you… whatever. So, there was an impulse on my part to say, “Well, if I’m going to be part of a brand name, I might as well join the club and make myself into one, rather than fight it.” It was a way of taking some sort of control of something that was clearly out of my control… But, I think that the fact that Star Trek fans, and to some extent science fiction fans in general, like to collect artifacts related to the show or shows that they are fans of is something that distinguishes them as a fan-base, makes them unique, but also keeps us, so to speak, evergreen in their eyes. They like to have autographed pictures, they like to collect cards or action figures, whatever… It’s a double-edged sword: it identifies you as an actor, in particular with one role, but, on the other hand, it gives you a dedicated fan-base around the world that is willing to check you out online, or in person if you’re appearing at an event in their country or in their state. That is nothing to sneer at as an actor. I think that different actors have different relationships with that concept, and some of them just don’t like it. I’ve chosen to embrace it. I love to travel. To stand onstage in front of thousands of people and have them cheer and laugh at everything you say… Life could be worse! I guess what I’m saying is that I chose to try to make that a creative opportunity for me, rather than merely a financial opportunity.
Every CD that I’ve sold has benefited the Pediatric AIDS Foundation. $4.00 from every autographed CD has gone to the charity, so that has been another nice way of mixing commerce with a good deed. I’ve been raising money for them, and, more recently, for the San Gabriel Valley chapter of Habitat for Humanity, for the Planetary Society, and for the Pasadena Playhouse, which is the state theater of California, a place that I’ve worked at and am deeply attached to as an artist and a neighbor. So, it’s a nice mixture of doing something for causes that you believe in, as well as basically enhancing your own opportunities as an actor and performer by making these appearances…
It’s fun. I love to sing. I began my career thinking I was going to be in musical theater. Then, twenty-five years went by when I performed on Broadway, on television, and in movies where I basically didn’t have any opportunity to do any singing. Star Trek got me singing again, and since the end of the series I’ve performed in four or five musicals. So, that is another gift that the personal appearances have given me. They’ve restarted an aspect of my career that I’ve missed.
TD: So Trek hasn’t been a mixed blessing?
RP: Well, as I’ve said, it depends on your attitude as an actor toward commercializing your “self” or your persona, versus just playing different roles. You know, the reason we’ve become actors is that we like the challenge in creating other lives onstage and onscreen, creating other people than ourselves, living vicarious lives, and immersing ourselves in character. To suddenly stand onstage and say, “I’m Bob Picardo, the actor, and I’m here to talk about my Star Trek role and other things I’m doing, but have a look at me as an individual rather than just my work!” That is something that some actors are not comfortable with, and I certainly don’t blame them. It’s a parallel artform. Being a personality is not the same as being an actor. They have some things in common. But, some actors are deeply private and choose not to share that. I completely respect that choice. I would never fault them for it. But, I have to admit that the fans sometimes get a sense of… well, it’s not anger, although there is certainly disappointment with actors who never do make convention appearances… particularly from science fiction fans, because the actors are in shows that they like. Some of them feel that it’s part of the compact… so I know that some fans almost resent the actors that choose not to do the appearances at all.
TD: Is there a single dominant factor that keeps them away?
RP: Again, I think they have a different attitude. They’re not comfortable with commercializing their art or talking. In my opinion, it’s a little naïve to say that my role on Star Trek is just another role in a thirty-something-year career. When you take a role like that, and you know it’s going to be on all over the world virtually for the rest of your life and it’s not going to go away… you can’t quite say, “Well, it’s one of many roles that I’ve played, and I don’t want to discuss it anymore than a part I played onstage twenty years ago.” That is a little naïve. You certainly get associated with roles in Star Trek, and it’s probably my most identified role. I was on another hit television series, The Wonder Years. It was a recurring character, but The Wonder Years was the number-one hit on television, so when I would go to the supermarket the next day, everyone there would have watched the show the night before. I’ve never had that type of experience.
TD: Interesting. If I recall though, there was only one episode of The Wonder Years that focused exclusively on Coach Cutlip.
RP: I would say there were perhaps two. There was one where they made him a mall Santa, and they gave him a human soul, which I desperately fought against and turned out to be wrong. And then there was an episode that he was very central to, where the issue was choosing sides. Kevin Arnold challenged the coach by choosing all of the worst players, by not playing the other kids off each other in a competitive fashion. That was a particularly wonderful and well-written show. I’m grateful because it got me an Emmy nomination… that was one where I got hit in the head with a basketball. My children used to replay that moment in slow motion.
