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Let's Go Native An interview transcribed from the official "Star Trek Monthly Magazine" issue #50, March 1999
Ian Spelling meets up with Robert Beltran, better known to Star Trek: Voyager fans as the series' first officer, Chakotay, in his trailer between scenes on one of the latest season five episodes.
Sporting his Starfleet uniform and in good humour, Robert Beltran is as honest as ever and unusually talkative.
"I thought that Star Trek: Voyager would go for a good four or five years, at least," he says, "Just because the franchise is still so popular and so entrenched in popular culture. I thought we would have to be really, really bad to get taken off the air after the first, second or even the third season."
Beltran, of course, is now in his fifth season on ST:VOY, and his fifth year portraying the USS Voyager's first officer, Chakotay. Heading into the show, Beltran no doubt harboured certain expectations. After a half-decade on the job, then, in what ways has Star Trek: Voyager lived up to those initial expectations?
"Voyager has met my expectations in that I like what the producers have done with the character I'm playing and I generally like the stories. Those aspects were uppermost in my mind as far as priorities go. Good character and good stories are the keys. The downside is that there are many episodes of this show where you're a glorified extra. You just don't have that much to do. That means your time on the set those days is just not very challenging. I know everybody likes to say there are no small parts, only small actors, but that's rubbish. There are small parts, and we have to play them sometimes. That's just one of the problems [inherent] in an ensemble show."
As a character, Chakotay continues to evolve. He's ably served Captain Janeway [Kate Mulgrew] all these years. He's tapped into his spiritual side. He's got romantic - or come close - a few times, notably with the treacherous Seska [Martha Hackett], the mysterious Kellin [Virginia Madsen], the gorgeous Tessa [Christine Harnos] and the elusive Captain Janeway. Interestingly, however, it's Beltran's impression that the writers and producers had little faith in the character when the show began.
"I could be wrong about that but I remember that after the first season, everybody - Jeri Taylor and Michael Pillar - was saying 'God, we didn't expect this kind of reaction to the character'. After that first season, Jeri came to me and said 'We're going to bring you more to the forefront in the second season'. She apologised for the first season, but I didn't feel like I had been neglected." "I was just doing my job and I didn't count how many episodes I had and I didn't count how many lines I had or any of that, and I still don't. But I think the main thing is that the character has gotten a great response from viewers, and I don't think they foresaw that. I don't know specifically what people are responding to. To me, he's sort of on the outside, but he's also the glue that keeps everybody together. That makes him kind of unique. He's always pretty objective and calm. He's got spiritual beliefs that I don't think too many of the other characters have. They've explored Neelix's [Ethan Phillips] religious beliefs [in Mortal Coil] but Chakotay really lives with his beliefs every day of his life. He seems to be conscious of his spirituality. The other characters only seem to need it occasionally, in moments of crisis, if at all. From the letters I get, from the comments that people make at conventions, people are saying 'we like him because he's strong, yet sensitive. He's tough, yet caring and spiritual'. I guess that's what people are responding to."
While much about Chakotay has indeed been explored, there remain many more layers of the proverbial onion to peel. Viewers are aware, for instance, that Chakotay has a father and a grandfather, but was he ever married? Does he have any children? It's possible, if only because those issues have not been addressed.
"We don't know what his mother was like," Beltran argues. "We don't know those personal details. I think that's important information to know. What really caused him to become a Maquis? What was he doing before he became a Maquis? There's maybe 10 or 15 years [of his character's life] that we don't know all that much about. I would like to explore that a little bit. I'm not quite sure how we go about that, but I'd be interested in learning those things about Chakotay."
One Chakotay-related storyline that was explored either too much or too little, depending on your point of view, was the abortive Chakotay-Janeway relationship. For a while, it looked as if they would hook up, then nothing came of it. Beltran believes that's for the best. Sort of.
"I think they handled Janeway and Chakotay pretty well. At first, I wasn't sure because fans were saying 'Why aren't they getting together?' Kate and I had no idea that people were looking at us as a potential couple. People were counting how many times we touched and that sort of thing. So, when the writers took the lead and started to play around with the relationship, I realised they were going to go with it."
Hearing a cacophony outside, Beltran stops speaking in mid-thought. He stands up, grins in a most evil fashion, marches over to his trailer door and flings it open. After surveying his surroundings, Beltran, in his best mock-diva voice, shouts, "I can't work in this atmosphere!" He then slams the door, laughs and returns to the conversation.
