Star Trek: Voyager’s Robert Picardo made waves a couple of weeks ago with a fun noirish music video spoof all about Brent Spiner. He is also doing another virtual GalaxyCon event this weekend. TrekMovie talked to Bob to get a preview of the event, hear his views on Star Trek: Picard, and more.
Let’s start with your new video. Did it have the desired effect? Are you now basking in Brent Spiner-level adulation?
[laughs] Absolutely, yes. When we were making this somebody asked if Brent would possibly be upset by this. I said I don’t know, but I do know that he can take a joke so why couldn’t he take a joke at my expense. It’s very complimentary for him. To prove my theory correct, he had one of the first responses. I got a like and very nice response from him on Twitter, then we chatted back and forth in private messaging. So he thought it was very funny. And that’s great.
I have the highest regard not only for Brent’s career but his sense of humor. The inciting event was the video that he made that was just so terrific, upbeat, joyful, and fun. And then and then the way he lets the air out of the bag at the end. I just thought it was a very funny, charming, self-deprecating laugh to offer his loyal social media followers and I admired him for that.
There is a slight Rodney Dangerfield-esque element to your video. Do you feel that you and Star Trek: Voyager are not getting the kind of respect you all deserve?
Absolutely not. No, not at all, not in the least. I’m very proud of our show. And literally when I say, “We both played AI, but my show capsized,” while his went big screen from TV, that’s all just the gag about the fact that they are the one franchise after The Original Series that got to do feature films.
Of course, I’m sure if you asked any of the Deep Space Nine or the Voyager or the Enterprise people, it would have been fun to have a turn on the big screen rather than the way the studio went, which was to reboot those series. But the studio decision proved itself to be the right one. I think the J.J. Abrams reboot and those three Star Trek films shook things up enough to sort of restart the television franchises in a way that I think it gave a distance that was a very smart move. I may not be expressing it well, but I think those were all good decisions.
What do you think?
Well, Garrett [Wang] tells the story of pitching Rick Berman on doing a Voyager movie instead of Nemesis, and that just didn’t seem realistic, to be honest. I do think they could have done a smaller crossover move instead of or maybe even after Nemesis; however, Paramount wanted to go with making a big tentpole, and the only way to do that was to start over.
Yeah. And that crossover movie is the only one I think was sort of given consideration, whatever the Star Trek version of a “Justice League” to mine characters from all the different shows. That would have been something and I think it was under consideration.
But back to your original question and my original point: Absolutely I do not feel that Voyager is a stepchild. Brent is the most famous and the first major artificial intelligence character in Star Trek. The whole joke of the lament is that I am number two, because I came along after and I will always be number two. It was really having fun with that and there’s absolutely zero serious intent behind it whatsoever.
My greatest envy for Brent Spiner is that he has sung to great success in a Broadway musical. With all the musicals I’ve done, I haven’t done one on Broadway yet. If you put a phaser to my head and say where you envy Brent the most for, I would say 1776.
The video is part of your new YouTube channel. There is some other original content, like your Italian gigolo character. Is this going to be a new creative outlet for you?
During the time of lockdown, I have been doing little videos, some of them featuring this Alfonso character that I enjoy doing, the world’s most self-absorbed man. Some of the videos feature both me as myself and the other character. If you love to perform and you have no outlet, you obviously have to create your own. The YouTube channel is a way of working on this stuff anyway and enjoying myself; let’s see if it brings a smile to anybody’s face during a depressing time.
If you could avoid issues with CBS, might you be doing any Star Trek-related original content?
I don’t know. I don’t think so. I purposefully didn’t mention Star Trek. Everybody knows what I am talking about, but I did put the Star Trek: The Cruise swag bag in because I thought it was so silly and a fun moment to reference the franchise without saying the word out loud. Honestly, I don’t think so. I don’t know what original Star Trek content would be for me.