I never really finished talking about the CDs. I suppose I should say that the third CD is not a music CD. The Hologram’s Handbook is a book on disc that I made through a special arrangement with Simon and Schuster. Again, it benefits the Pediatric AIDS Foundation in the same manner as the other two. It is seventy-five minutes of my reading the funniest parts of The Hologram’s Handbook. The central conceit of the book is if you’re smarter than everyone else, here’s how to get along with stupid people. If you’re an advanced artificial intelligence and you’re forced to cooperate and work with lesser beings… follow this simple advice! It’s really parodying all those pop-psychology books that rack at the bookstore.
TD: Many people have compared the Doctor to the TNG character of Data. Just as the android struggled to be more human and to obtain the rights and privileges granted to sentient beings, the Doctor struggled to become more than the sum of his programming, to be treated as an equal member of the crew. Beyond these similarities, what made the EMH unique and different?
RP: Well, to begin first with their similarities. One of my great fears when I landed this role was that the fans would compare me to Data, who had been such a wildly popular character played by Brent Spiner (who I didn’t know well, but was acquainted with). The Pinocchio quality to Data, his sort of childlike desire to learn more, to be of use, to be of service… was really quite lovable. To their credit, when our writers/producers came up with the concept of the Doctor, they took the artificial intelligence character in a completely different direction by making him a cranky, curmudgeonly, and self-centered artificial intelligence. Obviously, I was “the next generation” of technology. I was software, whereas Data was hardware. There were a lot of early jokes I would make at the conventions about that distinction. You know, every time you have a problem with your computer, they’re always trying to blame it on software! Everybody was passing the buck. I remember when I first got the role, it seemed like everybody was saying their computer problems were with the software, so I referenced that as one of the reasons that the Doctor was so defensive.
In any case, because he was so different from Data on the surface even though you’re dealing with some of the same story-points of entitlement with both characters, the way they reacted to things, and their surface personalities were very, very different. The Doctor, as I said… curmudgeonly with a bad bedside manner… his primitive emotional subroutines seemed to function primarily so that his own feelings got hurt. Rather than having empathy for his patients, he was more concerned with how he wasn’t being accorded the respect he felt he deserved, because of this vast body of knowledge he had. Then, when you look at it briefly from his point of view, you’d say, “I have this enormous power that comes from this much information in my field, coupled with this tremendous vulnerability… Any idiot can come in and turn me off like a light switch!” That would be enough to piss anybody off. I can understand why he had his attitude problems early on and felt like he needed certain privacy entitlements and commands of his own control codes that made him more like a member of the crew than just this… mechanized service device.
Having said all that, I think that the main difference was that the Doctor began with feelings, and Data had to aspire to them and didn’t finally accomplish that until his emotion chip in the Generations movie. Because I started with that, I got to take the character in a different direction, and that was to have the capacity to develop feelings toward others. My feelings were all aimed in at myself. I was the complete self-centered individual when first activated, and I slowly learned the art of having feelings for others through my initial mentor in the show, Kes. Her character was my emotional sounding board. Even though she was the youngest and most childlike member of the crew, she kind of mentored me in my developing humanity and the character’s growth.
TD: Did you feel like it was detrimental to your character when Jennifer Lien was replaced with Seven of Nine?
RP: Yes, I was extremely concerned. First of all, we’d been such a wonderful unit that to shake up the nine original cast members was a source of concern for all of us. If they can replace one of you, then they can replace any one of you. We thought we were all here for the same ride… Jennifer, being the youngest member, a very sweet and talented girl, was not terribly communicative personally with the writing staff, and that may have hurt her, in the sense that… the writers develop ideas from chatting with the actors. They get a sense of who the actors are as individuals, what strengths they have, what qualities they may want to tap in them… and write storylines that are aimed at using them as elements. I think that Jennifer was so kind of mysterious, quite quiet. Also, let’s face it: There was a conceptual flaw in her character. She played a race that only lives seven years (it was almost a joke on the seven-year life of a television show). So, by season four, Kes should really have looked in her late forties or early fifties. That was also another issue that they couldn’t figure out how to deal with, so they just decided to jump ship on it.
I was concerned to lose my sounding board, so I went into [to see] Brannon Braga and said, “Kes is the only character that the Doctor really reveals his softer underbelly to. He is kind of an arrogant windbag and very defensive with most of the other members of the crew. If I lose her, I go back to doing the huffy, amusing windbag stories, not the ones that reveal his developing inner self.” Brannon replied, “Think of a way that you can relate to our new character.” He specifically gave me that challenge, and I went and thought about it and went back to him, saying, “Why don’t we turn the mentoring relationship the Doctor had with Kes around, so that the Doc now felt that he was the perfect person to mentor Seven of Nine in regaining her humanity?” She is now half-human and half-cyborg, and the Doctor felt that he was a better choice to develop her humanity than an actual human. That would give play to both his arrogance and his charming naiveté in a lot of areas. The Doctor turned out to have the latter quality in common with Data, even though his was more disguised. We’re both fairly naïve about certain things and extremely willing to try to expand ourselves.
