For Everything There is a Season
In conversation with Lou Anders, Star Trek: Voyager's leading lady Kate Mulgrew reflects on the rocking of the boat.
It's about a year since STAR TREK Monthly last caught up with Kate Mulgrew. At that time, Star Trek: Voyager was gearing up for its third season. Mulgrew felt, as did quite a few others, that the season truly had to be a watershed one; that the series needed to shake up the mix and discover what worked and what didn't.
Now, in view of all the recently announced changes in the series, Kate Mulgrew returns to STAR TREK Monthly to reflect on season three and to give us a forecast for season four. "It was a watershed year," she confidently says of the third season. "They winnowed out our weaknesses and our strengths."
Asked to go into specifics, Mulgrew details what she thinks was gleaned from the season. "I think that certain relationships worked better than others. Certain characters are stronger than others, and I think that we certainly learned that despite the great success of the original series and Star Trek: The Next Generation, and despite all possible saturation of ideas throughout the series, we can still go above and beyond that. Star Trek is about epic ideas. In fact, it is about 'the idea', and so essentially and ultimately it's up to the writers. What I mean by this is that this is a show about ideas rather than events, moral transgressions, moral dilemmas or love. It's a story about ideas. That's why it's been so successful. And I use the word 'epic' knowing full well what the ramifications of such a word are.
"Star Trek: Voyager is epic," Mulgrew emphasises. "It's an epic idea to be lost in space, to be encountering other species, to be transcending gender, class, creed, race, all of it. That is the philosophy and the greatness of Star Trek. I think that what happens after a certain run of time is that the writers, almost by necessity, run out of ideas, because Human beings have to get tired, and so they then need to refresh themselves. That was the whole idea of the third season - to look at it, I think, very objectively, and ask: 'What's working here? What ideas do not fly? When does it fall down? When does it rise to the occasion? When does it seem to be exalted?' And I think they found that out, in an almost political way. The audience also know that there have been great changes."
"I think that all the executives, including the suits, and by that I mean the top guys, really took a cold, hard look at where we stood, " Mulgrew continues. "The show is a phenomenal success globally, so we're not at risk there, but everybody considered it terribly important to raise these ratings within our own stratosphere, if you will, meaning network television in the United States. Not that we were slipping, but I don't think that we were going off the charts, either."
Unfortunately, one of the most profound changes to arise from this harsh scrutiny of Star Trek: Voyager was the loss of actress Jennifer Lien as the Ocampa, Kes. Mulgrew says that the loss of Lien "was a great sorrow to me on many levels, foremost among them being the fracturing of an ensemble cast that was extremely special to me. It is never a good thing, although it may be good in the long run. I trust my producers on this level, because they are good people, and they're looking at the welfare of the show, but at the moment it's hurtful and difficult to adjust to. I cared a lot about Jennifer, and I think everybody else did too, and as clichéd as it may sound, we were very much like a family. So the loss of that girl has been heartfelt, keenly felt, by all of us."
At this point, Mulgrew sounds like she may be tearing up. I don't know, and it's hard to tell across the phone line, but one thing is certain: she is being absolutely one hundred percent sincere when she says she is feeling the loss of Jennifer Lien. "I don't understand the politics," she continues, "and I don't pretend to. I see very clearly what my role is here. I am an actress on this series. And when I say that this is a sorrow for me, it's as much a sorrow for me as Kate as it is for Captain Janeway. Networks are built on this kind of thinking, you know. They think about numbers. They have to, otherwise it wouldn't be on the air, right? But I don't have to, and so I don't. I think about the ship, and her loss shook me up. It really shook me up."
Mulgrew agrees that it is not out of the question that Lien will return someday, adding that she doesn't really worry about Jennifer. "There's something so unusual and splendid about her," she comments. "We all took her out to dinner, you know, a few weeks ago, and I drove her home and said, 'This could be serendipity, Jen. You're so unusual and so deep and fine. I believe it's the beginning of a stellar career.' She'll probably be a big movie star, you know? I'm sure it's happened for a reason."
