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Robert Picardo on that big Star Trek: Voyager reunion and 25 years of being confused for a doctor

By Adam Pockross
Robert Picardo

By IMDb's measure, Robert Picardo has 230 acting credits and counting, with fan-favorite roles dating all the way back to Kojak. But for many, he'll always be the Doctor, aka the Emergency Medical Hologram (EMH), on Star Trek: Voyager.

With many conventions and appearances going by the wayside during these socially distanced times, Picardo and his USS Voyager crew are virtually reuniting to celebrate the show's 25th anniversary tonight on Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley's Stars in the House YouTube show. The good doctor hopped on the phone with SYFY WIRE to tell us what to expect from the big reunion, as well as how it came together — which basically boils down to him recently appearing on Stars in the House for a China Beach reunion (where he played another doctor) and then pitching Rudetsky and Wesley on the idea of doing another one for Voyager.

"So I reached out to Kate Mulgrew. She was on board immediately; then I emailed all my castmates and to their great credit and my ongoing admiration for them, they all said yes immediately. And so now we've just been trying to get the word out," Picardo tells SYFY WIRE.

Tonight at 8 p.m. ET, Picardo will be joining Kate Mulgrew (Captain Kathryn Janeway), Jeri Ryan (Seven of Nine), Roxann Dawson (B'Elanna Torres), Robert Beltran (Chakotay), Robert Duncan McNeill (Tim Paris), Ethan Phillips (Neelix), and Garrett Wang (Harry Kim) to benefit The Actors Fund while recalling all the fun of making the fan-favorite Trek series that gifted us 172 episodes over the course of seven wild seasons, beginning in 1995.

Star Trek Voyager cast

Picardo tells us the cast has mostly stayed in an "ongoing dialogue" over the years, not just because they see each other at conventions and the like, but because of the genuine friendships that began developing within that first year of production. Really, though, it all started with the casting of their beloved Captain Janeway, Kate Mulgrew, who wasn't the executives' original pick. That'd be Geneviève Bujold, who backed out of being the franchise's first female captain after spending a couple of days shooting the pilot.

"I think I read about all this on SYFY WIRE, by the way," Picardo jokes while recounting the uncertainty of the moment. "So she parted company and there was a brief few days of panic when we were all afraid that somebody might be recast, because there were rumors that if they couldn't find the actress they liked, they would switch the captain to a man and then change the sex of one of the other characters, that's the rumor we all heard. But then Kate stepped in, they loved her from the moment she stepped off the bridge; we were safe and in very good hands. If she had any fear at all, nobody noticed it. She claims later that she was terrified when she first started, but I couldn't see it."

As for Picardo's start, let's just say it took him a while to find his bedside manner, as he "had virtually nothing to do with the pilot." He was also concerned because he was playing the artificial intelligence character, and following in the "enormously successful" shoes of Brent Spiner (Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation). "I was afraid I would be compared to him endlessly and unfavorably because he was so lovable and kind of childlike in his role and I was kind of, you know, crusty and curmudgeonly, and ... pissed off. And not a very cuddly character," Picardo says.

But as a Yale-trained actor with plenty of Broadway experience (a trait common among his Voyager castmates), Picardo figured it out.

"There was a certain amount of anxiety, but then I started to understand my role more, and what made him different and special, because I wasn't super Star Trek savvy when I started. But I realized partway through the first season, ‘Oh my God, I got the plum role.' I thought I had gotten the worst part because there was so little of him in the pilot," Picardo says. "When I was cast I told all my friends, ‘I was cast in the new Star Trek series. It's a good job to get at this time in my life. My children will now go to college when they grow up, but I have to tell you I've got the dullest part in the show ... I'm playing a computer program of a doctor who is holographically projected, described as colorless, humorless. Does that sound like a bucket of fun to you for seven years?' And it turned out that it was, and I couldn't have been more wrong."

Picardo hid behind his "resting bitch face" and bluffed it until about the second half of the second episode, when he first started to realize things were going in the right doctorly direction.

