Robert Picardo may be best known for playing the Emergency Medical Holographic Program, AKA: The Doctor, on Star Trek: Voyager, but these days its a love of real science here on Earth that is his passion. Wearing a shirt that said “science is universal”, the actor spoke passionately about his own background in science, and his present gig as an ambassador for a much beleaguered field.
“The thing about Star Trek I didn’t expect was that I would have this opportunity to meet so many people in science, technology and engineering, people that do the real things that we only pretend to do on Star Trek,” said Picardo. “I’ve been on stage with five men that went to the moon. I’ve met a lot of cool people.”
Picardo was once going to be scientist himself. The man that would go to play Star Trek’s the Doctor was quite nearly a doctor himself, studying pre-med at Yale. “I wanted to be a doctor,” he explained. “That was my childhood ambition, and I was probably thinking about being a paediatrician; my childhood doctor was a man I greatly admired.But I wasn’t going to make it to med school and do theatre as much as I wanted to.”
The final conversion for Picardo came in his second year at Yale when famed composer Leonard Bernstein told him that “He had a great natural energy, not phoney Broadway energy” while on stage. That was all Picardo needed to hear. “Would you tell that to my mother?” he asked the composer, and he did.
So Picardo is content to merely be a front man for science, and currently enjoys a spot on the board of the Planetary Society, helping to promote space innovation and exploration. “I am the least credentialed person at that table and I’m awed and impressed that I’m there,” Picardo said. “If you’re not a fan of science and the present exploration that we’re doing then I hope to get you interested in supporting the Planetary Society. Science needs your help right now.”
A fan asked Picardo what planet he would like to explore if given a chance, and the former EMH had a quick answer. “Mars is the one that we’ve had our sights on for so long, and I also believe that Mars should be our next step,” he said, adding that he’s hoping to keep pushing more funding to NASA to get ready for that manned mission to the red planet.
“The public is getting engaged again and when you have an administration with different priorities, people have to speak out,” Picardo said getting political for a moment.
As for Star Trek stories, Picardo recounted how he ended up getting the role of the Doctor on Voyager, and it began with playing another doctor with a terrible bedside manner, on stage in L.A., in a production of The Waiting Room. “I read the description of the character and it said ‘colourless, humourless’ and I thought ‘Doesn’t that sound like a bucket of fun for me?’” Picardo remembered.
So he decided to try out for Neelix instead, which went to his friend Ethan Phillips in the end (“Thank God,” Picardo added), so the Voyager production asked Picardo back to read for the Doctor, which he reluctantly accepted. “I didn’t get the joke, but I went in to try,” he said, “I had heard they had seen 900 actors, and they had seen a lot of comedians, so I did something you never do on Start Trek, I ad-libbed. I said I’m going to make them laugh.”
The line that won him the part was an homage that Picardo didn’t know was an homage. “At the end of the scene I said, ‘I’m a doctor, not a night light,’” he said. “I was channeling De[Forest] Kelley, but I didn’t know I was ripping him off.”
Can you tell that Picardo wasn’t originally a Trek fan? “I didn’t know what I had gotten into,” he said. “I now understand the show and what it means to you, but I thought I had gotten the worst role on the show, and then I had to live that down because not only did I not have the worst part, I had arguably the best part.”
Picardo is also loved by fans for his recurring part in the Stargate universe, appearing as Richard Woolsey who was first an antagonist on SG-1 and later the leader of the Atlantis team on Stargate Atlantis. “Stargate was like a gift, it just came my way,” Picardo said. “They painted me in a corner because they wanted to have me back but I was a total douchebag,” he explained. “But then I was a total douchebag that meant well.”
“I think middle-aged people responded to a man learning how to do something different from the inside out and by the end of [Atlantis’ fifth season] Woolsey had grown into a leader, and that was cool,” Picardo added.
Next up for Picardo is acting beside another Doctor, Doctor Who’s Sylvester McCoy, in a play called The Joke, which will be at the Edinburgh Theatre Festival this summer in Scotland. He also said that Joe Dante is presently working on a Roger Corman bio-pic called The Boy with Kaleidoscope Eyes that he hopes to have a part in being one of Dante’s regular repertoire players. Picardo says he’s also toying around with some horror movie ideas, but he has no ambitions to direct or be a filmmaker himself unlike some of his Voyager colleagues like Robert Duncan McNeill and Roxann Dawson. Or maybe he just doesn’t have the time.
“I can go to other counties and they know me from Star Trek, and its a great honour to reach an audience that’s global,” said Picardo. “I like to travel so I get to all sorts of cool places, and it’s brought me a group of loyal people that love my work.”