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The Trek Nation - John Billingsley

John Billingsley

By Antony
Posted at October 25, 2004 - 5:31 PM GMT

Season four of Star Trek: Enterprise warped into UPN a couple of weeks ago, with little fanfare and a presidential debate possibly distracting viewers from the conclusion to season three's "Zero Hour". But the best may be yet to come, believes John Billingsley, who as Doctor Phlox says "the plotting, the overall story telling this season, has been quite strong."

"We are on episode number eight now," John explains in an interview at the end of September. "The first couple of episodes were about the Nazis, which frankly I could have done without. The third episode ["Home"] I thought was pretty strong, and sort of about our homecoming and how each of adjusted… you know, I should say how the captain primarily adjusts to having his mission completed, and what the emotional ramifications were. Then the fourth, fifth and sixth episodes ["Borderland", "Cold Station 12", "The Augments"] were the Brent Spiner arc. And now we're in what promises to be at least a three episode if not longer arc about a Vulcan civil war in effect. I'm not very prominent in those episodes, which is how I come to be having breakfast with you on a Friday morning."

The Nazi storyline, which carried over from the very end of season three, found the Enterprise crew stranded in the 20th century. It was certainly a non sequitur for an episode that had wrapped up a year-long Xindi arc, leaving most fans surprised. "Personally if I never saw the Nazis on screen again I'd be a happy man, in any way, shape, manner or form on any series. It's the villain de jour," he explains. "I won't put myself in [the writers'] shoes; I don't know what the thinking was. But I had the same reaction when I watched that episode. I really liked the ending of season three, I thought they did a nice job of keeping the tension ratcheted up all through the finale, and then to see the last moment — the cliffhanger moment — to be something that was such a kind of… 'headsmacker'..."

As well as resolving the Nazi storyline, it was also known the first two episodes of season four would bring an end to the temporal cold war which had started in the show's premiere episode "Broken Bow", a move that John doesn't disagree with. "I definitely felt as if there was a dictate on high from the network level, or from the studio level, to end the temporal time war, wrap it up immediately. I tended to concur on the broader point that the temporal time war never really got off the ground, the storytelling was too attenuated, and that it needed to die. At the same time I think the network forced them to tie it all up so abruptly that the way in which they had to do it was not as deft as it needed to be. So I personally sort of thought, and think, that one has to get through those episodes before we hit our stride in episode three."

Judging from what's known about future storylines, Enterprise is getting in touch with its past. Both in terms of stories — with visits from an ancestor of Data's creator Doctor Soong, Orion Slave Girls, and a story relating to the Eugenics War — and also behind the scenes, with Brent Spiner having filmed a role in the show and William Shatner rumoured to be in negotiations to make an appearance. But is this a good thing, tying in with the past, or should Enterprise try to be newer in its approach? "I didn't get to meet any of the Orion slave girls — dammit, I wasn't on set for them!" jokes John. "Honestly I don't think it matters one way or the other, accept in so far that the stories are consistently surprising. I think that perhaps one of the criticisms in the past has been that the plotting of the individual episodes has not been as engaging as one might want it to be. I certainly don't think it's been true across the board across all three seasons, but I do think there needed to be a bump in the, how can I say this… well there had to be a bump in the quality of the storytelling so as to engage an audience from the beginning and keep them on tenterhooks throughout. I don't think that's something we've always achieved."

However John thinks that positive change has now been achieved. "I think that some of the episodes this season are full of enough twists and turns to perhaps keep the audience guessing, which I think is the ultimate goal of any story," he says. "The audience wants to be chasing a story, they don't want to be ahead of the story. Whether there's some value or not in having stories revolve around characters from past episodes I think in a way is neither here nor there. If it did revolve around characters from past episodes, but the episodes they were in our series were flat, it wouldn't make one bit of difference."

But for John, the upcoming arc with fan favourite Spiner worked well. "I loved having Brent on the show, and I thought that those episodes were well plotted. It was wonderful working with Brent, aside from a lovely actor a really classy guy. A lovely gentleman, I really enjoyed him a lot."