Robert Picardo and Jeri Ryan in Star Trek: Voyager

"Anyway, there is a scene in the very second episode after the pilot where Kes, Jennifer Lien, comes to the Doctor's office looking for soil samples for her hydroponics bay, and he complains bitterly that he was designed for emergency use only, that he has the combined knowledge of two and a half thousand medical textbooks, the combined experience of 27 Starfleet officers, and this and that, and this and that … ‘but yes, let me get your dirt.' It was clear that he was upset at not being respected the way he felt he was supposed to be, and that he was going to be used beyond the parameters of his program design," Picardo says about the "aha" moment. "And also because he was supposed to adapt and learn and even to have an emotional subroutine so that he would have some sort of empathy for his patients, he would have some sort of programmed developable bedside manner.

"All of those things made him different in a way that I had not understood fully," Picardo continues. "And at that point, it kind of clicked in my head, and I went, 'OK, he has a chip on his shoulder because of this, so whenever he's not being respected he's going to be unhappy and he's going to fight back.'"

Picardo also has a built-in doctor's gravitas about him, perhaps because medicine was a childhood ambition of his, to the point where he was pre-med for two years of undergraduate at Yale before switching to theater. Just the same, while he does get inquiries into his doctoring services occasionally, he's not going to be doing house calls any time soon.

"The fact that I got to be a doctor vicariously for four years in Vietnam in China Beach and then seven years in outer space on Star Trek, I feel like in some way that it was a vicarious experience," he says. "Having said that, no one wants me to operate on them, no one wants me to give them medical advice. But yes, you do get asked sometimes, because they're used to you, apparently, you're seeming at least to know what you're talking about."

As far as having a favorite "I'm a doctor, not a ..." moment, Picardo says it's got to be the one that likely landed him the job.

Picardo initially read for the part of Neelix, which ultimately went to his good friend Ethan Phillips. "And in that moment," Picardo says, "I saved myself 6,000 hours of my life spent in a makeup chair." But the producers went against form and invited Picardo back to read for the Doctor. While there was no "I'm a doctor" moment scripted for the audition, the actor had heard ahead of time that they "wanted someone funny."

"So at the end of the audition, after the last scripted line when they left me activated in sick bay and I have nothing left to do, I look around the supposedly empty room ... but of course, there's 16 people watching me, but it's supposed to be an empty sick bay," Picardo recalls, "I look around and I say, ‘I believe someone has failed to terminate my program,' and then I said, ‘I'm a doctor, not a nightlight.' And got a big laugh and got hired that day, you know, four hours later. So yes, borrowing from the great DeForest Kelley, as I've often said, put my children through college. You can't go wrong stealing from the greats."

Of course, all this Doctor talk got us wondering if there's a future for the character. It's not like a hologram can't get projected into another timeline around the universe, right?

"I honestly don't see it happening," Picardo says. "It's always fun to return to something, and like Brent's character, I played not only the guy himself but the programmer, so the programmer has aged, even if the artificial-intelligence character hasn't aged ... so I haven't given you much of an answer, but presently I would say no, but if they were to ask me, who the heck knows?"

But even if the Doctor himself never shows up in Star Trek again, Picardo's Starfleet service is forever.

"It's the gift that keeps on giving, Star Trek, if you're lucky enough to be an actor in one of the shows, and I'm always very taken with the breadth of talent of my colleagues," Picardo says.

And of course, we'll get to see the good Doctor back among his shipmates tonight, May 26, at 8 p.m. ET, as Captain Janeway and her crew reunite to celebrate Voyager's 25th anniversary and, perhaps more importantly, to raise money for The Actors Fund.

"I'm just hoping that people will find it in their hearts to do whatever they can for this good cause, because, as you know, the theater is in lockdown indefinitely, and so is all of the entertainment industry, basically," Picardo says. "Audiences know the 1 or 2 percent of the Screen Actors Guild that are working on television making a good living, but then for that 1 or 2 percent there are 98 percent that are often very marginally employed, they have second and third jobs, and they really need The Actors Fund at a time like this to help them out."

So tune in tonight and help actors everywhere live long and prosper.