Thursday, 25 May 2017

FCD 2017 Interview: Voyager's Doc - Robert Picardo

"Didn't I speak to you earlier...?"

Voyager actor Robert Picardo is heading across the room from where he's just finished a photoshoot at FCD 2017. I've been granted - nay I'm honoured to be granted a few minutes with a man who is in great demand today.

The thing that has really impressed me is that he's remembered speaking to me earlier in the day when I queued up for his autograph. It might be a small thing and it was only a matter of seconds but with the hundreds of people he must see and chat to every day it's a "wow" moment for me. 

As we Star Trek fans know. Picardo is known for his role as the Emergency Medical Hologram for the whole seven seasons that Voyager aired, probably receiving the most character development of the cast and in turn creating one of the great characters of the franchise. Indeed, Picardo must be in possession of such holographic tech himself as he looks exactly the same as he did then and very well for it too.

An actor for over 40 years, Picardo's experience takes him through film, TV, theatre and while the Doctor had a penchant for opera it's not something he's tried himself although it's not the thing he looks back and considers that he might have done; "I have very little experience in classical theatre," he explains as we take a seat in the green room, out of the main event room for a few minutes. "I've done a fair amount of new plays, musical theatre, but if I had a regret it would be that I've never done any Shakespeare professionally only in training.  

"Frankly it applies to theatre in general. Once you work in television you go several years without being able to do a play because you can't schedule it entirely for your own schedule between seasons of a television show. Since Voyager ended quite a while ago I've been able to do more theatre as I did before I was a series regular on television."

In fact Picardo will be appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe festival for the first time this year alongside Sylvester McCoy - another TV Doctor(!) in a play written by Dan Freeman called A Joke. "We are having a crowdfunding campaign for it and will be performing across the last few weeks of the festival." he continued. "It will be my first time ever being at that festival as a performer."

While a good chunk of my memories of Robert Picardo are filled with him stating the nature of the medical emergency, his back catalogue of appearances is a true treasure trove - the model for "Johnny Cab" in Total Recall, appearing in Gremlins 2 and as The Cowboy in the classic Innerspace. What I wanted to know was if there were particular roles away from the Doctor which he was recognised for?

"Innerspace is a funny movie and it also came along at that moment in technological history where people could buy movies on video cassette...and it was quite expensive if you bought movies so if you got one you watched it over and over again. I've met many, many people in their late twenties through early thirties and forties that have watched Innerspace multiple times either they bought it or have downloaded. It's a fun movie and such a strange role that I play (The Cowboy). 

"I'm also very proud of my first series which was China Beach. It was a Vietnam drama that won a lot of awards in the States, was also popular in Australia I guess because next to the US there were a lot of Australian soldiers in the Vietnam conflict. It was a great show as my first series role."

Before heading out to Hollywood Picardo also walked the stage on Broadway with two successive lead roles in show seasons; "The second of which I played second fiddle to the great Jack Lemmon playing his son. That was an amazing experience for a young actor to work with someone of Jack's talent. He'd been an established movie star for 25 years by that time and he could not have been more gracious to me as a young colleague. If I could wish any part of my career on any young actor it would be to have an experience like that and work with someone whom I personally admired so much and had been a fan of his films."

I asked Robert Picardo if he felt that having such an incredible experience with Lemmon had influenced his roles after that point, perhaps including the Doctor on Voyager; "Things I remembered that he did, things that he thought were know Jack had an amazing way of taking dialogue and making it sound off the cuff . He always said look for the humour in any role and it's more important in a drama to find those moments of lightness so the audience doesn't get worn out.

"I remember he told me - and I think I did it in Voyager once - he had a theory that one eye was very funny on stage."

Now this might sound a bit odd but Picardo went on to explain how Jack Lemmon could use rolling one eye to create humour in the moment as part of the play they were performing. "I remember stealing that," recalled the actor, "possibly in Voyager.

"In fact it was always fun on Voyager when we got to do physical comedy. It was very rare in Star Trek although my character had more of a licence to disrespect the officer mould because he was a hologram. I could change up the audience's expectations; they don't expect to see a Star Trek medical officer acting as silly as I did and I had the freedom to play all these negative qualities that you don't see in a regular Starfleet crew-member.

"The Doctor could be cowardly, he could be arrogant, he could be self-involved, very puffed up, very disdainful. I had the capacity to play these negative sides because of the concept of the character because he was a willful computer program where they were working the kinks out of it and it didn't quite work.

