Maiden Voyage

Director Winrich Kolbe on Voyager's captain controversy and Star Trek's television future

Director Winrich Kolbe compares the pervasive conflict between the rebel and Federation crews in Star Trek: Voyager to the premise of one of his favorite movies, the Tony Curtis-Sidney Poitier classic The Defiant Ones. In the Academy Award-winning 1958 film, two dissimilar and distrustful convicts escape from prison while they are shackled together, forcing them to cooperate with one another.

"It's an old plot," Kolbe concedes. "But it worked in The Defiant Ones and it'll work for us, as long as we don't get cavalier about it."

In "The Caretaker," the 2-hour premiere episode directed by Kolbe and scheduled to air this month, the Federation starship Voyager chases a rebel Maquis ship into a galactic phenomenon that transports them to an unknown region of space so distant that it would take them 70 years at maximum warp to return to known territory. The Maquis ship is destroyed during this adventure, though its crew is rescued by the Voyager. Facing an unenviable future in oblivion, both crews form an uneasy alliance in their search for a way home (see Cinescape Article on Premiere Episode (Spoilers)).

"On the Voyager, we have two groups that at any moment could have serious personality conflicts," Kolbe says. "The Maquis could suddenly say, `Wait a minute, that's not the way we're going to do it,' and there's the conflict. I like that there are great possibilities for conflict on the ship itself, which is something that was missing in ST:TNG. It just wasn't there, which could be a problem dramatically. There will always be conflict between human beings; we need those conflicts to grow and survive. Gene Roddenberry said we'd come to a point in Star Trek's future where there would no longer be conflict between people. But how likely is that scenario?"

Which is not to say, he emphasizes, that this series disposes of the late Roddenberry's overall philosophy.

"Rick Berman and Michael Piller may create new series," he says, "but they never forget who started this whole thing. Ultimately, as long as it's Star Trek, it will be Gene Roddenberry's. It's all a matter of where you start from. The fact that the Voyager has a female captain is important; it's something I think Gene would have pushed for."

And therein lies the crux of Voyager's largely negative press coverage last fall (most of it baseh on rumors), which greatly exceeded the media attention surrounding the startup of any of Trek's earlier products.

The casting of the captain - ultimately christened Kathryn Janeway-was an arduous process during which the producers reportedly considered such well-known performers as Lindsay Wagner (The Bionic Woman), Linda Hamilton (Beauty and the Beast, Terminator 2) and Joanna Cassidy (Blade Runner, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?). The auditions were reportedly complicated by Paramount Pictures' desire for a male captain, a suggestion rejected by executive producer Rick Berman-who was working on Star Trek: Generations at the same time as the Voyager casting. Berman, who obviously won the battle of wills, insisted that a female captain would continue Star Trek's forward-thinking (or, for the more cynical, politically correct) ideals.

"We did make some attempts to look at male actors for the part when time was running out and it seemed that we might have a problem," Kolbe says, diplomatically. "But every time a male read for Janeway, I couldn't quite get my head into it. There is a difference a woman would bring that we all felt was important."

Nevertheless, the choice came down to two performers, one male and one female. "We had two good candidates," he says. "The male actor was Nigel Havers [Chariots of Fire]. He was excellent-and he almost had the part. But when the decision was being made he wasn't there with us; he was in England and couldn't get over in time. Someone said, `Genevieve Bujold,' and we jumped." And they soon discovered that they were blindly leaping off a cliff.

In a much-publicized arrival and departure, Bujold, whose starring credits include Anne of the Thousand Days, Coma and Dead Ringers, quit the series three days after stepping onto the set. In the ensuing weeks, rumors abounded, with Bujold complaining that the captain was a "cartoon" character and Berman noting that the actress wasn't prcpared for the long hours required by television.

