Interview by Pamela Roller
Female fans of Star Trek, rejoice! After nearly three decades of Kirk, Picard and Sisko leading their crews on exciting and perilous voyages into the unknown, the creators of Star Trek: Voyager have boldly gone where they have never gone before.
Kate Mulgrew has donned the uniform of Kathryn Janeway, captain of the U.S.S. Voyager. It is the first time in Star Trek history that a woman captain will command her own ship and crew on a weekly basis and all the indications are that she's doing a darned fine job.
Mulgrew seized this first-in-a-lifetime opportunity after Genevieve Bujold, who was originally cast in the role, suddenly departed from the show. As an actress, Mulgrew is a veteran and she has made her new role her own with inspiring ease. Intelligent and well spoken, accessible and professional, energetic and stalwart, she has extensive experience on the stage (American Shakespeare Festival, O'Neill Festival) feature films (A Stranger is Watching, Throw Momma From The Train) television (Ryan's Hope, Mrs. Columbo, Heartbeat - not to be confused with the British television series featuring Nick Berry) and telefilms (Roots: The Gift, Danielle Steele's Daddy).
For those of you still not up to speed on the new series launched in the US in January, Captain Kathryn Janeway has a difficult, yet fascinating journey ahead of her. She and her crew, along with the crew of a rebel Maquis ship, are flung to the far reaches of the galaxy, some 70 years away from Federation space. Rather than give up hope of ever seeing their friends and families again, Janeway rallies her troops to find a quicker way to get back home. Along the way, she is determined to take advantage of their unique situation and make it a voyage of scientific discovery. Fans count on it being a voyage fraught with adventure and excitement, as well as unknown dangers and unfriendly natives.
Accompanying Captain Janeway on her quest is a diverse group: a Native American first officer, a Vulcan tactical/security officer, a holographic physician, a lieutenant who is a convicted criminal: an Asian ops/communications officer: a half-Human/half-Klingon engineer and a couple of alien hitch-hikers. It should be quite a voyage! But just how comfortable is the actress with her role?
"I'm getting her under my skin. I think the first week I just needed to relax, but I always felt, from the beginning, when my agent sent me the script, that she (Janeway) was well suited to me and I was well suited to her. There's so much about her I respond to and that I understand.
My impressions of her, so far, are that she's an extraordinary woman and that it's very appropriate that 400 years from now, women will have transcended all of the stereotypes that so limit us today or certainly have in the past.
“She can be warm and completely authoritative, compassionate and commanding, funny and powerful. She can be all of those things and still maintain great respect among her crew, because I think in the future, we will somehow evolve beyond our gender without losing it, which I think is the beauty of who she essentially is.
“Her key quality is fierce loyalty. She is first and foremost the captain of the U.S.S. Voyager, and she'll go down fighting for every member of its crew and for all her beliefs. I think she has a profound morality, which belongs to her alone, which is why she is the captain of this ship. She always makes the choice for science and for life, which ennobles her, and I think sets her a little bit apart. But she is by no means inaccessible, which is the beauty of who she is. Her femininity, her great heart, her empathy, her need for personal contact - all of these things are in evidence most of the time. But when she needs to take over, she takes over like nobody's business!
“So you could call it a dual personality, but they're actually completely in sync. If you've ever been around that sort of person, they handle it so well because they are so deeply well liked. She has married the two, as the result of her lineage. Both her parents were splendid people - her father was a great scientist and her mother was an enormously warm, supportive and giving woman, and I think they allowed Kathryn to be uniquely who she was and yet exalted her enough so that this kind of position was not out of her reach at all - well within her ambitions as a young girl, I would say."
Will her relationship with her parents be explored?
"I suppose, in time. There is no mention of them made in the pilot, but there is a scene between her and her boyfriend on Earth, so that's a contact we have, and it's very visceral. You see that she loves him, that she loves their dog, that there's this terrific fun between them and a lot of gentleness, and it has its passion as well. All of these things are revealed and I think in time the writers will develop them, so that we can see all of her shades and colours."
Of course, Janeway may be a great Starship captain, but she's no saint. Had Mulgrew uncovered any flaws to her character?
"I think she's quick to anger, sometimes. She can make mistakes. She makes a couple in The Caretaker that emanate from her morality probably more than her science background.
She's motivated by her love of humanity and her love of space and in the story she decides to stay and fight for the Ocampa who would otherwise die. That might be seen as a gesture of largesse and of courage, and it might be considered by some of her crew to be a mistake.
But this is a vital part of this captain. She knows she is alone, finally, in her decision, and that is the ultimate courage. She makes these decisions all the time and she's not ashamed to let her hair down later and say 'I'm tired and I'm sad and perhaps I've made a mistake, but it's my mistake."
Kathryn Janeway and her crew have quite a task ahead of them, to find their way back home, after being deposited 70 years away - a very daunting prospect, but also a great opportunity for exploration. How does Mulgrew think the 'voyage' concept will affect the show? Will it be a voyage of discovery?
