Robert Picardo didn’t think his holographic character would be interesting, much less one of the most popular on the show.
It’s a well-known part of Trekkie lore, for those who follow such currents, that Robert Picardo, the actor who played the Doctor – a holographic projection who is the ship’s only medical officer – on Star Trek: Voyager, originally read for the part of Neelix, the ship’s cook and morale officer, a part that ultimately went to Ethan Philips. The actor was initially unhappy with the role, but grew into it over the course of the first few seasons.
Personally, I always really liked the way the other characters reacted to the Doctor and his developing personality. Each crew member had their own interpretation of how to treat a hologram with a personality, somewhat reminiscent of the use of Data on Star Trek: TNG, but even further removed, since the character was not even physically present. Kes, managed to develop a real friendship with the Doctor, while Torres was never able to see him as anything more than a program. Janeway took a middle road, knowing that he was not a real person, but always begrudging to treat him like one, though with a sly smile, as if at some personal joke. After the first season, the Doctor was the most dynamic character on the show and thus, to me, the most interesting.
For the odd milestone of the 18th anniversary of the first showing of the Voyager pilot, the official Star Trek news site ran an inrterview with Picardo regarding his role, and specifically how he felt about the pilot.
When asked about how much Star Trek remains in his thoughts, he said, “It gets to be a blur, and here’s why: your memory gets distorted because, with Star Trek, we’re still constantly in the world. We’re not making Voyager anymore, but we’re still making personal appearances. People are still watching it. The fans still even review the work. It seems a little bit more present in my memory than, say, China Beach, which was a show I did until just a couple of years before Voyager started. China Beach, though, seems like something I haven’t been a part of for a very long time, because we don’t have conventions for it, I haven’t really seen or talked about it in a long time. So that feels like more of a distant memory to me than Voyager.”
Regarding his audition for Neelix, he said that his “life would be less happy and I’d have spent 4,000 hours in a makeup chair.”
A reference to the relative lack of masking and make-up that the Doctor character needed compared to the Neelix character.
“I remember, when I first got the role, I was telling everybody, ‘I got the new Star Trek pilot. I’m sure it’ll run. I’m sure it’ll put my kids through college. But I’ve got to tell you, I’ve got the worst part on the show.’ That was an irony that I’ve lived with ever since.
“I thought I’d gotten the dull role in the show … I’d gotten the outsider character without being smart enough to realize it. I assumed the Spock character on our show would be the Vulcan, would be Tim Russ. I didn’t know enough to realize that the artificial intelligence character, at least on Voyager, was the heir, the successor to that kind of role on our show. And that was very cool.”
Looking back at those episodes, it’s pretty obvious that Picardo was not thrilled with the role, but it actually lends a lot to what made the character interesting. He was supposed to be emotionally distant, and slowly developing, and Picardo’s trouble with getting into the role actually sells the concept better than if it had been held by an actor who was really excited to be there.
You can check out the rest of the interview, including Picardo’s account of how the cast reacted when the actress originally hired to play Captain Janeway, Genevieve Bujold, was let go after only a few days of shooting, over on Startrek.com.
If you want to check out Voyager, the whole thing is available on Netflix or Amazon Instant.