Spearheading the new approach to Enterprise this season is Manny Coto, who joined the writing staff last year and is now the main show runner. As with many of the actors, John believes Manny has been a good addition to the writing staff. "I love Manny, I think he's a terrific writer," says John. "I think he brings a lot to the show. I always have to preface this by saying it is in no way meant as any kind of reflection on the writers we have had. Television writing is one of the most difficult things to do; it's an absurd, absurd deadline to work under, and I think the writers have always done a fine job. [But] I do think Manny brings an element to the table that might have been missing, and I think there is a great willingness to bring some more topicality to the table which I appreciate."

In particular John likes the structure of season four's stories. "I don't know enough about what the budget limitations are; I don't know enough about what the mandate from Paramount is, to be able to speak to what the parameters are they have to work within. Based on what I have seen so far, I think there is a real strength to doing these mini-arcs of three to four episodes. It allows for a more convoluted and expansive storytelling. The first mini-arc involving the Eugenics War was a strong one, and I think (although I haven't been around on the set very much) the mini-arc about the Vulcan civil war, so far on the basis of the scripts I've read, is a strong one.

"I don't think we wanted to go back and replicate what we did last year and have a season long arc. I think it's something that worked just fine last year, but I don't think you can do it that well again. Witness I think one of the things that happened I think with 24 for instance which I think was a great wonderful concept, but it's difficult to tell a season-long story. You can do it once or twice but then it begins to get formulaic in its own right."

Phlox fans, however, may have to wait to see John Billingsley get some substantial screen time. "My probably all to pat answer, and I apologise for that, is that I was very aware when the season started — I was very aware when the series started — that I was going to be used in a supporting capacity. As the seasons have progressed, the dictate from both the network and the studio to emphasize action, adventure and sex appeal — at the expense of character development frankly — [has left me] without much to do. So anything at this point is sort of a surprise, there really hasn't been much for me to do this year. But that's fine. I get a nice pay check, and I like the people I work with, you know, and at the end of the day, hey, that's great!"

Because of this, John explains that he doesn't really have contact with the writers in regards to his role. "I can't say this is true for all the actors on the show; I'm sure Scott has more ongoing conversations with the writers. I suspect Jolene and Connor do as well, and that is befitting their status as series leads. For the rest of us the template is the template. Candidly, there are very few opportunities to take my character in unexpected or unexplored directions. If and when a script emerges, if and when I then have questions I will then call them and initiate a conversation. The writers have never initiated a conversation with me, and I can only assume that's because they've been satisfied with the direction that we've all chosen to go in with the character."

John mentions lack of character development, but one arguably substantial piece of development is that of a romantic relationship. In Enterprise the sole relationship is between Trip and T'Pol. However, neither Connor Trinneer or Jolene Blalock seem to be completely happy with that story — with Connor saying in an interview recently that it was "treading water". So is the relationship a good or a bad thing for the show? "It's clear to me," says John, "from the scripts that I'm reading, whether they like it or not that will be a relationship that will develop, and depending on how long the series goes they will eventually become a couple. They are of course going to have the standard television hurdles they have to overcome, that's the nature of television you know. God knows, it took ten years Rachel and Ross [from Friends] to get together, so I'm sure T'Pol and Trip are going to be our Rachel and Ross."

So it's here to stay, but the Trip and T'Pol relationship is one that John doesn't feel was easily implemented. "Personally I felt that was not a relationship that was...justified," he admits. "You never know in this business who says what, what decision comes from where. I am sure UPN said we need more sex on the show. Whether or not the executive producers agreed with that or not, they then had to take their marching orders to a certain extent from the people who were paying the bills, and the question is 'Jesus, how we do put more sex on the show?' I don't think we can justify having the captain get it on with T'Pol, the sex is obviously going to come from T'Pol, so who does that leave? Unfortunately none of the groundwork had been laid for Trip and T'Pol to suddenly start having a relationship, and I don't think either of them had any indication until this sea change too place that they had as actors to lay in that attraction. So I think for them they probably both felt 'Well it would have been nice to have known that this was the direction you wanted to go in, we could have added that to the mix'.

