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Exclusive: Robert Duncan McNeill On How He Would Improve Star Trek Voyager + Chuck Renewal Chances + More

Since his seven seasons on Star Trek: Voyager wrapped up a decade ago, Robert Duncan McNeill has transitioned to TV directing and producing. In an exclusive FedCon interview with TrekMovie.com, Robbie explains how he would have done things differently on Voyager, and gives an update on the chances of his new show Chuck getting another season.

 

TrekMovie exclusive interview: Robert Duncan McNeill talks Voyager Chuck

TrekMovie: How are you finding FedCon?

Robert Duncan McNeill: It’s great! I was here, I think, twice before. It’s been a while. I always enjoy coming to the conventions. I haven’t been to many conventions lately. I kind of transitioned from acting to directing and producing, and so that’s what I’ve been doing.

TM: You started directing in Voyager; you directed twelve episodes. What was the motivation for you to do that transition?

RDM: If I think back to even when I was in high school, I wanted to be an actor but I was also very entrepreneurial. I started some acting classes where I was a teacher of kids, and I felt like they should have performances. So, I found a local bank that had an auditorium, and I had them give it to us for the kids to perform. So, I was directing and producing these little acting classes and plays for the kids. I guess I was always kind of entrepreneurial even though I wanted to be an actor. Once I was successful as an actor and was working, I got a little bored, got a little itchy. So, I started following other directors and learning about it.

TM: Was this during Voyager?

RDM: This was before Voyager. I was doing a show called Going to Extremes, and we shot it in Jamaica. So, I lived in Jamaica for nine months or so. Most of the other cast were single; I was married at the time, I already had a two-year-old. So, they were out partying and doing what you do in Jamaica. And, I wasn’t really doing much of that! So, I thought instead I would use my time to watch the directors there. That was in about ’92. That was the beginning of watching directors and learning about it, and then Star Trek Voyager started in ’94.

Robert Duncan McNeill at FedCon XX in Dusseldorf, German – April 29, 2011

TM: Now that you’ve had all the experience running Chuck, looking back on your time in Voyager, is there anything from a producer/director perspective that you might have done differently? Something that you might have changed about the way that it was run?

RDM: The way Voyager was run? Laughs maniacally Yes. I would have changed a lot, to be honest. I heard someone at the studio saying one time that the ship was the star of the show, and that the actors were really irrelevant, which I found offensive. I come from a place, being an actor, a) that I really value the actors’ process and the actors’ contribution a lot. Because if we don’t have dynamic performances and happy actors, and actors that feel like their really contributing, then who cares, you know?

TM: And, you don’t feel like that was the attitude on Voyager?

RDM: No. Not really. I think they did believe that the ship was the star. And the actors were there to wear uniforms and say their words. I like to produce from a place of real collaboration, and I want people to feel heard and valued. Certainly there should be a vision for the show that comes from one person, and that person on our show is Chris Feedak who created the show Chuck. It’s not my vision, I’m helping Chris to achieve his vision, but we’re all contributing. Our actors contribute, our camera department, everyone contributes. I like a happy workplace. I think it’s more productive. I think the workplace in Star Trek, generally, was not the most productive. It was not always encouraged to bring in something unexpected or do something interesting. It’s funny; on Chuck we improvise jokes. Every take we try something different. I find that process more interesting. I think the actors get more excited. I owe so much to Star Trek and to the
studio and to the producers that ran the show. Having said that, I also learned a lot of what not to do. I feel like I behave very differently.


Robert Duncan McNeill as Tom Paris – says as a producer he would have done many things differently on "Star Trek: Voyager"

TM: Was the decision to bring in genre actors and Star Trek actors to Chuck due to your influence?

RDM: We brought over a lot of Star Trek alumni to Chuck. Some of that is my influence. Some of that is just that Chris Fedak and John Schwartz are nerds themselves, and they are big fans of genre shows and movies. But, in terms of the crew, actually, I brought over a lot of crew from the Star Trek world: AD’s and visual effects, Dan Curry from visual effects. So, I work with a lot of people now that used to work on Star Trek. We often are commenting on the difference between how we work at Chuck and how things worked at Star Trek. It was very different.