One of CBS’ licensees, the Cruise, asked me to do the character again, for an attraction they had on the last cruise. And that was fun. It was the first time I really played the character again. The costume was a near lookalike. I stood in front of a green screen and did probably an hour’s worth of jokes where The Doctor is diagnosing problems you would have while you were on a cruise. Jokes about overeating and overdrinking and all that stuff. That was great fun. I wrote the jokes myself with a little input from friends who know the character well or have enough cruise experience to suggest cruise ship jokes. And because it is a CBS licensee, there was no problem there.
You recently were a guest on Garrett and Robbie’s podcast The Delta Flyers. What was the experience for you like looking back on the show and your performance after 25 years?
That’s a great question. It was interesting and I’m glad they asked me to do it. They specifically said they would love it if I would rewatch. I watched two shows for the first season and I don’t really care for my performance most of the first season because I had such a limited palette. It fine, certainly by the writers’ design, but also by my design. I understood that for the character to develop and grow, he had to start with a very narrow palate. Also, I thought that if I had a certain amount of artifice; the way Brent did with his character, the same but different. I had my own artifice and the manner of speaking. I stood with this sort of hyper-posture, and I spoke in a very specific and clipped manner, sort of modulating up and down. I knew that later as the character became more human, it would be a more dramatic reveal and the audience would experience that transformation much more successfully by how far I had traveled.
However, what that means for me as an actor is I often don’t enjoy my performances from the early seasons because they just seem stiff and mannered. There are moments that I really like and they’re usually the moments where the writers had the great story moments in the script for the character where he was waking up to certain new realities that he would like to pursue that he could have an interest outside. He didn’t have to just be a doctor all the time. He could have hobbies. He could have daydreams. As he wanted to be more human-like, that that made all of those tangents that the character went on delightful to play.
But having said all of that, I thought the work and the show really stood up 25 years later. I think we had a really strong cast, the characters are very well defined. And we all have unique relationships with each other. I love having scenes with all of my castmates. We each had a specific way of relating to each other. I think the work definitely held up. While I enjoy more shows for me later on, especially seasons four and on, but I was not disappointed rewatching it.
Often when we talk to other actors they talk about how you were always pitching the writers. At the time, were your fellow actors jabbing you over it, or did they want advice on how to do it themselves?
First of all, it’s hard for writers to sit down and write 25 scripts a season. That’s a lot of ideas. And even though Star Trek has certain core kinds of episodes, like this is the “evil twin” episode, this is the “crew was all been hijacked and there’s only one person left on the ship” episode. I always had an affinity for writers. And I think that if you approach them with an idea that is really a good idea for the show, and not just, hey, here’s an actor going, “I think I’m fabulous. Why don’t you give me more screen time?” That’s not an idea. But if you have a story idea for your character that makes logical sense or a way to relate. Some of the best suggestions I made that paid off are how I can relate specifically to another character.
Like with Seven?
Like the relationship, I had with Jeri Ryan [Seven of Nine]. My concern was at the end of season three when Kes left the show, she was the doctor’s sounding board. She was his confidant. He had a relationship with her, unlike any other character. At the same time Kes was learning how to be The Doctor’s medical assistant, she was really mentoring him and his developing entitlement as an individual. So when Kes left the show, I did go in to speak to Brannon [Braga] and said I’m concerned that The Doctor is going to now revert to just being a punchline windbag and buffoon, because so many of the rest of the crew still treat them that way whereas Kes was the only one who saw a different side of him. Brannon said to me to try to think of a way I could relate to this new character.
I didn’t know anything about Seven of Nine. I saw Jeri Ryan and she was a very beautiful young woman and I felt it doesn’t really seem appropriate for a character my age to relate to her in a romantic way. I thought about it for a while and I went back to Brannon and I said, “Why don’t we take our relationship with Kes and turn it around and make The Doctor think that he is the perfect one to mentor Seven to reclaim her humanity?” It appeals to his sense of arrogance, that I’m a better teacher on how to be a human than a human. I suggested we could have role-playing exercises where I teach her appropriate behavior in different situations and that and he liked that idea. And that became a four-year arc for us that culminated in “Someone to Watch Over Me.” That’s sort of where Henry Higgins falls in love with Eliza Doolittle.