"Oh, absolutely! And don't forget that they're on a brand new ship - sleeker, more refined, more sophisticated than anything you've seen before. She trusts her ship, and she certainly trusts these people, the Maquis, these miscreants who have come on board. She takes Chakotay, the head of the Maquis, as her first officer, and she's got Tom Paris who is a convicted criminal, on her other side. And she instills in them a great confidence, which works both ways. From their point of view, she is formidable and at the same time offering the capacity for great friendship. So I think we're looking at many discoveries."
Giving a woman the lead in a Star Trek show is going to add a wonderful new dimension to the show...
"I think so, too. It points to the unique kind of intelligence that is at work behind the scenes at Star Trek - the writers and producers. In 400 years it would be a woman. I think they understand that it would be appropriate at that time. These people are so smart!"
Does Mulgrew think this could be a groundbreaking role, not only for her, but for other actresses as well?
"I do, I do indeed, because it's not as if I'm walking in somebody else's shadow. This is new. She can be exactly the woman she is when she is in Federation space or when she's at home and still be in this remarkable position. That's why I think it's a great leap of faith (for the producers) and an appropriate one."
In terms of complexity, how does Kathryn Janeway rate in comparison to other characters she has played?
"Well, I've often been cast in sort of leadership roles. I played the founding doctor on Heartbeat, and Mrs. Columbo sort of forged a path of her own, but this role is truly unusual in that everyone recognizes her as being the ultimate power. There's no question about that, so there's an inherent dignity to it. The struggle is gone. I don't have to prove my prowess as a captain. Usually, in the roles given to women, leadership roles or roles of strength, there's a struggle - she has to prove herself. These men and women are very aware and respectful. That points to the exceeding intelligence of the writing staff.
"Any tensions that will exist on the ship - for instance, between myself and Chakotay, who is hot-tempered, or between myself and Tom Paris, who can be arrogant - will be tensions between two people that everybody can recognize and everybody can connect with. They won't be tensions between a man and a woman that often victimize us or keep us down. So that alone lifts Star Trek: Voyager above the rest."
Was Mulgrew familiar with Star Trek before she took on the role?
"Sort of... John De Lancie (who played Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation) is a great friend of mine, and I used to watch his episodes. So I was aware of the show from that point of view. And I've got two young boys and they're into it - so believe me, I'll learn more about it!"
So is she ready for all the attention she's going to receive in her new role?
"I try not to think about it. I'm trying to focus on getting things done and getting them done well. There are long days and many long complicated scenes that require almost all of my energy. Star Trek is a phenomenon. But... I'm not aware of it being a phenomenon yet. I'm literally taking it one step at a time, and I think I'm wise to do that. I can't see the whole yet - I can just see Kathryn Janeway. Talk to me in a few months and see if that's changed!"
"The work has always been the thing for me, the pleasure, the thing that has lifted me up. The rest of it I consider extraneous."
What are her early impressions of the ensemble cast?
"I love them. We've bonded, so there's much levity on set. Robert McNeill (Tom Paris) is terrific. I love Garrett Wang (Harry Kim) and Tim Russ (Tuvok) and Robert Beltran (Chakotay), who's a wonderful actor. And then we have Ethan Phillips who is just divine playing Neelix. They're great!"
"They're a diverse group - culturally diverse, diverse in personality. I think that when I finally got here they were so anxious to connect with anybody that they were particularly generous to me. We've become really good friends. There's not even a sense that there might be something wrong somewhere, not at all. Everybody is in this together, and everybody is pulling ahead. Art imitates life, so everybody sort of acts according to their station on the ship in a way. There's respect and yet there's humour. We support each other, and when things get tough, we're in there together."
Star Trek casts do seem to have consistently been made up of top-notch people, with plenty of experience and credibility to back them up.
"Yes. They like 'actors' here. I think that they also know that they need 'workers' - actors of stamina and fortitude who know how to go 12 to 14 hours a day. There are no babies here. I feel like I'm in a really good camp, you know?"
On Star Trek: Voyager, Mulgrew and her team will have to deal with special effects and computer technology that allows opticals to be added once filming is complete. What are her thoughts about this aspect of the show?
"Well, I've encountered a lot of that already! It's going to be interesting for me, because there is a lot of stop/start here. You stop and then you figure out the optical. Then you go back and shoot this or you shoot that... Again, I would have to say that this is part of the discipline of being a professional, because you have to stay where you are in the scene and let the technical crew hammer things out."
"A positive way of looking at it is that all of this stuff is intriguing and new for me, so I'm going to learn. The camera has always fascinated me, so anything I can learn about opticals and blue screens and split screens can only benefit me in the long run."
Finally, there was controversy on the show from the start with the unexpected departure of Genevieve Bujold. Mulgrew stepped into the role very quickly. How much time did she have to prepare?
"A weekend! Actually, it worked out all right. I feel
like I'm pretty good under the gun and I like it under the gun. There's
no time to think. You simply have to perform."