Star Trek Interview EXCLUSIVE

With Star Trek: Voyager about to start a repeat run on CBS Action, we catch up with the USS Voyager's resident holographic Doctor, Robert Picardo. Here are six things you might not know about the character...

1. Picardo auditioned to play Neelix
Robert Picardo:
“They initially asked me to audition for the Doctor. The Doctor’s part was quite small in the pilot, and – I didn’t understand Star Trek at the time – the character was described in the following way: colourless, humourless, a computer programme of a doctor. Does that sound like a barrel of laughs for seven years? I just thought, is he like a robot? If he’s a hologram, how can he handle instruments without them going through his fingers? There were all sorts of things I didn’t understand, so I looked at Neelix and I thought, ‘He’s humanoid, funny, maybe has little rubber eartips… I can handle that.’ So I went after that and I came very close to getting it. I went to the final audition, it was between me, Ethan Phillips [who eventually played the role] and then a third actor, who I believe was British.

“I thought that was that, it wasn’t meant to be. But they called me back, which is very, very unusual – if you have a network test for a television series and you don’t get it, you’re like a used tissue, crumpled up and thrown away. But they still had it in their heads that there was something about my demeanour or my voice that they liked for this other role.

“So I re-read the Doctor’s lines and said to my wife that I didn’t get the joke. She told me to read the lines to her and she said she thought I was funny, so armed with my wife’s approval I went for it. At the final test where you had all the studio executives and the producers I adlibbed a joke at the end that I think was a DeForest Kelley rip-off and made them all laugh – because of one cheap little joke I made up I got seven years of gainful employment!”

2. The Doctor had a dash of Henry Higgins in his programming
“When Seven of Nine came aboard I was concerned losing the Kes character, who was the Doctor’s sounding board – he was mentoring her in her medical studies, but really she was mentoring him in his developing personality, his becoming more human and expanding his program. When Kes left I went to the producers because I was concerned that the Doctor was just going to revert to being a joke, a windbag character because he’s lost his emotional confessor.

“[Executive producer] Brannon Braga said we should try to work out how to relate to Seven of Nine, so I went away and thought about it, and said: ‘Suppose we take the relationship the Doctor had with Kes and turn it around, so that the Doctor thinks that he’s the perfect character to teach Seven how to be human?’ A better teacher on being human than any human. It plays on his arrogance and self-importance. And they liked that idea and used it over the next four years where the Doctor was always mentoring Seven of Nine in how to behave in social situations, which culminated in how to behave on a date – and then the Doctor falls in love with his star pupil, very much like Henry Higgins with Eliza Doolittle.”

3. The Doctor’s opera singing was Picardo’s idea...
“Brannon Braga used to do an impression of going out to smoke a cigarette – I would be in a bush nearby and I’d jump out and say, ‘You know Brannon, I was thinking…’ I had lots and lots of ideas. And many of them they used, and many of them they didn’t use.

“Early on I said to one of the producers that I thought it would be cool if the Doctor were an opera fan – I think it’s ridiculous that this technological creature would choose such an incredibly emotionally charged form of human expression to listen to. And all I was envisioning was that when the Doctor was working on something on Sickbay, there would be this grand, huge, emotional music playing. It was a one- or two-scene joke that I envisioned.

“Then a year later I open up an advance copy of our next script, and there’s the Doctor singing opera on a holodeck. And I went, ‘No, no no... I said I wanted to listen to opera!’

“Then they asked if I could sing. I said, ‘Well yeah I can sing, but I’m not an opera singer.’ They said, ‘Well, if you’re not good enough, we’ll replace your voice.’ And suddenly the Doctor was singing opera. And I did about 80% of my own singing in the five or six shows – it was only one episode where they replaced my voice with a real opera singer, where it was just too high for me.”

4 . The Doctor’s mobile holographic emitter was not Picardo’s idea
“The best way to tell an actor he’s going to be working more and much harder is to appeal to his ego. So, Brannon said, ‘Your character is so popular that we have to put him in more storylines, and we don’t know how to do that unless we make him portable.’ And I said, ‘Uh-oh, I think that’s a bad idea.’ I thought part of the character’s popularity was his limitations and how he copes with them. I said that if you remove those limitations, he’s gonna be too much like everybody else. So, there’s an example of how I was completely wrong because had they not done that, it would have been impossible to put me in the storylines they did.”

5. Persistence got Picardo the Star Trek: First Contact cameo
“I was in Rick Berman, our executive’s office, who handled the whole franchise, and after we talked about something else, I was on my way out and I said: ‘You’re writing that new movie script now. You destroyed the enterprise at the end of Generations , So, you have a whole new ship. Well, I don’t understand something. Why does Voyager have more technology than your flagship, the Enterprise? How come we have this emergency medical hologram thing, and they don’t have it? Look, I’m not trying to pad my part, just looking out for your logic.’ He laughed, and he said, ‘Why would they look all alike?’ And I said: ‘Why wouldn’t they look all alike? It’s the first generation of a new technology – why would you make a wrench look different on every different ship?’ He smiled and said, ‘That’s a very interesting idea.’

“So, about two weeks later, I’m having dinner with Ronald D Moore [scriptwriter]. ‘You’re writing a new movie script. I don’t understand something...’ ‘That’s a very interesting idea,’ he says. A week later, to Brannon Braga, ‘You and Ron are writing a new script? You know, I don’t understand something…’ And I do the whole thing again, he says that’s an ‘interesting idea’.

“About a month after that Jonathan Frakes [director of First Contact ] calls me in my trailer and says, ‘Thank you for helping me get the movie to direct. I showed them an episode, it had to be approved by the studio, and we showed the first Voyager episode I directed.’ [Season two episode ‘Projections’.] It entirely featured my character from beginning to end. So I said, ‘Well, you’re very gracious, of course I had nothing to do with you getting the movie but congratulations. But you know, I don’t understand something…” Did the whole story again. He said, “That’s a very interesting idea.”

“About two weeks after that I got a call from Rick Berman saying, ‘We decided to put The Doctor in the new feature.” And I say, ‘That’s a very interesting idea.’ Never said a word about where it came from – no one ever acknowledged that I started this round robin among them!”

6. He’d happily appear in JJ Abrams’ reboot franchise
“Working with JJ Abrams would be absolutely great. I’ve run into him since the movie came out, and he was very kind and complimentary to me. But we are in different timeframes, so it’s unlikely since they pre-date Voyager by about 150 years – but that never gets in the way of Star Trek ! It would be a dream to be in one of the movies. Of course, I am sure there are several actors from the series who all feel like that!”

Star Trek: Voyager makes its debut on CBS Action at 8pm tonight, and airs weekdays at 11am, 5pm and 8pm with a Sunday omnibus from 9am-1pm. (CBS Action can be found at Sky 148, Freesat 137 and Virgin 192)

Richard is a freelancer journalist and editor, and was once a physicist. Rich is the former editor of SFX Magazine, but has since gone freelance, writing for websites and publications including GamesRadar+, SFX, Total Film, and more. He also co-hosts the podcast, Robby the Robot's Waiting, which is focused on sci-fi and fantasy.