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Interview: John Billingsley Previews the New Season of ENTERPRISE and What's In Store for Doctor Phlox!

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Posted: 00:54:51 on August 20 2002
By: Steve Krutzler
Dept: TrekWeb Features

Written by Steve Krutzler

Bringing STAR TREK’s newest alien face to life isn’t always easy for actor John Billingsley, who’s spent the last month juggling his time in space with his time in Miami where he’s supporting Hollywood heavyweight Denzel Washingon in a new murder-mystery opening next summer. Throw in a few convention appearances and the steamy heat of South Florida and it’s enough to make a night at home with the in-laws of your three Denobulan wives pale in comparison. But you’ll hear no complaints from Billingsley, who after years of theater and character work has finally found a permanent home aboard the Starship Enterprise.

”I’m very relaxed about it and I totally love the gig. It’s a blast going to work,” the actor exclaims while talking with TrekWeb from his home in Los Angeles. His stint as the enigmatic Doctor Phlox on ENTERPRISE is well into its second season, but Billingsley says he has one more weekend in Miami to finish filming alongside Denzel: “They’ve been so nice about letting me cherry pick other things. In this instance the movie was spread out over a month and a half and required very extensive negotiation by two studios to make it happen. I never thought they could make that happen and I can’t say enough about them for going to bat for me,” he says of the ENTERPRISE team at Paramount.

Although tentatively titled OUT OF TIME, the Carl Franklin-directed movie may change to BANYON KEY, the fictitious Florida locale where Billingsley aids partner Washington in solving a noir-esque murder mystery.

Billingsley as Doctor Phlox ”To me it’s reminiscent of BODY HEAT,” he says, referring to the 1981 Lawrence Kasdan thriller starring Kathleen Turner. “It’s kind of a noir in a southern, lazy town with kind of a go-along-get-along sheriff (Denzel) who’s going through a divorce and takes up with another gal in town. It turns out that the girl ends up murdered under very suspicious circumstances and the finger is pointing toward Denzel. I play his best friend who also happens to be the county coroner,” not too far of a stretch from the NX-01’s chief medical officer. “I am kind of there with smart ass remarks and at one point in time I sort of intervene and save his ass. It was originally written to be played by a sixty-year-old Chinese man!”

This was fortuitous for Billingsley, who says he’s always approached his ENTERPRISE character from a similar bent. “My own sense of [Phlox] had always been that he’s got a very eastern outlook, he’s like a Buddha,” he says. “There’s always going to perhaps be a frustration that he doesn’t evince the same kind of emotional response that an incident might lead you to expect. Even death is for him, the old cliché: a part of life and an inevitability. Certainly there is some sadness and sense of loss when someone dies but in the grand perspective, one moves on.”

But this characterization wasn’t always played for seriousness last season. In fact, Phlox didn’t seem all that distressed when the Enterprise was recalled to Starfleet after seemingly destroying an entire colony in the finale episode, “Shockwave,” causing fans to speculate whether Billingsley’s character might have a hidden agenda.

“When I got that script I thought that they might have tilted it too far in that direction,” he agrees. “I think Phlox is very happy on the ship and does like everybody very much and it’s a fascinating journey for him. He certainly wouldn’t have chosen to have the mission end. So I thought myself that the one scene I had in that episode was painted a little too jovially.

In fact, the actor says his character’s relationship with the rest of the crew almost took a more discordant turn earlier in the year, in the popular episode “Dear Doctor.”

Dear Doctor “As written, the decision I made in the original episode was to conceal from the captain my findings because, in my point of view, I didn’t really believe the captain would make the best decision,” he says of the script that was rewritten after UPN raised concerns. “The network felt that this would cast me in a bad light and make the captain look weak. At the time I thought it sort of watered the episode down. In retrospect I have to say I understand their point.”

Continuing, he explains, “My own aesthetic is such that I tend to look for and maximize conflict; as an actor that’s sort of your bread and butter. But from the network’s point of view I think they wisely recognized that a lot of what the show’s appeal rests in is the fact that all these characters do get along, that’s part of the Roddenberry universe. I can’t say with the passage of time that I disagree with their decision.”

The decision was made going into season two that Phlox demanded further attention from the writers and accordingly, the fourth episode produced features Billingsley opposite Scott Bakula for “A Night In Sickbay.” The episode was shot in half the normal production time, six and a half days, four of which mainly between Phlox and Archer. Billingsley says the abbreviated schedule was partly due to accommodation for his role in the Washington film.

“They were kind enough to accommodate my work schedule in Miami,” he says. “So knowing they were going out of their way to do me a favor I made sure that I was as on top of my words as I could be, and although there were some tricky shots and long days I don’t think there was any difficulty.”

The episode begins when Captain Archer’s beagle, Porthos, needs medical attention. What follows has been described by producer Rick Berman as a sort of ODD COUPLE installment. The actor says the show will also feature the first digitally-augmented physical characteristics for Phlox since last year’s series opener, “Broken Bow.”

