A Starburst Interview by Nick Joy
lounging about in the holodeck's rendition of a tropical holiday resort,
Star Trek: Voyager's Tom Paris, alias Robert Duncan McNeill, was recently
spotted at the less humid seaside venue of Blackpool, England.
attending Wolf 359's The Mission, the 43rd British Star Trek convention,
which in turn was supporting the NSPCC. Starburst took the opportunity
to discuss his work on Star Trek's latest incarnation, focus on his new-found
love for directing and try to dig-up any gossip about the Borg, Bujold,
Berman and the Delaney Sisters.
to be known as Robbie, and this is understandable on a show that is already
over-populated with Roberts; "Doctor" Picardo is known as Bob and Mr. Beltran
is simply Robert. Having just wrapped the third-season cliffhanger, Robbie
looks back and considers the changes that have been made aboard the Delta
Quadrant's favorite starship.
producers] said something to us at the beginning of the season about changing
our tone a bit, changing the gears and not getting stuck in this depressed,
negative, "Oh, we're lost, we'll never get home" feeling, and that we should
be more adventurous and positive. As simple as that sounds, that made the
biggest difference this year."
season had the best scripts by far, and we made the best shows. I don't
think that there were major changes in character or the premise of our
undergo subtle yet significant changes,l and these were viewed positively
by McNeill. "I think for a little while that they got lost with Paris because
they established his character as rebellious, very much a lone wolf, and
then realized that they didn't like these qualities. They got scared that
this Han Solo-like character was not going to last. Why would the captain
give him the privilege of piloting the ship, all that responsibility, if
he was such a rebel?"
One of the
ways that the writers tried to change his character's direction was in
the second season's "traitor" five-story arc. Paris pretends to be insubordinate
in order to flush out the traitorous Jonas, who is selling technology and
secrets to the Kazon. McNeill explains, "I was partially responsible for
that arc, which I think was not executed very well. I gave them an idea
for a Paris/Chakotay story where we were captured by aliens. Whilst in
jail they offered us the chance to join them in some battle, and so Paris
appears to defect. He says, 'Sure, I'll fly for you, I'm not going to spend
time in jail any more.' Chakotay accuses him of selling out and at the
end of the story Paris comes through, it was all a front, and he saves
was my idea and they carried it through to this story arc, which was a
mistake, because you might see an episode and then miss the one where I
redeem myself, and for the rest of the season you think I'm still this
things that they made him rebellious about were petty, like gambling in
the holodeck or turning up late for work. Tom should be rebellious about
things that are important - he's the one who says 'Wait a minute, the only
way to solve this problem is to break the rules a little bit,' when others
would just keep their mouths shut and go with the flow. It was such a failure
to me that Tom should be so petty, I wish I'd put my foot down earlier.
They were making him nasty to people for things that just weren't important,
and that made the character less honest. If he's going to lie, then he'll
do it for a reason."
Tom Paris, descendant
of generations of Starfleet admirals, has little to go home to. After an
accident involving the death of a crewmate, Paris is court-martialled and
joins the Maquis, but is caught on his first missionand sent to the Federation
Penal Settlement where he is offered freedom subject to his piloting the
U.S.S. Voyager through the Badlands. Given this troubled past, why would
Tom want to return to Earth?
[series co-creator/executive producer] and I had lunch last week and we
talked about some of the backstory for Tom because there has been this
very clear assertion that Tom's father was very pushy and demanding. It
would be more interesting if the truth was that his father was not really
demanding or pushy at all, and that only Tom perceived it his way; it was
really Tom's own expectations that he was not living up to. The audience
assumes that his father is this monster and the Paris family are dysfunctional,
but that might not be so." Whether or not this shift in emphasis comes
to fruition will soon become apparent in the next season.
A major change
for McNeill, as opposed to Paris, was his opportunity to direct two third
season episodes, "Sacred Ground" and "Unity." The former is a mystical
adventure wherein Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) is forced to confront
her inner psyche in order to rescue Kes from a state of limbo, and the
latter details the long-awaited return of the Borg. "Sacred Ground" might
have been low in optical effects, but how does a novice director handle
the unwieldy dialogue?
episode is like building a house," explains McNeill. "You have to come
up with a blueprint but then when you start building you might find that
you really can't build it that way because the ground is sinking over there.
As a director you have different tools to deal with difficult problems,
and if the dialogue seems bad you just inject some humor into it, and this
helps you to enjoy its badness! If there's a moment that's meant to be
funny and it just doesn't seem to be working, then the more straight you
play it the better it is, justby playing it honestly."
Tom, Rick, or Harry
Star Trek: Voyager
is a very stylized show, and works to a fixed, tried and tested formula.
