I'M A HOLOGRAM, NOT A DOCTOR:
An Interview with Robert Picardo
by Michelle Erica Green
Ever since he got that portable holographic emitter, the Emergency Medical Hologram has been the luckiest character on Star Trek: Voyager. He can roam the ship, go on away missions, and reprogram his own personal quirks. As he told his designer replacement, the upgraded EMH which appeared on "Message in a Bottle," he can even have sex.
"I must have missed the experience," laughs Robert Picardo, who portrays the EMH, otherwise known as The Doctor - it's a running joke on the series that, well into the fourth year, the character still hasn't settled on a name. When the question is inevitably asked at conventions, Picardo jokes that he'll get a name when Viacom Consumer Products' licensing division strikes the appropriate promotional deal: "Then I will be named Dr. Pepper or Dr. Scholl's." He thinks it's more fun anyway for the Doctor to have a succession of names each season, and isn't sure whether the writers will ever settle on one.
Picardo, whose dry sense of humor and focused intelligence are shared by the EMH, has won many fans with the contrast of sarcasm and sensitivity he brings to Voyager. Over the course of four seasons, The Doctor has evolved from a caustic, paranoid figure into a warm, witty character whose influence extends far beyond sickbay. His reprisals of Dr. McCoy's famous "I'm a doctor, not a ____" running complaints and his ability to recite the career contributions of every doctor who ever appeared on Star Trek create a welcome sense of continuity with the old shows, even though the Doctor himself wasn't activated until his ship was outside the quadrant where they were set.
As for The Doctor's romantic life, Picardo quips that it must have climaxed (so to speak) in the episode "Life Signs," when he discovered love with Vidiian scientist Denara Pel during a tasteful fadeout with the two snuggled in a '57 Chevy. "I thought it was just a good night kiss," the actor recalls. "I had to find out long after the fact that we indeed had sex - much like our President." Picardo believes the recent line about the "big addition" to his programming came from his convention patter, in which he often asks an audience whether they think The Doctor is anatomically correct. "Why would you give him a...you know...if he is programmed for emergency medical situations? What kind of 'emergency medical situations' do you have in mind?" he demands.
The actor is very popular on the convention circuit for his humor and showmanship; unlike actors who primarily answer questions during con appearances, Picardo has several song and dance routines which he performs, occasionally accompanied by his wife on the piano. While he had to retire his hilarious Sonny and Cher routine after the tragic death of Congressman Bono - Picardo played both parts, holding up a sign to indicate when he was Sonny and when he was Cher - it's clear that he was a lounge act waiting to happen.
"I have to admit, I have fun at the conventions - it satisfies the desire for live performance that I cultivated starting out my career in theater," he confesses. He calls Star Trek fans "the most generous fans in the world," which helps compensate for the grueling schedule he must keep to attend conventions during the shooting season. "I have a big [episode] that features me beginning next week, and the only two conventions I have for the next six months are booked in the next two consecutive weekends, and they're both across the country." In other words, he must fly to a convention, spend most of the weekend there, return home to wake up early for Monday morning call, and spend most of the week at the studio before getting on a plane for another convention. It's not likely he'll get to see much of his two daughters during that period.
Picardo says that overall, he's at home with his children much more than he would be in any other profession, since an entire week can go by in which his character does not appear in a scene. That situation has arisen less often, however, since The Doctor was given a portable emitter during the season three episode "Future's End." Once confined to sickbay and the holodeck, he can now appear anywhere on or off the ship.
"I used to tease the other actors, and they hated me, because they would come in and have a 'bridge day' where any one actor could have a twelve-hour shooting day and literally say one line, and that never happened to me," he laughs ruefully. "If the scene was set in sickbay in my arena, then usually I drove the scene. Now, with the mobile emitter, I have those wonderful days where I'm in an all-day briefing room scene that goes on for four pages, and I say one thing. But it's payback time, so it's completely fair."
Some of the other recent changes have bothered Picardo more. While he jokes that his biggest regret about this season is that he used to have the nicest butt on the cast but now Jeri Ryan does, he confesses to missing Jennifer Lien as Kes, both personally and in terms of his character's development. "I have suffered a great deal this season," he states. "The heart of The Doctor's performance was tied up in his relationship with Kes, so I think there was a big hole in this season for me. She [was] both my student and my mentor, my confidant, my sounding board. I have no one else to reveal myself to, no other close friend on the crew. So that whole side of my character - the underbelly of this pretentious, stuffy, pompous, self-important thing - is now gone."
Picardo expressed these concerns to new executive producer Brannon Braga at the start of this season. "He agreed, and to their immense credit, they have written moments alone to show my vulnerability - the Sophie's Choice moment [in "Year of Hell"] where The Doctor has to close the hatch and sacrifice part of the crew to save the rest of them, for instance." The actor is also pleased with the development of his relationship with Seven of Nine.
As for suggestions in the media that the show was failing and the addition of Seven of Nine saved the series, Picardo says that his initial reaction was that anything which attracted attention to the show was "a good thing," and that "once you got past the extraordinary way Jeri looks, she's doing a very nice job - her character can stir the pot with virtually every other regular character, and that's a good thing." But having played one of the most popular characters on the series for three years, "to hear that we were failing and that we needed this infusion, that's a little overdramatic. It's a classic example of how network decisions are made. If a show with a predominantly young male audience is failing, you put a new babe on."
