As part of our coverage of Star Trek's 50th anniversary, I talked with a dozen cast members from across the franchise about everything from Star Trek's inclusive message to how they really felt about their characters.
Robert Beltran is known for two things in the Star Trek universe: playing Commander Chakotay in "Star Trek: Voyager" from 1995-2001, and complaining about it to the press.
Get Beltran going, and he'll grumble about just about anything related to Star Trek. He didn't like the monotony of shooting. ("I often say it's like working in a factory.") And he's not a fan of its predictable format. ("I kept telling the writers, 'If you can just take three minutes off a bridge scene and write another scene with human beings talking, the show is going to be much better.'")
He even rails against the show's "Prime Directive," a guiding principle that prohibits Starfleet characters from interfering with the development of alien civilizations.
"The idea of leaving any species to die in its own filth when you have the ability to help them, just because you wanna let them get through their normal evolutionary processes is bunk -- it's a bunch of fascist crap," he said. "I much prefer the Cub Scout motto." (The Cub Scout motto, by the way, is about doing your best and helping others.)
So, it's safe to say Beltran's not much of a Trekkie. He barely watches TV anyway. He prefers the arts, music and stage work. He writes poetry and composes music.
Though initially he hoped the Chakotay character could present opportunities to explore culture and identity, Beltran, a child of Mexican immigrants, ultimately realized that wouldn't happen much. But he's made peace with it, and come to appreciate aspects of his life as a pseudo nerd-celebrity. Like many Star Trek cast members, he appreciates the fan enthusiasm that's helped keep the franchise alive.
"I also knew I was going to work with a bunch of great actors and a great crew," he said, adding that the seven years he spent on the series were well worth it. "I wouldn't trade them for anything."
Beltran, 62, is currently turning toward more theater work and focusing on his music. Here are edited excerpts of his answers to my warp-speed round of questions.
If you could have played another character, who would it have been?
Well, I liked playing a human so I would prefer that it was a human being instead of, you know... Honestly, I think I would have stuck with the Chakotay character because I think they found some good stuff in it and there were some challenging things about it. Almost every episode I could find something challenging to work on. But I think (ensign) Paris is a very good character.
You don't want to get caught in some kind of strict thing where the writers say, "No, he doesn't joke. No, he doesn't laugh that often." That would be deadly.
Like Tim Russ (Lt. Commander Tuvok) who had to be an emotionless alien the whole time.
Tim was amazing...what he was allowed to bring out of that character. Emotionally, intellectually, how he was able to express what needed to be expressed within the bible of what a Vulcan is was really damn good.
Do you have a favorite episode?
I liked episodes where we weren't on the bridge a lot and pretending we might die: "Captain, the shields are down to 12 percent." And the audience is going, "What, where is the drama in that?" You know it's all manufactured. We're going to get through it, right? So why ask the audience to sit through it?
I like the one Virginia Madsen and I did that was a love story ("Unforgettable"). And I like the one with Kate Vernon and I called "In the Flesh" and she was Species 90210 or whatever the name was. (It was actually Species 8472.) She was pretending to be a human, and that was nice. I thought she was really clever, and it was fun to do.
How did Star Trek influence not just your career, but you as a person?
The most important thing is not the episode you're acting in. It becomes who you're acting with, who's your crew.
You've got human beings working there with you. And everybody is striving to make this the best they possibly can. That was always much more interesting to me. And that changes you as a human being. More so than any Chakotay episode.
How are you working with the crew? How are you dealing with them every day when you really don't feel like being there? When you really don't feel like talking to anybody? When you don't feel good and you're dealing with a cold or you're dealing with an allergy, or somebody's pissed off at you or you're pissed off at somebody, and how are you gonna get over it?
That's much more valuable than anything Chakotay is going through. So in that sense, it's like being in a large family. And I'm from a large family, so I can say that it's very, very much like it.
Is there a piece of Star Trek tech you wish you had?
I would love a Holodeck. Do you know how many great Super Bowls I could play as the quarterback and win? How many World Series games I could play? The Holodeck would be a lot of fun.
What's your favorite piece of real-world tech?
Honestly, I like my iPod.
iPod, the music thing?
I like the idea that you can have thousands of pieces of music in one little gadget. I used to drive all over the place with thousands of tapes in my back seat. So, yeah, the iPod is really my favorite.
Which character would you want on an away mission?
Either Seven of Nine or B'Elanna.
Because they're badass?
Because they're beautiful and capable of handling themselves. And it gets lonely out there, y'know.
Star Wars or Star Trek?
I fell asleep at the first Star Wars. The first one that came out and everybody was talking about it...and I just fell asleep. I was not interested at all. It was like a Western dressed up as a space thing.
Yeah, that's why people love it.
I'd rather watch "Shane."