"As it stands it stands it feels like you've taken two people who, you sort of, you know, were...GRRRRR...the whole damn time, and suddenly you've flicked a switch from nowhere and now they're supposedly [in a relationship]. Having said that, I think they play it very well. I think they play the attraction, now they have to play it, very well, and there are aspects of that attraction that have helped the storytelling. So I don't necessarily thing it was the worst idea in the world, I just think it was — as is often the case — an idea that came from the execs that wasn't built into the producers' original story telling model. That happens all the time."

So John has mentioned a lack of character development in some areas, and a relationship story that didn't in his mind work too well. Does Enterprise need more personal 'filler' to stories — family building, cinema visits and dining in the mess hall for example? He admits he's in "two minds" about it. "My own aesthetic, and my own taste, would lead me if I was in charge to empathize character development, because I think that ultimately what makes a television show interesting is the characters grow, change and evolve and grapple with moral dilemmas. I think what they have effectively done is take four of the seven cast members and say there will be essentially be very little character development for them. That obviously, to me, means on one level the show becomes less interesting."

But John doesn't feel such decisions are without reason. "It's hard for me not to admit the fact that, like it or not, I don't think the fan base responded terribly well to the show in the first two years when they were trying to accentuate character development," he says. "So to a certain extent the reason we, in season three, moved to a more action adventure–orientated show was because the numbers seemed to demand it. And you know, at the end of the day, it's hard to argue with the numbers. To the extent that [when they have] scenes of us watching movies, or scenes of us in the mess hall, to a certain extent it feels a bit vestigial, as if there is still this need to play lip service to the concept of 'Hey these are real people, hey they do real things, hey don't forget they are three dimensional characters and they watch movies and go to the bathroom and yadda yadda yadda' Candidly, I do think those scenes are filler scenes and the show has very much been given a particular set of marching orders: action, action, action."

One such scene in an upcoming episode has the Enterprise crew playing basketball. "That's scene's a perfect case in point," says John. "My sense sometimes is that, particularly with new writers, Doctor Phlox exists primarily as a means for them to exercise interesting digital technology. They can give Doctor Phlox a huge smile, they can blow his head up like a puff fish. In the basketball episode they give Doctor Phlox this arbitrary ability to throw a basketball from anywhere in the court and it goes in the basket… swish! Which is the entire gag. Everybody else runs about, sweats, plays a game of basketball. I stand there, whenever I catch the ball throw I throw it in the basket, score, my team always wins. It's kind of funny, but sort of has an arbitrary feeling to me. It's another one of these, you know, magical gifts that Doctor Phlox has. Apparently Denobulans can climb rock walls, have long tongues… it's all sort of, you know, a laundry list of gag features. But it becomes a bit of substitute for character. So there's a part of me that sometimes wishes that they would actually think more about the essence and the nature of the Denobulan society and what this being's world view is. I think that's something they've backed given the exigencies of telling fast paced action adventure–orientated stories. Again, I can't condemn it, because I understand where it comes from. But it doesn't leave me with a lot to do. "

It's important to note that John's tone, which could be lost in a written interview, isn't one of negativity, just pragmatism about the nature of his role and television in general; we're certainly not seeing a repeat of certain Star Trek: Voyager cast member interviews. In fact, observations and analysis aside, John is still very happy to be on the set of Enterprise. "The pleasure of the show for me, first and foremost, is that it's a really great group of people," he says. "That starts, and I really couldn't emphasize this enough, with a crew that in many instances has been together for over a decade. So you walk in, and there's a familial feel, and people are genuinely connected and interested in each other and care about each other's lives. So the actors' real job is to not rock the boat on a certain level, frankly. I think it's a very kind group of people on this show, and I think that does extend to the cast. So we all get along quite well. There's obviously, given the nature of this business and how busy one is, not a lot of socializing outside of work. But I do think there's a genuine and deep affection that's shared amongst everybody at work."