Jennifer Lien's departure has, of course, left a vacuum, into which the second biggest change in Star Trek: Voyager is being inserted - a new character. "The introduction of Seven of Nine, played by Jeri Ryan, is a new adjustment," comments Mulgrew, "and one that I think we're taking in our stride. I think the concept is intriguing, that we should have a Human on board the station who has been intensely Borg-ified, and that it is up to Janeway and her crew to re-acclimatise her to Humanity. It's a splendid idea, and I hope it works.
With four episodes already shot, Mulgrew has a fairly accurate idea how Jeri Ryan will fit into the ensemble. "She's worked a lot, and she's going to work a lot more," she says. "She's a lovely girl, Jeri Ryan, and a real trooper. There's no question that she's got the stuff to do this, I just think that for a while now the writers are going to have to do their homework, and by that I mean that they'll have to put her in a lot of different situations with each character individually, see who she works best with, how she works best, what conflicts seem most appropriate to her character and what friendships might suit her. That takes a long time, and that's a discipline for all of us. She'll work a lot this season, and I suppose some of us are going to have to just take a deep breath and hope for the best."
Of all the various interpersonal character dynamics currently being discovered, perhaps the most important is that between Seven of Nine and Captain Janeway. "I'm the one who's responsible for bringing Seven of Nine onto the ship," Mulgrew comments. "I went over there to negotiate with the Borg, It is my fault that she ended up on my ship, and I take full responsibility on every level, not only for her survival, but for her well-being. For once, it's not a remotely maternal relationship. It's possibly comparable with what Captain Picard felt for Data. The more she evolves as a result of our conversations and interactions, the deeper she becomes as a Human being, and that kind of integration is very special and important to Janeway. I think we're going to have quite a good relationship."
"As regards the others," Mulgrew remarks of the other members of the crew, "it will probably be by trial and error. Many things will be tried. There's a level of excitement when a new character comes aboard. Who will she click with? What's going to happen? So, there's a lot of enthusiasm now, as well as a modicum of confusion, which I think is natural. As you know, she's a stunningly beautiful girl, and I think that was one of the producers' primary reasons for going with a character like this - to use that beauty to get a certain demographic re-involved in the show. So they'll have to see how she interacts with some of the men as well."
Leaving the characters aside and turning instead to the cast and crew, how is Jeri Ryan the person fitting into the family? "Oh, I think she's fine," says Mulgrew. "She's got a fun sense of humour. She's very professional. She's by nature quite lovely, and there's a none of that friction at all that you hear so much about in Hollywood. We don't work like that on this show."
Of course, quite a few aspects of Star Trek: Voyager survived the fire of season three to grow stronger. "I think Janeway and Chakotay worked," says Mulgrew of the events of the most recent season. "I'll put it to you bluntly. The screen is a dubious and exquisite quartermaster, and it has acknowledged the chemistry between the two of us above and beyond even what we ourselves would acknowledge. Robert and I really enjoy working with each other. There's something physical and emotional that passes between us on camera that is very special, and has become terribly important to the series. So that dynamic has been enhanced, and in the best possible way. They presented a conflict. He did not at all agree with my choice to negotiate with the Borg. In fact, he was vehemently opposed. So now there's a tension between him and Janeway that we have not seen before."
"It's a very good thing to have," says Mulgrew of his tension. "We can play out, because right underneath that tension is the longing or the need to realign ourselves with one another. I need him, probably more than anyone else on the ship, and vice versa. There's a friendship of great tenderness and depth there, and when that's jeopardised, it's exciting. So I'd say that's one of the key things, the Janeway/Chakotay relationship."
Mulgrew cites the developing relationship between Paris and B'Elanna as another interesting element to the series. "I think they're going to flesh out the storyline about Tom Paris and B'Elanna Torres, which delights me. I'm mad for Roxann [Dawson, who plays B'Elanna] as an actress, and I think they're wonderfully suited for one another. At this time it's very important that we see these Human beings developing permanent relationships, or deeply felt relationships."
