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The Trek Nation - John Billingsley, Part One

John Billingsley, Part One

By AntonyF
Posted at May 22, 2006 - 7:53 PM GMT

It's just over a year since Enterprise wrapped its final episode and eighteen years of Star Trek came to a close. John Billingsley, who has been keeping very busy since then, admits that Enterprise already seems quite distant, and that he hasn't been asked any questions about Enterprise for quite some time. But stepping back into the world of Doctor Phlox for a while, John gave his views on the final episode which upset many fans and drew condemnation from some castmembers.

"I wasn't wild about the last episode, but as is often the case I think probably more is made of these things than should be," he said, admitting that he would have liked more time devoted to tying up the character's stories. "It, arguably, should have been more about our stories than The Next Generation's cast, and I think people who were a little put out perhaps had a point. I certainly think it was a strong final season, and it seemed to me from things that I've read or heard that people's reactions were a little over the top. I also think they were on some level trying to find a way to say goodbye, or at least goodbye for now, to the entire franchise, and to that extent I could understand what the thought process was in wanting to bring in some of the Next Gen characters."

When no longer employed by a studio for a role, some actors feel freer to attack their former employers in ways they wouldn't have done when being paid. But ever the consummate professional, John said he has no axe to grind and that it's not his place to grind it anyway. "In all candour, I really don't think it is my business to be aggrieved," he said. "I was making a nice salary, and the folks that hired me were never anything but polite and kind to me, they gave me a lot of opportunities to work outside of the show, which they certainly didn't have to do. So the thought that I'm going to stick a finger in their eye... I tread lightly when these sorts of questions come up in interviews because it's not my place to be critical. I'm not hired to write the show."

While he acknowledged that some episodes were better than others, as is to be expected for episodic TV, he feels that the last season was the show's strongest overall. "I think the idea of having the multi-episode arcs was the best way of having your cake and eating it too, getting some kind of a sustained narrative drive which you can't do in any standalone episodes, and not necessarily tying up a whole season the way we did in season three when we were chasing the Xindi. I thought some of the best work of the season was, for instance, the two or three episodes about the race of supermen with Brent Spiner (TNG's Data, and in Enterprise Doctor Noonien Soong). And I thought the Vulcan arc where [T'Pol's] mother died was very strong."

He added that he hopes viewers think the show was on the up even if it ended three years earlier than the last there Trek incarnations. "I think if anything what I would love fans to come away with is a sense of the show was getting better and while it was disappointing we didn't a full seven year run we beginning, I think, to establish ourselves as a strong series in our own right."

After Enterprise wrapped, John said the wrap party was particularly large due to the amount of people wanting to see the show off. "Those wrap parties are always odd because they're huge events and everybody that has any connection with Star Trek is at them, and usually you end up meeting a hundred people you've never met before and you didn't even know were involved with the show, so many people who were working in various capacities backstage in effect that you never really knew turn out. So my memories of the event are always a little hazy. I also of course hadn't really realized that there would be press in attendance, so when we arrived we all sort of walked the gauntlet of interviewers. By the time I'd actually got into the party I'd lost my voice," he laughed. "I remember that. They showed a wonderful, I thought charming, couple of videos. One was sort of a homage to Scott Bakula (Captain Archer) that I thought was very sweet, and we saw some of the outtakes for various episodes which are always fun."

He said that the show's cancellation came as no surprise and that had an impact on the party. "It was a bittersweet feeling of course, as it always is when people are saying goodbye to each other after having worked together, and we had people saying goodbye to each other having working together for upward of a dozen years. But I think we'd all seen the writing on the wall, there wasn't really any sense of extraordinary gravity. People had made peace with the truth."

UPN, the network that launched Star Trek: Voyager and Enterprise lasted just one year without Trek, and will merge this fall with the WB. This was something else that John expected. "The writing has been on the wall there for a number of years," he explained. "Anybody who was a sort of knowledgeable industry insider knew that it was just a matter of time. UPN did not have a business model that could be sustained, they lost money year after year after year and they never really figured out a way to kind of identify what their target audience was. It became fairly incoherent, the idea that UPN had one hand shows like Enterprise, wrestling and Top Model and on the other hand was trying to put out shows like Veronica Mars and shows that would appeal to a very different demographic. I think it's a very good move to merge UPN and the WB and I certainly think it gives them a legitimately strong slate for the first time ever."

Now the castmembers have parted ways, John explained that they do occasionally see each other but are doing their own things now. "To a certain extent we bump into each other every now and again, but I don't mean this to sound in any way a comment on anybody-because we all got along very well-just the nature of this industry is such that one is always looking down the road to one's next project and most of us are busy doing other things. We were gathered together by some fans who very very sweetly like to have a Christmas gathering and have always invited us, so we saw each other over Christmas. And I don't know that any of us have had a chance to work together since the show ended, but once in a blue moon we'll cross paths on the convention circuit."

Looking back at the show's run, John recalled his favourite moments both on and off set. "On a professional note, on a work related note, I would say that I still have the fondest feelings for the episode 'Dear Doctor' in the first season because that was the first opportunity I had to actually begin to figure out how to three dimensionalize that character. It was the first episode I really had a lot to do and we began to see there was more to this guy than 'Hey fellow well met [? 8.40] which was the concern I'd had up to that point, that Phlox was going to essentially be the cheery fellow who has always got a little alien quirk to make us laugh. So the idea that he was actually going to get to do more and be more, that episode was actually a turning point for me."