"Her concept of the show was completely her Own," Kolbe says. "At this particular point, I do not understand why she took the show in the first place. It seems to me she was not prepared for what happened. Yet the day before she said yes, Rick Berman called her and told her, step by step, what was expected of her and what it would be like. He told her that television shows have brutal schedules that go on day after day after day for long hours. Directors will change, scripts will come in at the last minute; it's not easy for the actors. She called back the next day and said, `I thought about it. I've seen Star Trek, I want to do it.' I don't know what she was thinking, but it turned out that her idea of the captain was that she wasn't really a captain. She wanted to be Genevieve Bujold, not Capt. Janeway."

According to Kolbe, Bujold's characterization made the first days of shooting an almost surreal experience. "She didn't want to run the ship," he says incredulously. "We shot for a day and a half, we did a lot of things and she was pretty much involved in everything. I tried to get her to give us the authority that I wanted from the character, and that never came through. We had a chat about it and I said, `Why can't you give it to me?' She said to me, `I don't want to be Janeway, I want to be me.' Genevieve Bujold is a very fragile human being on the outside, and I felt she had to project a very strong inside for it to work."

Kolbe remembers meeting her for the first time in Rick Berman's office. Rather than delivering a reading of the script, she was merely chatting with the producer. She was a movie star with an impressive resume, so it didn't seem necessary for her to actually audition for the role.

"On that same day," he smiles wryly, "I told Rick, `This will either be a total disaster or a total triumph.' At that point I didn't know which it was going to be. I thought there was something in her that could have blown everybody away, but that never came through. I guess it might never have been there. It's a real fine line. At that particular moment, I guess there was a little panic to get somebody so we could get going. Some of us were very high on Genevieve, so we hired her."

By the time the decision was finally made, production had begun and about four days of sequences were in the can. "We started shooting her on Monday, working hard to get going, and on Thursday afternoon we were just about ready to break for lunch when she said, in front of everyone, `It's just not working out too well. I don't think I'm right for the part.' To which I said, a little bit angry, `Don't ever say that!' Not because I wanted to lecture her or because she was wrong. But because she shouldn't have said this in front of the crew. It creates a psychological problem. The captain of the ship is supposed to be the captain of our crew, of us. The star of a show is not just an actor or an actress. He or she defines how a unit works. Patrick Stewart did it his way, Avery Brooks does it his way. When the star of the show says, `I don't think I'm right for the part,' you can feel the reaction from the entire crew. At that moment I got together with her, we had a chat about the situation. I called the producers and about half an hour later it was decided to cancel her relationship with the show. It wasn't Paramount or anyone that fired her, she just decided to pull out."

Kolbe now admits that those early days of shooting left him somewhat shell-shocked. "You have the feeling of not being in the real world," he says. "You don't know whether you're alive or dead; you iust haven't figured it out yet. When you have the crackle of bullets whizzing around your ears, your adrenaline is really going. Then comes the letdown, when you lose all feeling-and that's what happened to me at that particular moment."

Though it was a wide-awake nightmare at the time, Kolbe believes the trauma was for the best. "It's probably good that the `situation' happened when it happened, even though it threw a monkey wrench into our operation," he says. "It would have been a disaster if we had shot the whole pilot and then found out it didn't work."

The shooting schedule was rearranged for the following week so that sequences could be shot around the Janeway character, allowing the producers about five days to find a new captain.

"I was shooting when Kate Mulgrew was mentioned:" says Kolbe. "Then suddenly Kate Mulgrew was hired and I had a meeting with her in the makeup trailer. When she came on the set, I was very impressed with her. She had a definite presence, and she was informed about what she had to do. She watched a lot of episodes and a lot of my episodes, and I felt so good about her that I brought her to the set on Stage Nine and said, `Ladies and gentlemen, the captain!' And everyone applauded. It was very nice and I suddenly felt that we were taking off. We were just taxiing up the runway until that point."

Kolbe believes that Mulgrew-who broke into television as the 23-year-old title character in Mrs. Columbo, which had a short run in 1979-is ready to become a bona fide star. "I think she's going to do a hell of a lot for women on TV," he enthuses. "She is very feminine, but she can handle any situation. I would follow her. She really is wonderful."

