“Last Days of Paris”
Voyager’s Robert Duncan McNeill sets a final course for home
By: Ian Spelling
Starlog Magazine March 2001 * Issue # 284
Robert Duncan McNeill is contemplating the end. “We all have mixed feelings about it,” McNeill says, referring to the imminent exit of Star Trek: Voyager from the TV starscape. “Everybody really enjoys being with each other. We all appreciate the security, how easy life is on a TV series like Star Trek. It’s an ensemble show. The acting is always a lot of fun to do. I rarely have to go through Method acting trauma to achieve the goal. It’s an action show, a big entertainment, a fun show to make on that level. Just working with these people, the actors and the crew, has been great. And we’ve had a nice, steady run. So, in many ways, people will be very sad to see all of that go away.
“On the other hand, people are excited about doing something new, things that aren’t set in space or in a costume. One of the fun things about this business is that you get to work with many different people and characters in different styles and genres. I think everybody is very excited about giving that a shot again, about getting back out there and doing some different stuff.”
McNeill, of course, has spent the past seven years co-starring on Voyager as Tom Paris, the former Maquis who has served, for the most part, as a faithful lieutenant to Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew). Throughout the show’s run, Paris has been up and down and down and up. At times over the season, he has been deeply involved in the action, while at other points during the show’s run, the character has been all but overlooked. It was the same with Paris and his romance with temperamental Klingon-human hybrid B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson). The plot wrinkle was introduced, explored in a scratch-the-surface way, then pretty much dropped. Then, suddenly, it has become a major storyline playing out across the whole of the seventh season, with the couple married (in “Drive”) and expecting a child (a development introduced in “Lineage”).
“It’s clear that Paris has changed, that he has been changed by the things that have happened to him,” the actor notes. “He’s married. B’Elanna is pregnant. What’s interesting is that this character has gone from acting like a boy, with the rebelliousness that he started with, to not only taking on his individual responsibility on the ship, but by series’ end, taking on family responsibility. That’s a great thing. It’s a pretty big arc. What an incredible journey for a character to go through.”
True enough, but some might argue that Paris was far more intriguing when he was causing trouble. Dipping into the past, to the first season episode “Ex Post Facto,” Paris stood accused of murder and no one, neither his crewmates nor the audience at home, could be certain of his innocence. The character had enough edge to make one at least consider the possibility that he could be guilty. Were that same episode to air now, no one would buy it. As it was, it shocked people when Paris didn’t follow Janeway’s orders in “Thirty Days,” and paid big time for it. So what’s the deal: Has Paris grown up and emerged as a hero, or did the writers wimpify him into yet another Starfleet yes-man?
“I would probably say that it’s a little bit of both.” McNeill replies candidly. “We’ve really struggled to make sure that his maturing, his taking on of responsibility and his letting go of the rebelliousness, came across as realistic. We didn’t want him to be a weaker character. We wanted him to be a stronger, wiser one. And we’ve been pretty successful. We’ve struggled to find places and ways to keep him a bit on the sarcastic side. You see that in small ways, in the dialogue he has in the briefing room, in the way that he talks to the Captain or the other characters. There’s a carefree quality about him that allows for many light moments and jokes and sarcasm. For some reason, we also saw much of that when he was in the Holodeck. He finds irony in situations, and that has become a real trademark of the character. He has a perspective on the ship’s adventures that’s a little different from some of his crewmates. There’s still some detachment at the core of who he is. Despite this development, he’s a team player and is willing to take responsibility. And he’s still willing to break rules if he really believes in something. That quality is still there, but it’s there for important reasons.”
Paris is a newlywed with a baby on the way, who has matters of his Maquis past and the strained relationship with his father, Admiral Paris (Richard Herd), to deal with before the show ends. Given all that, much of the character–who he is, what he truly stands for–remains to be determined. “That’s a good point,” McNeill says. “Does he turn his back on the Maquis? Is he a hero? It would be pretty interesting to carry the idea of returning home–and the impact of doing so–as long as possible. The struggle is always going to be fighting against going back to old ways or to old ghosts of his Dad or to old resentments of things that happened before he came onto Voyager. It’s interesting to see him struggle with that, yet still go on to reach even more maturity and growth. I think we’ll see some more of that; it’s what I would like to see anyway.
