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Space Shaman

Actor John Billingsley talks about his role as the mysterious Dr. Phlox in the latest STAR TREK series, ENTERPRISE

By Anna L. Kaplan     September 18, 2001

John Billingsley plays the alien Dr. Phlox in STAR TREK's latest incarnation, ENTERPRISE
© 2001 UPN

Actor John Billingsley plays Dr. Phlox, one of the seven cast members in the fifth television series of the STAR TREK franchise, ENTERPRISE. His character is a medical doctor and something of an anthropologist, visiting Earth as part of the "Interspecies Medical Exchange Program." During the pilot episode "Broken Bow," he joins the group on the spaceship because of his expertise in alien medicine.

"It's going very well, I think," Billingsley says. "It's fairly early in the process yet, so it's still said with fingers crossed. [After] 15 years, 17 years doing theater, as much as I love doing theater, it's nice to have some job security. This is like the Irish Sweepstakes for an actor. There are so few sure things in this business. This is about as close as you can get."

While nothing much is known about Dr. Phlox's species not even its name what Billingsley doesn't know about the character, he has invented for himself.

"I'll probably tell you some things that will be contradicted by later episodes," he explains. "They haven't really given me too much backstory on where my character comes from, or his species or even his culture. I've made up a story for myself, that I think justifies the behavior that I think they want. God only knows if any of it is going to jibe with what they eventually decide is the truth.

"Having said that, my character, Dr. Phlox, I believe is from a planet of folks who are deeply philosophical, so much so that they have essentially turned their backs on the rest of the universe," he continues. "My own sense of who I am in relationship to that culture is that I am something of an anomaly. I want to meet other species. I believe that a philosophical group is dependent on interacting with other cultures. I am as much an anthropologist as I am a doctor. So I have absented myself from my own home world, and am working on Earth as part of a Vulcan-sponsored medical exchange program when I am asked to join the crew of the Enterprise."

John Billingsley plays the alien Dr. Phlox in STAR TREK's latest incarnation, ENTERPRISE

So what is it that Dr. Phlox brings to the Enterprise? Obviously, he has medical training and knows something about other species. He also possesses an optimistic and easy manner that helps offset the more mercurial humans. Remember, at this time, 150 years in the future and 100 years before the time of Captain Kirk, humans have had little interaction with other species.

"He's extremely buoyant, and very positive in his outlook," says Billingsley. "In part it is something of an Eastern outlook. The idea that life, and the universe, is cyclical, and that that philosophical attitude of 'Que sera, sera,' really, is so deeply embedded in him it probably drives everybody else on the ship a little crazy. I'm not sure people quite know what to make of somebody who seems so sanguine about everything that comes up. But I think in terms of the nature of the relationship with the other members of the crew, he provides a certain kind of balance, and a solidity that offsets some of the impetuosity of the Earthlings."

Sickbay on the early Enterprise is up-to-date, but also filled with Dr. Phlox's belongings and his folk medicine cures, both of which he uses.

"There is all the 22nd century technology," explains Billingsley. "I am employing the latest scanners and gizmos and gadgets and what-have-you. All of that is in place. It's just that his own background is in a kind of intergalactic folk medicine.

"It's what you would get if you were in the backwoods of the Amazon -- a poultice of weeds, or a good leeching. He's not beyond using anything that works, regardless of whether it's based in technology or based in primitive folklore. Shaman is sort of a word I throw out kind of lightly, but in many ways he is. I think like anybody who is as much anthropologist as doctor, he is very respectful of myth and religion and folklore.

"I think I am sort of a pack rat and, as I said, something of an anthropologist, too," the actor says with a laugh. "Any place I go, not only do I collect little knickknacks and curios for my own delectation, I am also gathering herbs and powders. The sense should be that this sickbay is teaming with life. I don't know from the scenes I have done so far that that's quite reading as strongly as I hope it eventually does. But maybe over the arc of seven years I will have accumulated enough."

ENTERPRISE's John Billingsley attends the fall 2001 TCA press gathering.

The trademark of any good STAR TREK series is its unique alien "looks" and ENTERPRISE is no exception. Dr. Phlox's makeup, designed by veteran Michael Westmore, seems to have been created with comfort in mind, as well as mobility. It only takes about two hours to apply.

"It's light prosthetics," Billingsley explains. "Most of the time is spent simply painting and modeling the prosthetics. Other than the occasional Monday morning when you've got to be there at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m., it's been absolutely fine. I can hear and see. It's not uncomfortable. I do have big blue contact lenses. After a 17-hour day, my eyes are a little tired, but then I can pop them in and out."

"I have not a complaint about the makeup," he adds. "I think it looks pretty cool. It's not as elaborate a makeup job as I think they have done on certain characters in the past. They were nice enough to say to me after I auditioned [that] they really liked the fact that I have a fairly expressive and mobile face. They didn't want to encase me, which I appreciated. I don't know if I am recognizable or not. But my nose and my mouth are unencumbered, and I certainly feel like I can move everything fairly freely."

No stranger to genre entertainment, Billingsley's last role in the field was that of Professor Miles Ballard from THE OTHERS, a series with a very short run on NBC.

"When I took that gig, the word was that that character was going to be considerably more prominent than he turned out to be," he recalls. "In the end, [it comes down to] what Spencer Tracy says: 'You learn your lines. You don't bump into the furniture. You cash your checks.' You can't control the rest of it."

What about Phlox? Where is he going?

The titular starship ENTERPRISE

"The [producers] have been, from what I've been told, happy with what they've been getting," says Billingsley. "I think we are certainly on the same page about who this guy is, and what he brings to the mix. I am sure they will give me stuff to do. You never can predict. It's still too early for me to know how much latitude I will have to have strong input into my character."

"They obviously have so much to do right now that they don't really have a strong and clear backstory for who I am," he adds. "My suspicion is that they are probably just making it up a little bit on the fly. I have some strong ideas of my own, and we'll see if we are on the same page as we go along."


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