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Chakotay Chats An interview transcribed from"Starburst Magazine" issue #37
(a Star Trek Special)
One of Commander Chakotay's traits on Star Trek: Voyager is to stand silently for a while, and then deliver a real gem of advice, having carefully reviewed the situation. The unflappable First Officer's alter ego, Robert Beltran, is thankfully less enigmatic, and took the time to talk to Starburst at The Dominion, a Trek con. He reveals his thoughts on Season Four, his hopes for Season Five, and offers a personal perspective on whether Voyager could survive if it went back home to Earth. With only a few key Chakotay episodes this year, was Season Four Unforgettable, or was it a Year of Hell?
"From the reaction of our producers and a lot of our fans it has evidently been a good year for us. In fact, the general feeling was that this season was the best so far, so I guess those two opinions count for something," reasons Beltran. "From Chakotay's perspective though, I don't think that there has been much development at all. There is an episode towards the end of the season called, Unforgettable where he meets an alien woman (played by Virginia Madsen) and falls in love with her, but even that has happened before in this show."
A large majority of Chakotay's stories seem to involve him running round with a phaser [Nemesis, Year of Hell], but at least he occasionally gets the chance to have a romantic involvement.
"I prefer the love story shows every time, because if nothing else they are a lot different from most of the episodes that I do. Any episode where you can have a real relationship with somebody, and watch it develop a beginning, a middle and end, is so much more fun. The action stuff can get boring because it is generally repeated over and over again."
Unforgettable was directed by Andrew Robinson, aka Deep Space Nine's Cardassian Tailor, Garak, and is the latest in a long line of actors who have temporarily moved behind the camera.
"Working with Andy was great fun," Beltran confirms. "Most of us seem to agree that it's always better when you have an actor directing. There's a certain kind of kinship that makes you more relaxed, and that is very valuable. Andy is always well prepared for his shows and he has a rare understanding of how actors work. As a result of that, the shows just generally run that much more smoothly."
Robert has also been directed by his Voyager colleagues, including his name-sake, Robert Duncan McNeill (Tom Paris).
"Working with an actor/director like Robbie was also a good experience, and he did some impressive stuff on Unity [the show where the Borg first appear on Voyager], Tim Russ had also done his homework for his show [Living Witness], and although I didn't have much to do in Robert Picardo's episode [Alter Ego], it's just a lot more fun coming to work when a familiar face is directing."
Season Four is fairly light on strong Chakotay episodes, and this is something that has not gone unnoticed by Beltran.
"I've generally found that the producers give us three or four strong episodes [each] a year, and the rest of the time, basically involves us in hanging about in supporting roles. I know that's just the way the show works, but I think that next year there are going to be one or two more Chakotay episodes. At least, that's what the producers have told me."
A significant portion of the First Season was spent in highlighting the conflict that existed between the members of the Maquis and Starfleet. Chakotay was often called upon to mediate, and proved to be a valuable aid to Janeway. Suddenly, everyone seemed happy; the conflict had disappeared overnight.
"That whole Maquis thing, like a whole lot of stuff that they introduced at the beginning, became mere window dressing," he explains. "After a short while it stopped being an active ingredient in any of the episodes, so it was dropped. I was always a little disappointed with the way things turned out with the maquis. It was necessary that we worked together, but I think that they could have prolonged a lot of the inherent conflicts. I guess that at the time they had other more important things to pursue."
Voyager's first story arc attempt occurred in Season Three, and revolved around Paris' unruly behaviour, particularly in the presence of Chakotay. It transpired that Tom was working undercover, and it was considered prudent not to tell the First Officer.
"I was disappointed with that story," admits Beltran. "It was upsetting because although it might be considered all very well to keep Chakotay in the dark about something, the conclusion was far too pat. Look at the way they wrapped it up. When they finally revealed to Chakotay that it had all been a deliberate ploy, Janeway's response was something along the lines of, 'Chakotay, you have played your part very well,' which is almost like saying, 'Thank you for being so stupid'. It could have been wrapped up a whole lot better."
Many of Chakotay's finest moments have involved his relationship with the traitorous Cardassian, Seska. Beltran was pleased with the repartee that built up between the two characters, so was disappointed when she was killed in Basics, Part II.
"I thought it was a shame because she was such a good character, and Martha [Hackett] is a great actress. I always loved working with her because there was a certain chemistry between us. I do believe that Seska could have survived on her own; she was smart enough to survive away from the Kazon. I just think that sometimes the writers make these drastic moves a little bit too early, and then regret it later. Of course, with Star Trek you can always bring somebody back."
Seska did of course return (albeit on the Holodeck) in Worst Case Scenario.