“Everyone’s asking me how I would like the show to end, at least for Paris. For me, Voyager’s dramatic thread has been to explore Tom’s memories, his own version of how it has affected him emotionally. I would almost rather not see the reunion with his father, but just see Paris talking to B’Elanna about it. ‘Okay, here we go.’ I would like to see him at that moment before, and then have him walk though the door and cut away. The rest could be left up to the audience’s imagination, in terms of what these seven years in the Delta Quadrant have done to help heal, change or not change his relationship with his father. I don’t know if I want to go to the next step. That would be the next story. This story is all about where they’ve been, what has happened to them. For us to go back and deal with people seeing their loved ones, that’s the next chapter. I don’t know if that would be as true to what we’ve been doing on this show.”
Switching gears somewhat, the conversation turns specifically to season seven. It has been a fairly busy one so far for McNeill. While “Imperfection” didn’t center on Paris, the character turned up for a few crucial scenes. “Drive,” on the other hand, trained its cameras on Paris and B’Elanna as they decided to once and for all determine where their relationship was headed. Later, in “Repression,” Paris and Kim helped conduct the investigation into an attack on a crew member, while “Lineage” again examined the bond between Paris and B’Elanna as she contemplated tampering with her unborn baby’s DNA to spare it the ridicule she endured as a child of Klingon-human heritage.
“‘Drive’ was a good episode,” McNeill says. “I really enjoyed ‘Lineage.’ It mostly focused on B’Elanna’s conflict, but there were many good scenes for Paris, really well-written dialogue scenes. Those scenes were a lot of fun to play. You really felt like an actor in that one. They allowed Roxann and me to carry much of the burden for that episode. Instead of the story being the most important thing, ‘Lineage’ was really about the performances, the nuances of the relationship and the sincerity of the scenes.
“Obviously, I liked ‘Body and Soul,’ because it was another opportunity to direct. I liked the story, with the Doctor in effect possessing Seven’s body. We had wonderful guest stars [Megan Gallagher and Fritz Sperberg]. It was a real treat. I just had such fun on that. It was such a farce, such a broad comedy, that we got to play and have fun. Jeri did a great job essentially playing Bob as he plays the Doctor. If you didn’t know Voyager and happened to see that episode, it was still funny, but if you knew the show and the characters it was very funny. Jeri nailed Bob’s gestures, his eye rolls, everything.
“I was thrilled that I got to direct once more. It’s a very delicate subject for our producers and the studio, I’m sure, allowing actors to direct. You don’t want to open the floodgates and have everyone think they can direct episodes, or it will just get out of hand. So it was real nice of them to let me do my fourth episode. I can’t speak for any of the other actors, but I think they realized that I’ve made a couple of short films during Voyager’s run, I produced a TV movie last year. I directed for Nickelodeon. They could see my seriousness about directing, that directing will probably be a big part of what I do after the series ends. So maybe they’ve rewarded that, and it has been great. I’m very grateful for the opportunities.”
McNeill also sounds grateful that the writers once again picked up the ball in terms of the Paris-B’Elanna relationship. After it had been ignored for so long that the two barely kissed after a tumultuous event in one episode, both McNeill and Dawson publicly suggested that the romance be dropped so that the character could move on. That feeling changed, however, when McNeill sat down with several of the show’s writers and producers shortly before the current season went into production. “We were talking about life and making small talk,” the actor remembers. “And I said, ‘So, what’s going on this year?’ They looked at me and said, ‘Well, we’re going to have you and B’Elanna get married. Then she’s going to get pregnant and you’re going to have a baby. And, if we get back home, you’ll be bringing back a baby.’ They spilled all of this out at once and I looked at them and laughed. I didn’t believe them. I really did not believe them. When we started the season, they had the whole journey for the characters in their heads. That has given them some strength, a foundation to work from. So we’re not floundering every episode, as we did for a season or two before that. There was no goal. We were just kind of seeing what would happen, so nothing happened with the relationship.