And on a not-so-professional note? "Well my favorite moment would probably not actually have anything to do with one of the episodes. I did win the Halowe'en contest in the first season by playing Phlox in bondage at the end of a leash held by the girl who was our focus puller at the time. That was probably my favourite moment, which is immortalized in several pictures which will hopefully never make it into the press."

Before Enterprise came to an end John guest starred on CBS's Cold case. The show, headed by Kathryn Morris as Detective Lily Rush, deals with an unsolved murder case each week that the team attempt to solve. The case could be 5 years old or 50, but rather than the forensics of shows like CSI the show decides to explore the life of the murdered person using flashbacks. In "Mind Hunters", John played a chilling killer named George who hunted women in the woods and decapitates them. In the episode Rush and her team were not able to arrest George, and the murder was unsolved. A shock for viewers, it was the very first time a case hadn't been solved, and the first time an episode didn't end by showing a vision of the murdered person at rest. John returned as George in the season finale, where George terrorizes Rush and is shot dead.

George was a complete contrast to Doctor Phlox, but John explained that playing a killer was actually all too familiar. "Before I was cast as Doctor Phlox I'd been cast quite frequently as killers, nut jobs and what have you, so it wasn't as out of the blue sky as it might have appeared to people, that I would play a psychotic. So I had a certain familiarity with the way psychotic personalities' value systems are arranged."

As such, he didn't do any specific research into playing the killer. "Most of the research I think you do, frankly in television especially you don't have a lot of time to prepare, is essentially just along the lines of engaging yourself in a conversation about what you think the story is about and how you can help server the writers' needs. Sometimes there's a little bit of a problem, as to me there was in those episodes, because what I would have said was the truth of who this guy is [is] that he had an extraordinary capability to compartmentalize and to outwit the police for years by never letting his emotional needs creep in and sabotage his need to kill. I feel the nature of television sometimes is that you have to have the hero win by making the villain cave, and the only thing for me that was a little problematic was trying to justify why I have these emotional outbursts and make that function in the story."

John said he liked playing the first character to foil Rush. "I quite loved that, I loved the fact that he sauntered away, and although there aspects of the last episode that were intriguing to me the first episode was much stronger. I thought that it was very compelling that he bends but doesn't break, and particulary I suspect for regular viewers to the show that it allowed them to have greater access to these series regular because it was the first chance to really see them in the depth of the deceit, and I think that gave a level of three dimensionality to them that they might have been lacking otherwise, having seen a few episodes of the show.

He added that he really enjoyed his time working on the show, and in particular had praise for Morris. "It was great, the people are just terrific. It's a lovely group of people. It's always an interesting experience if you're a guest actor because you come on to a set and like it or not you don't know anybody. And naturally enough, having experienced it from both sides as a series regular, you're always a little trepidatious about whether the guest star is going to really have their lines frankly, much less have the craft to really turn in a good performance. They were so willing and supportive to let me stand up ands say 'Here's what I think, here's what my argument would be for how this scenes functions'. Very supportive. I really enjoyed working with Kathryn Morris. Just a lovely lady. She got in touch with me outside of the rehearsals, we talked to over the phone, she had a real strong commitment to rehearsing and making this show as good as it could be. The schedule is so gruelling on episodic television. For the person who plays the lead to have that sort of commitment to the work I found very impressive, I really enjoyed working with her."

John also spoke about his recent role in Prison Break. The show just wrapped its first season, and is about a man up for execution for a crime he didn't commit, framed as part of a massive conspiracy. His brother gets himself placed into jail to break him out. John plays the person who is supposedly murdered, the brother of the Vice President of the United States, but at the time of the interview earlier in the year his character hadn't appeared yet, so John was reluctant to give too many details. "I'm recurring on it, and I'm hesitant to say much about it because when my character is introduced it's sort of a major surprise in the way the plot suddenly takes a u-turn. So I don't want to be guilty of spoilers. But I'm part of the cover up ... I was told when I was hired that we'd probably see me at least four or five times over the arc of this and the next season, so I'm anticipating coming back next season."

Another guest spot, which was "a lot of fun", was on Nip/Tuck. "I got to play a guy who had a very unusual condition, apparently a real condition, where people want to have a limb amputated," he explained. "There are, depending on who you talk to, either a couple of hundred or maybe as many as a thousand people in the world have this condition that .... leads them to want to take one of their limbs away. And all of the studies have shown that in every other respect these are normal, healthy functioning people, not in any other way physically disturbed. They just believe that they have an extraneous limb. So I played a guy who had this condition and comes to these plastic surgeons wanting his right leg taken off. Great show to work on, lovely people, and I had a very nice time. Although it was a little uncomfortable because I had my right leg tied up behind me for the better part of a 2 - 3 day shoot."

He also appeared on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, but admitted that it wasn't a very memorable role. "I played an eccentric billionaire who was very briefly a red herring in one of the murder investigations," he said. "There's not a lot I have to say about that. It was a tiny little part; I've been in an out of that office on a couple of occasions, close but no cigar to some interesting parts. And I know they wanted to use me. In all candour, sometimes you take a guest star role not because there's anything of about it that necessarily is going to make you jump up and down and say 'wow what an acting challenge', but because," he said, pausing for a small laugh, "the money's the same, good or bad."


To read part two click here.

You can also read these previous interviews with John:

January 22 2002, where John discussed season one's "Dear Doctor".

February 18 2004, where John talked about season three's "Doctor's Orders".

October 25 2004, where John talked about the fourth season and how he expected it would be the last.

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AntonyF When not trying to keep the server from flying apart at Warp 9 or interviewing actors, AntonyF can be found writing for Get Desperate! or posting on the Trek BBS.