In comparing the Janeway character to previous Trek captains, he points out that both Sisko and Picard are inherently remote, a trait that is highlighted by their positions. Janeway, he feels, will be entirely different.

"There are moments in the pilot where you get a sense of the difference," Kolbe says. "There is more concern for and attention to feelings. Yet it's not something that would ever affect her conduct as captain. If she has to send someone into a life-threatening situation on an unknown planet, for example, she will do that. But, of something terrible happens to that crew member, she can agonize openly about it. That's something a woman might talk about; but a male captain probably never would bring it up. He would be staring into space and it would be implied, but he never would talk about it. I think the story approach from a character point of view has a much broader band to work on than iif it was a male captain. We've had a lot of women leaders in Star Trek, but they've all suffered from the hidden-penis syndrome."

Though they've been largely ignored by the press thanks to the Bujold controversy, there are other characters onboard the Voyager, who Kolbe recognizes will be the backbone of the show.

First up is Starfleet Lt. Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeil, best known for his role on All My Children). Paris is a rebellious Starfleet officer who, while in the Academy, disgraced the family name only to be given a second chance by an understanding captain. Offers Kolbe: "My problem with the character, originally, was that he was too much an on-the-nose rebel. A little too much of a cliche. But now I don't foresee a major problem with him. We have established that he has come out of a Federation penal system and that he is not a hardened criminal who is out to slice your throat. He's not as on-the-nose now as he was in the beginning.

"He was probably the easiest character to cast," continues Kolbe. "He was basically white, middle class. All we needed was some one who had a sense of being a little bit overbearing, a little bit snotty at times. A character with something in the closet, somebody who's willing to take unusual steps in order to progress themselves. What was important to me was that his father had such high expectations of him, that he thought he would be the 36th military man in the family but then decided, `The hell with that, I'm not going to play that game. I want to do something else.'"

Chakotay is the captain of the Maquis vessel, an American Indian who ends up serving as first officer aboard the Voyager under Janeway's command. The character is portrayed by Robert Beltran, formerly of Models, Inc. This was a difficult role to cast, says Kolbe, because of the relatively small number of Indian actors in the Screen Actors Guild.

"You're probably talking about two handfuls of actors," Kolbe points out, "who are well known enough to ask to be considered. We had another actor in mind, but there were pros and cons. Ultimately it came down to two actors, one of which was Robert Beltran. He was extremely soft-spoken in the beginning, and I think that was in part due to the script, where he was described as a calm, stoic Indian. I don't know where we got that from. It's some kind of myth that's still hanging around today, that you can throw a spear through an Indian and he won't even flinch. I'm not an expert on Indians, but I'm a human being and I know Indians are human beings. Living on a Maquis ship and fighting a life-and-death battle with the Cardassians, he isn't going to sit around there and calmly say, `Well, okay, now, give me full forward power and let's get moving.' There's got to be that tension there. Robert, I think, recognized this and developed during the [casting] process."

Serving as security chief of the Voyager is Tuvok, a full-blooded Vulcan portrayed by Tim Russ (Mr. Saturday Night). Kolbe finds Tuvok an interesting character, and is particularly pleased with the casting of Russ.

"Originally Tuvok was supposed to be 160 years old," he notes. "Again we had a problem. When we were looking for an established, older actor to play the part of Tuvok, we had some damn good actors come in and read for us, but we couldn't quite agree. So we started scaling down the age. We went from the 60s to the 50s to the 40s to the 30s. A little longer, I'm sure we would have needed a tutor on the set. There was some concern that Tuvok should be older, or the show might be too yuppie, too young, too Melrose Place or Beverly Hills 90210. On the other hand, we couldn't find an actor we all liked for the part.

"The nice thing about Tim," he says, "is that he came in and gave us a wonderful reading. You have to understand another thing: These stoic parts like Chakotey and Tuvok are very difficult to act. What you're telling those guys is, `I want you to withdraw. I want you to be distant, but I want you to have character. I want you to be a Vulcan, logical, but I don't want you to be boring. I don't want you to be a nerd who pontificates.' That is very difficult to do and Tim is one of the very few actors we saw who could nail it."