"His much vaunted algorithms and sub-routines to give him a bedside manner didn't quite work and most of his feelings were focused in on himself rather than on you [the patient]. I had such freedom that I could overact, be over-expressive then I could underplay in a moment. For the audience I think it was delightful that I could be unpredictable."

Certainly this versatility with the character helped make him, in my opinion, fairly central to the show and its success. "I started with nothing," said the former EMH, "a blank slate. Very little affect; he rarely smiled. He was a fairly narrow palette and a single joke early on. He had a problem with everything and then as he grew and developed he had a much wider emotional palette. I got to smile, I got to change and go from being a pompous, self-important defamatory doctor to being recklessly excited about some new addition that I was going to make to myself that would make me invaluable to the crew.

"The saving grace of the character was that he wanted to be better. He wanted to be more useful."

Certainly classic Voyager episodes such as Darkling - which exposed a shadowy side to the hologram - and Living Witness - which gave the Doctor a chance to defend his crewmates in an errored historical record. For note in Darkling, Picardo got to use his contact lenses from his role as Eddie Quist in the 1981 werewolf movie The Howling.

In an earlier question and answer session, Picardo had talked about how he used to "jump out of bushes" to give ideas of what could be done with the Doctor to series producer Brannon Braga and I wondered if the inclusion of the mobile emitter had been one of the things he had campaigned for in the early seasons; "I made some suggestions that they took and some they didn't." said Picardo; "I was dead wrong about the holoemitter."

It transpires that Picardo was concerned that taking away the Doctor's limitations - in this case the physical limitation of being confined to Sickbay - that he would just be another crewmember; "At first he [Brannon Braga] flattered me," he recalled, "It's always a good way to get to any actor and then he said that your character's become so popular we want to put you in more storylines and we want to be able to do this.

"He basically prevailed by saying that I'd still have my limitations and I'd still be different but that I would be able to be put in more storylines."

Picardo joked that appealing to his ego was definitely the way for Braga to go and that he turned out to be completely right; "It was great to be able to get out  of Sickbay and/or the Holodeck and be able to go on real away missions."

One of the other questions he had been asked during the morning FCD session was whether Picardo had been approached in relation to Star Trek Discovery. He hadn't as you might have suspected but he did allude to something called "stunt casting" which is where you drop an actor from another show into an episode for extra ratings etc etc.

Now if you recall, Picardo himself appeared in First Contact as the EMH and in Deep Space Nine as Lewis Zimmerman. I wondered how those two instances came about considering what the actor had mentioned earlier; "The movie one came about because I kind of planted the seed and said why does Voyager have more advanced technology than your flagship, the Enterprise? How come we have this emergency medical hologram and your flagship doesn't?"

Picardo asked Rick Berman this question and in turn he was asked why they would all look alike.

"Because he's first generation, a new piece of technology and he'd be like a popular screensaver so of course they would look alike."

This of course nicely links into the end of Author, Author where we see the EMH Mark 1's resigned to mining duty rather than being in the sickbays of starships. Fortunately it also means neither instance was a "stunt casting" rather a cool way of knitting the franchise's various threads together.

Berman thought it was an interesting idea and left it at that. Picardo managed to successfully plant that seed again with both the writers of First Contact (Brannon Braga and Ronald D Moore) and also the director (Jonathan Frakes). 

Shortly after, Picardo received a note in his trailer saying that they had decided to put the Doctor in the movie. "I paused and said...that's a very interesting idea....!!!"

In regards to the Deep Space Nine appearance in Dr Bashir, I Presume? that was something born from the minds of the writers. "It made total sense," said Picardo, "My programmer Doctor Lewis Zimmerman was a real person who was back at Starfleet. I had that other ability...because I had a creator who had based the EMH on his looks, he could appear on Voyager as a hologram instruction manual and be on Deep Space Nine."

His most recent brush with Star Trek has been in relation to the fan series Renegades (in which he played Zimmerman again in the pilot) but with recent rulings that webseries has now evolved into its own identity outside the franchise sphere. 

"Paramount [and CBS] has put the brakes on and it doesn't surprise me. I was surprised they didn't do it earlier. They really flexed the corporate muscle on the 50th anniversary of the franchise. I think the studio understands that the fan-created stuff delights the fans and keeps their interest during the dry spells when there is no new television series or no new movie but I have a feeling that this cooling is going to last for some time."

Thanks to Robert Picardo for sparing the time to speak to me

Thanks also to Wil and David from FCD for giving me this golden opportunity.

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