Picardo says that he's troubled neither by the addition of the character nor by Jeri Ryan's performances, which he says "have all been wonderful." He's more disturbed by the way her image is being promoted as the primary reason to watch the show. "It's not really fair to the rest of characters and to the show conceptually - and it's ultimately not fair to Jeri, because by flashing her body all the time, they're sending the message that that's all they're interested in. It hurts the credibility of her work, it hurts the credibility of the show as a whole, and it isn't fair to the other actors." He agrees that it also isn't fair to the audience: "The groundbreaking aspect of our show, obviously, was that we had a woman in command, so it was inherently a feminist statement. To go so completely opposite in direction as far as the central image that we're promoting is ironic to say the least."
The actor has developed a relationship with the writers which permit him an unusual degree of input into his own character, and he often suggests his own lines. "I have about a half a dozen [lines] in 'Message in the Bottle' that I pitched to Brannon Braga, so I have a fairly good success rate - [but] there are many times I call them with a joke, and they go, 'No.'" He feels that over the course of the past three years, the writing staff has played to his strengths as an actor, so The Doctor's humor and pathos call for Picardo to rise to the occasion. He did suggest one storyline - that The Doctor meet an earlier version of himself, whom he would thoroughly dislike - and when he asked to sing opera on the series, they wrote a scene in "The Swarm" allowing him to do just that.
The Doctor was a difficult character for the Yale-educated Picardo to approach, since the character has absolutely no backstory and indeed came into existence during his first scene in Voyager's pilot, "The Caretaker." "I had method acting training, but I remember being in a seminar with Estelle Parsons once and she didn't call herself a 'method actress' as much as a 'text actress,' meaning she studied the text very carefully and did whatever she had to do to serve the text. There are certain kinds of material where the method acting approach does not necessarily help you serve the material in the best way."
He looked for clues in the script to give him insight into The Doctor, and noticed there were at least three stage directions that said that the character, already described as colorless and humorless, was supposed to frown. "He's just activated, and he frowns, he complains, he seems paranoid and also a bit arrogant? Why? What would motivate him to act in this way? I came up with the relatively simple notion that there was a dichotomy created by his incredible command of his field, his knowledge, and the vulnerability of having no control over his destiny, with everyone turning him on and off." He used those clues to extrapolate on The Doctor's familiar personality traits.
"Also," Picardo adds, "There's the theory that if you have 27 individual doctor personalities inside of you, if you distilled 27 different doctors, the overwhelming personality traits you would come up with are arrogance and paranoia." He's kidding, however; the actor nearly became a doctor himself before famed conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein suggested that he leave his pre-med studies for theater. "He said, you have true energy on stage, not phony Broadway energy, and he said that's a gift. And I said, tell my mother." That was the beginning of Picardo's professional ambitions. Though he did not become a doctor, he has played several, most notably on China Beach.
The actor has quite a bit of science fiction on his resume, most notably several Joe Dante films. He and the director have become friends, and Picardo is about to film "as long of a role in his next movie as I can spring myself from Voyager to do." A great fan of horror movies, he pursued a role in The Howling because of his childhood affection for werewolf and mummy movies. He says he'd much rather play monsters than victims: "The best victims are screaming women, and having played two drag roles, I know that I make a very homely screaming woman."
The role he is proudest of is a theatrical performance for which he won awards, in the San Francisco production of The Normal Heart, a controversial play about AIDS. "I felt a tremendous burden of responsibility of opening that show in the gay consciousness capital of the United States, not only being a straight actor, but studying to acquaint myself with the historical background of the beginning of the epidemic. It was an exhilarating experience but very difficult. I'm proud of the recognition that that production got, but more importantly, I think the emotional breakthroughs that I was able to have working on that role were very beneficial...I learned how to address my own personal emotional risibility as an actor, if you want to put it that way. "
Picardo was working on a play when he was cast in Voyager, and intends to go back both to the stage and to comedy when the series concludes. "I would love to be on Frasier," he says. "Usually I get offered a couple of guest stars and pilots every year. Which is nice, because you're not usually allowed to be able to do two things in show business - if you're on an hour show you're considered a dramatic actor, whereas if you're on a sitcom you get offered half-hours." He describes himself as "namby pamby" about future ambitions, in part because of the opportunities that the Star Trek franchise has offered him. "'Do you want to work on a bad TV movie for a week and a half, or would you like an all-expense-paid trip to Australia?'" he laughs. "You weigh bad TV movies, of which I've done 20, or a trip with the family. That's how I make my decisions. The convention circuit has been treating me extremely well."
Picardo directed the episode "Alter Ego" last season and is hopeful that he will direct again next season, having known that he would not have an opportunity this year. Picardo, Robert Duncan McNeill, and Tim Russ have all directed episodes, along with Deep Space Nine's Andrew Robinson. "We have a stable of directors; you simply cannot surpass their abilities without years of experience," he points out. "I'm sure I will do significantly better for my second time out, but I just simply have to wait for the wheel to come around to me again." He's open to more directing once the series is off the air, but says he has no desire to make the transition to doing it full-time: "I can't imagine not acting anymore."
The Broadway veteran says that shows like Voyager and China Beach, which allow him to carry most of the humor during a dramatic hour, are his ideal type of work. Both his quick wit and his pathos can be brought into play. "I like that situation more than being in a situation comedy...but I have a lot of background in situation comedies, and I think if I were to do another series after Voyager, it would most likely be a comedy show."
His goals, however, have not changed since he was a young actor. "When it's all working at its best, you are communicating something to your audience, and in an essence, giving them a gift," he says. "And, of course, taking something for yourself - taking negative or unhappy experiences that are simply baggage in other people's lives and using them to create. Those are the two aspects of being an actor that I value most, and that I work towards."