Playing an artificial lifeform is a lot of fun -- just ask my Playstation. But one of the many great themes in Star Trek is the technological evolution of artificial intelligence.
We saw hints of this in the "Star Trek: The Original Series" episode “The Ultimate Computer,” written by D.C. (Dorothy) Fontana. It takes a great deal of talent to emulate an intelligent computer program like "Star Trek: Voyager's" The Doctor, played by Robert Picardo, and a fundamental criteria to a successful franchise is to contribute well-intentioned suggestions about such a unique character.
1701News had a chance to sit down with Picardo and chat about nostalgic reminisces, the challenges of playing a computer program and the new or current projects he has on the horizon.
One thing was abundantly clear about Picardo: He has an unexpected playfulness that is indicative of an imaginative and engaging personality. As we made our way back into the greenroom behind the celebrity appearances section at Toronto’s Fan Expo Canada, we chatted about continuing the Star Trek franchise through his participation in the fan-made production "Star Trek: Renegades," and his past roles like the hilarious The Cowboy in the 1983 Joe Dante film, "Innerspace."
“That was a peculiar part -- not much on the page and one that involved a lot of creative input, thanks to Joe Dante," Picardp said.
Creative input is a particular forte of Picardo’s. We see his influence in deciding the nature of the Doctor role on "Voyager."
“My personal theory is that he was a new technology -- a flawed technology," he said. "He was outside of the rules of normal Starfleet officer behavior. Instead of being a stalwart, brave and true officer, he could have all sorts of negative qualities; he could be selfish, arrogant, self-involved -- cowardly even, in the face of danger.
"All these negative qualities you wouldn’t see in a Starfleet uniform and then he could rise to the occasion. Then, that gave me the opportunity to over act and under play in rapid succession that made the character fun and unexpected.”
The Doctor is a particular favorite of the fans, that’s not in doubt. You can tell from the fans lined up at Picardo's signing table.
When asked about what was particularly Picardo about the Doctor’s character, his playfulness and enjoyment in playing the role became fully apparent.
“If you ask any of the other actors, I would make a lot of suggestions," he explained. "That’s been a quality that I’ve been both lauded for and -- what’s the word -- punished for. But I think when you’re in a long-running series, new ideas are in short supply. If you provide positive, well-intentioned suggestions rather than negative feedback, usually the writers are welcoming of them and eventually a lot of them were taken and went far in defining the role.”
The examples of these suggestions were particularly entertaining and became hallmark features of the Doctor on "Voyager." In particular, the Doctor’s enjoyment of opera was one of these additions to this enjoyable and favorite role.
“I fully expected the Doctor to be just a fan of opera; just to listen -- not sing," he said. "When I made the suggestion, I was misunderstood. I was not expecting to sing on the show. I thought it was funny to have a technical creature with a limited emotional palette -- at that point -- to be interested in the most emotional of human arts, which is opera. But I went along with it.”
Continuing this tradition in participating in new projects, the question of his attraction to the fan production "Star Trek: Renegades" -- described as “The Dirty Dozen" meets Star Trek -- came up.
“Well, I saw the screening in LA and was fully impressed with the outcome," Picardo said. "It was an interesting script -- very smart, and they asked me to play the Doctor. I politely declined. After all, Brent (Spiner) had retired Data and neither of us can really age in any way. And the old lame-o ‘altering your program to allow the character to emulate human form by aging’ just wasn’t going to cut it … I offered to play Louis Zimmerman instead, and they agreed.”
Zimmerman, as fans know, was the creator of the Doctor’s program, and as later episodes of "Voyager" would show, was the physical form of the hologram.
“I had been cast in a prestigious production of '12 Angry Men' -- a show I had always wanted to do, and they graciously wrote my character’s involvement down to act as Sean Young’s mentor and lover," he said. "So my engineering role was partly passed on to her and the emotional part was given to Edward Furlong’s character. I managed to establish Zimmerman as a recurring character for future appearances and I was jobbed in to making out for a few hours with Sean Young -- who is an amazing screen goddess -- which I think worked out quite well!”
After the laughter had subsided -- as well as the agreement that obviously Picardo’s suggestions were definitely well taken, we moved on to the general topic of other fan-funded productions. "Star Trek: Axanar" came up and Picardo briefly made note of Richard Hatch’s performance in that film.
“Hatch’s make-up job was amazing and J.G. (Hertzler) looked really good in his role too,” he said.
Fan-based projects are known for their sense of dedication in their productions and "Renegades" is not to be overlooked. Picardo remarked that the cast and crew of "Renegades" was remarkable for its sense of commitment and that everyone was there to get the job done.
But what does he think sets it apart from the other fan productions out there?
“I guess it’s because Walter is (Koenig) in it and Tim (Russ) is in it," Picardo said. "I have such a small part, but they’re two major characters … everyone is in this to make something good. The funded amount is small, but Tim’s direction is so impressive.”
With Zimmerman established as a permanent character, Picardo also suggested that the Doctor appear briefly as well, though he would have to be electronically de-aged in order for the character to appear. Still, at this point, there is no plan for the Doctor to appear alongside his creator, though there is no denying this would be an exciting development for "Renegades."
Editor's Note: Part 2 of this interview publishes next week; Picardo talks more about independent productions, about his beginnings on "Voyager" and a new Star Trek series.
"Star Trek: Voyager" actor Robert Picardo, at right, poses with 1701News writer John Kirk during the Fan Expo Canada in Toronto, Sept. 1-4.