Robert Picardo Plays His Own Creator
by Michelle Erica Green
Robert Picardo had a wonderful time working with the guest star in the Star Trek Voyager episode "Life Line": himself. "Ah, to get to play scenes opposite myself," he jokes. "To get to realize the lifelong dream of working with an actor I really admire. See Bob Picardo cram 60 minutes of himself in a 42-minute episode!"
In fact, Picardo has reason to brag. He co-wrote "Life Line," based on an idea he had pitched informally several years ago to then-executive producer Jeri Taylor. Though Trek actors often make small suggestions for subplots about their characters, it is unusual for an actor to receive a story credit for an episode. In "Life Line," which airs this week, the Doctor learns that his creator is ill and uses Reginald Barclay's technological wizardry to travel to Earth in the hope of curing him.
"I think there's an impulse for a theater actor to come up with a backstory, but since my character had no backstory, I focused on the story of my character's programmer," Picardo explains. "We've met Dr. Zimmerman on brief occasion, once on Deep Space Nine and once on Voyager. He seems pretty cranky. I was curious about what made him the way he was, and I also thought it would be a wonderful science fiction situation to do a parent-child drama between a computer programmer and his program."
The actor collaborated with director John Bruno, a friend from the show. "The fact that I had someone to talk it through with really improved the story and helped give us that extra edge. The addition of Barclay and Deanna Troi was really Joe Menosky's idea, which I was delighted about because I really like working with them."
The Doctor's Programmers
In the past, Picardo floated ideas for long-term character development rather than specific stories. "I pitched the idea for a relationship between Seven of Nine and the Doctor, for instance. The beginning of the Doctor and Seven's social lesson arc was based on an idea of mine that I brought to Brannon Braga. So there have been ideas before, but this was the first full-blown story. I don't fashion myself a writer. I just look for a story that would be fun to tell for the Doctor."
Bruno pitched Picardo's concept to Joe Menosky and Michael Taylor, but Menosky was resistant at first because he thought the first contact between the Doctor and Zimmerman should be first-hand rather than via holographic recreation. Once Barclay's system made it possible for the Doctor to travel the distance to the Alpha Quadrant, it became possible to bring back the Next Generation characters from "Pathfinder."
"The staff writing team improved it tremendously," Picardo admits. "The story that John Bruno and I had pitched was quite relentlessly dramatic, and the most delightful change with Joe Menosky's uncredited help is that there's so much humor in it. I was being careful to not look like I was out for a laugh-fest, since I have always tried to punch up the humor of my character. I didn't want to look like I was finally going for a story credit so I could do the funniest Star Trek ever done. My model for the script was always I Never Sang For My Father, and I quite seriously proposed the title 'I Never Sang For My Programmer,' but they thought that was a little too silly."
Having lost his own father at a young age, Picardo is interested in stories that deal with the father-son relationship. "I think that my fascination with father-son drama is a what-if more than anything else...working out a loss, trying to fill up a void. I have nothing but wonderful memories of my father, but unfortunately they end when I was nine years old. He was a very well-liked man in the community; he was a great public speaker and really enjoyed it. I often wonder how he would have reacted to my having chosen a career in the performing arts. I think of him when I do Star Trek appearances."
It was through those personal appearances that Picardo got to know Sirtis, and he has worked with Schultz since the early Voyager episode "Projections." "I got to work with both of them this time, and that was great fun," he noted, since Sirtis didn't interact with the cast during "Pathfinder." "I got twice as much fun out of working with her because I played two characters in one scene, so I got to work with her twice as long. I was on both sides of her figure! She looks great! And she's great fun to be with, as is Dwight. I had a ball working with both of them."
Distinguishing between the characters wasn't difficult for Picardo, who calls Zimmerman "a slob, big slob - he's gray and he has terrible posture." The actor's "ulterior motive" for writing "Life Line" was the hope that the programmer would become part of the Alpha Quadrant task force working to bring Voyager home. "I hope that Zimmerman would be an interesting enough character for the fans to want to see him again, as far as working along with Barclay and whomever to bring them home. He goes from a position of being not terribly interested in the fate of one of his EMH Mark One programs to a meeting of the minds."
"We find out in this story that he's had four versions of the EMH - Andy Dick's model [shown in the episode 'Message in a Bottle'] was number two, and there are two since then," explains the actor. "Not only Voyager's Doctor, but all of his ilk - all of the EMH Mark Ones - were a great disappointment. Zimmerman is not interested in this Mark One EMH, despite the fact that this one has been running and developing and learning and growing more than any of the others, and has a 29th century emitter which no one should be without, although he doesn't bring that back with him when his program is transferred."
