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The Trek Nation - John Billingsley

John Billingsley

By AntonyF
Posted at January 22, 2002 - 9:43 PM GMT

See Also: 'Dear Doctor' Episode Guide

With 12 episodes of Enterprise now having been shown in the US, the next episode to hit UPN screens will be the Doctor-centered episode 'Dear Doctor'. John Billingsley, who plays Enterprise's physician, gives his thoughts on the episode: "I had a great time doing that episode," he says. "I think it was the first step we've taken forward on the show in giving the Doctor a greater range. My concern from the beginning has been that he be more than the guy that's in a perpetually good mood and everybody would go to for a laugh. In terms of giving him a full rounded personality, I think 'Dear Doctor' really does begin to move off that direction. He has a crisis of conscience, and I think you are allowed to see that this is somebody who is a very intelligent person with depth and feeling to him. I hope there will be other episodes that continue to explore that."

Those who like a bit of mystery when getting to know characters will be pleased, as we won't be learning too much about Doctor Phlox with this episode. "I still don't know all that much about it myself," he laughs. "We learn that he has two wives on his home planet. In the first draft, although this was later cut, there was a reference to his having fathered many children. I still like to think of that as true, but it's not referenced in the script. Beyond that, no, you don't really get a sense of the culture he comes from yet. I have my own thoughts about that, but some of my own thinking has been contradicted by the scripts that have emerged, so I'm much less prone to spout off about it now in interviews!"

Even though Billingsley's thoughts have been contradicted, it's still interesting to hear his views on Phlox. "I confess my initial set of conceptions were predicated on a story I made up of where he came from, and his culture," he says. "My own initial sense was that he comes from a culture that's somewhat monastic in a sense that they'd decided that there is not much to be derived by going out in to the universe. I was trying to make sense of the fact that this species has never been encountered in any of the other Star Trek creations. So where have the Denobulans [Phlox's race] been?

"So with that as a jumping off point, I decided that my character was somewhat anomalous, someone who actually did consider it important to make contact with the outer world, that I was as much an anthropologist in a way as a doctor. I'm not entirely sure that any of the scripts have supported that conceit, or will support that conceit, so I've changed my back story a little bit as needed. The fundamental truth of what I was trying to create for myself remains, he is somebody who is fascinated by other cultures. And I think as much as anything, the desire to go into medicine was rooted in a desire to work with people. So for him, this is a great opportunity to get out of the confines of his own homeworld. But in this business you really have to be very flexible, and kind of adjust to what the scripts give you to do."

As previously reported, the episode will at least feature something new for Phlox, a possible romance with the recurring Ensign Cutler (Kellie Waymire). "Yes," Billingsley confirms. "I won't say it's an aborted romance, but it's left unclear whether or not there will continue to be anything more than a friendship. The Doctor sort of says to her, 'Are you sure you're ready and able to carry on a romance with somebody from such a peculiarly different culture?' Her response is somewhat non-committal, and I think his reaction to her response is somewhat non-committal. I'm not quite sure what will happen with that."

It's unusual for a Trek series to feature a new romance so early on in its run, especially between a main cast character and a guest cast member. Billingsley thinks that this is a nice plot development, but doesn't expect to see more of it. "I think it would be great, I just don't know that this will picked up again," says Billingsley. "The actress who plays Cutler is wonderful, but also works quite a bit herself; she may not be available to producers in the future. They might decide they don't want to have in somebody who potentially might be unavailable. I really don't anticipate this to be any kind of a major through line for my character - but I would also love to be surprised and find it is, she's wonderful to work with. I think it would be interesting."

Originally, 'Dear Doctor' was supposed to end in a different manner. "The ending that had initially been created I was fairly comfortable with. But the head of the studio suggested some revisions on the ending. What do you do? I wasn't as happy with the revisions, but it's not my show, you have to sort of adjust, even if sometimes it does seem a bit of a contradiction in terms for what your character is supposed to be about."

So how did the ending change? "[In the original version,] in this crisis of conscience, the Doctor essentially does something that violates the standard issue hierarchical obligations of a crewmember to his captain," he explains. "In effect, he makes a decision that's rooted in 'I've got bigger fish to fry,' rather than honoring his captain's wishes. The network essentially felt that no, it was important to essentially make sure that everyone was here to support the captain's decisions. Personally I thought, 'Well, I think you've kind of lost something interesting in this potential tension.' But, that's not my call."

Although disappointed, it's important to note that Billingsley doesn't have a major issue with this. "Everybody's got so many different agendas," says Billingsley, "and I can appreciate that one of the things they want to do - especially in the first season- is to really do whatever they can to support the idea of the captain being a very strong, and in control person. If they feel they undercut that in any way, they get worried. I understand that, but at the same time I think some of what makes the show - what makes any show - so interesting, is creating some of the tensions that exist between the characters."