That turned out to be a great dynamic between the two of us (the Doctor and Seven). The teacher-student relationship that culminated in the episode where I basically fall in love with my student in the Pygmalion episode, “Someone to Watch over Me.”
TD: Some fans were disappointed that the relationship didn’t more fully develop…
RP: I think it’s probably the fantasy of a lot of our younger male viewers to see the beautiful girl captured by the middle-aged bald guy, versus the hunkier rival.
TD: But it also would have been a gloriously dysfunctional relationship.
RP: Well, yes, of course it would have, but we certainly see a lot of those on television… Why not one more? No, I think the fact that the Doctor came to envy all these capacities that Seven had that she was not taking advantage of. The wonderful episode where Jeri got to impersonate me, because my program was supposedly hidden inside her... I thought she did a superb job.
TD: Kate Mulgrew has been very vocal about how impressed she was with Jeri Ryan’s talent, as well as the writing that went into the character of Seven of Nine. But, she was also very vocal about her disappointment and frustration with the decision to replace Kes, because, on some level, she thought it was a “Tits and Ass gimmick” in putting a cat suit on a supposedly progressive show with a strong female character.
RP: I agree with that. I had the same initial reaction that Kate did. We went on the air as a feminist statement, with a female captain judged on her own merits, which has nothing to do with her sex. She gets the job because she is the best for the job. Then suddenly, to have a new character that, let’s face it, especially in that silver outfit, looked like a Vegas showgirl without the headdress. So, I certainly understand Kate’s initial concerns, but all of us became impressed with Jeri’s performance. She really built a very interesting character. In the narrow emotional range posed by the character’s conception, she did some really interesting and varied work. I love both actresses and get along splendidly with both of them. I see Kate more, but I see Jeri as well since the show ended, and I’m very fond of her.
The drama largely passed me by. You know what I mean? I’ve discovered more since it ended about whatever tension existed between them than I actually noticed, because I always found them both very professional. I mean, Kate is always to the dot on time, immaculately prepared, etc. There were certain things built into Jeri’s costume, making it awkward to wear. It was a whole process for her to be able to go to the restroom, as far as her getting in and out of it. So, there were certain disadvantages that she had to cope with that I know took up some production time. Beyond that, I’m never one to kiss and tell, especially since I didn’t even get kissed.
TD: There was a rumor, and I’m not sure if it’s true or if Kate Mulgrew spoke publicly about it… but it’s a story that fans have told on Internet message boards like the TrekBBS and Trekdom. Apparently, she stormed into one of the producer’s offices (it may have been Berman’s or it may have been Braga’s), dropped a padded bra on the desk, and announced in a captain-like fashion, “No! I’m not wearing this!”
RP: It sounds like something Kate would say. I certainly can’t corroborate the story. Kate is just wonderfully outspoken. She is a natural leader. Thank God she came along… We’ve all heard the stories. The show started off with another actress, but she was conflicted about taking the role, and the producers, I think, were conflicted about having chosen her for the role. When Kate came along, she just stepped in, took the reins, and took over. Thank God for her! We all owe the fact that we spent seven years on the air to that kind of… aplomb!
TD: Hopefully, we’ll be able to ask her about it.
RP: I’m sure if you check every Star Trek convention, every dealer’s table, you’ll probably find the exact padded bra for sale. Only $15,000!
TD: Speaking of conventions, you’ve been to several in Germany. Can you tell us about those experiences? Do you, or your fellow travelers, have any theories as to why Trek has become so popular in Germany? Considering that your character was integral to several episodes that related to the Holocaust, the ethics of using Nazi (Cardassian) science, and the role of historical guilt, were there any awkward moments with German fans?
RP: I used to say that when you go to a Star Trek convention in Germany, you suddenly understand the history of both World Wars, because more people are dressed up at them than at any other one. I think there is a genuine passion for being in uniform that is part of the national psyche.
