In part one of our interview with Star Trek: Voyager’s Garrett Wang (Harry Kim) and Robert Duncan McNeill (Tom Paris), they talked about their new podcast, The Delta Flyers, where they’re making their way through every Voyager episode in chronological order.
In this second part of the interview, the two actors take a thoughtful deep dive into their experience working on Star Trek: Voyager, and despite their disappointments about various unfulfilled possibilities, they clearly remember it with great affection, and laughed a lot as they were telling stories about it.
When you guys look back at the prep for the pilot, do you remember what you were told about your characters and Harry and Tom’s arcs?
Garrett Wang: Mine was pretty basic. He’s fresh out of Starfleet Academy, the young, eager duty-minded ensign. Ensign Kim had the most blank canvas to work with, right? He was so green.
But did they ever discuss character arcs with me? Very rarely, to be honest. Every now and then I would get a call saying, “Hey, we’re thinking about doing an episode that revolves around your character, and this is what going to happen.” I knew before the hundredth episode, “Timeless,” that that episode was going to revolve around Kim. That call came from Brannon Braga probably two weeks before we started filming that one. And he said, “Listen man, this is going to be Voyager’s signature episode. So just want to make sure you prepare for this, get a lot of sleep, focus well, because you’re all over this one.”
And then there was another time they called up and said, “Hey, we’re going to do an episode next season, it’s gonna be our Quantum Leap episode… Kim wakes up in the body of a serial killer in modern-day Los Angeles. And he’s being chased by the FBI for the entire episode to try to get back to Voyager. I thought, ‘Wow, this is like The Fugitive mixed with Quantum Leap.’ I was so excited—and they never filmed it. [laughs] They ended up not doing it at all and that bummed me out. Robbie, did they talk to you about your character and your arc?
Robbie McNeill: They never did really, no. I think they’d been doing it for so long, and they had so many projects going on. They’d just wrapped up Next Gen on television, now they’re doing movies, and they had DS9 going and Voyager and they didn’t have time to walk every actor through all of their individual character arcs and nuances. There were very few long-term conversations that I recall.
Robert Picardo is famous for pitching ideas to the writers, did you guys do much of that?
Robbie McNeill: I didn’t really pitch, no. Most of the time with Star Trek. I looked at it as, ‘You guys, tell me what you want, and I’ll do it.’ Because I wanted to direct, too. I was like, ‘I don’t want to confuse them with trying to be a writer and a director and an actor. Let me just do my actor job and keep focused on the directing’. So that’s where I put my energy.
Garrett Wang: I tried, but I wasn’t as persistent as Robert Ricardo. Bob Picardo just kept calling them until they finally capitulated. I gave it a shot, ‘cause I kept saying, “Listen guys, my strength is my impersonations, my ability to do accents and presentations. Let us have a B-storyline where the crew has a ship-wide talent show. And Ensign Kim gets up and does his impersonation at The Doctor, of Janeway, of whoever.” And they were like, “Eh…. no.”
And then what was so frustrating was that through the seven years, there’s a few times that actors on Voyager got to basically impersonate other characters; specifically, when the doctor is in Seven of Nine’s body, you remember that? And Seven of Nine has to basically impersonate The Doctor. And then the other time was when Barclay from TNG was in the mess hall. And he ends up doing his impersonation of Janeway. Now, both of these scenes: Guess who they had in that scene right next to the actor doing their impersonation? Yours truly. So it was almost like they said, “Not only are we not going to let you have what you ask for, we’re gonna rub salt in your wound and make you watch other people do their substandard, not-as-good impersonation of that person,” and it was killing me.
And then another time I said, “I know that Worf did judo in TNG. I’d love to introduce some other martial arts where Kim gets to do that, maybe on the holodeck.” And I even went and trained—I chose Krav Maga—but they said no to that too. And so the only thing they finally agreed to over the seven years was I said, “The clarinet is not a very manly instrument. [laughs] Could you please give me a saxophone?” So they removed the clarinet, and the saxophone ended up in my quarters. So there’s an episode where do you see a saxophone in there, and that’s the only thing that I got pushed through.
