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The Trek Nation - John Billingsley

John Billingsley

By AntonyF
Posted at February 18, 2004 - 5:03 PM GMT

Catching up with likeable doctor of Star Trek Enterprise, John Billingsley, the actor explained how he was finding the show, now in its third season. “Yeah, absolutely,” he says, when asked if he still enjoyed working on the show. “The only thing that has become more and more apparent with time is that the powers that be would really like to see the show appeal to a broader audience, so have upped the action adventure quotient more and more has time has passed, particularly this season.”

John is aware that this has had an effect on the Denobulan Phlox, but is certainly not angry about it. “Given the fact that I'm a character actor, I don't really bring the qualities to the table they are looking for in an action and adventure show,” he says. “They're not going to have me throwing punches and kissing babes. I haven't had as much to do this season, but it's always a pleasure going to work. I love the people I work with, and I had my eyes open going in I would not be the go-to guy on the show. It's been terrific; my wife and I bought a house, and [the show has] certainly vastly increased our sense of financial security. I enjoy going to conventions, and the producers have been very generous to me—as I'm not utilised as much as some of the other cast members—to go after a part on other TV shows or movies.”

So John doesn’t feel he wants to throw punches and kiss babes more often? “Actually,” he laughs, “the kissing babes is one thing. But throwing punches I think they're probably right! I don't think anyone wants to see me throwing punches. In some weird, parallel universe maybe.”

With no punch-throwing and babe-kissing, John is pragmatic about diminished screen time for Phlox. “In all candour, my role has primarily been rather expository,” he explains. “I come in and say 'well the blah blah blah needs the blah blah blah'. There isn't a ton of discovery involved for me as an actor, it's not as if the nature of the individual scenes I've had have pushed me to have a lot of questions about Phlox. That's not what I'm being asked to do. It is for me as an actor probably not as challenging right now, even say as the first or second seasons were, because I'm not really being given the things to do that demand rigorous investigation of Phlox.”

However, Phlox will certainly be more front-and-centre, with “Doctor’s Orders” which airs Wednesday 18 February 2004 on UPN. “[The episode’s] just about me, and has an action and adventure quality to it. Due to a particularly tricky section of the expanse, which I feel the need to sedate everybody to rest their brain activity, or they'll go mad, mad, mad I tell you! So they're knocked out, and I'm the only one who's conscious, and I'm meant to run the whole ship. So it's about me running the whole ship, and even though this area of the expanse doesn't affect me as much, as I have a Denobulan brain, I begin having paranoid illusions. So the good news is that I didn't have too many lines to learn, the bad news is that it's working about 16 hours a day when you factor in the makeup time.”

But just having more airtime isn’t necessarily enough for John, so the episode left him with mixed feelings. “For my tastes—and for what I think I'm best utilised to do—the episodes that are more reflective, philosophical and meditative—that deal with issues such as cultural conflict—I think those are the things that I am probably best equipped to do.”

However, John doesn’t feel that this situation will change any time soon. “I don't think that necessarily, at least this season, that'll change. That's really not the tempo. It's much more about put the pedal to the metal, catch these sons of bitches who killed seven million people on Earth, and let nothing stand in the way. So I— please believe me any rancour at all—let myself be edged to the side a bit. That's just the nature of what TV is about.”

Probably the last major episode for Phlox was “The Breach” which aired last April as part of season two in the US and was certainly less action and more cultural conflict. John had some concerns with that episode too, but understands the demands on the writers when it comes to his character. “I had mixed feelings about it,” he admits. “It's a tough bind, because what they'd created with Phlox was somebody who had a certain kind of Zen-like placidity, who sees the world and the universe in very grand terms who doesn't get too upset or phased, he has an unflappable quality. They have to figure out a way to write for me that bows to the direction that the character goes in, but the same time bring some conflict to the table. That's awfully tough.

“So I think coming up with an episode where Denobulans were once war criminals, there was still this credible anger that had not been resolved, it seemed to me at least—and maybe some of the fans too—a little too jarring, a little too difficult to jive with what we knew about Phlox. A little bit had been alluded to in the first seasons, hearing in one episode that he'd been a medic in the Denobulan infantry. But there were aspects of that script that didn't quite work for me. Having said that, [director] Robbie Duncan McNeill did a terrific job in that episode keeping all from us getting overly mawkish. And I think the actor that played Hudak [Henry Stram] was terrific, and I think it allowed us to find some good stuff. I was pleased how it came out.”

The delicate balance in the writing isn’t just confined to that episode, John feels. “Over the course of the last couple of years they have found moments in which Phlox gets angry, and I understand why they have to explore that territory, because if you create a character who doesn't have any hidden secrets, who doesn't have any issues, you don't really have a character you can explore. That's one of the toughest things about not just about my character, but Star Trek in general. It's the nature of the universe Gene Roddenberry wanted, positive with everyone on the ship together. Of course dramatically, if you're talking about a bunch of people on a shop together interacting, you don't have a lot of conflict. Conflict is what drama's about. So sometimes what they have to do is rest the conflict on the villain of the week. That can get to be a bit static, a bit bored. That's just some of the trap of this franchise.”

Although Phlox was not in the last US-aired episode, “Harbinger”, much, the story has potential ramifications for various Enterprise characters. “Usually in TV there's an A story and a B story. This really is an A, B and C story. The A story is about an alien we find floating in a disabled craft, who we come to may hold a clue about the nature of the peculiar region of space we're in. They also in fact hold clues about why the Xindi came to see that Earth was a threat to them in the first place. That's the A-story. The B-story is Trip and T'Pol take their relationship to another level, and the C-story is Reed and Major Hayes forced to confront their mutual antagonisms.”

