Written by Michelle Erica Green
and Steve Krutzler
Jeff Combs has become something of a STAR TREK legend. Since guesting as ‘Tiron’ in DEEP SPACE NINE’s third season episode “Meridian,” Combs has become one of—if not the—most prolific guest actors in the franchise. Solidifying the villainous persona of the Vorta ‘Weyoun’ for three seasons, Combs burned his cool delivery and intense presence into the collective memory of STAR TREK history. Along the way he dabbled in the Ferengi role ‘Brunt’, another recurring ST:DS9 character, played a make-up-less Fifties-era cop in the episode “Far Beyond the Stars,” and even did an episode of VOYAGER--“Tsunkatse”—the “Rock” episode, how can anyone forget?
Last year, this versatile genre actor brought his third major TREK character to life in ‘Shran’, the pugnacious Andorian commander introduced in ENTERPRISE’s “The Andorian Incident”. The Andorians quickly carved out their own recurring plot line in the prequel universe and Combs was back in “Shadows of P’Jem,” reluctantly assisting Captain Archer as a matter of personal honor. The Andorians have long been a mainstay of the STAR TREK universe, but it hasn’t been until ENTERPRISE that the species has had the opportunity to play a pivotal role in the franchise, on-screen.
Combs’ portrayal is set to make history again, this time in a third stint as Shran in the upcoming February Sweeps episode “Cease Fire.” The actor told TrekWeb that his latest TREK skin develops for the better in the action-packed installment.
“It's my fourth time back there [and] they seem to have elevated my
character,” Combs explains. “In the first one I was kind of a renegade leader of a not-so-merry band of rebels, and now it seems like I'm leading a bigger band of not-so-merry rebels. I'm more of a strategist looking over maps and negotiating across the table. It's almost like they've put epaulets on me or something. I'm sort of the commander in the field, as opposed to off on a raid somewhere. That's good; it gives me a little more stature.”
The blue-skinned, antennae-clad bunch don’t like ENTERPRISE’s other prominent aliens, the Vulcans. In fact, in “Cease Fire,” the two races are battling it out over galactic rights to an entire planet.
“I don't know how much of the plot I'm allowed to give away, but it's sort of interesting,” Combs hints. “There's a planet that is in contention between the Vulcans and Andorians. The Andorians found it, we made it livable, and then the Vulcans claimed it and took it from us because they claimed we were using it as a spy platform on the outskirts of their territory.”
Last time we saw the Andorians and Vulcans playing cat-and-mouse, it was the pointy-ears who weren’t playing by the rules. Why shouldn’t the Andorians get a crack at illicit surveillance? Combs is ambiguous, however, about the veracity of his nemeses’ claims.
“Probably both arguments are true,” he says enigmatically. “They've been holding on to it, and now we are in a battle to take it back. We're in a bit of a stalemate. The Vulcans want to discuss terms for a cease fire, but I decide that I don't trust them—that's already known—and I decide to get a mediator.”
That’s where Scott Bakula and Starfleet’s finest come into the mix.
“Who can I trust but this pink-skin,” Combs announces happily and in rhetorical fashion. “So I get Archer to come and mediate and as that is going on, the Vulcan emissary's shuttle is attacked. Archer is on the shuttle and they are shot down. We track them down and capture them and bring them in, and there's a whole tension about who's behind the attack. Did the Vulcans do it to sabotage the whole thing, or someone else? The underlying theme is my trust for Archer, and there seems to be sort of a continuation of that.”
Trust doesn’t come easily for these paranoid, future-Federation members, as we know. Shran’s emerging relationship with Archer may sow the seeds for the alliance that will eventually change the face of STAR TREK history, but Vulcan ambassador ‘Soval’ is pretty low on the trustworthiness totem.
“One look at him and you know that,” Combs exclaims humorously about actor Gary Graham, who plays Soval in the series. “He gets nothing over on me. The Vulcans are naughty. I've learned that I can't trust anyone. This episode just goes to show you that the Andorians are right… No wonder we're so suspicious of everything. It's hard to trust,” he considers for a moment. “That would probably be an Andorian motto!”
At Combs’ side during the conflict is another TREK vet, Suzie Plakson, who played ‘K'Ehleyr’ in the second and third seasons of NEXT GENERATION. Plakson will play the first female Andorian we’ve seen and second banana to Shran, ‘Tarah’.