Just the saxophone!
Garrett Wang: Just the damn saxophone. And I don’t think I ever—Robbie, did I even play it? I don’t even think I even played the sax, I think I Just play the clarinet pretty much.
Robbie McNeill: Yeah, I think you did at the very end.
Garrett Wang: Every time you see Kim playing an instrument, it’s always been the clarinet. And then season seven, they threw me a bone. They’re like, “Well, we turned him down on the whole impersonation talent show thing. We turned it down on the Krav Maga suggestion, let’s give the kid the damn saxophone, but we won’t show him playing it. We’ll just put it in his quarters, just to show that we’re still in control.” And that’s what happened.
On a podcast, Bryan Fuller said he felt bad that in later seasons, Harry and Tom fell into a sort of a trap of just being “the guys.” Do you agree with his assessment?
Garrett Wang: I definitely agree with Bryan. Part of that is because, as writers, it’s a lot easier to write for Seven of Nine. It’s a lot easier to write for Janeway, it’s a lot easier to write for The Doctor. Because the later seasons—I joke about this, I say season five, six and seven, it wasn’t Star Trek: Voyager. It was Star Trek: Janeway, Seven, Doctor Show, is what it was. [laughs] So Bryan is dead-on in his analysis that we just became sort of dull guys.
Robbie McNeill: Yeah, I agree. I think the one thing that I was grateful for in the later few seasons was the B’Elanna/Tom relationship because it allowed them to take a character that I think they struggled with early on… and they experimented with, in the middle a little. But like Garrett said, in a science fiction premise, it’s much easier to write for these kinds of amplified characters that are archetypes. You put the captain into any situation and it deals with the archetype of authority and the leader and the head of the ship. You use the archetype of this doctor who is not human, but yet has the character traits that he had. To come up with sci-fi stories for, like Bryan puts it, “the guys,” is a lot harder. It’s a lot harder to find something where our characters make that story better because of who we are, when our characters were, in a lot of ways, very undefined. Garrett’s character was very much the everyman of the innocent younger rookie, and that’s why he was always the ensign, because they wanted that archetype. And I was just the everyman who got to redeem themselves, I guess.
So I think we sort of faded into a lot of support roles and for me, at least I had the opportunity with B’Elanna to be involved in some stories that were about relationships and love and family and commitment, and because she was half Klingon, it allowed for science fiction stories that were easier for them to write.
Garrett Wang: The other thing that we were fighting against was the fact that we had the most series regulars. So when you talk about nine, compared to like TNG six and then you just don’t have enough episodes to share the wealth, especially when you focus everything on The Doc, and Seven, and Janeway. There’s just not enough episodes to go around. It’s not that they didn’t like us, or anything like that. [laughs] It just was easier just to write for those characters.
And I think at the beginning, your characters were the accessible ones, a good entry point because they were the more human ones people could relate to. And then as the show went on, they had accomplished that.
Garrett Wang: Yeah. I am surprised about how much Tom and Harry are in all these season one episodes that we’re watching. That’s one thing that was new to me—oh, goodness, we’re everywhere. [laughs]
When you’re watching from the beginning… I know you guys talked about the Maquis, and how wacky Neelix was initially—do you feel like there’s potential that wasn’t explored as much as it could have been on the show?
Garrett Wang: Regarding Neelix, I really felt that his comedic sensibility is awesome. But they didn’t allow him to really blossom. Most of the comedy went to The Doctor. It was sort of like, ‘Okay, of this comedy cake, we’re going to give every slice but a little bit to The Doctor,’ and I felt that could’ve been developed more to see some more comedy amongst the human characters, amongst Paris and Kim even more. And even Chakotay. Why do we have to relegate all the funny stuff to one character? That always kind of ate away at me and I felt that we kind of lost out on that.