There was an episode, a medical ethics show [“Nothing Human”] where my dear friend David Clennon starred as a Cardassian hologram. It was very clearly based on Nazi medical experiments. The idea that… if you had attained some sort of medical knowledge through torture or through murder, was the knowledge itself tainted through the manner in which you gained it? Should you not use that knowledge to save future individuals if the knowledge was gained by destroying others? It’s what a lot of fundamentalists believe about stem cell research, I’m sure. It’s a very loaded and interesting medical question, and I thought that particular episode was quite wonderful in the way it examined the issues. The way the other doctor, accusing me of hypocrisy, points out the fact that most of Western medicine has been developed by torturing animals, by experimenting on animals… It’s a very interesting discussion, and that is really when Star Trek is at its best when it can deal with questions like that.
But, to return to your original question of why I think Star Trek is so popular in Germany, I think that German Star Trek fans, like all Star Trek fans are focused on the future, a future where technology serves man rather than destroys him… a future of hope. But, there is also something about the dress-up nature of the personal appearances that particularly appeals to them more than, say, American or British fans… I estimated that a full 20% were in uniform at one early German convention that I went to. That might be an exaggeration, but that is a lot of people. When you get seven or eight thousand people together, and close to two thousand of them are in uniform, you notice.
TD: With your earlier comments, it almost sounded like you were saying that there is a militarism in German culture…
RP: It’s not like I saw more guns, phasers, or Bat’leths. I just thought there was something about… wearing uniforms that seems to appeal. But, I’m unwilling to draw that conclusion.
TD: That is understandable. Were there any awkward moments with German fans?
RP: No, I love going to German cons. German fans are the most vocal. As an actor, if you go onstage in Germany, they will clap forever in appreciation. If you perform and they like it, you’ll get an ovation that seems to clock four or five minutes more than anywhere else. And yes, part of it is that they have a more demonstrative nature. When you go into a building or a bus in Germany, it never says, “No Smoking, please,” it says “Smoking Forbidden!” Everything is a command. Das ist Verboten! So, there is a command-style nature to the way that the language is spoken. I used to joke that if you go to a convention, and you have a German fan standing in line behind a British fan… the British fan will come up and say (in a whispered and shy voice), “Pardon me, please… May I take a photo?” You say, “Excuse me?” “Can I take a photo?” You say, “Could you speak up?” “A photo.” “Oh yes, of course you can take a picture.” And then the German comes up (loudly), “FOTO??? FOTO, YES???” I used to do this impression of the whiplash of leaning way in and then suddenly blasting way back… first trying to hear and then trying to protect my ears. German fans are unrivaled in their enthusiasm.
TD: It remains somewhat of a mystery… “Critical Care” is perhaps my favorite episode of Voyager, because the underlying message is very clear. The Doctor believes that health care is a fundamental and universal human right, not a privilege for the affluent. Now, early in life, you wanted to become a doctor, not an actor. Did this episode strike a personal chord within you?
RP: I have an admiration for people in the medical profession that goes back to childhood. My pediatrician was a very benign and likeable character to me. He was an older Italian gentleman, always had a big smile… very gentle, very friendly. I always remembered that. So, I think my early ambition to be a doctor was specifically based on my impression of him. I thought about being a pediatrician. That is what I thought I wanted to do. Through junior high school and into high school… and I applied to Yale with the intention of being pre-med, and I was pre-med for about a year and a half. Meanwhile, the acting, which I’d done in high school and college for fun and as a way to meet girls since I wasn’t much of an athlete... it just basically became more and more important. As more people see you and validate your talent, you start thinking, “Maybe I should consider this as a life choice.” As I’ve said in other interviews, I did a show at Yale that Leonard Bernstein saw. It was of his “Mass,” which he had written for the opening of the Kennedy Center. We did a production at Yale that was so successful that he asked for some changes, but took our production to Europe to premiere the work in Vienna. To have that kind of experience at nineteen… [a] sort of quasi-professional experience: I had a featured role that Bernstein was very positive about. He called me “The Great Picardo.” I think he was having a little fun with “The Great Caruso.” He encouraged me to consider performing, saying that I had a terrific natural energy onstage. It wasn’t a phony, manufactured Broadway energy, and that I should consider it. I looked him in the eye and said, “Tell my mother!” I didn’t want to break the news alone, and he did. To his credit, it was opening night, and he came up to my mother and basically said what he’d said to me. He was such an icon to the world and my mother in particular that it carried some weight, that he said this to her. That got me off the hook, out of pre-med, and into a theater major. I accelerated and graduated Yale my third year. I was in a rush to get to New York to see if I was going to start working. Sometimes I envy other actors who had a longer and deeper training than I did. I was on the fast track to make up my mind by twenty-five what I was going to do with my life, because I had made that pledge to my mother who had raised four children. My father died when I was only nine, and I was the youngest of four. She made this tremendous effort to send us all to private school and private college, I felt that the least I could do was to make up my mind as quickly as possible and not cause her any fear or concern as to whether or not I was going to be able to take care of myself.