“We see my toenails,” Billingsley promises. “I had special toe nail [prosthetics] made and we see my tongue, which is eccentric I guess. The tongue will be inserted as a visual effect, although it’s always hard for me to imagine how they manage to pull that off, and my smile from the pilot will make a re-appearance. A bat gets loose! There’s a lot of physical comedy involved but I would hesitate to call it [an all-out comedy episode].”

Also look for some further development of the doctor’s personal back story: “We’ll learn more about the Denobulans and we’ll learn about my own peculiar family background. It turns out that I’m also a therapist as well and I do a little psychologizing—I begin to reel off a list of my degrees but the captain stops me.”

Even though Phlox has been singled out for screen time this season, the actor is hardly concerned, saying, “I am certainly under no illusions—as sort of the only character-guy on the show—that I’m going to be the guy who’s going to be throwing punches or firing guns or wooing alien babes and such. Brannon [Braga] and I spoke at the end of last season I was only interested in whether they had some thought on where my character would be going and if they’d welcome any input on my part.”

Playing a completely new type of alien on STAR TREK also leaves plenty of room for intrigue. Without enough information to fill encyclopedic historiographies and fictitious language dictionaries, the realm of possibilities for Phlox’s species is unexplored and wide open for future imagination.

“One of the things that I think might make my character so interesting is that he is so mysterious,” Billingsley offers. “We’ve seen no Denobulans before, we don’t know anything about their culture and we don’t necessarily want to delve into that background. I think they probably want to tease it out a bit over the years so I don’t know if there are going to be a ton of stories coming up about Denobula and Denobulans per se, although they may and hopefully will involve me a bit more.”

But the opportunities haven’t always panned out, and many would point to Ethan Phillips’ Neelix on STAR TREK: VOYAGER as an example of a unique alien character unrealized and relegated to comicality. Billingsley says the so-called ‘Neelix Syndome’ never really entered his mind when considering the role of Doctor Phlox.

“Never having really watched VOYAGER, I needed to watch some episodes to sort of apprise myself—and I liked Neelix! I didn’t watch a ton of episodes so it may very well be that the writers didn’t find a way to use him well,” he says. “I’m of two minds about it: of course as an actor you don’t want to be shunted off to the sidelines and that’s always a concern, but on the other hand I don’t think that they view me as a source of comic relief exclusively.”

Where Neelix lacked a consistently prominent role aboard Janeway’s wayward starship, Billingsley says he thinks Phlox benefits from a blend of qualities: “Although they’ve given me some goofy things to do, it’s always balanced by the fact that he’s extraordinarily smart and he’s the ship’s doctor. I always got the impression from my brief conversations with Ethan [Phillips] that there’s so much in this business you can’t control; we don’t write them or produce them,” he says.

As the main outsider character, Phlox may be the toughest to write for, the actor posits, because his particular bent has yet to be perfectly articulated.

“One of the things that might be tough for them in writing about me, is that they don’t quite know what my weakness are. They know to a certain extent what some of my quirks are, but I’m generally conceived as having an IQ in the 700s, able to solve any problem, emotionally available yet at the same time somewhat detached in a cool, eastern intellectual kind of way,” he says. “It’s kind of hard to see where the conflict might be: Reed’s a bit of a tight-ass; Trip’s got a ‘trip wire’; the captain’s struggling with the obligations that he feels; Hoshi’s a little frightened, etc. Everybody’s got certain things about them where you can go to and say ‘this is where you can root a conflict or a problem,’ and I don’t think they quite know how to do that yet with my character.”

But spending time worrying about the prospect, especially this early in the game, just isn’t what this accomplished actor is about. He says the lines of communication are fully open between the actors and producers Berman and Braga.

“I suppose if I really began to feel that they were totally at a loss of what to do with my character or I was only being used only in silly ways I would want to go in and say, ‘hey you might be falling into the Neelix trap.’”

Right now, Billingsley is most concerned with the tense issues former X-FILES scribe John Shiban introduces in his first script, “Minefield.” The show involves the show’s first Romulan encounter and the actor praises it as one of the sharpest in the coming season.

“I think that script is entirely [Shiban's],” he says, noting that Brannon and Rick usually undertake the majority of rewrites. “It’s tricky on this show because we really only have 39 minutes to tell a story and I think it’s awfully tough sometimes to involve seven characters and tell a taut story at the same time. I appreciate of course, as an actor who wants to get his residual check, their attempts to always use all of us in each episode!

”It also did something that I find is very tricky in television,” Billingsley continues, his inflections starting to closer approximate his on-screen alter ego. “We build to a climax and then the last ten minutes we need to really ‘go, go, go, go go!’. Sometimes television has a weird way of actually slowing down the last few minutes and oddly defusing the tension as if real time stops and television time takes over. There’s always time for soul-searching conversation when it should really be ‘go, go, go, go, go!’ I thought this episode did a pretty good job at keeping that sense of the clock ‘ticking, ticking, ticking, ticking’ all the way through the end, which is something for me as a viewer of action/adventure shows I usually find to be one of the biggest problems of the genre.”