“With this blueprint, the producers were able to continue the story with the characters growing and moving forward. And the storyline has been great. It has really helped define our characters. It has been great for Roxann and me as actors, especially because we enjoy working together so much. It has given us a unique place in the ensemble and also a bit more humanity–more than some of the other characters, maybe, because of the father-mother/married couple dynamic. It’s not a real SF kind of story. It’s more a down-to-Earth humanity thrown into the SF world. Many people like it because they can relate to that.”
And now, it’s time again to consider Voyager’s end, not as it applies to Paris, but to McNeill himself. Asked what surprised him most about being involved with one series for so long, McNeill pauses for a moment before responding. “The first thing that comes to mind were the words of my sister-in-law,” he comments. “When I got this job, she said, ‘Well, if it runs for five or six years, you’ll never have to work again for the rest of your life.’ So many people really believe that. That’s not the case. I never thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to retire off of Star Trek,’ but the surprise is how many people think, ‘Wow, you’ve been part of this franchise that’s a huge symbol around the world and is so successful. You’ll just never have to work again.’ That is so far from the truth. It’s very comfortable. Yes, they pay us very nicely to have so much fun. It’s great that we get paid to have this much fun, but I can’t, by any means, stop working. It’s not even close to that. So that’s one thing that I can’t believe, that people think, ‘Oh, you’ve done the show for seven years. You must be rich, rich, rich.’ We’re not. I’m fine. I’m very comfortable. But I want to keep working.
“Another big surprise is how it has flown by. It has gone by so quickly. I always imagined that for someone who did a show for seven years, it would feel like a long time, such a big chunk of your life. It seems like the blink of an eye to me. I think that’s a good thing. That must mean we were having fun, that it wasn’t too painful.”
As for the future, McNeill plans to mix it up, to act and direct and produce and write. If the timing works out, he’ll direct an episode of Dawson’s Creek immediately after Voyager wraps production in the spring. Other projects are in development at his production company, Reel Play Productions. His most recent short film is on the festival circuit. “I like the idea of doing more behind-the-scenes jobs because I can truly control the direction they go in,” he says. “I can go after a particular series I would like to direct. I can look for a great script that I would like to produce. Acting is different. I’ve been paid to do this now for 16 or 17 years in film, TV, and theater. I’ve seen how unpredictable it is as an actor. You might be hot one year and very cold the next. You might think you’re really perfect for something that you don’t get and you might get something that you never wanted. You don’t know. It comes and goes and you can’t plan it. But it would be great to keep acting. I love acting. But I don’t know quite yet what I want to do. It’s hard to plan those things.
“Everyone talks about Star Trek typecasting, but that doesn’t worry me,” Robert Duncan McNeill concludes. I did a soap opera, All My Children, for three years. Everybody said I would get typecast as a soap actor, that nobody would hire me for anything else. I worked right out of the gate after All My Children. I went and did a Broadway musical, a Stephen Sondheim show [Into the Woods]. That was nothing like All My Children. I went from the Sondheim show to another drama. And then I started playing rebels. So typecasting doesn’t worry me. I would like to try some theater again or do movies for a while. I wouldn’t jump into a series again right away, as tempting as that might be to my bank account. I would rather do something different. As a director, I’m more than open to doing television. If they do another Star Trek show, I would love to come back just as a director, see the crew and do some shows for them. That would be great.”
· Full page season 5 publicity shot
· The “I already have a ring” shot from Drive
· A sickbay shot from Barge of the Dead taken facing Paris as he leans over B’Elanna on the surgical bed.
· The “No, but I might start to beg,” shot from Drive
· A shot of Seven and co-star dancing from Body and Soul.
· Another season 5 publicity still
· A candid photo of Robbie, Roxann, her daughter, and Bob Picardo in civvies.