AN INTERVIEW WITH JERI TAYLOR
by Michelle Erica Green
This was over the telephone, November 29, 1995, and I actually asked her everything people asked me to ask her--so much for my chances of ever getting invited in to pitch! She was really, really lovely, did not scream at me for asking about J/C, said everything I hoped she'd say about women and the future...
NV: What is your idea of the guiding principle of Voyager that makes it different from the other Trek shows?
JT: The franchise is completely different in that our mission is to get home. We're stuck 70,000 light years away from everything that we've known and loved, and we are trying to get home, which is not a mission like any of the other ventures. And we have decided to embrace the adventure and to behave like Starfleet explorers, and learn what we can along the way. It is very much Trek because it is Starfleet people behaving in a Starfleet way, which means that they are enlightened human beings who do not go around imposing their values on the rest of the galaxy, who try to behave in a good and decent way, and who are upholding all the Roddenberry principles as they move through this strange part of space. So that's all very familiar. Some of the aliens that we have on the ship are familiar. We have a half-Klingon, we have a Vulcan, we have things people seem before, so there is that comfort level. But of course all of the other alien species that we encounter in the Delta Quadrant, we've never seen before. That makes it somewhat different.
NV: I asked Kate this question, so I'll ask you, although I expect that you'll think about it differently since you actually created the character: if you could sit down with Kathryn Janeway, what would you want to talk to her about? What don't you know about her that you think, "If only I could ask her!"
JT: I'd really love to tap into the mind of a 24th-century woman which is not encumbered with our 20th century limitations, and discuss what it's like to be captain and female. Now, in the 24th century it won't be an issue, I would imagine, but today it still is, whether we'd like to pretend that it is or not. There are things that we think twice before we let Janeway do because we think that the audience views her in a different way from a man and we feel we need to protect the image of the captain. I was one who, in the beginning when we created Janeway, said that by the 24th century a woman can have a position of power and authority without acting like a man. But in the 20th century that's not true, and there are certain emotional levels that I think the captain ought to have access to that we're not entirely comfortable giving to her yet because we fear that it would undermine her sense of being a captain. So I would love to talk to a real 24th-century woman and just see how she balances the idea of femaleness--is there a female essence, is there a female side of people, is that something we have constructed in our own ignorance or enlightenment, does that really have anything to do with it?
NV: Are you a feminist?
JT: Define it.
NV: Great answer! I guess the question is how do you define it...do you see Janeway as a feminist heroine, were you consciously trying to make her one when you created her?
JT: Absolutely not because, as I say, I genuinely believe--I hope--I choose to believe that in the 24th century there won't be any need for such terms, and that issues of gender simply won't exist. These are names we've had to concoct now to deal with very troubling issues, and I felt very strongly that in the 24th century that wouldn't come up, it simply wouldn't exist so she could never be defined in that way. Can I be defined in that way? I wouldn't even attempt a definition. They are so widespread and far-flung that you tend to get yourself in trouble no matter what you say. Do I care about the place of women in society? Very much. Do I uphold positions that I think are helpful to women, do I rail and protest against things that I think are derogatory to women? Absolutely! Everybody here on the show will tell you that they are gradually being weaned away from calling 40-year-old women "girls." That's a very tiny thing. But I take my stands, and I fight the battles that I can. Do I go out and get politically involved in feminist issues? Rarely. I don't get involved in many because I simply don't have time.
NV: What's been your favorite episode so far?
JT: I would say it would be a tossup between "Prime Factors" and "Eye of the Needle. " I thought "Prime Factors" worked on all levels.
NV: You're writing the novel of Janeway's life before Voyager. How much of that did you have mapped out before the show was on the air?