Another facet of Beltran's character that had disappeared by Season Two was his strong mystical beliefs. Again, Beltran regrets this as a missed opportunity. "They teased the audience with this side of my character at a very early stage, but haven't really taken it to a level that is beyond a very superficial spiritualism. I think that there's a lot of potential in it, but I don't think that they have tapped into it as deeply as they can. I think it's all very well that Chakotay can talk to his dead father and enter into his dreamworld, but there is so much more that could be added."
Room For Growth
Season Two's Tattoo filled in some vital information about Chakotay's past, and this was an important episode for Beltran.
"That show helped me a lot as an actor, and maybe in this Fifth Season we will find out a little bit more about his back story. We know that he had a father, but what happened to his mother? Was he ever married? Did he have children? What sort of tragedies has he gone through in his life? There are still so many places to go with him, and I guess that I am lucky in this respect. Janeway by comparison is pretty much stuck now. They've fleshed her out so much that now they have to rely on her just reacting to whatever comes up in our voyage that week. Whereas I'm happy that there's still room for a lot of growth. I just hope that they start picking up on it soon, because it really is needed."
Season Four will inevitably be remembered as the year that Kes left, but primarily for introducing Jeri Ryan's Seven. Again, Beltran is honest about his thoughts on the new character.
"Obviously, a beautiful woman walking around the bridge in every episode is going to appeal to people. Seven is a different sort of character to the ones that people are used to, and generally viewers are intrigued by the Borg. It has certainly helped boost the ratings, and I can only think that this has been a very positive step, and I'm glad that she's on the show."
However, Chakotay's involvement with Seven has been less than prolific.
"Most of the shows this year dealt with her relationship with Janeway. I don't really know if they are going to address that, but I would guess that there are one or two episodes coming up where she and I will have to interact in some way. I'm just as curious as anyone else about how the two of us will react to each other."
Many actors have strong feelings about what they'd like to see happen to their characters, and the writers on Star Trek: Voyager are receptive to this sort of involvement.
"They're very open to ideas, but my problem is that because I don't think in terms of Science Fiction, I'm hindered in being able to come up with inventive ideas. To me, it seems that there's too wide a range of possibilities that exist with this type of material, and personally I'd prefer it to be narrowed down. For a start, we've got a holodeck and countless aliens, so it's hard for me to go to the producers and say I want a certain thing to happen.
"I've said it many times before, and I'm very honest about this - Science Fiction is not one of my favourite genres," he admits. "I prefer to let the writers do the writing, because they seem to be more in the frame of mind than I am - and besides, that's what they get paid for! My phone calls to them are about specific problems I have with a particular episode. As far as the general arc of my character is concerned, I guess that I should get more involved, but I honestly have very few ideas of my own. In another genre, I'd probably be more creative."
Technical dialogue (or technobabble) is the bane of many a Star Trek actor's life, but Robert has little problem with the dialogue, and experiences more difficulties with his responses to various stimuli.
"One of the inherent problems with a show like Star Trek is that so many amazing things happen; things that are beyond human comprehension. We are seeing the most amazing things, and I really can't think that there is much left out there that can still be surprising to us. We've come across so many different people and phenomena in our voyage. What more experiences can these human beings possibly go through? The reaction needed to accompany a specific shock or surprise is increasingly more challenging, and I think that the best way to do it is by having a Michaal Caine blank look in your eyes!" he laughs.
A large contingent of fans have argued that the show would fare better if Voyager returned to the Alpha Quadrant, but this suggestion is largely academic to Beltran.
"I don't honestly know what the Alpha quadrant is all about. I didn't use to watch The Next Generation or even the original series, so I'm not well versed in that part of the Universe. I think that it could work if we got home; the writers can do anything they want. It's a matter of whether they really want to do it or not. They will do it if it's seen as the best direction to go. The hardest thing with any show is to keep coming up with interesting episodes, and going home will not in itself solve that problem."
With Kes departing the show last season and Jadzia leaving Deep Space Nine this year, there no longer seems to be an expectation for main Star Trek cast members to stay for the entire run of a show. Robert's fans will no doubt be delighted that he has no intention of leaving yet.
"I think I will stay for all seven years, because it is fun. There are some drawbacks to being on Star Trek, but that's the same with any job. Sometimes I just feel like I'm an invisible actor with a nice paycheck."
Robert describes his hopes for the upcoming Season Five shows:
"I met with the producers and they gave me a rough idea about what they wanted to do with Chakotay," he reveals. "One of these ideas is to develop Chakotay's own Holodeck program, but I can't say any more about it at this time. It's a good idea, and if it works as well as they've planned it, it should be very dynamic. My only hope every season is that the new episodes are intriguing and entertaining, without too much re-treading of old stories and plots."
Transcribed by Gill Hoyle
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