TM: When will we know if Chuck will be renewed for another season?

RDM: I think it’ll be around the middle of May. I don’t know the exact date.

TM: Is everyone at Chuck waiting on pins and needles at this point to hear if it will be renewed?

RDM: It’s funny. We’ve been through this so many times. Chuck is always on the bubble. It’s funny this year, it feels different and I’m not sure why. In the past years there’s always been a sense that we haven’t quite done it all yet. There’s definitely a sense of feeling like that in terms of the mythology. Things come together in a very interesting way. I just finished cutting it on Wednesday, and that’ll be out in a couple of weeks. In terms of that kind of complexity, I think we all feel like all of the things that we’ve wanted to do we’ve really been able to do, which we couldn’t say in the years past. Not that a fifth season wouldn’t be incredibly exciting, and we could do a lot of fun things. But, I don’t know, this year there’s a different sense. I can’t explain it. It’s a resignation to “whatever will be will be”. In the past we’ve always felt like, “Come on, give us one more! We’ve got some really cool things that we want to do that we haven’t done!” This year I think there’s a real sense of, “we’ve done a lot of cool things.” We’ve done a lot of cool things that I think people didn’t imagine that show could be or could do, with the way the characters have grown and with the mythology.


Robbie shows off Chuck "Nerd Herd" Tee shirt at FedCon XX

More FedCon XX at TrekMovie

TrekMovie.com has full coverage of FedCon XX, with another interview to come. 

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CaptainDonovin
May 3, 2011 10:43 pm

Voyager needed lots of help, there were some good stories but it did a great job of being boring at times.

CaptainDonovin
May 3, 2011 10:45 pm

Speaking of Voyager, anyone know if Roxanne Dawson is still directing?

Jordan
May 3, 2011 11:05 pm

Who the heck is that guy?

Vultan
May 3, 2011 11:22 pm

It’s called aging. Look it up.

JP
May 3, 2011 11:23 pm

I think a lot of the actors on Voyager suffered because somewhere along the way the writers and producers figured out that the Doctor and 7 of 9 were their favorite characters to write for and the actors playing the roles were the best actors in the cast. Thus the ensemble suffered as a whole. There was an imbalance. I think that’s less the fault of the rest of the cast and more a result of the Doctor and Seven providing the most opportunities character wise to explore themes previously explored with the characters of Spock and Data (the outsider characters).

The ship wasn’t the star of that show. 7 of 9 and The Doctor were. Whether for right or wrong.

T2
May 3, 2011 11:28 pm

It just kicked in for me…Voyager ended over 10 years ago! Where has the time gone?! Some of the cast looks the same…and some don’t…ah human nature.

jeff
May 3, 2011 11:31 pm

agreed. let’s face it: the guy who played harry kim was a zilch. b’lana was a one-note actress (scowl and act grumpy). janeway came off as shrill and less than authoritative. chakotay could have been an interesting character, but his rough edges were smoothed out far too early and the actor was again far from multidimensional. the guy playing tuvok seems challenged playing a principal on “iCarly.” His notion of playing a Vulcan was to talk in a stiff cadence and wear a blank expression, and so he never seemed to grasp the concept of nuance.

Seven of Nine, by contrast, was at least interesting and fun to look at in the catsuit. And Robert Picardo, the Doctor, was a pro with a lot of character-actor experience under his belt. Small wonder those were the only two worth a damn in the whole series (which, by the way, plays like finest Shakespeare when compared to that abortion known as Enterprise.

jeff
May 3, 2011 11:31 pm

Duncan McNeil was OK, too, but like Chakotay, got tamed too early in the series to remain very interesting.

Maj
May 4, 2011 12:02 am

Voyager was a great show, it was definitely a good Star Trek.