JT: None of it. I am making it up page by page. When Pocket Books contacted me, I had no business saying yes to a novel--I have even less of a life than I ever did and that wasn't much! But I gave them an outline which was very short and very broad that just kind of hit some high points of where I thought I'd be going--no details, no specificity--and they said great. So I sit down each day, and I usually do this all weekend, with my little laptop computer--I have no idea where I'm going. It's very much a moment-to-moment thing and it's a very frightening yet exhilarating way to write. We don't do that in television, we don't have the luxury of that kind of time. We have a very tautly constructed outline before we start writing the screenplay. So it's kind of fun but it's very perilous, and I always kind of have a lump in my stomach when I start, because I truly don't know what the next page is going to bring. And so it's unfolding, and I'm discovering things about her, or the way that I envision her, that I might never have arrived at if I weren't going through this sort of Zen- like process. I have thought that I must sit with Kate and get her input as well. I'm drawing a lot from me, which is what writers do, the incidents in my life and that kind of thing, and it's all very cathartic and fun to do, but I think it would be interesting to get her thoughts too.
NV: You created Janeway as a scientist, which I guess automatically means that there's going to be more technobabble coming out of her mouth than any of the other captains we've had. Are there plans to get more science into the science fiction because of that opportunity?
JT: We certainly have the freedom to do that. The way we do stories around here, people always think we know what we're doing more than we do--we sort of don't set those goals and say "Ah, here's what will happen because she's a scientist" and then try to live up to those goal. We let the characters unfold as we go along, story to story, and we develop stories because a story seems really wonderful--it's something we'd like to see, it's provocative, it's intriguing, it's mysterious, it's spooky--it has some emotional hook that gets us involved so we tell that story. It may be a story about Janeway, it may be a story about Torres or about Paris, and that's how the character is developed. We tend not to say. "Okay, now we're going to do this arc for so-and-so." We let them evolve as people do evolve, which is sort of day to day.
NV: So there aren't any long-term story arcs. Are there plans to explore some of the things which have been vaguely established, such as the fact that Tuvok and Janeway have a rather interesting past together, the fact that a lot of the people who were in the Maquis came together during fairly intense situations in the past--do you have plans to cultivate these eventually, or do you wait and see what people come up with?
JT: A little of both. We put some things in place because obviously we felt it would give us grist for future stories, and yes, it would certainly be fun to see how Janeway and Tuvok first met, that's something I want to deal with in the novel so maybe I don't want to use it on an episode, but it's there to be used. We tend not to tell flashback stories. Anything that happened in the past is harder to tell on TV than it might be in a novel form because you just have a lot of talk about what went on. But we have dealt with relationships with the Maquis, we have gotten into a kind of an arc involving one of them that's going to be coming up in January, and so we dip into all the things we've set up and hope they work.
NV: I'm going to ask you a very fannish question. We got a lot of these questions from people on the Now Voyager mailing list, which consists of several dozen fans who really, really love the show--
JT: The kind I like!
NV: Literally a hundred people asked me to ask you this one. I realize this was probably not intentional on the part of the producers, but large numbers of viewers are under the impression that there's something going on between Janeway and Chakotay. The chemistry seems obvious--I know that Kate and Robert get asked about it all the time at cons. I've heard both you and Kate say that you think it would be unwise for Janeway to get romantically involved with a member of the crew, and in past couple of weeks it has seemed that there's been a concerted effort to separate her and Chakotay and throw B'Elanna at him as a sort of consolation prize. I was just wondering whether you have considered the extent to which your audience may feel you've let them down by sweeping the issue under the rug.
