TURNING THE DOCTOR ON:
Robert Picardo Enjoys the Home Stretch
by Michelle Erica Green
Robert Picardo, who plays the holographic Doctor on Star Trek: Voyager, recently had several inspiring experiences. His character escaped from the hazards of managed health care, met an entire species that looked up to him as a role model, and got inside Seven of Nine...well, at least inside her Borg implants. "The writers have given me an inordinate amount to do," the actor observes during a break in filming the episode "Shattered," in which a temporal anomaly makes the Doctor reprise his second season personality. "There's quite a lot of humor, and the episodes are very dramatic as well."
The Doctor is the central character in the November episodes "Critical Care" and "Body and Soul." Picardo describes the former as "the Doctor's abduction by an alien HMO," whereas in "Body and Soul," Seven of Nine hides the Doctor's program within her body to protect him from a species that hates holograms. In addition, the sweeps month two-parter "Flesh and Blood" pivots around the Doctor's decision to support a race of sentient holograms created from Voyager's own technology. Since it's widely expected that the Doctor's look-alike creator Louis Zimmerman will play a role in Voyager's future homecoming, it seems that during the ship's final travels through space, Picardo's star will remain ascendant.
Bodies In Motion
"Critical Care" offers Voyager's take on the ravages of managed health care. Aliens steal the Doctor's program to staff an enormous hospital ship, where unethical procedures and double standards for different patients have destroyed the caregivers' abilities to treat the sick. "It's quite dramatic, the guest stars are great: Larry Drake, Gregory Itzin, John Kassir, and Paul Scherrer who played the young doctor," notes Picardo, adding that he has viewed the completed episode and was very pleased with it. "My toughest critic, my 11-year-old daughter, liked it too, although she criticized one of my line readings -- if I do anything that's a little too overcooked for my daughter, she lets me know right away."
Producer Ken Biller has suggested that "Critical Care" will remind viewers of original Star Trek episodes that addressed timely political and social concerns. "Flesh and Blood" also addresses a topic familiar to Trek fans -- the consequences of leaving Federation technology in the hands of species that don't share Federation values. Captain Kirk discovered in episodes like "A Piece of the Action" and "Patterns of Force" that alien cultures can undergo profound upheaval when corrupted by contact with Starfleet -- people craving social structure may imitate old Earth gang wars, while old racial tensions can erupt into holocaust. In "Flesh and Blood," Janeway comes face to face with the consequences of her decision to give holographic technology to Hirogen warriors seeking fresh prey.
"It's a very interesting spin on 'The Killing Game,' the two-parter that we did three years ago featuring the Hirogen," Picardo says. In that episode, a Hirogen leader sought Voyager's ability to create artificial beings so that his race could stop destroying itself in pursuit of ever more dangerous prey. Once her crew broke free of the Hirogen, Janeway gave their leader an optronic data core so that the Hirogen could build their own holo-emitters and create potential victims. Her desire was to prevent the Hirogen from victimizing other aliens, but she did not foresee that in their quest for worthy adversaries, the Hirogen would produce holograms that could think independently. . .and, eventually, develop values different from those of their makers.
"Following the logic of the Hirogen wanting as challenging and gratifying a hunting experience as they can possibly have, they have progressively improved their holographic prey, using the Doctor's matrix to adapt and learn as some sort of template," explains Picardo. "These new, improved holograms have actually risen up and are slaughtering the Hirogen hunters. They don't want to fight anymore -- they just want to be left alone to live in peace. So they kidnap the Doctor. Although they have a specific reason -- they want him to help them try to develop holographic field generators, so that they can create their own little community on a planet -- it also seems that they just are anxious to have a look at this holographic forebear. It's not so much that they need the Doctor as much as they want to meet him, kind of like a forefather of theirs."
The holograms plan to settle on a world inhospitable to humanoid life, yet safe for photonic beings like themselves. However, Hirogen hunters aren't their only problem. "Their leader, who starts out as a very charismatic and sympathetic character, becomes progressively more megalomaniacal," Picardo states. "That part is played by a very dear friend of mine, Jeff Yagher, who did a really great job. When I first read it, I thought of cult leaders, David Koresh or possibly Jim Jones. I was surprised to speak to one of the writers on our staff who said that he was really using Castro and what's happened to the Cuban revolution as his model for this. He had lofty ideals, but what happened subsequently perverted those ideals."
The character played by Yagher, Iden, looks Bajoran because his appearance came from Voyager's database (some of his followers resemble Jem'Hadar, Cardassians, and other Alpha Quadrant species). "Iden makes all these promises the Doctor believes, and on the strength of these promises, he disobeys Janeway. He extracts a promise from Iden that the information he's furnishing will never be used against Voyager. He puts Voyager in risk, but Iden has promised him that he will not use this information in a way that will hurt Voyager. But Iden becomes this self-delusional, self-styled religious savior to his people, and when the Doctor sees this start to happen, he realizes he's made a terrible mistake by sympathizing with him and trying to help."
Picardo compares the Doctor's situation in "Flesh and Blood" to Patty Hearst in the Symbionese Liberation Army. "He is kidnapped, and becomes sympathetic to his kidnappers, and now he's a married housewife in the Midwest -- just kidding," the actor jokes, referring to Sara Olson, the former SLA member who disappeared into suburbia for many years. "He thinks he's pursuing a higher cause, and he trusts whom he believes to be his friend. He never wants to see Voyager harmed."