TD: In the end, ironically, you played a doctor.
RP: Yes, in the end, ironically, I played a doctor. I think the fact that I admired them… I studied enough science to understand scientific reasoning and method. The Doctor’s long technobabble speeches… at least I could see the arc of “here is the hypothesis, here is how I tested it, here is what I concluded, and here is what I’m proposing.” There were absolutely preposterous things that I had to say… but I think that it was somewhat helpful to me that I had studied enough science to grasp the nature of the discourse, so to speak. I also caught them a couple of times on inaccuracies. I have a copy of Grey’s Anatomy, and I mean the real one. I would pull it off the shelf if I thought that there was something anatomical that they got wrong. I had a line once saying, “The first cells to be attacked by the nanoprobes are the patient’s blood.” Well, blood is a tissue, not a cell, so I had to say, “The first tissue to be attacked was the patient’s blood,” and they went, “Well, that sounds weird!” I would win little battles like that.
TD: So you had an easier time with the technobabble.
RP: A little bit. Listen, I wrote a 32-page paper in biology as a sophomore. It was “Endogenous Circadian Rhythms in the Perieto-Visceral Ganglia of Aplesia Californica,” or the common California sea slug. I think if you can drag that out to 32 pages, you can say any kind of technobabble you want.
TD: Brannon Braga has spoken about how he is forced to answer two contradictory questions: Why is Star Trek so popular, and why was Star Trek cancelled? He has admitted that he has a difficult time answering those questions. Do you have an answer that you feel is adequate?
RP: I didn’t watch enough of Enterprise. I probably only watched 3 or 4 episodes. It’s nothing against them or those actors. After living and breathing Star Trek and science fiction for seven years, you need a little break. I probably watched more of it than any of my cast-mates.
TD: What was your initial impression?
RP: My initial impression was that the whole notion of doing a prequel… that there was a built-in problem. First of all, the technology in the original series looked so silly and goofy, and now they were going to do a more serious and believable version of an earlier technology. When I mentioned that to Brannon, he said, “Well, look at Batman on television in the sixties and look at the Batman movies. There is no reason why you can’t redo something or do something earlier just because the process of visual effects, prop building, and budgets are vast enough now to make it look like believable technology.” But Star Trek is looked at as a “canon” by the Star Trek fans. You can’t be a loose cannon with the canon. I think that was the primary problem that the fans seemed to have.
TD: They also bitterly complained the Berman and Braga had not been fans of the original show, yet were now spearheading a prequel to it. In some ways, that is like a producer saying, “I’ve never really watched or enjoyed Star Wars: Episode 4, but I’d like to write Episode 3.”
RP: That may be it. I think that no one can succeed forever. That takes nothing away from Rick Berman or Brannon or Michael Piller, God rest him, or Jeri Taylor, or all the other writer-producers. It takes nothing away from them that eventually a show gets cancelled before a seven-year run. I mean, how much success can one group of people have? Rick has said in many, many interviews, “We’re all afraid of too many trips to the well.” I guess this was too many trips to the well. I’ve never been one for Schadenfreude, but because they were so geared up to do the new show, we as a cast were very much made to feel like, “Don’t let the door hit you on ass.” The whole focus the last half of our last year was, “We need this stage. We have to knock down your briefing room so we can build the set for the show that is going to reinvent Star Trek.” The irony that we were made to feel like “old hat,” it’s not something that escapes me, but it’s also not something I feel good about. I like too many of the people that worked on that show. I always liked Scott Bakula. We were doing “Viewers for Quality Television” banquets back when I was on China Beach and he was on Quantum Leap. He is one of the nicest and most likeable people in the business… very loyal to the crew, standing up for other people. And, I’ve really befriended John Billingsley, Connor Trineer, and Anthony Montgomery through hanging around with them, wherever we happen to be appearing. I feel bad that they didn’t get their full run.
A lot of it has to do, I think… I always felt that Star Trek peaked on television while Star Wars, as a franchise, was on hiatus. Star Wars came back in a big way, and there is only so much entertainment dollar and time that an individual can devote in life. I think it just part of that cycle of attention span. We’ll be back soon… the franchise will be reinvented by J.J. Abrams. He is a very smart guy and a good filmmaker.
TD: Abrams has admitted that the character of Kirk will appear in the film.
RP: The character, but not the actor… I thought the characters of Kirk and Spock were going to be in it.
TD: I don’t think that Spock has been confirmed although it’s likely.
RP: The buzz was that this was the Kirk/Spock academy thing that we’ve been hearing about for years. It sounded to me like Batman Begins, but Star Trek Begins.