The two main arcs I loved on the show was the teacher-student with Seven, and my relationship with Janeway. With Janeway, even though she’s a scientist, she was the most reluctant member of the crew to really accept The Doctor fully as an individual. I had great battles of words with hers in shows like “Author, Author,” where The Doctor was hurt by the fact that he thought his great friend the Captain that respected and loved him didn’t really fully accept him. She still looked at him as something apart from the rest of the crew. Those were the two great arcs and those were the scenes I loved playing the most.
To get back to your other question. Yes, I did get teased by some of the other actors, but I would simply say to them, “If you’re a writer, and you go to them and say, ‘Hey, this script is a piece of crap’ and throw it across the room, is that a helpful note for the writer?” I’m suggesting that it isn’t. Brannon Braga did a hilarious impression of me sneaking up on him back when he still smoked cigarettes, hopping out of a bush saying “You know Brannon, I was thinking…” [laughs]
You were just talking about Jeri Ryan. Seven is now back as part of Star Trek: Picard, have you seen that?
I love what they have done with Jeri’s character. I think it was very smart. And it seemed a very logical view of Seven some twenty years later. She’s fully human again, but she still is carrying the baggage of having her whole life and personality being hijacked by the Collective, and still trying to right wrongs. I thought that was great.
As The Doctor was Seven’s mentor, maybe even the closest thing she has to a father, after her real father was Borgified. Could you see returning to the role and what would you imagine their relationship to be like?
Needless to say, it would be great fun to play the character again. I’m sure The Doctor would be as shocked and impressed with the now fully human Seven as I was!
Like Data, The Doctor has a “creator”, the engineer who designed his program, Louis Zimmerman, who would age in real time. What was perfect about what they did with Brent on Picard is there was a hint of Data to set the story in motion, but then he was primarily playing a different character. That was very smart.
Are there any other projects you are involved with you can talk about?
They just streamed the first half of the season called The Family Business on BET. It’s Ernie Hudson playing an African-American crime lord. It’s a multigenerational Sopranos-like crime family. They have a legitimate business of selling cars, but they’re drug dealers and I play a rival drug dealer, a sort of Meyer Lansky kind of avuncular Jewish guy who’s very dangerous. He drinks warm milk and may kill you. It’s a great cast. It’s a lot of fun. It’s very pulpy. A lot of action. Kind of sexy, not my character. [laughs] That’s been fun and what I am working on now and as soon as the lockdown ends, I will be going back to that.
On Apple TV I’m in Dickenson, with Hailee Steinfeld. I play Emily Dickenson’s father’s good friend and campaign manager when he runs for Congress. And I’ve done a couple of film pieces that are in various stages. I did a COVID-19 Zoom movie that’s quite dramatic, where we shot in our respective locations. I have an offer for another sci-fi film. But nobody knows when something is going to happen. I don’t even know when I can get on a plane again.
You have now done a few of these virtual events. Are they filling the void?
Under difficult circumstances, it is the best way to interact with fans. It’s never going to be the same as being able to interact in person. But given the situation, we’re in and everybody is staying safe and healthy but also still trying to carry on with their lives and do the kinds of things they like to do. If you’re a sci-fi fan and you want to see favorite Star Trek actors talking and answering questions and having personal interactions as much as possible, this is the way to do it.
When it was first proposed I thought it sounded a little weird. Now I’ve done a couple of them and people really seem to enjoy them. And the panels have been great. And those Cameo-like personal messages is something new and you can do something humorous that they asked you to do.
Picardo at GalaxyCon Virtual Voyager event on Saturday
GalaxyCon’s summer lineup of Star Trek virtual events continue on Sunday with yet another Star Trek: Voyager event, this time featuring Robert Picardo, Robert Duncan McNeill, Garrett Wang, and Tim Russ. The live Q&A panel at 2 pm PT is free, and you can also buy one-on-one chats, autographs, and more. For tickets and more, visit galaxycon.com.
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