Robert Picardo – best known as the USS Voyager’s Emergency Medical Hologram – will be appearing in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys through July 21, 2013 at the Totem Pole Playhouse in Fayetteville, PA (about thirty minutes from historic Gettysburg), and he took time out of his busy rehearsal schedule to meet with fans at a local comic retailer in Central Pennsylvania earlier this month.
We caught up with Bob at the signing event where he graciously sat down with TrekCore to talk about past roles, future projects, and the upcoming twentieth anniversary of Star Trek: Voyager.
Robert Picardo: The Interview
TrekCore: The first introduction to Star Trek: Voyager came even before UPN went on the air, with the behind-the-scenes special that you hosted for the network.
Robert Picardo: Right.
TrekCore: How did you get involved with that? Was that just because you had little to do with the pilot, as compared to everyone else?
Robert Picardo: That may have been the case… For some reason, the man who produced that stuff for Warner Brothers – a guy named Don Beck – liked me and thought I would be a good host for it. I don’t quite know why he asked me, but I ended up enjoying it a great deal, it was fun.
It may have been that I had a lighter schedule in the pilot too, but he asked me to do it, and I actually stayed friends with him – and I’m still friends with him, I just haven’t seen him in a while. Yeah, it was fun to do.
TrekCore: What is your involvement with the new fan film being put together, Star Trek: Renegades? It certainly seems to have gotten a lot of interest, it raised a quarter-million dollars on Kickstarter!
Robert Picardo: I discussed the notion with them; I pitched an idea for what I would like to do. I plan to be part of it, but their schedule has changed, so it’ll come down to a matter of scheduling. Right now they’re planning for early October.
TrekCore: For the filming?
Robert Picardo: Yeah. So I hope to do it, but I know I also have a conflict in October, so I’m not sure whether it’ll work out, but I hope it does. I would not play The Doctor, but Doc Zimmerman, his programmer. It’s a nice script, and Tim [Russ] is directing, and I hope it works out. I’m hoping to do it.
TrekCore: Now this question may seem odd, I’ll admit. Over the last couple of years, several members of the Voyager cast, and some of the production staff and writers have said in different interviews that they saw – perhaps in hindsight – some missteps, or what they consider to be flaws with the series: certain characters being sidelined, a lack of continuity between stories, that kind of thing.
There was even an interview where someone was quoted as saying that some of the actors playing ‘human’ roles were told to try to stay as unemotional as possible to make the aliens and non-humans seem more fantastical or more “real”. Was anything like that ever apparent to you, while you were working on the show?
Robert Picardo: Some of the actors in the cast said that?
TrekCore: Yeah. One of those was from an interview with the official site from a year or two ago.
Robert Picardo: And was that evident to me?
TrekCore: Well, as a member of the ensemble. I know some people… Obviously, I think, The Doctor was fairly well-served as a character.
Robert Picardo: You know, I think that most of the cast agrees that The Doctor had the best character arc because he started with nothing. He started as a blank slate. Also, he didn’t have to obey the rules of the show, as Starfleet, so that gave me a little more freedom and fun.
I just think that when you play a Starfleet officer, you kind of have to see yourself in the context of Star Trek, with a certain manner of behavior that you have to comport with.
TrekCore: More military-style.
Robert Picardo: Yeah. I think that’s part of the game. It’s just part of the situation. I don’t remember… I remember that there was a certain amount of concern with Janeway as the first female captain, that she didn’t show too much emotion. There’s always an association with a woman crying, that it might be, you know, weak or something. So I do remember some discussion where Kate [Mulgrew] felt that she was being asked to, you know, keep her emotional spectrum in a certain area because they felt that was more captain-like.
That was the irony. They cast a woman as a captain, and then they basically wanted her to act like a man most of the time, which I thought was… I mean, I understood that Kate sometimes… Kate would explain that she felt a little constrained. At the time, other than that, I don’t really know.
TrekCore: Well, everyone’s going to have their own perspective on things.
Robert Picardo: I get teased by Garrett [Wang] sometimes, because he thinks that the writers… I have always liked writers, and made suggestions. It’s hard to write twenty-five episodes a year.
I made some suggestions that they liked and used, and some that they didn’t like and didn’t use. It’s really a matter of, I think… Writers like actors who make constructive contributions, saying “What about this? What about that?” The kind of actors they don’t like is when you throw the script against the wall and say, “This script is a piece of poop!” They’re not crazy about that kind of stuff. But if you say, “What about X, Y, or Z?” they may not like “Y” or “Z”, but they may like “X”.