Robbie McNeill: I actually think the thing that was not developed was Neelix’s… they turned him into this cute cuddly, people-pleasing alien when he was really this paranoid street-kid junk trader. He was not a warm fuzzy guy when we first met him. The whole… costume design to writing, I think Neelix could have been a much more complicated character than they gave Ethan the opportunity to play.
Garrett Wang: It could have been edgier and they kind of took that away from him.
Robbie McNeill: They took all that away from him very quickly; he had it in the pilot. But he changed very quickly into this people-pleasing helpful… he was like the social director, it was very soft. In the long run, it could have been made for a much more interesting character.
Robbie McNeill: In this rewatch, one thing that I’ve seen so clearly and learned is that Chakotay could have been.. if they had put some time and effort into really trying to ground his character in the Native American tradition, in a real way—I heard that in an effort to not offend any tribe, they made him from some generic non-tribe that didn’t really exist. And so they gave themselves permission to make it up. I think that that really hurt that character. Chakotay, if he had been grounded in real, authentic Native American tradition, that could have been much more interesting. And I felt like it was just sort of a token gesture at this generic Indian thing.
It makes me frustrated because—not that I’m the PC police, but I think that’s a real missed opportunity for the character. There are native people around this country and indigenous people around the world that get exposed to Star Trek. And that would have meant a lot to them, if that had been taken a little more seriously. I think they could have really seen themselves and connected and been inspired in a way that that sort of broad-stroke cartoony version probably didn’t connect to them.
Right, it was more of just a representation.
Robbie McNeill: It’d be like [having] a Black character on and saying– imagine the most racist, stereotypical things you could think of that might be offensive potentially—but saying, “Oh, this Black character just likes these things,” and that’s as much as you explored it. If they’d done that on Deep Space Nine with Sisko, can you imagine? What was beautiful about DS9 is they really explored what it means to be a Black father, what it means to be a Black leader. They did not shy away from the opportunity to explore in a real way, the racial side of that character in that experience. But with Chakotay, they didn’t really.
Looking back to when Jennifer Lien was let go and Jeri Ryan was brought in, do you remember how they presented that to the cast?
Robbie McNeill: I don’t recall. Garrett, do you remember how we found out?
Garrett Wang: I don’t recall that either. I think someone just said, “Yeah, they’re not renewing her contract. They’re bringing another character in,” or something. That baton handoff was so awkward because Kes’ last continuous episode—she showed up later for that one firestorm episode [“Fury”]— her last episode was Seven of Nine’s first one and they were on the set at the same time too, and that was just so awkward. But they never really prepped us for it.
I do remember that Kate had a dinner for Jennifer Lien. Robbie, you went to that dinner, I’m sure. And everyone was there except for me. I completely forgot, I completely spaced. I was at IKEA of all places, just walking around. I wasn’t even buying anything. And then I remember I get a message on my answering machine from Kate [in Kate Mulgrew voice], “I’m so disappointed in you, how could you not show up to Jennifer’s farewell dinner?” She was so pissed. I remember I was cowering from listening to her on the voicemail, I wasn’t even being directly spoken to by Kate. I was just sitting there getting smaller and smaller as that message went on. [laughs]
But just like Robbie said, there was no cast meeting saying, “Hey, this is what we’re going to be doing.”
Robbie McNeill: There was not typically a touchy-feely inclusive approach with actors on Star Trek that I remember. You found out when you got a memo or you got the scripts. I guess I would say there wasn’t a big “we’re one big family” kind of vibe from the office and the writers. It did feel like we were one family on set, when we were actually filming. The cast and the crew? Very close, really an amazing crew, a wonderful group of actors that all, I think we all felt very close. But from the management side of things, there was not a warm, fuzzy, “Hey, we’ll talk to you guys as a group about things that might be sensitive.”