He is going to write a good script, and it is going to be exciting. He did that with Mission: Impossible III. Some of us think that there might be a parallel drawn between Tom Cruise’s emotional range and Mr. Spock’s.
TD: So you would endorse a “reboot” of sorts?
RP: Oh absolutely. As I said, I hope it succeeds, because I’ve now been part of the family long enough to know that what is good for… I sound like I’m in the mafia now… What is good for the family is good for all of the individual members.
TD: It could be argued though that starting over discredits what came before.
RP: No, I don’t feel that way, but I’m not as reverential about Star Trek as other people because I didn’t really follow it as a younger guy. You know what I mean? You might get a different answer from Tim Russ who grew up being a Star Trek fan. I really didn’t get turned on to it really until I got cast in this role and starting watching Next Generation. The Original Series… I never got past the look of it. I had two roommates when I first moved to New York that I had known at Yale, both philosophy majors. They would sit and watch Star Trek in the afternoon, and I would walk through our living room and ridicule them, saying, “Those costumes are ridiculous! Look how funny that looks!” They would sit there, watch it, and talk about the philosophical implications of the story.
TD: Which is a rite of passage among philosophy majors!
RP: I guess they must be laughing themselves out of their chairs since I became a Star Trek actor.
TD: Rick Berman has announced that he is writing his memoirs, “warts and all.” Would you have any advice for his chapter on the Voyager years?
RP: I don’t know… I’d be interested to read it. I remember two things early on. I remember Rick putting his arm around me (we hadn’t gone on the air yet) and saying, “You’re going to be the most popular character on the show,” which blew my mind because I thought that I had the worst part on the show when I got it. But, apparently, in the third episode (which we had already shot and they were editing), they had seen the possibilities of where the character was going to go that I didn’t quite see yet.
TD: You had originally tried for Neelix…
RP: Yes, exactly. Like any actor, I wanted the bigger part. The amount of makeup had yet to be specified. They would tell my agent, “Oh, more than fifteen minutes.” Well, yes three and a half hours is more than fifteen minutes! Thank you very much. So, I really dodged a bullet there. Let’s face it: I would have gone insane and killed someone sitting in the makeup chair that long. I’ve done it, and I don’t think I could do it anymore. I have nothing but admiration for Ethan Phillips, his patience, and also, you know, his great personality in the face of all that. He is arguably the closest “Trek friend” that I’ve made. He and I see each other and talk all the time.
The other thing that I remember from Rick… I remember a conversation, again right before we went on the air, and I said to him, “Do you intend to list me in the credits as Dr. Zimmerman?” He said, “Yes.” In the “bible” for the show, which they give all the writers for writing future episodes, I was called Dr. Zimmerman. So he said, “Of course.” And I went on that, since we’d made a plot-point in the episode that we were shooting at the time (“Eye of the Needle”). It ended with the doctor saying, “I should like to have a name,” and a big dramatic push-in shot on my dewy eyes… I said, “If you’re going to list me in the opening credits as Dr. Zimmerman from the pilot on, aren’t we kind of killing the suspense?” He said, “You’re right.” So, they redid my title, and the reason I know this is they gave me a frame from the original title that said “Robert Picardo as Dr. Zimmerman.” They changed it to The Doctor, and that ended up affording us the opportunity to play out that storyline off and on for seven years.
I talked to Rick a lot. But, I talked to Brannon the most. I don’t know if I was the most vocal actor. But, I certainly had lots and lots of ideas. Writers have a love/hate relationship with that. They are under the gun to come up with twenty-five stories, so they love an idea. But, on the other hand, they don’t want an actor bugging them all the time. So, I tried to keep things always positive: “How about this, or how about that?” rather than, “This sucks! I don’t want to say this!” That never helps.
TD: Were there many bold ideas that they didn’t run with?
RP: Oh yeah, there were many times I suggested things that they chose not to do. I had a whole idea for an episode to do in the last year, which I still love. But, they knew they were doing a time-travel thing for the finale, so they couldn’t do time-travel because it was in the second half of the season. So, it just never got made.
I’m the first actor to get a story credit on Star Trek (other than in The Animated Series). I was the first actor in one of the live-action things to get a story credit for “Lifeline.” The idea of the Doctor appearing in First Contact, I pitched to them… not so much how, but just the logic of… if the EMH program is a technology that Voyager had… why wouldn’t any new Starfleet vessel have it? Why would Voyager have more advanced technology than the Enterprise? So, by presenting their own logic to them, they decided it was a logical idea. If they liked the idea, they used it, but if they didn’t, they didn’t.
