Thursday, June 14, 2007

Trekdom Interviews Robert Picardo!

Robert Picardo sat down with us for an hour-long interview. Enjoy!


Trekdom: You’ve followed in the footsteps of many Trek actors by writing and performing music, as well as releasing three CDs: Basic Bob, Extreme Bob, and The Hologram’s Handbook. Some of the songs poke fun at the darker side of conventions, fandom, and the intense commercialization of Star Trek. I can’t help but wonder if there is a deeper and more serious critique of the Star Trek franchise and the convention circuit that surfaces in your music. Am I reading too much into witty parodies and entertaining satire?

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.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

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 and for more information, the latest news, and details on how to purchase his CDs.

*This interview may not be reproduced without Trekdom's consent.