The episode also called for a triage scene with several extras playing wounded crewmembers in sickbay that Doctor Phlox has to treat. Billingsley jokes that they just don’t make victims the way they used to.

“You read the script and it’s, ‘sickbay is flooded with injured’ and they’ve all got bumps on their head and little tiny burns and it’s like ‘man, somebody should’ve lost an eyeball!’ In the original STAR TREK they were killing people off left and right! I think it’s a kindlier and gentler STAR TREK now but I’m waiting for the first crewmember to bite it,” he clamors. “There actually was somebody who was supposed to bite it in episode three of the first season—the guy who was beamed up from the planet with twigs and sticks sticking out of him in “Strange New World”—in the first draft I lose him. But the decision was made that it was too soon to lose a crewmember. We didn’t want to deal with the grieving process so early in the series!”

"Minefield" sets up consequences that reverberate for several following installments, as the Enterprise is badly damaged and in need of immediate assistance. Billingsley told us about the follow-up to the Romulan episode, "Dead Stop."

Dear Doctor “The one we are just shooting now talks about how the ship is so terribly damaged that we need to get repairs done immediately. We go to a repair facility that turns out to have a secret,” the actor revealed about the episode, which he says is one of his favorites in the new season.

“It’s a terrific episode. There is this space station that is used for repairs and we are desperately seeking someone to help us fix the ship because we’re too far away from any known facility. We arrive and it appears to be computerized and they agree to fix the ship. They appear to be doing remarkable work and seem to be asking for little in return.” He drops into a villainous tone, “and then of course there’s a mysterious twist as we realize there is something sinister afoot!”

The problems of the NX-01 following the events in “Minefield” continue in the recently-revealed episode “Marauders,” where the ship visits a deuterium mining colony being menaced by a band of Klingons. Billingsley says we shouldn’t expect the Romulans to become ENTERPRISE’s regular villains like the Borg in VOYAGER or the Klingons throughout the franchise.

“The way that the Romulans are introduced it’s as if they have carved out their quadrants and they are very, obviously, persnickety about any interference,” he told us. “I have a feeling they are creating that in a way that would allow us to not have to worry so much about tripping over the Romulans so often, as opposed to the Klingons. I think there will probably be much more done over time with the Klingons.”

While Brannon Braga has declared that Shiban’s continuity regarding the Romulans is “airtight,” some fans are undoubtedly skeptical and eagerly awaiting the next contradiction with TREK canon that arises within the series. Billingsley says those concerns are valid and cites last year’s Ferengi episode “Acquisition” as a thin line.

“I know they got a fair amount of grief continuity-wise with the Ferengi, which was actually one of my favorite episodes,” he admits without hesitation. “I’m sort of incredulous and respectful of fans who can keep track of all these things. It preserved it, kind of, but it did have Archer saying he was going to report these guys! So if I were a fan who was concerned about those kinds of things, I probably would’ve had the same question. It’s tricky for those guys; if you’re so written into a box it sort of takes out the joy of storytelling, but I thought it was at terrific episode.”

Without such worries in his corner, Billingsley says he thinks ENTERPRISE does a good job of standing out from the previous STAR TREK series.

“I definitely get the idea that these guys are very interested in focusing on human beings that we can relate to in having some fallibility. My own sense and my own possible critique of previous STAR TREK shows is that people were always sort of perfect, able to solve all kinds of problems,” he says honestly. “Everybody in this show is still super-competent but I get the idea that there are doubts, there are reservations, there are uncertainties, and there are even certain kinds of neuroses. I think that they are looking to write episodes that focus more on character-based dilemmas.”

Fans can look forward to more of an ensemble in season two, which is picking up in tone and style right where last year left off.

“The first season was to an extent about really focusing on the relationship between the Captain, Trip and T’Pol. The rest of us may not have had as much to do. I kind of get the impression in the first five or so episodes that there may be more of an ensemble feel. It does seem as if everybody’s being used more extensively.”

Whether or not Doctor Phlox gets an enormous amount of screen time really makes no difference to Billingsley, who is happy with his role and says ENTERPRISE has been and continues to be nothing but a true pleasure.

“Character actors get interesting things to do upon occasion but we aren’t asked to carry shows by and large, so I am pretty relaxed about it. It’s a great living and a great job and after it’s all said and done I can do whatever I want to do; it’s an amazing gift that one in a million people get offered and it would be churlish of me not to embrace this with joy.”

The new season of ENTERPRISE premieres on UPN September 18th. Stay tuned to TrekWeb for all the latest news and developments.

© 2002 TrekWeb.com. All Rights Reserved.


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