TD: But, overall, you would say that they were very receptive.
RP: Oh yeah! They were great. Brannon does an affectionate impression of me jumping out of a bush to pitch an idea while he’s smoking a cigarette outside the writers’ building, which always makes me laugh. He also dubbed me “Doctor Fancypants,” my favorite nickname for a character, because the Doctor was a tad nelly.
TD: Well, thank you so much for your time. It was a pleasure…
RP: Yes! Thank you. Dr. Fancypants signing out!
*Please visit RobertPicardo.com and RobertPicardo.net for more information, the latest news, and details on how to purchase his CDs.
*This interview may not be reproduced without Trekdom's consent.
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Monday, June 11, 2007
Amidst a hectic schedule, actor and director Tim Russ took a few moments to answer our questions surrounding the character of Tuvok and the upcoming release of Star Trek: Of Gods and Men, which he directed.
Trekdom: When Leonard Nimoy was cast for the role of Spock, the writers didn’t give him much to work with, so he personally created many aspects of Mr. Spock and Vulcan culture. Would it be fair to say that your experience as Tuvok was quite different and somewhat restrictive for an actor? Was it frustrating playing a character whose culture, mannerisms, and even personality had been written long before the audition?
Tim Russ: It’s true the culture and mannerisms of Vulcans had already been explored to some extent, but we were able to bring to light some other aspects of Vulcan lore, and let’s not forget that Tuvok was married with children. That, and the fact that he is full Vulcan separates him from his predecessor. Playing the character for that many years without showing emotion was not that exciting as an actor, but it was fun to work opposite the human characters.
TD: Did you feel like the addition of Seven of Nine was detrimental to the character of Tuvok, considering that Seven had similarities to the Vulcan, such as a lack of emotion and disdain for the illogical and irrational elements of humanity?
Russ: You could use it or let it get in the way, and I think for the most part they used it. She was the only one onboard other than the other Vulcans who I would have something in common with.
TD: Berman-era Trek has been criticized for being too conservative, afraid to take risks, and stuck in a tired formula that repeated itself like a broken record. As an actor and director, would you agree or disagree with those criticisms? Could Voyager have taken more risks?
Russ: I guess that’s fair to say. Rick made it a point to carry on the tradition, look and feel of what Gene Roddenberry started on the new Trek shows. The producer has creative control over television so that’s what you are going to get. Most shows that start out with a certain look, usually stay with it throughout.
TD: You’ve recently stated that Star Trek: Of Gods and Men is not a “fan film,” and that plans to sell DVDs and downloads are in the works. Can you please clarify that statement, and do you foresee any copyright battles with CBS/Paramount?
Russ: The feature cannot be sold for profit unless we have some kind of agreement with CBS. As of right now, none of that has been finalized. If no agreement can be reached, then it will be viewed at no charge. And yes to reiterate, it is not a fan film. The look and quality of the piece will speak for itself.
TD: Interesting... Can you give us any spoilers regarding the plot of the film?
Russ: I cannot give away the storyline, but I can say that it deals with issues that are current in our society and in the world- freedom vs. security, terrorism, etc. And the characters span the Trek timeline from the original series to Voyager.
TD: Thank you for your time! We look forward to Star Trek: Of Gods and Men
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
Monday, June 4, 2007
While Chase Masterson prepares for the release of the upcoming film "Yesterday Was A Lie" in which she plays a leading role, she was kind enough to answer our questions surrounding the character of Leeta and Deep Space Nine.
*photo from "Yesterday Was A Lie."
TD: Chase, you’ve interviewed so many Trek actors and insiders on theFandom.com, from George Takei to Brannon Braga. Which interview was your favorite and why?
Chase: That's a fabulous question--there were so many fun & intriguing ones, in different ways.
The interview with Ira Behr was definitely a favorite--he's so down-to-earth, so emotionally wise, genuine. That's why DS9 was such an important show, such a compelling one, because he and his team wrote out of their hearts, they created out of who they are.
I loved interviewing Ron Moore for that same reason, and because he has such a great story of how he got in to this business, and he's so very talented and still so humble.
Interviewing George was fun, as he's a pal, and it's always great to chat with someone who has seen so much of this amazing phenomenon. Marina was a real kick (when is she not?), and the Enterprise guys were a really interesting bunch, as we talked mid-stream through the campaign to keep the show on. That was an important time, and even though the campaign wasn't a success, it was heartening to see the commitment the fans still have to Star Trek.
There were other shows, too, with actors who are sci-fi favorites, like Bruce Campbell and Dean Haglund. Zany! But very real. I think that, often, the most talented people are a combo of that & more.