I remember when Neelix wrapped on the series, a few episodes before everybody else… they wrote him out early. And I don’t think Ethan had been told that until he had seen the script. Or maybe he was told the day we got the script.
Garrett Wang: Yeah, there’s definitely a certain level of disconnect from the management, just like Robbie said. And it’s very indicative of… if you’re talking about Berman being the primary showrunner, Rick Berman. I’ve been very critical of him in the past. And I’m just going to say in this particular case, I’m not going to talk about his character or anything about that. I’m just going to say: In seven years, I saw him on the set twice, okay? Two times in seven years. And one of those times was to do an interview for Yahoo magazine, and he was standing in my station.
On Fridays, we would get catered dinner. And so the two actors that were released to go eat first were Neelix [Ethan Phillips] and myself. They set up this huge long picnic table right in front of the bridge. So I’m sitting with my back to the bridge and I see Berman doing this interview looking all smug and you know, “I’m the ruler of the universe” kind of confidence and I go, “Berman’s in MY station, why couldn’t he have been in Tuvok’s station? Why does he have to stand where I gotta stand?” And then while we’re eating, Ethan Phillips goes [in Ethan Phillips voice], “Um, are the steps supposed to be on fire?”
And I go, “WHAT?” I turn around, and to light Berman for the photo shoot one of the lights caught this really thin gauzy scrim that was right above the bridge. It caught it on fire. And literally I turned around in time to see Berman see the fire and run out of there. He made a sound and he ran. Billy Peets, the gaffer, he comes in and all the crew, we yelled for them to come in, and they came in and helped put the fire out. But the showrunner ran from the scene. Now you know how I feel. [laughs] It’s out there.
Well, you can’t fire me so I can say whatever I want to say, right? Robbie’s always good about trying to pull me back a little bit… I tell the truth.
Robbie McNeill: There were a lot of people running off that stage. I think I was outside when it happened, but I remember people pouring out, hysterical—lots of people. I think in those situations, the group panic sort of takes over.
Garrett Wang: But the group panic, Robbie, started with Berman. When the showrunner runs out screaming then everyone else was like, “Whoa, has the Tasmanian devil been released on the set? Are people being killed?” He set the tone. Right? The only people that didn’t run were Ethan and I. We were like, ‘Okay, so what do we have to do, we have to call somebody’ and we went to the little fire extinguisher thing on set. We didn’t run, we were still there.
I really feel that that that set would have been less damaged if Berman just handled it a little differently. I shake my head when I think about that day.
I think it was because of that fire that they sped up the filming of some of the “Bride of Chaotica” stuff, because they needed to do some work on the set.
Robbie McNeill: I don’t remember that detail, but you’re probably right, I think they did have some work to do it and change their schedules.
That’s what I’ve read. So I know you guys have talked about reviving Captain Proton, and when I interviewed Kate Mulgrew recently, I asked if she would ever want to do it, and she told me it was the most fun she’d ever had in all of her years on Voyager.
Garrett Wang: She loved it. She loved it! Robbie, were you on set when Kate walked in for the first time in her Arachnia costume? She didn’t walk in: She promenaded. She was in character. She had this really amazing stride. You could see her enthusiasm just from her walking onto the set–we weren’t even filming yet. It was great.
Robbie McNeill: Very funny. She was great!
Have you guys made any progress on trying to revive Captain Proton? And would you ask her to do it, because she sounded to me like she would love to.
Robbie McNeill: I would love to. I haven’t really made a concrete effort, but I’ve talked to a few people, we’ll see. There’s a chance that there could be some version of it coming, getting developed and coming back.
Garrett Wang: My goal is to really try to keep Robbie from doing other projects and kind of focus at some point and focus on getting Captain Proton done. Kidding! He’s literally the busiest man in Hollywood, and if we could get him to focus on Proton, maybe that will become a reality. So we’ll see.
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Check out part one of our interview, where they talked about the podcast, their stance on Tuvix, lizard babies, and more.
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