“Suzy is basically my Dick Cheney in this episode,” he jests. “With Suzie, you know how tall she is? They made her even taller! Here I am, barking orders to an Andorian woman
who's towering over me. I thought that might be a problem, though I wasn't really
aware of it, but I was worried about how it was going to look. Is it going to be a sight gag? 'Oh, Andorian women are really tall!' But we had a good time, and I'd like to go back and do some more. [It’s a] February Sweeps show, so there's a lot of action, and it's
the first time I think that we see an Andorian ship.”
By now audiences are pretty familiar with the stable of TREK guest actors and expect to see their favorite recurring characters at least once or twice a season. But it’s all seat-of-the-pants for Combs, who knows better than to make assumptions in this business.
“It's something that they never tell me. I just kind of hear when I hear. It's probably a mixture of them not knowing and holding their cards close to their chests.”
Whether one will reappear in the future might become a legitimate concern for numerous actors if ENTERPRISE’s audience doesn’t start growing soon. Many industry critics have lamented the failure of the show to hold on to a majority of its year-ago premiere audience and its inability to curb steady declines as the second season has unfolded.
“There was just an article in the L.A. Times about STAR TREK,” Combs recalls. “How ENTERPRISE's numbers were down a little bit and ‘was the franchise healthy?’ I think the real question is whether UPN will survive. Could it be cancelled if UPN goes under? I hope not, because I think it's a good show.”
The recent box office performance of STAR TREK NEMESIS has also significantly clouded the future prospects of all things TREK. The actor says he isn’t a TNG fan, so he didn’t see the film, but sounding off on the current state of the franchise is almost obligatory for anyone involved in it these days.
“What I found really weird about NEMESIS was that I had heard Patrick Stewart say in an interview that the studio said if it made $20 million on opening weekend, then it would be viable,” he says. “That's what their goal was. That's the line that they drew in the sand for themselves. Then I heard they made like $19.5 million. If you get $600,000 away from it, are you a failure? I don't think so. I think you could make
$600,000 somewhere. You've got video and TV sales, and you can be on airplanes,
and you've got action figures. They won't lose money. But it will be interesting to see if it prompts them... and if they did do another one, what they would do.”
Combs joins many fans in his affection for DEEP SPACE NINE, the show that won him legions of TREK fans. He says the first TNG spin-off had a special quality that hooked him, even as a viewer.
“It had a lot more soul to it, and variety, and epic-ness. I think DEEP SPACE NINE is supposed to come out, like NEXT GEN is now, on TNN. I heard that they were coming out on DVD this year, too.”
One particular memory that he carries from DS9 relates to one of its unique characteristics among TREK series—taking big risks with characters, like Sisko in “In the Pale Moonlight,” or another pivotal moment he remembers well: the death of Gul Dukat’s daughter, Ziyal.
“Casey Biggs [‘Damar’] has a story about that,” Combs begins. “He was sitting in the makeup chair reading the script, the first day on the show, and he said, 'Oh my god! I kill Ziyal!' Because you don't get the final script until you're there. And the girl sitting in the chair next to him said, 'Let me see that! Oh my god, you're killing me!' She didn't even know she was getting bumped off. That's got to be pretty disturbing!”
Although many might say ENTERPRISE could use a shot of such brave storytelling, Combs says the show deserves a full run and maybe the future will hold something entirely different for TREK.
“I've always thought that what would be a really cool thing is if they would lay low for a few years and then come up with some clever made-for-TV miniseries,” he suggests. “A STAR TREK miniseries, and bring back people from the different shows—that sort of blending. But I hope that they don't [anytime soon], because ENTERPRISE deserves its full term.”
Blending is probably too soft a word to describe the career of an actor firmly steeped in both sci-fi and horror genres. Combs is popular for his role as ‘Dr. Herbert West’ in Brian Yuzna’s RE-ANIMATOR films, about a scientist in the FRANKENSTEIN vein obsessed with bringing the dead back to life with a green syrum. The actor’s popularity transcends both genres, which he finds mostly exclusive.
“There's always the odd person at a STAR TREK convention who wants to know if I have a RE-ANIMATOR photo and vice versa. I'm in these two distinct worlds, and it's interesting—everybody has a different hobby. I find that if you're sci-fi, you may cross over from TREK to FARSCAPE to BABYLON 5, but you're not going to cross over into TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and FREDDY. It's a different branch, but there are some who are just avid for both.”