TD: Do you plan to continue interviewing for theFandom.com, or has your focus shifted to other endeavors? What does the future hold?
Chase: I'm not doing those interviews currently, and I don't have any plans to do that in the future. The company who I did those for has really changed focus, and my plate is really full lately, too. More on this later...
TD: Could we get your perspective on some of “catsuit controversies” during the past decade? When the producers of Star Trek: Voyager replaced Kes with Seven of Nine, many fans as well as Trek actors bitterly complained about “TandA ratings gimmicks” and the objectification of a woman’s body with TOS-style “tin-foil bikinis.” These criticisms continued into the Enterprise years when some fans argued that the producers catered to the lowest denominator with steamy “decon-chamber rub-downs” and “T’pol in Heat.” Having played one of the sexiest women of the Trek franchise, what is your take on these controversies and complaints? Did you feel like the character of Leeta was an “eye candy” addition to cast?
Chase: Thanks for the compliment! I’m blushing.
Where do I begin on this? It seems that some characters, including Seven of Nine and T'Pol, were written for those reasons. I agree with the fans' sentiments that it seems that this kind of writing is done in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator; that happens on a lot of shows, but I don't believe it needs to, and it definitely shouldn't have to happen on Trek. There's so much more to focus on, and the fans of this show recognize that. I wish this industry generally respected viewers more, but a lot of people in this business don’t even respect themselves.
I didn't watch every episode of Voyager & Enterprise, and maybe there were some really redeeming qualities in those characters and their arcs, so I don't want to say I have a really solid take on this subject where those characters are concerned.
I want to make this clear: this is not a statement on either of the actresses who played the roles; I think it's a natural temptation for viewers to hold an actor accountable for the choices the character makes, but it's not the actors' fault, you know?
As for Leeta, it's hard to see myself as being seen in that way--I just don't think I'm eye candy. But even if Leeta were written for that reason, I’m thankful that the writers very quickly put a depth into the character that I hope made up for it. The journey that Leeta went on, in standing up for what is right in the Ferengi union, and in loving the guy who was only pretty on the inside, and especially in her having the strength required to remain committed throughout the inherent difficulties in their relationship, was an example to me of the kind of choices that are healthiest to make — maybe not the easiest, but the most joyful & growth-inducing, in the long run. I hope it was an example to other people, too.
Again, I don't know the journeys that the characters of Seven of Nine and T'Pol made, so I can't really judge that.
TD: Speaking of Leeta/Rom, was the inter-species relationship between the two characters as well-developed as it could have been? Bajoran and Ferengi culture were so different. Although Rom certainly wasn’t a typical Ferengi, it seems that there could have been much more conflict between them in terms of religion, morals, cultural assumptions, gender roles, etc. Did you feel like the writers and producers missed any opportunities to make the relationship more complex?
Chase: There were so many wonderfully complex characters and situations in DS9, it would have been impossible for the writers to have explored all the possibilities for all of the characters. Thank you for wanting more! We did, too. But we realize that the writers created a beautiful amount of thoroughness in our characters and situations, especially considering the amount of screen time that was shared with so many other characters, and we were so blessed to be in a quality show like this at all. There are so many talented actors who never get to work, much less on something that is both so meaningful and so well loved.
I think some of the possibilities that Leeta and Rom had are explored in the novels. I have some ideas. Should I write one?
TD: Absolutely! Trekdom would love to publish excerpts... So many, many fans rate Deep Space Nine as the best Trek series in terms of writing, complex themes, provocative “morality plays,” and character development. Yet, the series lost more and more viewers each season. Do you have any theories that explain this paradox? Did the show demand too much from casual viewers? Were there other factors?
Chase: I didn’t realize that the show lost viewers with each season. It’s possible that the serial nature of the show intimidated some people who didn’t think they’d be able to catch up after missing some episodes. But the serial nature of the show—following the characters in their ongoing life stories—was such a huge part of what made the show great, and unique at the time; DS9 was truly a forerunner of what television at its finest was morphing into.
One interesting thing is this: there are so many people who were not fans of the show while it was first airing who have become fans through watching it on Spike or watching the DVDs. Ira Behr actually predicted that—it was back in the 5th season that he said that he thought that once it was on in classic syndication style, running episodes back to back, that more people would really grasp the quality of the show. And they have.
TD: Thank you for your time Chase.
Chase: Thank you, Trekdom! My pleasure…all the best to you!
Please visit http://www.YesterdayWasALie.com for more info on Chase Masterson's next starring role. Visit http://www.chaseclub.com/thefandom.html to listen to her archived interviews of Trek stars and insiders.
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