Star Trek turned Robert Picardo into a giant science nerd
The "Star Trek: Voyager" cast member describes his audition for the part of The Doctor -- and how seven years on the show turned him into a cheerleader for science.
Ian SherrFormer Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Robert Picardo thought he'd just landed the most boring role in the Star Trek universe.
He'd been asked to play the "Emergency Medical Hologram," an interactive computer doctor on "Star Trek: Voyager," a show about the seven-year journey home for a starship flung across the galaxy by an alien being. Picardo's character, called "The Doctor," had nine lines in the pilot episode that ran in 1995, and none of them seemed interesting to him.
"I thought he was humorless," Picardo said. Instead, he wanted to play Neelix, a new alien who enthusiastically joins the Voyager crew as a guide and cook. The actor was, however, a bit worried about the makeup. Producers wouldn't tell him if it involved a prosthetic head, something pretty much every actor despises because the makeup process is long and the get-ups are usually uncomfortable to wear.
He didn't get the part, but the producers contacted him again to play The Doctor. They told him to be funny, but he still thought the dialogue seemed too serious. "I bluffed my way through the audition," he said.
When he got to the part where The Doctor is left alone in the ship's sick bay, he looked around and said the line, "I believe someone has failed to terminate my program."
Then he ad-libbed: "I'm a doctor, not a nightlight."
That channeling of Dr. Leonard McCoy's famous catchphrase from the original Star Trek series ("I"m a doctor, not an escalator!") landed him the part and helped him change The Doctor into one of the most beloved characters on "Voyager."
Pretty soon, Picardo realized the ongoing gag about The Doctor was that he had an awful bedside manner -- and a superiority complex. He was programmed to embody nearly all the show's medical knowledge, but he was stuck treating the crew's scrapes and bruises.
At one point, Picardo recommended to the writers that his character become an opera fan. The idea of seeing his emotionless face on the screen while gut-wrenching arias about love and loss play behind him seemed hilarious.
Turned out he was right.
Picardo, now 62, graduated from Yale University with a drama degree after starting as a pre-med major.
In "China Beach," he played a doctor drafted into the Vietnam War who starts the show being kicked in the groin by a woman disgusted by his sexist attitude.
After "Star Trek: Voyager," which ran from 1995 to 2001, Picardo got involved in another popular sci-fi project. This time, it was the "Stargate" franchise of TV shows about a modern secret military program using ancient alien technology to travel to the stars. He was supposed to play a bureaucrat whose inquiry justified a clip show. But his "douchebag" version of The Doctor's bedside manner went over so well the producers invited him to join the cast.
The Doctor changed Picardo's life in other ways. He was asked to join The Planetary Society, co-founded by famous astrophysicist Carl Sagan. The nonprofit acts as an advocacy group for space science and exploration, and it has led Picardo to work with celebrated figures like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson.
At first, Picardo said it seemed a little weird being revered while sitting on stage next to actual astronauts. "Now I not only made peace with it, I went 'Gosh, if I'm gonna get this opportunity, then I'm gonna celebrate it and embrace it and see what I can do in my own small way, to help bring the science fiction fan to real science,'" he said.
Here's an edited version of Picardo's answers to my warp-speed questions.
Who's your favorite Star Trek captain? That's a tough one. I used to say Patrick Stewart (Capt. Jean-Luc Picard on "The Next Generation") because I love the philosopher-king captain more than the action captain. It's the Shakespearean in me. But now with the benefit of time and reflection and the fact that I simply adore her as a human being on every level, I would say Captain Janeway (of "Voyager," played by Kate Mulgrew). I think we had a really really good cast, but I also love the "Next Gen" cast.
My secret is I've never watched more than five episodes of the original series. I know it's great, I know it's the ridiculous and the sublime. Their good episodes are truly great -- y'know "The City on the Edge of Forever" -- their high points are amazing. Their silliest are even worse than ours were.
What's your favorite piece of real-world tech? I didn't get my first iPhone until probably three or four years ago. And now, you can't imagine your life without it. My favorite thing that I can do with my iPhone is dictate a letter. I have to tell you, the speech recognition is so amazing. I love dictating into the phone and emailing it.
You really dictate full letters? Gosh, I think I'm at the stage where I could dictate a book.
You're not afraid of autocorrect? You have to proofread it. But I'm so used to it that if I left you a phone message, it would be like this: Dear Ian. Comma. New line. I was just wondering. Dash dash. And I wonder frequently. Dash dash. About the possibility about. All caps. YOU. All caps. NOT. All caps. REMEMBERING. My birthday. Period.
That's how I leave phone messages now, because I'm so dammed used to dictating to my phone. I can't stop.
Star Trek or Star Wars? I don't get Star Wars. I just don't. I went and saw most of the movies. In the last one, I loved that Harrison had so much to do. All the actors were great.
It's been explained to me why some people think Star Wars is superior to Star Trek. When Neil deGrasse Tyson was asked to compare the science in Star Wars and Star Trek, he said "Star Wars, what science?" I'm with him. I like some science in my science fiction. Having said that, J.J. Abrams is a genius and I loved the last Star Wars movie.
What's your favorite episode from the show? I loved the comedic ones because it culminated the running gag of The Doctor trying to improve himself and getting into trouble. Sometimes that was a dramatic context, sometimes it was funny.
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A great example of that was "Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy." It's a Joe Menosky script, one of our best writers, who incidentally is writing for the new show ("Star Trek: Discovery"). It was a sweet premise, that The Doctor wants to make himself better. And then he gets lost in his own daydreams and he can't function anymore. It's great, and the whole cast is great in it.
I think the scene where all three women are flirting with The Doctor in his own mind -- they're all throwing themselves at him -- was the most fun to shoot. I have never in my career gotten to be Cary Grant, where every woman wanted you. It didn't last long, but it was totally fun.
For romantic comedy, "Someone To Watch Over Me," which is the "My Fair Lady" one. For sheer drama and excitement, I like our 100th episode, "Timeless." The show came out shortly after "Titanic" won the Oscar. I call it the Titanic episode, where the ship gets blown up. (It actually crashed on an ice planet, killing the crew. How about that for inspiration?)
And then there were ones I hated. I think it was called "Warhead," where it was supposed to have an artificial intelligence that's also a walking time bomb that could set itself off at any time.
Then someone had the brilliant idea to make The Doctor the bomb. In other words, instead of making the bomb a guest star, why don't we just download this consciousness into The Doctor, and now I'm a hair-trigger crazed terrorist.
I just basically had to be the angry, extreme, yelling guy the whole episode. And you had to find ways your yelling in one scene was not like the yelling you just did. And it wasn't like the yelling you were gonna do in the next scene when you were gonna really yell.
It's kind of like the no-win opportunity. You know that when the show is cut together, you're the guy who's gonna be yelling the entire episode. You just don't want people to get the remote and turn it off.
It's a fine line to walk, too. You don't want to make terrorists sympathetic. You don't wanna encourage other terrorists who are watching a television show. But on the other hand, there might be this seed of injustice, perhaps, that's real and motivates them to this very unjust behavior. But I just meant as an actor, it was a totally thankless job. It really was.
Who do you want on an away mission? I told you my favorite scene was with Janeway, B'Elanna and Seven of Nine. We'll just stick with that.
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