It’s just that the writers went a little too far with the interpersonal drama. And some of the characters, in truth, were conceptually silly. Like Kes, and Neelix who seemed to serve whatever minuscule purpose the writers would write for them. And some of the enemies were silly as well. The Kazon (fake klingons), the Videans. The Borg became far too humanized and emotional after they introduced the Queen –which is a total contradiction to the no-individuality to the Borg.

OLLEY OLLEY OLLEY
May 4, 2011 1:18 am

“SUITS”, They aways get a bad rap, has there even been a great or cool decision that a “Suit” has made? or are those only in the creative domain of the Actors / Directors ?

Captain Irving
May 4, 2011 2:31 am

I liked voyager. Yeah some of it was a bit rough. However at that time u had shows back to back so writing and creativity was a bit stretched too thin. I liked Tom Paris character. I wish they made him still rough around the edges. Neelix was good but kes ehh…. She really wasn’t necessary. Neelix was like the ferengi of that sector. Good at shmoozing and getting stuff. Let’s face it starfleet isn’t that good at the idea of business and profit in this time period. I liked janeway but chakotay his character would have been terrific as captain on this voyage. Looking back it would be neat to have had janeway more as a guidance tool. Say she was mortally wounded and her conscious was downloaded into the holodeck in order to put her body into status until a way to heal her. Should would be a source of wisdom for the crew.

Also the Borg I felt was good. The queen to me was an interaction tool for the humans. The Borg realized as a whole they needed a conscious to interact in order to better assimilate the human race. A way to bring our guard down. It was still a collective mind. The Borg made the queen and she became her own life form in the process.

Ray
May 4, 2011 3:53 am

One of my main beefs is STAR TREK storytelling (any of the series) is that there’s always a solution and the outcome is always successful: whatever is tried, whatever is devised, plan and executed: worked!

That got boring.

It would’ve been interesting to see from time to time that even the best of the best cannot carry the day.

Or how how regular cast members always succeeded in their careers when they showed a flash-forward episode. Sometimes, people level out early in their career or life just falls apart due to circumstances. Not all are admirals or captains of their own ships. Or at times, a good person just becomes a bitter or bad person. I remember an episode where reformed Tom Paris becomes the bittter, anti-Starfleet Paris again but we learn it was just an. act. That was boring. His loss of reformity and his stance against Starfleet should’ve been genuine, with the crew having to deal with him. That’s drama.

I hope the next series changes the STAR TREK story structure and themes; oh, yes, and sometimes, main characters die and stay dead!

tom r
May 4, 2011 4:05 am

i never felt like the actors were secondary to the ship!

who ever he heard that from wasn’t correct. I watched Voyager from start to finish the characters always came first!
It wasn’t bad television. It didn’t take many creative risks like Deep Space Nine, but lets not forget Voyager did some BIG 2 part episodes: Scorpion, Year of Hell etc most of those I felt were better than most of the trek movies.

May 4, 2011 4:14 am

He was already in that movie “Master of the Universe” which was from 1987, so he was in his 30s when he was shooting Voyager, looking younger.

Phobos
May 4, 2011 4:27 am

Mr. Paris needs to go on a diet, and fast.

Mike B.
May 4, 2011 5:07 am

I always felt that Rick Berman and the higher up at Paramount were just burned out when Voyager really got going. So much story had been done on TNG and DS9. I don’t think they knew that the franchise had a rest at some point. Saying things like the ship being the star was kinda that idea that people will aways buy Star Trek no matter what. Voyager was a decline and Enterprise was terrible, in my opinion.

Dac
May 4, 2011 5:18 am

The ship is A star of the show, not THE star. Firefly had it right, 9 people looking out into space seeing 9 different things, but Serenity was the 10th character.

In a way that’s what TOS was too.

Derf
May 4, 2011 5:45 am

#2 Sure, I still see her name pop up all the time in the opening credits for my favorite shows.