"I'll tell you something that didn't work," says Mulgrew, moving off on an interesting tangent. "Babes on the holodeck don't work. In my opinion, babes don't work, but maybe that's because I'm not a babe anymore! Do you know what I'm saying? I think that might be part of it, so I have to be careful to choose my words and be very honest about what I'm feeling. I'm a 42-year old woman, so that has passed for me. Maybe that's part of it, but I don't think babes and Star Trek win the day. Sex and romance always do, if they're beautifully and realistically illustrated, but those Holodeck programs have to be rethought."
Of course, two Holodeck programs work very well - The Doctor [played by Robert Picardo] and the Holodeck program introduced in the season finale, Scorpion , Part I. "You know, I brought them the Da Vinci idea," she says, adding that she believes and hopes the character will recur. "I thought it was a good idea. That's a program that makes sense. Janeway's going there to seek out a far greater mind than her own. She realises her own loneliness, and she embraces a greater idea to help her out of these dilemmas I thought it was a really good idea and I hope they don't let it go, but they're so busy now concentrating on Seven of Nine, which is, of course, what they have to do to see how she's going to work. They probably won't get around to these other things until the middle of the season, maybe even the end of the season."
As for Captain Janeway herself, what did Kate Mulgrew discover in this character in season three? How did she evolve? "Up and down. I got better. Mulgrew got better- much more relaxed and more allied with Janeway. I really felt that I was making some breakthroughs there, very important breakthroughs, particularly towards the end of the season."
This, of course, naturally leads into the question of just where the good captain now is. What is the character's direction, going into season four? Well, I'm even more completely in command, as we continue on this rather difficult journey," Mulgrew says decisively. "How do I take care of this crew, who have now been deprived for some time of love, family, the comforts of home? I think that if this were a gambling room, I'd be at the biggest table. Every time I throw the dice, it has to matter a great deal. There's a new intensity to my portrayal of Janeway, and even greater responsibility, and within all of this, there has to, of course, be a greater absurdity, because if Janeway doesn't laugh, [the crew] won't laugh. And if Janeway does not exude Humanity, they will not be allowed to."
"At first there was a great adrenaline," Mulgrew explains. "We all thought, 'We'll get home. We'll get home.' And then, of course, as time goes on, you adjust to a new cycle which says, 'We'll get home, but it's going to take time.' So given these circumstances, how do I best treat the crew? There has to be a new vigilance on my part, an almost austere care. I went to a convent when I was home visiting Iowa a couple of weeks ago, a convent I used to frequent when I was young. It's Trapistine convent, and I went to visit the Abbess, and I saw how she relates to the sisters. She's very, very much in control, and yet she is full of love, but there's no question that she's the Abbess and she calls the shots, and her discipline is great and she expects that of her sisters. I thought, 'That's a pretty good analogy for me to take back.' Not that I perceive Janeway as an Abbess, but her job is just as important on this ship."
"I would like to see the stakes raised in all of these relationships on the ship," Mulgrew says, referring to her personal goals for season four of the show. "I would like to see all of the members of the crew in jeopardy with one another, and also to see them relax with one another and expose themselves. I think it's time that we all got a chance to really act, and I think the writers are cognisant of that, and that this will be the season, as I believe it was in Star Trek: The Next Generation, where it all comes together and takes off. That's my hope. That's my goal."
"And my goal, of course, is to continue to devote myself to the series," Mulgrew explains. "I know that I sound like a broken record, but I've never felt this strongly about a character in my life. I'm really devoted to her, and I'd like to leave this series saying, 'My God, I took an extraordinary journey with that character.' This is an ensemble show, and that's what makes it interesting and compelling. But that would be my final and probably most urgently felt thing I could say to you. It's about a family now. And for my money, in my life experience, nothing's more compelling than the dynamics of a family, full of very interesting and very unique people."
"And now we've got this adopted daughter of sister with
us, to really move things about a bit, which can only stand us in good
stead if we do it the right way. I believe we will."