JT: I was one who sort of tossed this out for consideration way, way, way back early, and everyone else responded very badly to it, and I think with justification. Again, we have to be very careful about what we allow this captain to do and not do. I think that for her to breach one of the most fundamental sort of rules of any profession, really, which are in place--if not on paper, then it's an unwritten kind of thing, but for very good reason--then we would be making her look terribly weak. "She's a woman who just can't say no to her feelings, she's not enough of a captain that she puts the well-being and functioning of her ship ahead of her own need to have a man in her life." I think it really undercuts her. It's very fetching, and I know that there is a large segment of fandom, and particularly of women fans, who love to see our characters get romantically linked. It provides problems not just for what I've stated, but because if they do, then what do you do with that relationship? Does it stay in place so that the opportunities for other romances are never there for them? Does it become a soap opera in space instead of what Star Trek sort of is at the core, which is science fiction? It's very tempting--I am one who is constantly trying to inject little bits of romance and attraction and that kind of thing in stories because I think it's a big part of people's lives, and they like to see it reflected. But I just think in terms of Janeway and Chakotay that would be a really bad idea, and I cannot see us doing it. We put in the B'Elanna thing just because then it's there to play with. Does she feel this way or doesn't she? Are they friends, is there a danger if they become close friends because maybe that's going to be too hard for her if he's attracted to someone else, what is that going to do to her? I think we can play with some of those sort of deep-seated feelings that we all have without compromising the captain.
NV: No decisions have been made on any of this?
JT: No decisions have been made. But I don't want to kindle hope that something's going to happen between Janeway and Chakotay because I don't think it will.
NV: I don't think anyone was really expecting it on the show--I think the reaction was more that people don't want it killed. But it seems contradictory...I keep hearing you say you don't want Janeway not to be able to be emotional just because she's a woman in command. But every time she's looked even close to tears, that's been something a lot of the net people have jumped all over. How do you see being able to explore her personal relationships at all in a way that's not going to have the macho crowd crying foul?
JT: I think that it is perfectly all right for the captain to be feeling and emotional when she's not in front of the crew, with someone like Tuvok who is her close confidante and whom she can kind of unwind with. It's in situations like on the bridge or the briefing room, when she is functioning on duty as the captain, that if she becomes too emotional, this creates a feeling of weakness. We get people immediately saying, "Who made that woman captain of a starship? She's falling apart!" If the captain loses it, who can you trust? You've got to have an anchor, you've got to have a rock that is that solid in that position or everything else is hollow.
NV: Kate said that she gets into trouble because she's always taking risks, since that's the only way to learn anything, and they constantly tell her it's too emotional.
JT: We've had those discussions. We have a wonderful, fully textured actress in Kate Mulgrew, who likes to use all of her instrument. And I know it's frustrating for her, that it is her job to kind of push at the edges and see what works. She is a marvelous actress, and she simply wants to use her full self. It's a really fragile situation. I certainly do not want, in the first instance of a woman being captain, to come out of it with people saying, "That was a mistake." I'd rather err in the direction of her being too captainlike than to stick her out there and have people say, "Let's get back to a man who can really do the job."
NV: We only saw her lose it once, in "Persistence of Vision," and everyone else was losing it too. I was intrigued that Janeway and Torres's fantasies that were focused on--we saw a couple of seconds of Tom and a couple of seconds of Tuvok, but we didn't really learn anything new about them--I wondered about the choice to focus on the women. It seems like some women viewers were upset because it seemed like the female characters were becoming sex bimbos.
JT: I think that's a very fair comment. I got that same comment much after the fact here--I wrote that episode--and certainly it wasn't my intention to leave people with that taste in their mouth. As I said, I'm always trying to inject a little romance and a little sex, sometimes our show is very sterile, so when I have the chance I like to bring those sensibilities to it. Part of the reason that was set in motion is that we want to resolve Janeway's love affair at home with Mark--she needs to be able to get on with her life, for her to become romantically interested in anybody would seem like betrayal unless she comes to a decision and says, "He believes I'm dead, he's gone on with his life, I have to do the same," and then can move on. So we started it by having this funny attraction to a holodeck character which seemed like a very safe thing, it's not real, but clearly it was disturbing her more than she was willing to admit. If you have a program that is all written for you in essence--this is a book, she didn't write it, she's simply playing a part--and it turns out that the hero in that is attracted to you, that's the role you're supposed to play. It's a way of having feelings that she's having to repress repress come to the surface, except that she finds out--is it so safe? So to me it was a very provocative way of her beginning to get at these feelings and come to grips with the fact that she will need to get on with her life. I certainly did not intend for the women to look like sex bimbos, I was trying to deal with the real needs and feelings that it seems to me people would have in this situation.