"I didn't know if it was necessarily a good idea to have some kind of romantic thing happening with the captain and the first officer, just in general," he says, without missing a beat. "There was one episode ['Resolutions'] where we were stranded together and I revealed to her that I was interested in something more than our military relationship, and she didn't respond to it. Then, there were a couple of other episodes later on where I pursued it and she didn't respond again. So after that, I thought it was right for the writers to let the romantic thing just die and instead go with a friendly relationship. Although, now I wish there was more conflict between us, although Janeway has plenty of conflict going with Seven of Nine and a couple of the others."
Venturing back into the recent past, Chakotay factored most heavily in the episodes 'Worst Case Scenario', in which Seska returns via a holodeck program; 'Waking Moments', with Chakotay employing his knowledge of waking dreams to battle an alien enemy that can enter the Human subconscious; 'Unforgettable', in which Virginia Madsen portrays a female alien who seeks asylum aboard Voyager and claims to have been in love with Chakotay and 'Nemesis', in which Chakotay lands on a planet inhabited by two alien species hell-bent on annihilating each other. So far this season, Chakotay stood at the fore in 'In The Flesh', in which Species 8472 creates a holographic replica of Starfleet headquarters in San Francisco; 'Timeless', ST:VOY's acclaimed 100th episode, with Chakotay and Harry Kim [Garrett Wang] seeking to change the past 15 years after a mistake led to the demise of Voyager and most of her crew; and 'The Fight', in which Chakotay deals with an alien that invades his holodeck program.
"I liked 'Unforgettable', I really did," Beltran says, beginning a brief review of the episodes he likes best. "It was such a simple, well-written story, with not too much of a B-plot to dilute the A-plot. Virginia [Madsen] happened to be an actress I've wanted to work with and Andy [Robinson, ST:DS9's Garak] did a nice job of directing it. It was a good show because there was never a moment when I didn't think the writers had taken care of everything. Sometimes I'll think 'Oh, I wish they didn't have me do this or say that' but this one didn't have any of that. I liked it from the first draft I saw.
"A lot of the cast members, when we first read 'Waking Moments', laughed because they all thought 'how do you do an episode about people falling asleep?' But it turned out to be much better than we expected. I enjoyed what they had Chakotay doing. I don't know, though, whether I liked 'Waking Moments', 'Worst Case Scenario' or 'Nemesis' quite as much as I did 'Unforgettable'.
"This year, I've enjoyed 'In The Flesh' quite a bit. That was well written and I like working with Ray Walston and Kate Vernon. 'Timeless' was another very well-written episode. Garrett, Bob [Picardo] and I all got to work together for a change, and that was nice. In 'The Fight', I got to box. I trained for three or four days to look at least a little convincing, because I'd never boxed before. You saw Chakotay training to unwind, which was something new we learned about him"
As a series, ST:VOY continues to improve, and this has been reflected in the show's ratings during the fifth season, which continue to spike up. Still, there's no escaping the sentiment that the series is somehow not as popular as it should be, as it arguably deserves to be. Beltran, for one, believes as much.
"Voyager is under-appreciated. It seems to me that we'll be more appreciated once we are off the air. There are just so many science fiction shows, and people are overwhelmed. At the moment, science fiction shows are experiencing diminishing returns because there's too much of a glut. A lot of people say they prefer 'Babylon 5' to 'Voyager', and when I see the two shows, there's no comparison. That tells me that we've reached the point where no one can tell where the quality really is. As long as there's a talking computer and aliens with weird foreheads and noses, that seems to be enough. So, I think that there will be some time needed for people to distil where the real quality has been for the last five or six years."
That time, however, will come further down the road, for Star Trek: Voyager and Beltran are likely to stick around a good while longer.
"I'm still having fun with Star Trek," enthuses Beltran, who, unlike most of his co-stars, expresses no desire to direct an episode of ST:VOY. "I have great people to work with. The producers take care of us. The fans are loyal, caring and warm. You can't ask for more. I'll stay with Voyager even into an eighth season, if it goes that far. Paramount is right by my house. It's a 15 minute drive for me to get here. Voyager is making it possible to do other things in my career, which is nice. I've gotten offers - unsolicited, to do films and plays.
"Really, I have a lot to be thankful for."
Transcribed by Jane Hodges
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