Harry Kim (portrayed by Angry Cafe's Garrett Wang) is fresh out of Starfleet Academy, and serves as Voyager's operations and communications officer.

"Probably the most inexperienced, naive character of them all," says Kolbe. "And he's probably the character who will have to fight hardest to stay in the forefront. When we were casting, we said we wanted a young, Asian male, and there are not that many Japanese or Asian actors here. It was a very hard role to cast. Garrett is a young, up-and-coming actor, but he needs to learn, and that's going to take some time. He's one of the actors who has to really work hard on his craft in order to keep up with the others."

Going the alien-human hybrid route on Voyager is B'Elanna Torres (Roxann Biggs-Dawson), the half Klingon chief engineer who, like Spock on the original series, wages an inner war with the intertwining blood of two species. In this case, her Klingon side is disturbing to her, so she tries to suppress it.

Recalls Kolbe, "Roxann came in on day one and we just cast her. Not that we didn't keep looking, but she was pretty well set from the first day. I think she and Kim are going to be the two characters who are going to have to fight for airtime. One thing she has going for her is a volatile temper, which could go off at any time. She's the only one who challenges Capt. Janeway's final decision in the pilot. B'Elanna Torres is a land mine-a hand grenade with the pin pulled out."

One of the most offbeat characters is Doc Zimmerman (Robert Picardo of The Wonder Years), an Experimental Medical Program (E.M.P.). Essentially he is a holographic medical officer taking care ofthe crew's needs.

"We had a lot of different actors come in once we decided we were going to go with a comedian," explains Kolbe. "Nobody else seemed to get it. They all played it too holographic and computer-like. In some ways, Zimmerman is similar to Data. Maybe not quite as complex, but that could develop. Data at the beginning was not really what he was at the end of `All Good Things.' In the beginning he was just a preposterous wind-up toy. Then things began to develop. There was, `I want to be human. What about my emotions! What is death?' and so on. He was able to develop. The same might be true of Zimmerman, although the one disadvantage he has is that he's restricted to sickbay. However, all you have to do is reroute one computer chip and the guy might be all over the ship.

"Robert Picardo has that almost insane-at-times look that we desperately wanted," he adds with a laugh. "There is a certain sardonic twist to that man, and this whole element of his feeling deserted when everybody leaves him alone in sickbay. That's going to be an interesting character to follow."

Two aliens who join the lost crew are Neelix and Kes. Neelix is described as equal parts scavenger, trader, con man, procurer and sage, and Kes is his Ocampa lover. Neelix, who comes from this unknown region of space that the Voyager has fallen into, "is a very funny character and a hustler," Kolbe emphasizes. "In a way he's also, if you go to Joseph Campbell's mythology, the guide. And Kes is his alter ego in a way. Plus it gives us a certain romance that we might want to explore, because you don't want to have it be strictly business.

"Neelix was rather easy to cast," he elaborates. "We narrowed it down to three actors, and Ethan Phillips was the one we pulled out. He was an inspired choice, and he's the life of the party on the set. Kes was the usual problem you have when you try to cast 20-something actresses or younger. There are a lot of beautiful women around, especially in Hollywood, but not a lot of them can act. We went through quite a procession of beautiful girls, not bad as actresses but not good enough. We wanted somebody who could be fragile, but with a steely will underneath. Jennifer Lien gives us that."

Kolbe is pleased with the mixture of actors and characters. "It's exciting. It's different." Based on the pilot, Kolbe is pleased with this newest incarnation of Star Trek, believing it has the opportunity to achieve the same level of success as its predecessors.

"Right now I'm very high on Voyager," he enthuses. "I think we have an excellent opportunity to just take off and break new ground. We're pushing the envelope here. I want to keep on pushing."


Article by Edward Gross
Cinescape January 1995
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