Ahh yes, the ‘B story’. “Yes, the B story!,” he answers, knowing the potential for surprise amongst viewers. “I'm sure the fans are having all sorts of divergent reactions to that one. It's so interesting, because there's so many different voices right now from UPN, from Paramount, Viacom, I'm sure the fans, the critics—all asking for the show to develop in ways that seem to them more likely generate the audience. Everybody has a sort of a bottom-line need to generate higher ratings, otherwise the show goes off the air. But everyone's prescription for how to do that varies wildly. My sense, in the beginning, is that Paramount and UPN felt the show was about 'it ain't your daddy's Star Trek, come and watch, it's hipper, it's sexier, it's more violent, yada, yada, yada'. My guess is what that they found is it's very, very difficult to change people's perceptions. People have a sense of what Star Trek is, and to reach out to that imaginary hip audience that will watch Star Trek no matter what people say, they may have left down some of their core fans who did not necessarily want more sex and more action adventure, they wanted more to talk about. They're trying to find a way to straddle these two audiences, it's a tricky proposition.

“I know Dawn Ostroff at UPN definitely asked for, and is probably demanding, a higher flesh ratio on every show,” he says, citing one of the many voices. “I suspect that a lot of fans aren't too happy with that. Others will dig it. Who knows?“

One of the biggest changes to the show has been its change of direction for season three and the focus on the Xindi. "I understand what the difficulties are in appealing to the variety of disparate audiences, and that no one can be satisfied all the time,” says John. “My own tastes run towards more philosophical television. What I'm personally more interested in is what Star Trek does when it uses metaphors. That is not obviously what the 18-49 year demographics want, and that's what they feel they need to hit. So I think given what they are trying to do, they are doing a pretty good job at making the show a little more dynamic, a little more fast paced. I think they're giving it a significantly more hip look, they're doing more handheld camera stuff, we added a new writer. I think by and large the scripts have improved a bit. The one thing, given the nature of what this season's about, that does get sacrificed, is some opportunities for character development. I think so far we have not got deeper under the skin of what makes these people, and I think it's really difficult to do in a more action orientated show. Figuring out how to say that Reed is more than just a tight ass, and that Trip is more than a hair-trigger guy, and T'Pol is more than just a cold fish, and I'm more than just you know a jolly chap. It's very easy when you have signature characteristic to get keep painting that same picture over and over again. In turns out, in the end, I think, to something of a negative. It's a matter of taste. My taste runs more to exploration than it does towards gun fights and make out scenes.”

That’s not to say that John doesn’t like any action episodes, and thinks overall the writing is improving. “They had an episode that was a take off on 28 Days, [‘Impulse’, that’s] probably the most exciting episode they've made for some time. On those terms, I think they're doing pretty well. They got a new guy writing for them, Manny Coto, who has really raised the bar for the entire writing staff. He's got a wit and style about him that really makes some of it punchier. I think ‘Similitude’ was one of the strongest episodes this season. On any TV show there's going to be a relative scoring of hits and misses, that's just the nature of television. You're always going to have to say ‘Oh, we can't come up with a better idea. I think that this season so far has had a much better proportion of hits than misses.”

Looking back on the show so far, John cites the season one episode “Dear Doctor” as his favourite episode. “That was the first episode that actually kind of gave me the chance to live in that guy shoes for seven consecutive days. As an actor, a tricky thing is when you're in and out, in and out, not really doing much it's tricky to hold on to who you think the guy is. So for me, I still go back to "Dear Doctor" as the first opportunity I had to really conjure it up. So that's still my favourite episode.”

The episode also starred the late Kelly Waymire, and there was a romantic element to the story between her character, Ensign Cutler, and Phlox. John has fond memories of Kelly, “a fabulous person”, and their short time working together. “Getting to do ‘Dear Doctor’, we had a number of scenes together. It's funny when you're working on a show, and you're working with somebody closely, and you're kind of thrown into it because you don't really know the person, but are spending 14 hours together each day. I just thought she was a peach, I liked her very much.”

Another favourite episode was season two’s “A Night In Sickbay”. “I loved working with Scott,” John says, “that was the most time we'd had to work together, and that was fun. Scott's such a warm and gracious man. I know people were a little in two minds of that episode. I rather liked that episode.”

Away from the Enterprise sets, John starred in the WB’s soon-to-be-cancelled Angel earlier in season five. “It was fine,” he said, recalling his time on the show. “It wasn't a particularly fleshed-out part. Everybody was very nice, and treated me well. I had nothing negative to say, but it wasn't something that was particularly memorable.”

A more memorable experience however, was his starring in the movie Out of Time. “That was terrific fun to do,” say John. “It was very well received, and I know I—thank God—was well received in it. So that's probably the other thing that's had a major impact on my career recently. I'm hoping that it open other doors; although it's always a challenge to try and navigate around the demands of the TV show.”

John is also open to keeping himself busy with other roles as time permits. “I'm probably going to be doing a one-man show based on the writings of Ambrose Bierce in April. It's a play called The Devil's Dictionary. Other than that I've just tried to let my agent know I'm always up for audition as long as something as conceivably do, when I can forecast time in my schedule I try and get an audition.”

For now, John is happy with walking the Enterprise sets. “Probably for me the best thing about the show is the fact that the crew has been together for over a decade, many of them having worked on Star Trek in all its incarnations going back to Next Gen. And there's a close and familial feeling. It's terrific to go to work and feel everybody cares for each other.”

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AntonyF is a long-time contributor to The Trek Nation.