Picardo has already proposed having Zimmerman work on the home front during an arc to bring Voyager home next season "But I only get a Cheshire Cat smile from Brannon," he says. "If the show comes off well - let's face it, I'm what the studio calls a free guest star, and free is always a very attractive word to a production company, so I'm hoping to come back as Zimmerman again."
There actually is a clause in the SAG contract referred to as the "Evil Twin Rule," which states that if a series regular plays his own double, he is supposed to be paid a guest star's salary for the extra role. But Picardo says he has never floated that notion except as a joke, although he has played a duplicate Doctor several times in episodes such as "Darkling" and "Warhead." "I could probably put one of my children through college with my evil twin," he notes. "But it doesn't look very good to say, 'Buy my story idea and then pay me extra to play my evil twin.'"
Does Picardo know anything about how Voyager might return to Federation space during its final season? "I have heard a rumor that the studio is going to do another two-hour movie like they did last year with 'Dark Frontier,' and it would air in November," he admits. "So my guess would be that we will find our way home in November sweeps. But this is not corroborated."
It's possible that the November sweeps film will be another Borg epic like "Dark Frontier," especially since reports indicate that Captain Janeway remains assimilated at the end of the sixth season cliffhanger "Unimatrix Zero," just as Captain Picard did in "Best of Both Worlds Part I." Some rumors have suggested that Janeway will remain a Borg for several episodes into the new season, but in all likelihood those scripts haven't even been written yet.
"The writers are notorious for writing their way into a cliffhanger and not having decided how to get us out," observes Picardo. They like to live on the edge. I am un-assimilatable, and given the fact that I had such a huge show two from the end, I didn't do that much in the season finale this year. I hope I get to un-assimilate everyone else, but I won't know that till we go back to work."
One of Picardo's other goals for next season is to continue exploring the Doctor's feelings for Seven of Nine, which were brought to the fore in the fifth season episode "Someone To Watch Over Me," though Seven seemed fairly oblivious to his attachment to her. Yet when the Doctor considered leaving the ship in this season's "Virtuoso," Seven was devastated. "I was surprised, frankly, how strong her feelings were," Picardo says. "I thought she was terrific, but it caught me off-guard. She really very much played it like a jilted lover. Jeri and I never discussed that scene or how we were going to play it, so I remember being quite surprised at the strength and depth of her feelings while we were shooting. I thought, this is great, because it only enhances my legend, both as an actor and a man!"
The actor thinks of the relationship less as a romance than unrequited love, though he has no idea where the writers plan to take it next season. "It was nice for me to discover both as an actor and a character that she has deeper feelings in her characterization, in the same way that I do. We've gotten to see behind the Doctor's mask, but we really haven't seen behind Seven of Nine's before that. I think that it's nice the writers have kept that alive. Jeri and I love to work together and really enjoy our scenes together."
Picardo also enjoyed his scenes with Jennifer Lien while she was on the series, so he was pleased and surprised by her return in "Fury" last week. "We did have one really nice scene that echoes our relationship from season one. She, of course, is in a very different situation, so my character, who is back in season one, doesn't know she has a hidden agenda. But it was a lot of fun to revisit those issues - some of the early, innocent affection between the two characters, from my point of view. I wish there was more, but the bulk of the story was with her and Janeway."
Among other favorite episodes from last season were "One Small Step," which Picardo directed as a tribute to NASA space exploration, and "Tinker Tenor, Doctor, Spy," in which Janeway, Torres, and Seven of Nine all threw themselves at the Doctor in his fantasies. "That was a very fun day, I have to tell you. I got a huge kick out of that," he confesses. "'Tinker Tenor' is as good a comedy as we've ever done."
He also enjoyed "Virtuoso," in which the Doctor's singing transforms a culture, though a woman he has feelings for creates an even better holographic matrix and dismisses him. Though Picardo's voice was dubbed by a professional singer for the last two pieces of music in the episode, he chose several of the musical selections, including "the duet with Mini-Me, in fact the whole idea was mine, I thought it would be our own poking fun at Austin Powers and I happen to know that duet."
The actor suspects "Virtuoso" was his swan song to singing on Voyager, something he has already done quite a bit - though if the ship returns to the Alpha Quadrant near Deep Space Nine, he does not rule out a duet with James Darren as Trek's other famous singing hologram, Vic Fontaine. "We can have a lounge act," laughs Picardo. "And he's now recording an album! But he's a real singer. That's the difference!"
What about the Doctor's son, mentioned in a throwaway line in "Blink of an Eye"? "He's long gone. He's turned to dust. It surprised the heck out of me, too, but I think it's just destined to be another trivia question," laments Picardo, who laughs, "They call me 'love 'em and leave 'em Zimmerman.'" Then he adds, "I think it would be fun if we came full circle at this point and the Doctor chose the name Zimmerman. I proposed that for the end of 'Life Line,' but Brannon said no. Given the fact that he has a meeting of the minds with Zimmerman, it might be interesting for him to finally choose the name that my character was announced to have when we went on the air six years ago."
