06:23:22 on April 13
By: Steve Krutzler
Dept: TrekWeb Features
What’s In a Name?
An Interview With Robert Picardo - Part 1
Listen to Robert's Welcome (MP3, 101k)
Written by Steve Krutzler with thanks to E. Cristy Ruteshouser for her assistance with this feature.
For six years, an actor with the name of one of Star Trek’s most beloved characters has made an unlikely hero of his own. One actor has put an indelible face on a man without a name in a way that the creators of his character couldn’t possibly have imagined when he sprang onto their page in a splash of two mundane words: “The Doctor”. It seems that seven years after he became one of the most innovative ideas in Star Trek history, and without any of the publicity-hoopla that accompanied certain other characters in the cast, The Doctor has made a better name for himself than many of his compatriots who didn’t begin with such a sense of incompletion.
Integral to The Doctor’s allure from the beginning has been his initially cantankerous, sometimes quirky, brilliantly humorous, always versatile, and reluctantly courageous portrayal by actor Robert Picardo. “I had been very curious early on and almost pleasantly disbelieving early on that the fans had embraced The Doctor so heartily and flatteringly,” the actor says of, in particular, early online reception to his character. Robert says he used to check in with online reviews of the show somewhat until around season three or four, but admits “it felt a little claustrophobic to have the show air that night and get all that immediate feedback, and I don’t know that it was as helpful as it was early on when I was first developing the role to see what it was about my character that captured the imagination of the fans.” This period of curiosity with online reception gave way to “a middle period,” the soft-spoken actor explains, “where I had to go with my instincts and what the writers were writing and not really concern myself with how it was impacting directly on the fans.”
Though unable to honestly critique the fairness of some harsh online criticism the series has elicited, Picardo is quick to point out the interdependency between the actors and the writers, which plays an important role in the development and ultimate success or failure of a character. “I think we have a very strong group of actors and that some of the criticism of, for example, the Neelix character has been very unfair because Ethan Phillips is a wonderful actor who has a role that I think the writers really never showed a great deal of imagination of writing for. He’s spent season upon season with food jokes and cooking jokes that Olivier couldn’t have squeezed more humor out of. So I think there is a tendency to blame the actor for a character that isn’t as successful or popular—in the same way that there’s a tendency to congratulate the actor for a character that is. When, of course, it’s the writers who are putting the words down on the pages and the actor is merely realizing it.”
“I think there’s a certain truth that we’ve all had a hand in the development of our characters,” he continues, “because the writers write to the strengths of each individual performer, so if there’s something you demonstrate an ability for with a particular line that they’ve written, they will write more in that direction. But I guess, ultimately, I can’t really judge whether the criticism has been fair or not. I am a huge fan of some of the characters in our cast that the fans have tended to not [be] [laughter].”
Of all the actors who have contributed to the enormity that is the Star Trek franchise, Robert is one of the few who have truly taken an involvement with his character beyond the scripted pages. As the only regular Trek actor who has sold a story idea for an episode (“Life Line”), Picardo has also taken up an active interest in the development of his character with the writers, and is currently working on a book about The Doctor. But why is he so interested in his character compared with other cast members? “I have maintained a strong interest in my character because there have been interesting twists and turns all along the way that have kept me engaged. I also find it fun and challenging to try and speak in his voice whether on the written page or to ad lib as The Doctor now. I’ve lived with him long enough and have a sense of how he thinks and what’s important to him and how he goes about accomplishing what he wants to, to sort of spin Doctor-type dialog out of my own brain. And that’s pretty much the genesis of the book, to have a little fun with creating my own Doctor-speech and ideas.”
With some cast members, like Robert Beltran, voicing a clear disinterest in their characters of late, Picardo again emphasizes the importance of the writer/actor dynamic and defends his fellow cast members: “I think that a lot of their interest of lack thereof in their characters has lot to do with how interestingly they’ve been written for. It’s certainly true that The Doctor has gotten as interesting a variety of storylines as any character on our show, for which I am grateful, and were I in their position and had less interesting/challenging material for me to work on, then I don’t know exactly how I’d feel about it.”
Characterization is important for a show like Star Trek, which spans four series, nine movies, and 500+ television episodes. Responding to mainstream criticism of ‘Voyager’ for being unoriginal or unimaginative, Robert says “we’ve certainly had our scripts that felt very much like we’d already done that story, and I’m sure that the regular fans of the world of Trek have recognized a number of Voyager stories that felt like a ‘Next Generation’ story or even an ‘Original Series’ story. I think it’s impossible to not repeat yourself in some ways and hopefully the writers have created the individual casts of each of the four shows differently enough that the similarities in the story are at least somewhat disguised by the variations in characterization.”
Perhaps one reason that the show has seemed to waver in creative direction over the course of its run has been the shuffling of behind-the-scenes personnel, which has seen five different executive producers—Rick Berman, Michael Piller, Jeri Taylor, Brannon Braga, Ken Biller—come and go over the seven seasons. Admittedly, though, ‘Next Generation’ too shuffled writers and producers, and Picardo offers that “every one who has run Voyager, every one of our writer/producers, has had their own special strengths and have had a strong passion for running the show and I think they’ve all individually done a great job. I have had better communication with some than others, but I still think they’ve all done a fine job running the show.”
Now, as promised, here are some of Robert’s answers to questions submitted by TrekWeb visitors...
Mark Foster asks: What do you consider to be your greatest achievement in life so far?
RP: Having most Voyager watchers want The Doctor and Seven of Nine to end up in flagrant delecto.
Lydia asks: I have enjoyed your performances during the past 7 years. You are so talented, I am truly going to miss watching you and your crew mates. My question is this: What's the first you want to do after the final curtain?
RP: A play; this is the longest I’ve stayed away from the stage since I was in a 7th grade play, and I would like to appear on stage in New York or Los Angeles, as soon as possible. I’d also like to clean out my trailer.
Gregory John asks: Which Voyager episode(s)really allowed you to test your acting abilities?
RP: [Considers for few moments and then…] Latent Image, Nothing Human, The Darkling; and in a comic vein, Tinker Tenor, Message in a Bottle, and Someone to Watch Over Me, well that would be comic/romantic.
Nicholas Roche asks: It was touched upon in the recent episode THE VOID that the Doctor has yet to choose a name for himself. Do you think that the EMH has yet to choose a name makes him any more or less interesting a character?
RP: Well, frankly, neither. I think that you can only play with a particular story thread so much and then you have to set it aside. I think at some point it occurred to the writers that it would be great to resolve the name issue very late in the game, and I remind you that we are now very late in the game. The whole notion of an indecisive computer program who is given the opportunity to choose a name and then can’t make up his mind, I think is quite funny, and I’m glad that we kept that alive basically the whole series. I don’t think that it detracts from The Doctor at all, that he hasn’t been able to select a name. I think that what’s fun about it is that there is no analogy in life that a fully formed, fully sentient, fully educated individual would be unnamed and have to go through the process of selecting a name, have to do that as an adult. We’re all given names before we’re even conscious of what it is and what it means; if as an adult we could select our name I think it would be a very difficult thing to decide upon. I think that is a particular storyline unique to Voyager that you haven’t seen a precedent for in the other Star Trek shows. Even Data had a name, from the beginning.
Don’t miss Part 2 of TrekWeb’s Exclusive Robert Picardo interview next week, in which Robert discusses the dramatic decisions of “Flesh and Blood” and its impact on next week’s “Author, Author”, as well the recurring appearances of previous Trek series characters on ‘Voyager’, and the rest of Robert’s answers to YOUR questions!
See also: www.robertpicardo.com
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