The show is still young, and there will no doubt be other episodes to explore the Doctor. But there aren't any other major Doctor episodes just yet. "There's now a couple [that will be] pretty heavily centered on Malcolm, T'Pol has had a couple of episodes, and I don't know if they're going to be focusing much more on me this season. I was, sort of on the QT, told that effectively this first season was going to be largely devoted to establishing the central characters. So if I get another episode or two that's great, but I'm not holding my breath."

Is this something that bothers Billingsley at all? "Not really, it doesn't really bother me," he says. "You sort of know going in that as a character actor when you get a show, like it or not, you're going to be more peripheral than not. That's the nature of the beast, it's always going to revolve around the stars, and certainly from the success the Seven of Nine character enjoyed on Voyager, it's safe to anticipate that T'Pol will be largely featured. Of course I would be elated as an actor (one likes to work) if they used my character more, and I think the response to my character has been for the most part enthusiastic, so the day may come."

In terms of where Phlox is going, Billingsley has ideas more on what he'd like to see character-development wise, rather than any specific episode or story. "I've thought about emotional range, there's certain things that'd be nice to do. I don't know that I could conjure any story ideas right now. My sense is that [with] somebody who goes out in the world with such optimism and positivism, [one of the] things so daunting is what happens when that optimism is challenged by events? I think it would be interesting - and it has happened to a certain extent - to rock the Doctor's world a little bit, and I hope they continue to do this. I'd love to see any episodes that are sort of demanding of more and deeper emotional involvement of the Doctor. I think the trap of having a character that's essentially buoyant is that from episode to episode it's just another reiteration of 'The Doctor's a jolly good fellow.'"

When it comes to working with the cast, Billingsley is very positive. "I love working with Scott [Bakula], but I love working with everybody. It's a really terrific group of folks. I've been an actor my whole life, and I've been in a lot of television, and it's really rare to find as warm a friendly group of people. Normally there's someone in the cast who's just a little hard to deal with, has a bit of Prima Donna in them. There's none of that in this show. I think a large part of it is that Scott sets such a great tone; he is really one of the most affable and easygoing people I've ever met, a consummate professional. One of the things I really dug about the 'Dear Doctor' episode were the scenes were we did come in to conflict, and that's why I was kind of wishing they hadn't had to undercut that tension, as it would have been an interesting thing to build on in following episodes."

Having such a cast that gets along well allows for humor and practical jokes on set. "On 'Dear Doctor', I had these voiceovers going on through the show," explains Billingsley. "We decided we'd record them on the sound stage, and actually play them during the shooting, so that we could time how long certain bits of physical action, which would be underscored by the voiceover, would take. So I did ask the sound guys if they would help me.

"We had a scene on the bridge, where my voiceover is supposed to be played, and it's supposed to be 'Humans are amazing, how warm and magnificent they are, etc. etc. etc.' So I got them to record my voice saying, 'Oh, the captain is certainly a handsome, dashing figure… I wonder if he's wearing any underwear. I'd certainly like to get him alone in a pod some time,' and I just went on at great length in that vein. I asked them to actually wait for a take, so everybody was very focused - then that came out! It's a very fun and gregarious group of people.

An important facet of the production is of course the executive producers, but Billingsley doesn't have a lot of direct contact with them. "I don't see them much, they're not around the set all that often. I am sure from the moment they get up in the morning to the moment they go to bed at night they are juggling 80 different balls. So I'd be very surprised to see them take too much time to out of their day to kind of come and hang out. Certainly, Brannon [Braga] is the sort of point person for us as actors, accessible for any questions we might have. Brannon, in the few times I've actually engaged him on the phone, has been very open to anything we've wanted to talk about.

"Generally speaking, just having been in this industry for a long time, and having done a lot of television, I recognize there are certain realities. You are always running a day behind, and I think it's very important for actors to be very careful in taking their battles before they starting asking the producers to re-write or change things, or to have dialogue about certain problems on a script. The only script I've engaged Brannon on was 'Dear Doctor', and even them my concerns were fairly small and fairly specific. So, there's not a log of dialogue."

Many Star Trek actors have taken the opportunity to direct their show, but Billingsley isn't certain if this is something he will explore. "I don't know," he admits. "I sort of promised myself for the first season I would show up, know my lines, and not bump in the furniture, as Spencer Tracy says, and leave it at that, and in the second season would see where things were headed. If I felt that my character was going to become more and more prominent, or used in a more interesting way, terrific. If not, then I would consider whether or not there were other things that I could perhaps do such as direct, or perhaps write even. But my first responsibility is to play the part, and I need to let a little more time to pass before I make any decisions along other lines.

"I've directed quite a bit for the stage, I don't know that I have a tremendous desire to direct in these mediums because the demands for a director on television is largely technical in nature, and those are not necessarily in my interests or I suspect my gifts. I like working with actors, and I like working with text, I'm not necessarily great a figuring out where to put the camera, and I don't know that I necessarily want to move in that direction. But, things change too… I can't say."

