Last year was filled with transitions on Star Trek Voyager - Kes left, Seven of Nine came aboard, the ship moved more then ten years closer to the Alpha Quadrant. Off-camera, executive producer Jeri Taylor stepped down and Brannon Braga, who's been with the Trek franchise since The Next Generation as writer and producer, moved into her role. It wasn't an easy year for Captain Janeway or for actress Kate Mulgrew, but she's very happy with where they've all ended up.

"I'm very excited about Brannon Braga taking over, I'm having a great time," said Mulgrew recently from her home in Brentwood - the Los Angeles neighborhood of which she is honorary mayor. The fifth season of Voyager began production in June after a two-month hiatus, but Mulgrew barely got a break: she went to Europe to attend Fedcon in Germany and stayed to film a movie in Luxembourg, barely getting back in time for her set call at Paramount. She admitted to being tired, yet sounded upbeat about the episode she was in the midst of filming.

"The scripts I think are terrific this season; Brannon is incredibly smart, and dark and creative and funny in a way that I love," she said. "It's rather naughty and mischievous, which is just so provocative and fascinating. He knows Janeway's voice and Mulgrew's voice, and has married them very nicely." Mulgrew added that she liked the work she did last season; "Janeway in seasons one, two, and three was a little goody-two-shoes for my taste, not really who Mulgrew is as Janeway. Brannon has watched me closely as an actress in the last four years, so he knows where I can go, and what my strengths are."

Mulgrew and her co-stars have described last season as a seminal year, with Braga beginning to take control of daily production duties from Taylor. "This year Brannon has taken over completely, and it's galvanizing," said Mulgrew. She explained that she didn't think there would be more action necessarily, but "a much greater exploration of the personalities. We've completely neglected the Maquis side of Chakotay and B'Elanna. I have a feeling Tuvok is going somewhere, he's drier, he's funnier, he's naughtier than he's ever been before - it's just smarter language, which seems to fit very well in Tuvok/Tim's mouth."

What about the captain? "What Brannon has done is to give me a lot of rein and still stay in charge of the stories." Mulgrew, who often speaks of Janeway in the first person, has often said at conventions that she wished for more exploration of the loneliness of command, and of Janeway's complicated situation as the sole representative of Starfleet in the Delta Quadrant. It sounds as though she may be getting that chance.

"Janeway's sort of letting down, which is what Mulgrew is doing - I have let my hair down, and I have thrown my girdles away," the actress related with a chuckle. "She's much more relaxed. It's much more real. Brannon understands that alchemy very well, so I feel liberated, which is a wonderful feeling. We're going to explore Janeway's dark side, her angsty side, her loneliness, her anger...juxtaposed with her kindness."

Whenever the subject of Janeway's loneliness comes up, the issue of her relationship with her first officer is rarely far behind. Though both Mulgrew and the producers have said repeatedly that they think it would be inappropriate for Janeway and Chakotay to have a love affair, the pairing is extremely popular with fans, who flooded Voyager's online site with complaints about the poorly-rated Chakotay romance "Unforgettable" last season, and who voted in a UPN poll for Mulgrew and Robert Beltran as the couple they would most like to see together on Love Boat: The Next Wave.

"I have begged that Chakotay and Janeway have a deep and intense relationship, and I have been assured that that will be developed - that means a friendship, I'm not going to sleep with him," Mulgrew reiterated, her voice resonating in command mode. "It's too late now; if it would have happened, it would have happened before." The producers ducked a chance to address this issue directly in last season's episode "Hunters," during the course of which Janeway discovered that her fiance Mark Johnson had married someone else...though as Chakotay pointed out to her at the end of that episode, she still has a lot of time to explore relationships in the Delta Quadrant.

Will that mean intimacy? "I think before we're finished it will, certainly," said Mulgrew, who believes the series will be on the air for three more years, running seven seasons as did The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. But she doesn't expect love with Chakotay to blossom until the very end, if at all. "I want Chakotay as my confidant. That means that we're going to cross over all kinds of lines together, in the privacy of my quarters or his. Things will be said between us that nobody else on the crew will know about. We're going to have secrets, like good friends do - they don't talk about their relationship to their acquaintances. That's what we're going to have."

Though Janeway is in large part the creation of producer Taylor - sharing her home state of Indiana, her tennis skills, and her affection for gothic romances - the actress who has portrayed her for the past four years often speaks about the character in the first person. In Taylor's new novel Pathways, which traces the backstories of Voyager's senior officers much as her earlier Mosaic explained Janeway's history, the writer suggests that Chakotay is in love with Janeway - as have several episodes, notably "Resoutions," "Coda," and "The Q and the Gray."

"Brannon has always been one to say that he's not big on romance, it's not his strong suit, so I'm not holding out for that," Mulgrew admitted. "I told him, give us time. I think that on any episodic show, they want what jumps out at the camera. Robert Beltran's sexuality jumps out, so they're going to use it, and I don't blame them - just like my strength jumps out. I can't be a sexpot on the show, but I have fought for four years to find some way to make this relationship work."