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0206259/#Director

I actually started going it years ago with when I realized Frakes, McNeill and Dawson were directing. Since then, it’s been fun to see other names pop up.

One of the more interesting is this fellow, especially when you’re starting to watch an episode of Glee and you’re all “What the?!” and the other person is all “I know!!” :p

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000655/#Director

Watch your opening credits! :)

Horatio
May 4, 2011 6:01 am

Berman became rigid and resistant to any change other than whatever formula he had cooked up in his mind that he thought made the franchise run. Blame can also be aimed at whoever his minions at the Paramount front office were. UPN execs were equally as clueless.

Trek’s decline began during the Voyager era. Not because they were producing bad television, just that they were producing the same thing over and over and over again. Samness had infected the franchise and it transferred right over to Enterprise. Enterprise should have been the opportunity to reboot and bring in totally new and fresh people to reinvigorate the franchise. That this didn’t happen is the fault of the Executive Producers.

All that said, I still found Voyager entertaining. BTW, I still think there was something going on between Kim and Paris. Just saying.

K.O.
May 4, 2011 6:25 am

Is he pregnant?

Crewman Diaz
May 4, 2011 6:31 am

Que gordo está Tom Paris!!! No sé porque me acordé del episodio Threshold (VOY)! jajajaja

Tony Todd's Tears
May 4, 2011 6:42 am

I find it funny that the only Star Trek alums that speak about having a negitive experience on the show, are the Voyager People.

May 4, 2011 6:57 am

Wow, Robbie has really let himself go. :-)

That said, Voyager was everything Roddenberry didn’t want Star Trek to be – at least in terms of storytelling. It was “format vs. formula” (as Stephen [Poe] Whitfield wrote in “The Making of Star Trek“). Voyager was “formula.” Start with the ship, put it in danger, have someone come up with a technobabble solution, push the button, everything’s OK.

Some of Voyager’s (and frankly Trek’s) best episodes were when they deviated from the formula. Granted, TOS had only a couple (“City on the Edge of Forever” immediately comes to mind), TNG had a few (“The Inner Light,” “All Good Things,” “Best of Both Worlds [Part 1]”), DS9 was an anachronism (it pretty much tried to break the mold every episode and wasn’t always successful – “The Visitor” might have been the one episode where sticking to the formula actually worked) and VOY had a couple (and trust me, “Threshold” wasn’t one of them). That may be why Chuck is the success it is – because there’s more “out of the box” thinking that fits inside the format, but doesn’t devolve into formula.

I don’t watch the show, but I wish Robbie all the best and hope it’s renewed. It’s about the only bright spot NBC has right now.

captain_neill
May 4, 2011 7:25 am

While I have always been supportive of Rick Berman, I do agree that perhaps he could have been a bit loose on what he allowed the actors to do.

But I still feel a lot of great Trek was produced under his watch, but that is thanks to the writers who worked under him and with him.

In retrospect Voyager is my least fav Star Trek show but it still had a lot in there that I enjoyed.

I never thought Voyager was just about the ship but I do agree that i became The Seven and Janeway Show with the Doctor. A lot of characters could have been a lot better if they got more to work with.

What they did with Tom and B’Elanna in the last season of Voyager I liked.

captain_neill
May 4, 2011 7:28 am

19

I think by the time they tweaked Enterprise in its last two seasons it was too late.

If Enterprise was like Seasons 3 and 4 from the Start, we could have had a full 7 year run with new take yet still Roddenberry Trek.

wowseruk
May 4, 2011 7:37 am

Voyager, for the most part, sat on it’s arse. lazy stories with lazy writing. TNG and DS9 both had early periods like this but learned the lessons in time. I am a trek fan and love Voyager, however I wish it had been so much more.

Voyager’s saving grace above all was it’s cast.