John believes the good on-set atmosphere comes from Bakula, effectively a captain both on and off screen. "I truly think is the most gracious actor I've ever worked with. I can't say enough good things about how kind he is. He knows everybody's birthday on the set, I've never seen him waspish or snappish, I've never seen him hold up camera. He's enormously respectful of people's time. I've worked with a lot of people in this business who take of advantage of their celebrity, and use it to bludgeon lesser lights. That's never, ever Scott Bakula. And that sets the tone for everyone else."

Many shows tend to change their cast, by removing and adding cast members, whereas Star Trek doesn't tend to do this much. Although it could hurt the familial feeling on set, does John feel some cast changes would spice up Enterprise on a story-telling level? "I don't know if that's a question that one can answer, it varies so wildly from show to show," he says. "Over the long arc of time of television you could look at shows that have benefited from having cast members added, and you could look at shows and say something has been lost when substitutions have been made. And I don't think there's any way to know without knowing specifically who would be added, who would go away, how that would affect the storytelling, whether that'd be a good thing or a bad thing. Obviously on a personal level, having deep affection for everyone I work with, it would be sad to see anybody leave. But it's a business, and I'm a business person and I'm 45 years old and I've been this business my whole life. If they killed me off tomorrow, it was a nice ride, I had fun, no hard feelings. I have been fired before, I'm sure I'll be fired again, and would hope everybody in this business kind of appreciates it, one shouldn't take anything personally. Having said that, suspecting this will be the show's last year, don't see that's an issue. If we should some how manage to survive into a fifth season, you know, then I suppose it's possible."

As can be gathered from his comments, it's fair to say John isn't confident of Enterprise lasting much longer. "I think they wanted the 100 episodes to syndicate," John explains. "We'll get that this year. Given UPN's reluctance to pay the full rate, and given the fact that the numbers are the numbers and they're not going to change, I don't know that there's enough of an economic incentive for Paramount to do deficit financing in effect for 22 or 24 episodes a season to go beyond this year. I don't mean to speak against my own show, I hope it continues. I've got mortgage to pay and I like going to work every day, in an uncertain market it's a great gig. But as a businessman who can hopefully look at things pragmatically I can understand Paramount deciding to put the show on the shelf, put the franchise on the shelf for a few years, and bring it back after some time off with a new crew and a brand new template."

Fan campaigns often focus on getting a show moved to another network if it is axed. But John isn't optimistic that this would happen with Enterprise in the event of its cancellation. "I think Paramount could theoretically take it elsewhere, but the problem is there are certain fixed costs. The show costs a $1.6m, and I don't think they'll get it below $1.6m. Maybe they could get to $1.2m, but that is still too expensive for Sci Fi Channel. They wouldn't even keep Farscape on, and that was their highest rated show, because they thought it too expensive. So the idea that it goes to another station, well one kind of scratches one's head and says 'What station?'. I know it's been banded about, that...one of the possibilities is that we leave UPN [and] go elsewhere. But I just don't know where elsewhere is."

"Look at WB's decision to cancel Angel," he says, speaking of the Buffy spin-off that had its fifth and final season last year. "To a certain extent every network is interested in ultimately trying to brand itself. To the extent that you can see UPN is trying to brand itself in a very different way than it was branded even a few years ago. I think their ultimate decision is going to be based on how well their new shows do this season, and whether or not they can continue to move their brand in a direction that travels away from the Star Trek brand — into something more gritty, more urban, more youth orientated, more salacious. All things that Star Trek is not. If they have success in doing that this season, I think they will and try to get more A-level talent to try and build on that success, and there'll be a couple of new shows brought on to the UPN roster next year and Friday night will go away for us. I don't think they're ready to go to Saturday nights. I'm guessing they're going to do it night by night, and first they have to really get Friday established [before adding Saturday programming]. And there's not enough money in television right now on Saturday. And the competition on Sunday would be too ferocious. But I'm not a network executive, thank god!"