In the end, of course, Janeway must dress down her disobedient crewmember. Since viewers have seen the captain and the Doctor argue repeatedly over the years about his lack thereof, Picardo was afraid the final scene would seem redundant to long-time fans, so made a proposal to the director about how the scene should be filmed to change the tone. "I suggested that we have the Doctor working alone. Suddenly he looks up and seems to sense something. He's in the back of sickbay and walks forward, around the corner. You see that he looks into his office and sees Janeway sitting in his office chair, lost in thought, as if she has come to speak to him but has not completely formulated her thoughts.
"I thought that would not only be a different beginning to the scene we've played a dozen times in her ready room or in sickbay, but it would also suggest her own sense of conflict with what she's about to discuss -- her own sense of culpability in what's happened. She is weighing her own guilt in with mine. It makes the scene quite different, more ambiguous and ultimately more real than had it just been another 'Doctor, shame on you,' with his tail between his legs."
In contrast to the heavy closing scene, the opening of "Flesh and Blood" is comic in tone -- a late addition shot during the filming of "Shattered" when the first half of the two-parter ran short. "They wrote a scene with Chakotay and me that I really liked. It's a wonderful addition to the show because, like 'Critical Care,' 'Flesh and Blood' is quite dramatic, but the opening scene is amusing." Picardo had not had a scene with Robert Beltran for a long time, but on the day when the pickup scene from "Flesh and Blood" was shot, he had two others, both for the Chakotay-heavy episode "Shattered."
"'Shattered' is the Greatest Hits of Voyager, Season Seven," Picardo grins. When the ship hits a temporal anomaly, different areas of Voyager are thrown into different time periods -- some in the past, some the future. Because Chakotay is at the center of the disturbance, he is the only crewmember who can move around the entire ship with recollections of events just before the shattering. Though it sounds like The Next Generation flashback episode "Shades of Grey," Picardo promises that "Shattered" has popular reprises of characters and events beloved by viewers.
"I am basically playing the Doctor in season two, so we're revisiting the earlier form of my self-involvement -- my self-involvement has grown into a richer, deeper self-involvement!" he laughs. "The episode features two of my favorites, Dr. Chaotica and Seska." Chaotica, the fictional villain in Tom Paris' Captain Proton holoprogram, romanced Janeway in the form of Queen Arachnia, while Cardassian spy Seska defected to the Kazon and tried to impregnate herself with Chakotay's DNA. The uncompromising harpy had malevolent scenes with nearly every major character. "I'm really happy to see that she's back -- I figure they killed Spock, we killed Harry Kim a bunch of times, I don't see why we can't have Seska back after we killed her."
If I Only Had a Name
When the Doctor himself faces death in "Body and Soul," he hides inside Seven of Nine's implants. What's it like being inside Seven of Nine? Picardo groans at the question. "I remember talking about the movie Legend, where I played Meg Mucklebones, a humpbacked witch -- and I eat Tom Cruise. A gay director that I worked with chimed in, '...but not in a fun way.' So when people said to me, 'You're inside Jeri Ryan,' I said, '...but not in a fun way.' I guess I carried that joke around for 15 years waiting to steal it."
Picardo adds that Ryan actually has all the fun in the show, "because she gets to imitate me, all the little peculiar character quirks that I have assembled here over the years." Because he had to imitate Martin Short playing his character in Innerspace, Picardo recalled asking Short to say his lines on video so he could pick and choose among the inflections. Picardo offered to do the same thing for Ryan, so director Robert Duncan McNeill taped the Doctor performing Seven of Nine's sides of scenes. "Jeri used certain expressions or eye-rolls -- even a piece of cheesecake business, it's actually a cheesy piece of cheesecake business, that I did on the tape. She said, 'It's a lot of fun being you,' and I said 'Yes, it's magnificent.'"
"I saw a lot of Jeri's performance, and it was great," the actor continues. "I was delighted that she went out on such a limb, because this is really going to impress people with her comic skills -- people are going to see that she's quite a comedian." Yet Picardo enjoyed the serious side of the episode, the Doctor's first experience as an organic being. "The Doctor is learning about sensual indulgence, and he basically dresses Seven down for not smelling the roses, for not enjoying anything about being alive. Tasting food for the first time, getting drunk for the first time, feeling his lungs fill with air, in Seven's body. I'm not going to say 'And what a set of lungs!' because all the jokes have been made."
Picardo has few remaining ambitions on Voyager. He would like to see the Doctor get a name. "I hate to be this simplistic, but it's such a journey, and we've put it aside. Ultimately, I think it should be Zimmerman. That's part of my final story pitch, because I think Zimmerman is doing something at home on the home front to help execute our final return." Having received a writing credit for last season's "Life Line," the actor would like to contribute to the Doctor's final arc, but is unsure of the plans for the ship's return voyage. He would also like to direct another episode, "I certainly have expressed that to Rick Berman," but because the producers have given him so many big stories as an actor, he may not get a slot so that one of the other actor-directors can have a turn.
Trek director John Bruno and "Flesh and Blood"'s Jeff Yagher -- who is also a writer -- are collaborating with the actor on a film to be shot after Voyager goes off the air. But Picardo is in no rush to leave, unlike some of his co-stars who have expressed the desire to have their characters go out in coffins. "I never wanted to be killed off," he says. "The joke is, maybe they'll kill Seven and me. Maybe I can die in her arms. We could have a heart attack in the hot tub together! I think I'd settle for not getting a name if we could do that!"
Just how many pleasures can one hologram experience? Watch as Robert Picardo tries to find out.