Dr. Image
May 4, 2011 8:21 am

DS9 got all the good writers when it started up.
That’s why TNG started sucking.
The same crew went on to perpetrate Voyager- and Enterprise.
This is all easily verifiable.

sean
May 4, 2011 8:53 am

Hey folks, howsabout we lay off the fat-shaming? Just because Robert aged and gained a couple of pounds doesn’t make it okay for you to mock his weight. Unless you all want to post pics of yourselves for the rest of us to critique?

Jack
May 4, 2011 8:57 am

13. He was ON the darned show.

captain_neill
May 4, 2011 9:07 am

25

I totally agree, Voyager could have been more and also I think Voyager should have looked more run down after all it’s battles.

Voyager should have also dealt more with the conflict betwen Starfleet and Maquis as well.

But to it’s credit Voyager did some great high concept ideas.

Mel
May 4, 2011 9:28 am

When I read the start of the article, I didn’t know, who he was. I didn’t recognize him. I needed the “Tom Paris” picture to get a clue. He looks so different now, unbelievable! The TNG actors look more like their younger selves than him.

rm10019
May 4, 2011 9:48 am

29, hi conept ideas in low-rent ways. Low-rent is the wrong term, i know, because the production values were always good if not great. What i mean is the artistic bent of the show skewed ‘bland’ and didn’t challenge the audience.

If you are going to challenge the audience currently, you also have to present it in a dynamic way, through pacing, action, camera and editing.

There is no reason that Trek should have looked like the same show in 1987, 1997 through 2006. TV had changed, but Trek didn’t change with it.

Allen Williams
May 4, 2011 9:50 am

I hope they renew chuck. Its the only show on NBC worth watching. The rest is pure trash.

captain_neill
May 4, 2011 10:28 am

31

I thought Enterprise changed with it in the last 2 years

TO say Star Trek never changed is a bit unfair

Phil
May 4, 2011 10:29 am

May the 4th, be with you….

Phil
May 4, 2011 10:34 am

Voyager sould have been the show that broke the Trek mold. Instead, they shoved it back into the Trek 101 box, and it was a neat and clean platform to lecture the audience about the virtues of the clean and sterile Federation. Strip the characters of personalaty, bring on a hottie in the catsuit to mix things up, and we get enough ratings from the core to keep the show on, but the franchise becomes irrelevent to the rest of the viewing audience. Make a new show, change name to Enterprise, repeat. This is why JJ is a breath of fresh air, he’s approached the property as a clean slate.

John from Cincinnati
May 4, 2011 11:31 am

Robert Duncan Macneill is on a diet…it’s called the Shatner diet!

Factchecker
May 4, 2011 12:04 pm

VOYAGER had its moments. I enjoyed Scorpion and Year of Hell.

I always wished VOYAGER had been a Captain Sulu / Excelsior series instead….and ENTERPRISE had been a Captain Pike / Lt. Spock / 1701 series (only with better scripts).

But I’m an old school fan with a love for TOS.

Alas…

Damian
May 4, 2011 12:08 pm

At the time Voyager came out, Berman had asked the studio to back off. He wanted time to let DS9 flourish on it’s own and really did not want to do another show. Paramount’s response was basically “Fine, we’ll find someone else.” DS9 did well partly because it was more dynamic with writing. Voyager seemed to have the same type of writers week in and week out. I agree with Neill, I can watch it and mostly enjoy it, but it is the weakest of Star Trek. There were missed opportunities.

For one, I believe it was Braga who wanted to have more conflict between the Maquis crew and Starfleet crew but was overruled. In effect, after the 2nd episode, there was little difference between the Maquis and Starfleet.

Secondly, the ship should have been in much worse shape (similar to the Equinox, though since Voyager was more advanced, maybe not as bad). Yeah, from time to time they would run low on power or need technology. But for the most part the ship seemed no less worse for wear by year 7.

I think what could have made Voyager a great show would have been to have a ship that was barely holding it together. And a crew that only worked together because they had to to survive, not necessarily because they liked each other. Maybe as the show went on they could have started earning a mutual respect for one another. That would have been more believable.