Did McNeill find his hands tied directorially in view of this?
certain rules that Rick Berman [series co-creator/executive producer] has.
You know editorially that he does not like to do certain things, so as
a director you have to e awaer of that and not shoot film that will be
rejected. You have to give him things the way that he likes them, but there
are times when he is willing to break the rules, although you need to talk
to him about it first. His rules are very specific and very clear. "In
'Sacred Ground' I wanted to use slow motion when Janeway gets lost in the
whole 'vision quest' moment and collapses into a grave. I wanted to use
a high-speed camera and show her falling in slow motion so that we could
cut in with some of the tasks that she'd done. I talked to Rick about it,
and he said, 'Okay, shoot it that way and we'll see, but give me another
option to do it straight.' I shot it both ways and we ended up using the
slow motion. Janeway gets bitten by a snake in a basket and starts to hallucinate
before passing out."
is spending more time behind the camera, McNeill assures viewers that he
will still be spending a significant amount of screen time with his comic
foil and friend, Harry Kim. The majority of their time together seems to
be spent talking about women, and so the question on everyone's mind is
of course, 'Will we ever get to see the fabled Delaney Sisters?' Robbie
laughs, "I don't think so. I think its more fun to refer to them now and
Whilst on the
subject of the female of the species, Robbie laments the passing of the
Kazon, and in particular, Seska. "She actually comes back from the dead,
in a very Sci-Fi way." Of course, in the Star Trek universe, death can
be just a passing phase.
As a newcomer
it might have been a daunting prospect directing accomplished actress Kate
Mulgrew, but McNeill has nothing but praise for her. "Kate and I have been
rather close since the beginning because our trailers are right next to
each other at one end of the stage. The other cast members are at the other
end of the lot -- I don't know why they split us up that way -- but I've
been with her ever since she replaced Genevieve Bujold."
his words carefully before continuing, "I worked with Genevieve for two
days, the only two days that she was with us. It would have been a different
show with her as captain. It was a real mistake to cast her because she
didn't fit into Starfleet at all. There's a real heroic quality that she
was lacking; Genevieve's strength is in playing someone who has got a lot
of baggage, demons, and neuroses, and she has done a lot of brilliant work
in this field (i.e., Coma, Dead Ringers.) Starfleet's strength is in its
classic heroic characters; they say what they mean and they speak their
minds. They tend not to have these psychological Freudian places, and she
has too much going in her head, which was very distracting to the story."
Borg Are Back
did of course have the opportunity to exhibit his personal demons as Jean-Luc
Picard /Locutus in Star Trek: First Contact, a movie that will primarily
be remembered for the return of the menacing Borg. McNeill's second directorial
assignment was "Unity," which marked the return to the small screen of
the Borg after a four-year absence. The assimilating villains have changed
in many ways since they made their exit in "Descent, Part II," and the
prospect of helming a major 'villain' show might have frightened the most
seasoned of directors. How did McNeill obtain such a choice assignment?
"Part of it
was that they were extremely happy with 'Sacred Ground,' and the other
part was just luck. I was not so much frightened that the episode was about
the Borg, as I was because of what the story was about. With the Borg there's
a certain expectation that the audience have because they are the ultimate
bad guys. Previously there has been no humanity in them and this episode
introduces a whole new concept about them -- the fact that they can be
de-assimilated. They have a one-dimensional quality of pure evil, technology
and humanity combined into this one machine, and in 'Unity' we crack that
armor and show that they could be destroyed, whether by a natural disaster
or a virus, or whatever."
The Borg are not
the only 'guests' to enter the Quadrant last season, as the mischievious
superbeing Q (John De Lancie) also made a return with immoral ideas about
what to do with Voyager's erstwhile captain. Would McNeill like the opportunity
to direct de Lancie?
be tough, although the interesting thing about Q is that he can do anything
or be anything, or go where he wants, whereas the Borg were so narrowly
defined that there is a danger of not knowing where to expand. With Q you
have established that you can do whatever you want, so you don't have to
be careful with him."
as to how long he believes the show will continue, McNeill's guess is as
good as anyone's. "I don't know. I think that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
is going to six seasons, and I hope that we get to go to six because I
dearly want to direct ome more."
"There is an end-of-season
Borg cliffhanger ["Scorpion, Part I"] you know," teases McNeill. "It airs
at the end of May in the U.S. It's going to be very interesting because
at the end of the first episode we actually consider making an alliance
with the Borg for a lot of different reasons. I don't know about the second
part, we haven't shot it yet."
There's a certain
twinkle in his eye that suggests taht he knows more that he is letting
on, but as always with Lieutenant Tom Paris, you never know quite what
the cover! See image.