So, does Enterprise have a chance of growing its numbers now that it's in what's known in as 'the death slot' of US television? "No," says John. "If I'm a numbers guy, what I'm looking at is can they keep their audience? I'm not talking about the high level numbers that we had been able to attain in the occasional sweeps week episodes. I'm saying can we keep our average number that we obtained last season. If we can keep that, if we can hold it, then if UPN's new offerings don't do terribly well, and consequently UPN isn't able to attract next season A-level talent, and consequently their ability to rebrand themselves in the aforementioned way isn't as successful, then they may say 'Hey, let's take the half a loaf and keep Enterprise on for another year on Friday night, we don't have anything else." But it begs a question on whether or not they're ever going to be prepared to pay more than 800k an episode. And it comes back around again to whether Paramount is willing to eat over £20m a year in fixed costs — they can't be cut."

One thing was prevalent in major cities in the US in September: plenty of billboards to promote the new shows, none to promote Enterprise. UPN could be criticised for not advertising the show to increase its viewership, but John feels that it probably wouldn't benefit Enterprise anyway. "Again I'm a pragmatist, and somewhat cynical. UPN wanted to see, as I suppose Paramount wanted to see, whether Enterprise could increase the Star Trek audience fan base. They promoted it during the first three or four weeks of the first season. When it became apparent they couldn't do it, that the so-called non-fans who out of curiosity tuned in on the first few weeks and gave us great numbers by our standards decided that it was the same Star Trek...UPN at that point decided what's the point? The Star Trek fan base will find it. The non–Star Trek fan base isn't going to watch it. Ultimately it's a bottom line business, and I don't know that from their point of view putting more money into advertising and promoting the show would significantly increase the ratings.

"You could debate that point and argue it, and you could certainly argue that one of the things UPN [does that is unfortunate is] (I won't get into the all nuts and bolts of it) essentially when they franchise the show to different stations across the country, those individual stations have a lot of latitude as to whether they air it from one week to the next. So frequently our show is not shown, and postponed for a local sporting event, and episodes are missed. So even the steady fan base at one point kind of throws up its hands and says 'Well hell, I can't even watch the show consistently'. That begins to erode the regular fanbase. And I think the big question we would have to ask is whether or not UPN would ever consider essentially a 4.5 or 5 point good enough. I think they could get that more consistently if they changed their practices. My suspicion is they don't consider that good enough, and that's why they'd just as soon have us go away. I don't think Les Moonves, who has essentially now taken over both UPN and Paramount, is a big fan of the show. And I'm not entirely sure he's a big fan of the franchise. So that again would not speak highly to the likelihood of our continuing."

But again, John certainly isn't in anyway angry at such business decisions. "To me there's so much emotionalism in life and business to the extent that anybody who has a successful career in any business [should take out] emotionalism out and make pragmatic business decisions. I would never blame anybody for making a business decision that says this show has had diminishing numbers over a period of time, there are only so many variations on a theme one can wring. Everything ends. It's the nature of life. I would not hold animosity against anybody if they decided the show had to go. I'd feel lucky and blessed that I got four years of a nice gig."

It's obvious that John is well informed, and with so many different elements including agents, studios and networks having influence over his career, John explains that keeping up is essential in his career. "It's my business," he says. "I read the trades, I know what shows are in the air, I know who's casting what. I know what films are in pre-production… I make my living as an actor and I'm required to have a sense of how the business functions because I have to make an entire set of decisions every day that are predicated on my reading of the situation. I'm in the midst of an agent change, and in part I'm making that change now because my reading of the situation is that the show won't come back for a fifth season. So I want to be in a position to be more aggressive this pilot season in the hopes that I might be able to get on another show. You know, my hope is that the show returns. My hope is that this great group of people continue working together, and my hope is the writing only gets better. But those are hopes and wishes, and they have nothing to do with the reality on the ground. "

Away from Trek, over the summer period John kept very busy. "I had a very busy hiatus," he recalls. "I did a movie with my wife, Bonita, called the Twelve Dogs of Christmas which shot in Bethel, Maine. I played the town's evil dog catcher, and Bonita was originally supposed to play my girlfriend. But they decided that my character was so scabrous that no one would justifiably accept the fact that a nice girl like her would be my girlfriend. So instead they made me something of a stalker, and I pursued her throughout the movie; and was eventually of course crushed. I was unredeemed. It was a kids' movie, and quite frankly I don't know whether it'll see the light of day or not. It was made for about $2m. The production values aren't bad for a $2m movie, but I'm not quite sure it works finally.