Horatio
May 4, 2011 12:23 pm

#39 – You mean Voyager should have been more like Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica!

Of which, I must concur.

Kev -1
May 4, 2011 12:29 pm

I think in TOS the producers and writers made the Enterprise a character– then it was a new, unique, dazzilngly original design–but I never really saw Voyager that way. I understand what he means, though, and sets should never eclipse the actors, but good sets can contribute to the overall production. Voyager, for me anyway, relied too much on soap opera, and never fully embraced its concept — a ship desperately far from home; they seemed to have power and spare parts to burn. Also, being outside Starfleet, the show could not fall back on Federation stories, everything had to be created. Very tough to do. The Maquis/Federation split crew didn’t seem to work that well either, and they seemed to drop even that after a while. I’m glad they had a female captain.

Lore
May 4, 2011 12:30 pm

#28 This is nothing compared to the trashing that Jennifer Lien got about her weight.

sean
May 4, 2011 12:51 pm

#42

Oh I know. People got pretty nasty when Denise Crosby gained weight, too. It’s one thing to have a bit of good-natured ribbing, but this just seemed unnecessarily nasty.

Hugh Hoyland
May 4, 2011 1:17 pm

Not my favorite show, but I admit I watched it from start to finish. To me it was like comfort food, it was way to “safe” in all honesty.

But that was also its main fault, it didnt really take any chances IMO. Of course there were interesting concepts due to the great writters the franchise had over the years, but the show rarely strayed far from the standard formate.

When I first heard of the concept I was intrigued. A Star Fleet crew and rebels lost in deep space, forced to live and work together for their lives, potential solid drama there. But it just never seemed to materialize on the screen. I Still like the show though. :]

Hugh Hoyland
May 4, 2011 1:26 pm

#38

Thats what I imagined ENT to be when I heard “prequel”. A return to the TOS style Federation with a pre-constitution class ship.

But what I seen was a prequel to TNG.

In some ways the early seasons of ENT actually reminded me of Voyager for some reason, just bland at times. But I agree with others, it took a step in the right direction in the 4th season.

T'Cal
May 4, 2011 1:39 pm

VOY had some great episodes but too many others would start out with a very good plot and wrap it up way too quickly at the end. I liked Janeway and felt she came across for the most part as a very good leader who cared about her crew; that connection made her stronger, not weaker. And, she was allowed to display her curiosity that is part of her scientist background.

Tuvok and Chakotay were far too bland and one dimensional. Kes, too for that matter; she was regulated to the background rather quickly as there was apparently little they had planned for her, which is a shame. Kim was played off as “the kid” for far too long and it would’ve been very interesting to see him mature as a character to the point of moving into a different role that included a promotion or two. Torrez and Paris had some depth but not enough. The writers could’ve killed off Neelix in “Caretaker” and I would’ve been ecstatic – he was written to be THE most annoying regular character in all of Trek. That leaves 7of9 and the Doctor. She was an excellent character who was degraded by leaving her in a catsuit and spiked heels – ridiculously sexist. He tended to be annoying but over all was one of the best written characters on the show.

TBW
May 4, 2011 1:51 pm

38) You are a TOS fan, but enjoyed Year of Hell? Year of Hell is everything everyone who had disdain for Voyager specifically hated about that show. Reset button.

Jack
May 4, 2011 1:52 pm

Nobody on Voyager except for maybe Jeri Ryan, seemed particularly interested in what was happening around them, or even to them. Were they directed that way or were they just bored by the material? Kate Mulgrew, of course, charged her way through every scene, but she ended up playing Kate Mulgrew, I think.

sean
May 4, 2011 2:21 pm

#47

Really? I hate Voyager, but still thought Year of Hell was probably their finest moment. A multi-faceted villain, Voyager blown to hell and back, Tuvok is blind and Janeway goes out like a badass ramming her ship into the enemy. What’s not to like?

May 4, 2011 2:46 pm

@ 7. jeff –

Right on the money on every point.

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