The RE-ANIMATOR films have been reanimated themselves, for a third outing, BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR. The third installment, also produced and directed by Yuzna, was filmed recently in Barcelona, Spain and awaits a potential U.S. release.
“They finally were compelled to approach me—they couldn't do it without me, which is a rare place to be for an actor,” he says of the project. “It was a hard shoot but hopefully it will turn out okay. It's sort of a cult icon. There are some of us who just are known for that -- for horror. Sometimes that's what actors have.”
Fans of the horror skein will know that Combs’ character was pretty much dead at the end of both the first two movies. So how does BEYOND pick up the spine-tingling story?
“That was sort of ambiguous,” Combs explains. “At the end of the first one, intestines lurched out of a body and grabbed me, pulling me back towards the body. And then in the second one, I was buried under a collapsing mausoleum, but you didn't see me expire—you just saw me disappear into the rubble. How could I possibly survive that? The prologue of the new one is me being led to a police car, and as they lead me, I drop my syringe. RE-ANIMATOR is keyed around this reanimating solution that I have been working on that brings the dead back, and it glows green, which is so cartoony... Once you're re-animated you're kind of berserk and it's real hard to stop you. You can be
killed, but you're adrenalized—you're not normal. You drool and foamy stuff comes out of your mouth. Anyway I drop the syringe and there's a little boy who lives next door who sees it. The credits roll, and when you come back, the young boy has become a young man, a medical student, and he gets himself appointed to be the physician at the penitentiary where Herbert West has been serving his sentence for all of his grotesque goings-on. He's an ambitious doctor/scientist who wants to learn from the master. He says 'Hey, let's work together.' I am very imaginative in getting to continue my experiments, trying to figure out what's missing in my secret formula. There's always a fatal flaw, and mine is that I believe that I've captured this thing that goes away at the
moment of death unless you grab it. I believe that's an interchangeable thing. Don't call
it a soul, please! So I mix and match.”
The macabre sequel blends with yet another genre, the prison movie. But Combs says there’s one thing about the RE-ANIMATOR films that truly unsettles him.
“It's an interesting blend of horror movie and prison movie. The kernel of the idea is fine. The thing that bothers me most is, I don't know why part of the equation has to be the humiliation of women. Try as I might to fight that, it has to be one of the pinnacles of this whole genre. I don't know why. I think there's arrested adolescence they're purging, whatever they weren't able to explore when they were younger. Now that they have the power, they'll show them. There's a lot of that in there and it just bores me to tears, the
Whether it’s ENTERPRISE fans’ favorite blue-skin, the oft-hoped-for but unlikely reprisal of one of his beloved DS9 characters, or the inhabitant of a twisted horror film, Jeff Combs is a busy guy. From voiceovers to movie roles, Combs says he’s happy to work and always on the lookout for that unique, talent-stretching gig.
“I'm going to New York for a horror convention to start promoting BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR. What a title. This year starts with a kind of canvas out there, flat and unknown. I know I'm doing voiceover stuff—a voice for an animated BATMAN, and I just did a voice for the new SPIDER-MAN series on MTV. That's cool—that looked really good. They're using really good computer programs. One of the amazing things about it was that they take your recorded voice and the characters actually move their lips precisely with your words. The computer assimilates the sound and creates the mouth movement to equal that. It actually looks like a little mouth moving there. That's kind of a big leap in animation, because I remember when I was a kid watching CLUTCH CARGO, cartoons where they did not draw mouths—they would film the mouths of the people who did the voices, and then transpose the mouths.”
“I would like to do something really unique, but that's always the case -- your desire for variety and the blunt realities of the marketplace. In a business they go for the lowest common denominator because that guarantees return on the investment, as opposed to doing something unique that comes from where we are and if it connects, so be it, and if it doesn't, then we did what we wanted to. Most actors will tell you that we make purses out of sow's ears. It's rare for us to be in something that's near and dear to us. I always commit to everything that I do, but sometimes it's work. But that's the actor's life, it's a good life, and I've been very lucky and continue to be.”
“Cease Fire” airs in two weeks on UPN, Wednesday, February 12th.
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