"Then Bonita and I both came back and went immediately into rehearsals for plays. She did a one woman show called Miss Margarita's Way about a fascist school teacher, and I did a one man play about the life of Ambrose Bierce. Ambrose Bierce [was a] 19th century writer. There really isn't a true historical parallel, but roughly speaking I describe him as a 19th Century Michael Moore. But that does a great disservice to Ambrose Bierce (no offence to Michael Moore, I'm fine with Michael Moore). Those opened in July and ran through the middle of August, so there was a little overlap with the end of the show and the return of Enterprise. So it was actually a hellacious hiatus, and in effect for me coming back to the show proves to be more of a hiatus than hiatus was. We literally started work on the movie the third day after the third season of Enterprise wrapped, worked all through hiatus, had one weekend off and other than that we worked every day."

John enjoys working with his wife, and would like to do it more, but it's not an overriding part of their decision making. "The plays were both one person vehicles. So we didn't really work together in the artistic sense, but we produced them together. I love her more than I could express, so we work together and we love to be together so we've done a couple of plays together now, and would love the chance to continue working together down the road. But obviously our decision making these days is about how to continue moving forward in this industry, and unless we ever decided to produce in this industry — which I think is very unlikely — I'm afraid it's out of our hands."

Another recent production John was involved with was The Nickel Children, where John's sinister-sounding character is listed as "The Killer" on the IMDb. "The Nickel Children was a very dark, but I thought very interesting, script made for pennies — I think $65k, which is incredible to me, I don't know how they can do that. But a very interesting [film] I thought about child prostitutes, and it was made with the support — and I suppose to the extent this is possible — the collaboration of an organisation that exists to help take teen prostitutes of the streets and rehabilitee them. And it was definitely a pull-no-punches movie about a teenage boy and teenage girl, both prostitutes, who became friends and their ultimate fates — dark fates. But somehow within that dark script it had I thought a very engaging although morbid sense of humour. I agreed to do it, they were rather surprising looking to cast someone in the role of a serial killer who had a couple of pivotal scenes at the very last minute. I something along the lines of got the call if not the night before, two nights before. Normally I wouldn't want to have done something with as little prep time as that, but what the hell. Again … you never know with these independent features whether or not they'll see the light of day. Obviously there are no names involved, and the likelihood of getting a kind of decent distribution deal is slender. So it goes on the festival circuit, and who knows."

With Enterprise back in production, John has no particular roles plans. "I'm in the midst of this agent change, and am hoping with new representation I may be able to more vigorously pursue work while on the show. But it is difficult doing work while on the show because you can't predict your schedule, even though I probably have a lighter schedule than anybody else. I'm a little more available, certainly than any of the bridge personnel (bless them for not making the doctor not go on the bridge is all I can say). None the less, if you're a potential employer you're not overly enthusiastic necessarily about having to navigate the shoals of a potential conflict-ridden schedule. So my other projects are going to be few and far between until Enterprise is done."

John doesn't have any particular aims or goals for the near future, explaining that to some extent he doesn't have a choice due to the nature of acting. "One of the things you have to let go of as an actor, [is that] ultimately you surrender to an extent any control over what you may or may not do unless you're prepared to essentially become a producer, and produce your own work. I have a tremendous admiration for people that do that, but I'm not that driven. I'm just driven enough, but I'm not that driven. I try and stay informed my business functions, and I try and make sure I keep abreast of what opportunities are out there and I like to audition and I like to work. Beyond that, to a certain extent, as a character actor especially, you're at the mercy of what comes. So all I can say is that I'm trying to, as best I can, keep my relationship with the people in this community who cast and higher intact, so that as I free up whether it be next year or in three more years, I'll still be considered a well known and viable commodity and I can continue working."

Star Trek: Enterprise now airs in the US at 8pm ET/PT on Fridays on UPN.

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Antony is a long-time contributor to The Trek Nation. He is the webmaster of Babylon 5 fan site B5TV.com.