Picardo has seen the rough cut for "Life Line" and is "delighted with it. Once I see the finished opticals, that may be my favorite one. The visual effects guys are submitting this as their Emmy show, so the buzz on it inside the company is excellent. It really combines what's great about our show when it is great, which is state of the art movie quality visual effects with a good story. It's the most sophisticated use of motion-control photography and digital split-screen and blue screen to support a double casting, ever. I walk around myself, I back myself into a corner, I take something out of my hand. We do really cool tricks."
Of course, such effects required a great deal of technical work from the actor as well as the director. "We rehearsed with my stand-in, J.R. Quinonez, who was unbelievable," Picardo explains. "He came to the set knowing every line of both parts even before I did. He could slip back and forth and rehearse either character with me. We had to rehearse both sides before we made critical decisions, and then he would play off-camera in the over the shoulder shots."
"When I acted in the motion-control shots, I would do the first character, and then I'd go to do the second character, walking around a blank set in front of a blue screen, acting with virtual actors and virtual props. It's very challenging. You have to act from memory with what you did, and try to remember when and how and at what moments to make eye contact. They can give you an off-camera mark. For example, if I'm in profile to the camera talking to the other character for a long period of time, somebody can stand off-camera in a line with where he would be. But still, as soon as the character starts to move around, I have to remember at what point in the line he was at what point in the room."
When he directed "One Small Step," Picardo worked with special effects, creating weightlessness and simulating the interior of the anomaly in which the astronauts were trapped. "There were technical demands in that show, but they were very different, not big blue-screen effects," he notes. As for whether he will direct again next season, "That's the big question. There are four actor-directors [McNeill, Russ, Dawson, and Picardo] who have all acquitted themselves very well. I would love it if each of the four of us got another shot next year, but I have no idea whether that will happen or not."
In addition to continuing the Zimmerman storyline, Picardo has one more wish for next year. "I really would like to see the Doctor a fool for love," he says. "I would like to see the Doctor lose his judgement falling in love with another character. In the same way that he has always been rather childlike in early encounters with experiences he was not programmed for, I thought for him to really become addicted romantically to another character, he would lose himself a little bit. I assume would have to be a guest star, I don't know. I don't know if I want to press my luck."
Coming Up Next
John Bruno and Picardo have a concept in development for a film for Bruno to direct and Picardo to star in. "It would be part computer-generated imagery and part live-action. John is convinced that we can make this state-of-the-art, heavy visual effects-laden film on a relatively modest budget. He is directing an all-CGI action film for Warner Bros. distribution, he has credibility in that field and an Academy Award for visual effects, and he and I get along very well together and like working together."
"Although someone of my stature normally wouldn't get to star in a movie, if we make the special effects the star of the movie, have a good supporting cast, bring it in under budget, and make a family film, it's possible that I could actually realize this particular dream if the story's good enough. That is my first goal for the next year: have gone from story outline to getting the script financed to having the script done and ready to shoot in the next 12 months. Because if John is successful in directing this next film, he has a group of financiers who believe in him. I have the story outlined already in my head, so we're looking for a writer now."
Though Picardo won't discuss the plot of the proposed feature, he is bursting with ideas for the next Trek series. "My first concept is Star Trek: Smackdown!" he jokes. "It's the Starfleet Wrestling Federation; The Rock is the next captain." Was the actor jealous not to get to fight The Rock on Voyager's "Tsunkatse"? A little: "I am certainly built well enough for wrestling, I have been devoting myself to it for years."
Seriously, he adds, "I'd love to know what the next show is about! I don't know anything about it though. They should do a Godfather II, going back and forth from a new present and the past. I think it would be really cool to do a time-travel Star Trek, that's always a popular theme. Brannon is a big time-travel fan, so it's logical, and the audience is used to the new technology."
Otherwise, "Star Trek: Lap Dancer was another one I thought would appeal to the UPN demographic," he deadpans, noting that under the terms of the Viacom-CBS merger, UPN would probably be barred from contributing to a monopoly of information, so it would have to become a network of disinformation. "My show would take place entirely in a futuristic strip bar. Quark's is pretty classy compared to what I have in mind."
And would it star The Doctor? Or perhaps Janeway's holographic boyfriend from Fair Haven? "I liked 'Fair Haven,' I got to dress in a priest's outfit and counsel the captain. I wasn't jealous of her hologram," claims Picardo, who is wondering why the Doctor can take on the appearances of other people via his mobile emitter but still can't grow hair on his head. "I have to assume that whatever holographic hormone treatments we have at my disposal, the female hormones must be in heavier stock than the males. We have a heavier male crew, so they would have depleted all of my male hormones thus far on the trip!"