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Robert Picardo takes 'One Small Step' for STAR TREK: VOYAGER
The show's holographic doctor steps behind the camera for an episode close to his heart.
By Anna L. Kaplan
November 14, 1999
Robert Picardo, who plays STAR TREK: VOYAGER's emergency medical hologram, put on his director's hat for a special episode entitled 'One Small Step,' which will air on the 17th of November during television ratings sweeps. The show actually deals with a subject close to Picardo's heart: manned space exploration. The ebullient actor explained, ''One Small Step' is an homage to early space explorers and their courage. At the beginning, Voyager encounters a new anomaly, a very special anomaly called a graviton ellipse. This has only been observed in recorded Starfleet history on very rare occasions, the most famous of which was the early 21st century, when the command module of the fourth manned mission to Mars mysteriously disappeared while in orbit around the planet, with astronauts on the surface. It's one of the great mysteries and tragedies of early space exploration. A graviton ellipse is a bit like a traveling Bermuda triangle that emerges suddenly out of subspace anywhere in the galaxy. It emerges out of subspace and sucks in debris of all sizes, and then disappears into subspace again. It's like a traveling time capsule of the whole galaxy. Chakotay [Robert Beltran], who is fascinated by the historical event, thinks that they can perhaps discover important clues if they study this phenomenon. Chakotay says, 'We should investigate this, even though it is very dangerous.' So they set out to fly a shuttle into it. Seven of Nine [Jeri Ryan] is wildly against risking lives strictly for exploration, because she doesn't see the point. She thinks we should just send unmanned probes and use telemetry to explore it. But she is enlisted, as is Tom Paris [Robert Duncan McNeill], who is very anxious to go, because he shares Chakotay's passion for first hand exploration and is also a Mars buff. They think that they might find some secrets. Indeed they find the biggest secret of all inside this anomaly, and very nearly die in the discovery.'
Picardo continued, 'The great emotional linch pin of the episode is Seven of Nine discovering her first hero. Having been assimilated by the Borg when she was six years old, she had no childhood heroes because she had no childhood. Any other member of the crew went into Starfleet because they admire space explorers. It would be axiomatic to say that they admired early explorers. Seven was abducted by the Borg, so she doesn't necessarily admire early space explorers. She had no educational experience with them. She basically discovers her first hero in this very dangerous and exciting exploration inside this mysterious ellipse.'
Seven of Nine finds the records of the lost astronaut, played by guest star Phil Morris. Said Picardo, 'He is the astronaut from the ill-fated mission. He is long since dead, but she discovers his primary data, which includes logs he recorded during the nine, final, torturous, heroic days of his existence while he was trapped inside. The performance of our guest star Phil Morris is extraordinary. Seven gets to undergo this wonderful transformation, when she is beamed from the shuttle onto this dead command module, from virtual disinterest to a really intimate connection with this mummified astronaut, by experiencing his videologs which he had recorded the last 9 days of his life some 320 years prior. It just gives you chills. It's a very touching and emotional moment for her character, because she finally understands why people chose heroes, and how we stand on the shoulders of those who go before us.'
TREK fans may remember guest Phil Morris, who this time appears out of makeup. He previously played the Klingon Thopok in the DEEP SPACE NINE episode, 'Looking for Par'Mach in All the Wrong Places,' as well as the Jem'Hadar Remata'Klan in DS9's 'Rocks and Shoals.' Enthused Picardo, 'Phil Morris is a splendid actor, and a delightful person to be around. He's a really fine and unique human being, which makes placing him in a heroic character feel very natural. He has an inherent dignity that I think that actors can't really create or fake. I've used that analogy for our Vulcan, Tim Russ, too. Tim has a great ability to create the essential quality of dignity in Tuvok, which is one of those impalpable imperceptibles for actors. You can't really act dignity. Phil just carries that around with him. From the moment he first read the lines, he had a dignity and a stature to his performance that makes you admire him as a hero.'
'One Small Step' was submitted by an outside writing team and, as is often the case, rewritten by the staff of VOYAGER. The writing credits include Mike Wollaeger and Jessica Scott, as well as staff members Bryan Fuller and Michael Taylor. Commented Picardo, 'It was heavily rewritten by our writers, but it is still a brilliant story idea, very much from the original writing team that freelanced it.'
Picardo directed VOYAGER previously, taking the reigns for the third season episode 'Alter Ego.' Even with that, was directing 'One Small Step' difficult? Laughed Picardo, 'Yes, for two reasons. First of all, I think slowly, visually. That's not to say that I don't think well; I just think much more slowly than an experienced director. Secondly, we had to fake weightlessness for a good 25% of the story. Faking weightlessness is not an easy thing to do, for a sophisticated audience like ours. Some of it is just fooling the audience. Some of it involved visual effects, and we have the best visual effects people in the business. There are some lower tech tricks that we did that worked very well, various amazing technical secrets which I will gladly divulge after everyone has seen and delighted to the show.'
Picardo is actively encouraging future, manned space exploration. He explained, 'I am involved with The Planetary Society. I am on their Advisory Council. At the end of last season I helped influence our producers to make a public service announcement for an educational project called the Mars Millennium Project, [which] encourages kids to design a prototype for the first human colony on Mars. Now I am involved with a project called Red Rover Goes to Mars, created by The Planetary Society. It's a very unique opportunity for students between the ages of, I believe, nine and fifteen, to write essays about what they would do as student astronauts or as student scientists if they had the opportunity to command the Marie Curie rover, which will be the next rover to be landed in the Mars 2001 Lander Mission. The student astronauts will actually help the real NASA controllers give commands to the rover while it is on the surface. The student scientists will help design some of the experiments that the rover will perform when it's on the surface. It's about as interactive as a student could get, with a real live planetary mission, and it's completely unprecedented in the history of our space program. I am helping them get the message out by acting in a video, basically an educational guide for adults to help encourage kids to take part in this program. The video is being distributed to schools and to science centers, so that the adults will show it and help the kids get plugged in to how to enter the competition. It is exciting, because the fact of the matter is that one of these kids who enters this program and takes part in this challenge will be one of the kids who gets us to Mars 25 years from now. I think that's a fairly safe bet, that at least one of them will go on and either be one of the first people to land there, or more probably be part of the team of experts that designs the craft and lands the mission.'
Ever since the first space shuttle was named Enterprise, and many actors from the original series started working with NASA, STAR TREK and space exploration have been interconnected. Picardo noted, 'A show like ours attracts people who love to dream about the future and about space exploration. It's a natural fit to get them to make concrete their dreams, especially if they are young enough and have the passion and the budding intellect to say, 'I really like this, I may want to make this a life choice.' To give them a nudge in that direction a few years earlier will probably get us there who knows, a little earlier.'
As to VOYAGER's fictional exploration of an early Mars mission, Picardo expressed great pride in the episode. He said, 'I got a delighted phone call from [executive producer] Rick Berman, which is quite unusual, saying that I had done a terrific job. That meant the world to me, because he is perhaps the toughest critic of STAR TREK.'