TrekCore: Giving reasons for why you may not like something…
Robert Picardo: Yeah, just an idea. Rather than stories, certain ideas for what would be funny. I remember early on, I said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if The Doctor – as a way of showing he would behave well regardless of being sick, even though he’s a hologram – if he insisted that he were programmed to have an illness, just to show how it wouldn’t affect his work behavior?”
That little B-plot was the first suggestion that I made that was actually done, I think.
TrekCore: So, moving on to some other things quickly… China Beach is finally on DVD, after so many years.
Robert Picardo: Yes! It took years and a lot of money to settle the music rights….
TrekCore: I know that was a big issue.
Robert Picardo: …and a huge percentage of the music is exactly as it was. There are just very, very few where they had to trade it out, and often, they traded it out with… Like, they traded out Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” with Bob Dylan singing “All Along the Watchtower”, so it’s like, the times when they had to make substitutions, they were pretty great.
TrekCore: I know some shows, like The Wonder Years, as another example – which still isn’t on DVD, but finally came to Netflix – a lot of the iconic music that really made the show had to be swapped out because they just couldn’t afford to have it.
Robert Picardo: For China Beach, they really spent the money. They spent over a million dollars, and they’ve secured the rights, and the show looks great. I’m very proud of it, it stands up really well. I mean, China Beach was out of time when we made it. It was already a period show, so in many ways, it stands up a lot better than a late-80’s television show would.
TrekCore: Yeah, it’s hard for a period piece to look dated when it was already after the time.
Robert Picardo: It’s great. I’m proud of it; Dana Delaney, is terrific in it; Marg Helgenberger, the whole cast is great. They’ve had the deluxe box set online since I think April, but in the fall, they will start rolling out the individual seasons at retail stores.
TrekCore: Have you heard anything about going to the streaming services? I know that these days, a lot of people don’t buy physical media anymore.
Robert Picardo: I think that because it’s TIME LIFE, I think they’ll probably want to sell through for at least a year or a year-and-a-half, so people will have to wait a while. But the DVD set comes with all sorts of great extras, four original documentaries, a lot of great pictures, all sorts of extras that really make it a nice set.
TrekCore: You had said on Twitter that it had been like twenty years since you last saw the pilot, when you went back to watch it for the set.
Robert Picardo: Almost, yeah.
TrekCore: What was it like going back to something like that after twenty years?
Robert Picardo: It was great, I was really proud of it. They asked me to write liner notes for one of the DVDs, that’s what I reviewed – so I even write liner notes for the box set! [Laughs] I’m totally proud of China Beach, and it was great to revisit.
TrekCore: I have to ask you about those Crystal Sugar commercials. You did four of them, I think?
Robert Picardo: Yeah… they were only for certain parts of the country.
TrekCore: This one that I found was part of a collection of ’80s commercials online; it was recorded from Minneapolis or Green Bay I think. It wasn’t easy to track down!
Robert Picardo: Crystal Sugar was a local brand somewhere in the Midwest, they told me. I never saw them on the air, but they were great fun to make. That character is basically the gigolo that I turned into Alfonso years later. If you go to YouTube… I play the world’s most self-absorbed man. He’s an Italian, over-the-hill gigolo. It’s basically the Crystal Sugar guy, grown old. I’d love you to send that video [to me]!
TrekCore: Oh, I absolutely will!
Robert Picardo: Thank you!
TrekCore: Finally – we’re coming up on the twentieth anniversary of Voyager in 2015… On the major convention circuit, this year and last year have really focused on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Next Generation, and the twentieth of Deep Space Nine; they’ve tried to get as many cast members together in one place as they can for fans. Have you heard of anything like that in the early planning stages for Voyager?
Robert Picardo: There’s been some discussion. There’s nothing that I know of that is planned; there’s actually been more inquiries from Europe, actually, than here domestically.
TrekCore: Oh, really? Like from FedCon, the big one in Germany?
Robert Picardo: Maybe FedCon, there’s another convention in Germany that’s asked… there’s been talk for a year or two about trying to reunite us in Dubai!
TrekCore: Oh, wow!
Robert Picardo: But I don’t know; all of this is tentative.
TrekCore: I know one of the princes guest-starred on the show…
Robert Picardo: That was the now-King of Jordan, who was then Prince of Jordan – a wonderful man, King Abdullah – but no, Dubai is not his country, so that would be someone else! [Laughs] But these are all, they’re all just rumors. Nothing is set yet.
TrekCore: Well, I know you have to go here – I really appreciate your time, Bob!
Robert Picardo: Thanks, it was nice to meet you!
Our thanks to Robert Picardo and Doris Hutley from the
USS Susquehannock Starfleet Chapter for making this interview possible.