Right now, Mulgrew's focus is less on the erotic tension between Janeway and Chakotay than the long-postponed Starfleet-Maquis tension. "If we're talking about the possibility of getting home, what does that do to B'Elanna and Chakotay? It's very frightening, and extremely provocative," she pointed out. "The Maquis have to settle something with the Federation. What happens as we approach the Alpha Quadrant? What does Janeway do, how does she react? It could be wonderful."

There have been rumors every year of Voyager's imminent return to the Alpha Quadrant, but it seems more likely now, with Deep Space Nine going off the air at the end of this season. "I think if they go that way, they'll probably do it at the very end of this season, so that we can have at least a full year to explore those possibilities," noted the actress. "There's still a lot to explore out here. I'd like to have a really scary enemy who dupes me in the most clever way - I thought that might be Species 8472, but I don't think it's going to be. They might even take Janeway down a little bit, really down, down to loss of self-esteem."

It seems that Janeway has already lost some self-esteem in her ongoing struggle with the mule-headed but often heroic Seven of Nine, whose presence last season was much-promoted by the network at the expense of Janeway and the other characters. The addition of the buxom Borg gave the show a great deal of publicity and allowed some new storylines, but many of the actors have been vocal about their displeasure with the obsessive attention to her, particularly since the ratings did not increase as the media hype suggested. Mulgrew is diplomatic but echoes the sentiment that there has been too much Seven of Nine, with entirely too much attention paid to Jeri Ryan's physical attributes rather than her skills as an actress.

"I understand that UPN was very anxious to establish this character, to get the ratings up and so on and so forth. Mission accomplished, and now we have to go back to what makes Voyager really compelling, which are the nine characters telling the story," she said flatly. "We've shot six episodes this season, and it's everybody but Seven - and but me, too, everybody's going to get their due. I cautioned them, and I think they know that balance must be restored - it's just very important that we tell the story of this group of people and it in no ways becomes exclusive to one or two, because then it really loses its heart."

Chemistry is important, the actress admits, but everybody on the cast needs to be given opportunities to shine - "actors will very often rise to the occasion when they're given big chances." There hasn't been a big Janeway episode filmed yet this season, yet Mulgrew says she's important in all of them. "I don't think she needs to have big episodes. She's big. I'm in everybody's life. I run the ship, more so now than ever before."

Though Seven gave the Captain a lot of backtalk last season, countermanding orders and taking action without permission, the dynamic is changing: "She's arrogant, but less so - I certainly think Seven will calm down, to put it bluntly," Mulgrew declared. "I think I've come to trust her more, but Janeway takes her down a lot this season. It can spin in any direction, given her mood or she can rub me the wrong way, I can rub her the wrong way. But I'm not going to abandon her or she'll die. I brought her on board, so I have to do all this."

Mulgrew expressed the importance of bringing B'Elanna Torres back to the forefront after her absence due to actress Roxann Dawson's pregnancy last year. "Roxann has just finished the most wonderful episode - Brannon wrote an episode for that character which is about clinical depression, which was so gorgeous, I cried. In no way did the story suffer, there was a wonderful B plot and a horrible alien and all that, but we really got to see B'Elanna, and Roxann really was gorgeous in it."

The balance of character story and science makes Mulgrew very happy. "Brannon knows that great writing is both things, the inside and the outside. What motivates the character and then what in fact the character does. That's good storytelling - he has that hook." The actress describes the dialogue as "dry and quick - the unexpected and therefore delightful, especially in long briefing room scenes."

She went on to say that Braga understands subtext and "accepts that when people are agitated for a long period of time, they might not act like everybody else. He's going to take advantage of that. He is allowing the characters to make cracks, which believe me after four years in outer space they'd be making all over the place." So Janeway may come out of her ready room looking disheveled. "She's had too much coffee. She's pissed. She's human."

UPN has been employing Mulgrew as an ambassador of sorts, sending her to various cities to do promotional work and encouraging her appearances with scientific and artistic organizations that look to Janeway and to herself as a role model, particularly for women. She is also involved in a great deal of charity work - along with Rosie O'Donnell and Geraldo Rivera, she helped raise nearly $2 million for Incarnation Children's Center in New York, and was the keynote speaker at a fundraiser for Sojourn, a women's shelter in Southern California. Mulgrew will be appearing this fall at a fundraiser in Seattle to help provide computers and internet access to underprivileged children.

She also starred in Riddler's Moon, a movie of the week for UPN's new feature on Thursday nights debuting this fall. Though there is a science fiction twist at the end of the film, Mulgrew described it as "really a relationship movie - a story about a woman and her son who's suffering from spina bifida, and her resurgence of faith through him." Her character has a romance with a man played by Corbin Bernson, "which was terrific, I really enjoyed him. And a month filming in Luxembourg, in the south of France, was great."

The movie was her major project over hiatus from Voyager. Mulgrew spent the rest of the time catching up with her family: cooking for her two sons, sailing with her mother up the Aegean Sea, and visiting her sister in London while she was in Europe. "I took the boys to New York, where I hosted this evening for Sumner Redstone [the CEO of Viacom]. Then I came back and got to work, the minute I got home. I've just been flying around, doing my job. It's a good life."

Doesn't sound all that different from Kathryn Janeway's, except the latter's "children" are her crewmembers. No wonder the actress and character seem to be merging.

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