NV: I think it's what you were talking about at the beginning, the double fact that you're writing about 24th-century people for a 20th-century audience. I keep hearing who the demographic audience is, but it seems like the advertising is equally targeted towards women and men. And I was wondering if there is a consciousness that there is an increasingly female audience, or conversely sometimes it almost seems as if that is seen as a liability, like there's a sense of let's get back to techno Trek...
JT: Certainly the network and the studio perceive this as a show which attracts young males, which is the audience they want to attract. And there is a certain amount of encouragement for us to do stories, i.e. action-adventure stories, that appeal primarily to young males. However, the staff here, which includes not just myself but a number of enlightened men--they have no interest in just doing shoot-em-ups. Rick and Michael are much more attracted to the kind of shows that you would think women would be attracted to. So I don't think we're in danger of not programming for women--if anything our tastes go toward that and away from programming for men, and we have to be reminded to do the other kind of shows.
NV: We hear conflicting things about Voyager's ratings: UPN is delighted with them, they hate them, they're OK--are they pretty much where they were targeted to be?
JT: They're either there or even a little better. Being on the UPN network is a great disadvantage. If we were syndicated I think we'd be doing even better than we are. The network does not have full coverage of the country, so in terms of sheer numbers which are the ratings, we can't compete with the other networks. We're hitting 85% of the country and they're hitting 100, and even in those markets where there is an affiliate, we're on Channel 71, very often the top channels have already gone to other outlets and we, just like the Warners network, had to settle for like the dregs. I get letters from people who don't get it at all, or don't have cable--there's nothing I can do about it, but it's just going to be impossible for us to compete when we don't even have access to the same numbers of people. Basically we're at a very good place, we're at about a ten share every week, and that for one of the big three networks would be a pretty low rating; for UPN it's four times as high as anything else they have, and so it's very good.
NV: What do you think Voyager is really on top of right now and doing exactly the way you hoped it would be doing, and what conversely do you wake up in the morning saying, "OK, we have to do something about this problem?"
JT: That's a really good question, and I am not one whoever wants to get too complacent and say, "Boy, we're doing this just right." I don't allow myself to feel that, or I'm not able to feel it--I never feel that about my own work. Other people will say, "That was a really good script"; I have no sense of it, because I am afraid of becoming comfortable and satisfied and I don't think that that's a good place for a creative person to be. It's a lot easier for me to focus on the things that I want to shore up, and they range from I'd like us to find better stories, they're getting hard to find because the Star Trek incarnations over the years have done so many that finding a fresh story is really tough, and I think that sometimes we kind of sink back and do something that's familiar because we're just not able to find that new, fresh, exciting sci-fi notion that's going to boggle everybody's mind. I would love to have more of those. As long as you produce some response, that's the important thing, to get people stirred up one way or another, then you've touched their feelings.
NV: Do you ever think about doing what Classic Trek did and drawing upon professional science fiction writers?
JT: Oh, of course. We have. We sent out years ago an open invitation of the Science Fiction Writers of America to pitch, and got some response, not very much, it didn't really prove a very fruitful way to go. The door is open, and we've even made it easier for them than for others, and just not gotten the response.
NV: Well, I think we all know that Janeway is a lot of people--she's part the writers and part Kate and part you--
JT: Of course she is, and she will always be dear to my heart because I drew on so much of me for her, but when Kate came along she was Janeway, she is, as a person, that captain. And I just think we couldn't have made a better choice, she's fleshed her out and I wouldn't even assign percentages now because she's really the one who's brought her to life.
NV: Thanks very much!