Working away from Star Trek can also be problematic. "It's tricky because when you're doing a show, they can't tell you when you'll be needed for the next episode, you really can't audition for much. It's effectively knocked me out of the television racket entirely. For film, anything that's substantive you run in to the same problem. If they want to book you for something where you've got to work for more than a few days, the film company's point of view is that 'These are the days we need you, but that might change.' Of course you have to come back and say 'I can guarantee you days X and Y, but I can't guarantee that if you change those days on me, I'll be available - my responsibility is to Star Trek.' So it's probably safe to say for all of us that this will mean we are not going to be seeing much of anything for a while. Once the first hiatus comes, it's possible that I might pick up a movie, but because we [have 26 episodes per season] instead of 22 it means our hiatus is shorter, and for the most part it coincides with the equivalent of Paris in August here in LA, everybody gone. So there's not too much going on. So I suspect this may be it, for a while. I may, depending on whether or not I'm used more often, try to put in some theatre work. But I'll have to wait until next year to see if that's feasible."

Now that he has a permanent TV role, Billingsley is unsure whether he misses theatre or not. "I do and I don't," he admits. "I was a theatre actor many years, and I certainly love acting on the stage. But there are many aspects of a career in theatre that were wearing me down. The peripatetic nature of it, the need to travel all the time, the hours, not having much of a home life. Although I miss some of the work, and I particularly miss working in the rehearsal hall. I love rehearsing a show, even more than I like performing it really. The reality is I am happier in these mediums than I ever was in theatre. I really like the security of it, I like the hours. I like the fact that you get to have a life, you get to spend to time with your friends and family. I'm certainly not turning back my back on the theatre, I certainly intend to return to the theatre, but to be able to do it on my own terms, to do it when I want to do it, with the people I want to do it with, that's very appealing. It may really be a while before I can do that."

Away from the set, what does Billingsley do to relax and enjoy himself? "Read, and probably not much else," he says. "I read a lot of fiction, I read a lot of history. I have some wonderful friends, and am very happily married. My wife is named Bonita Friedericy, and she's just a sweetheart. We like to travel, and go out to dinner."

However surfing the 'net is not something that Billingsley counts as a pastime, and he avoid what people are saying about Enterprise. "I'm a great emailer, [but] most of my reading I do the old fashioned way. I really try and stay away from reviews. They're really injurious to actors; if you believe the good things, then you have to believe the bad things. Everybody's got an opinion, and I suppose everybody writing what they have to say, but I don't want to hear it.

"It's funny, there's this story (I'm sure it's apocryphal) of this British actor who was not really having much success in the early days of his career, and this is somebody who went on to great fame and fortune (I don't want to even say the name, as I suspect the story isn't true). Anyway, he's just had one flop after another, and he's thinking he'll have to throw it in. He's playing - it might have been Henry, or one of the Henrys - and he breaks his finger the night before he's supposed to go on. He goes to the doctor, and the doctor wants to put a cast on his hand. And he says 'I can't have a cast, I have to play Henry tonight.' And the doctor says the finger has to be immobilized, 'I have to at least splint it.' So he does the whole performance with his finger sticking up in the air. One reviewer after another said 'That signature, of the finger pointing at the heavens if to say 'I am unconquerable' was what made the whole performance'", laughs Billingsley. "So the guy was like 'Do I have to do the rest of the damn run with my finger sticking up in the air?' Sometimes I think of that review! It's important for an actor to let them go."

All in all, Billingsley is pleased with his association with Star Trek. "I've had a great time doing it," he says. "It's always nice to work as an actor. I wish I had more to do on it, but I'm not losing any sleep over it. It's certainly afforded me the opportunity to live the kind of life that I never thought I'd ever have a chance to live. My wife and I are getting to travel; we did our first convention [in San Antonio] recently, which I quite enjoyed."

"It's funny, I sort of signed off on the idea long ago that I would never have enough money to travel as much as I'd like to. Back when I was doing theatre, traveling a fair amount across the country to do shows, the idea of actually really going to go where you want, whenever you want, I just thought was not for me. Conventions have given me the chance to do just that, and get paid for it. I think they're wonderful! The San Antonio one was fairly sparsely attended, because I don't think they realized that Star Trek wasn't available in that part of the country, except on cable. So there were only three or four hundred folks there, opposed to some of the conventions where there's thousands, which is kind of nice to ease in to the whole experience. It was just a Q&A, and an autograph signing, and I dig them. I really dig meeting the fans; I think it's terrific. These are the people that have supported this whole phenomenon for thirty or so years, and if it wasn't for them none of us would be here, or have a job. I think it's really cool, to kind of say thank you."

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AntonyF is a freelance writer and interviewer, and director of his own design company, Illumina Design. He is the owner of the popular B5LR.com, dedicated to Babylon 5: The Legend of the Rangers.