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Commander Chakotay's alter-ego on Family values, Hamlet and relationships in the 24th Century. TV Zone Special #31, 1998 Yearbook
It is no coincidence that Commander Chakotay of Star Trek: Voyager has a wolf as his spirit guide. Besides being a natural-born hunter, the wolf is considered to be a survivor as well as intelligent, independent and often leery of strangers. As a child Chakotay never related to his Indian heritage and always looked at life differently to those around him. Even a stint at Starfleet Academy did not help calm his rebellious nature. When he was a Lieutenant Commander he resigned his position at the Academy and joined the Maquis to fight against the Cardassians.
During a mission in the Badlands Chakotay and his fellow Maquis fighters are transported against their will, along with the crew of the USS Voyager, to the unexplored Delta Quadrant. Those aboard both vessels are compelled to depend on each other for survival and when they reluctantly join forces Chakotay becomes Voyager's second-in-command under Captain Kathryn Janeway.
Even after all that the character has experienced on the programme, there is still so much that has been left unanswered concerning this strong, sexy and pensive officer played by actor Robert Beltran.
"It's difficult to say just how much the character has grown and developed over the past years," muses Beltran. "The writing is really what shapes and guides events. Sometimes we all feel as if our characters have taken three or four steps forwards and then, suddenly, it seems as if they're taking two or three steps backwards or to the side. It's just one of those things inherent in a series with characters that have to be played over a number of seasons and in dozens of episodes.
"We still don't know anything about Chakotay's family. We know about his father Kolopak [played by Henry Darrow in 'Tattoo' and 'Basics', part I] – very little about him, actually – and that's it. You can introduce a character in one episode, but how much information can you really impart to the audience in 42 minutes? We don't know about his mother or if he has siblings. We don't know if he ever married or if he was ever madly in love with someone, or in a deep relationship with a woman. Does he have any children? There are so many things we don't know about Chakotay. In a way that's mysterious, but also, in another way, it kind of keeps me at a disadvantage along with the writers, I feel.
"The most challenging part of working on a series like Voyager is just trying to get through the mundane scenes that don't really tell you a whole lot about the characters," he continues. "That, however, is another of those built-in problems, especially with a Science Fiction series. Many of the scenes on the bridge have to focus on Sci-Fi situations - like when the shields are going down or Voyager's being fired upon by alien ships. So the personal relationships have to emerge out of all that stuff and those can easily get lost. This is true not only when it comes to the writing, but with us actors as well. So it's that daily grind that's sometimes difficult. When you're not really an integral part of the story you're pretty much a glorified extra and that can be tedious."
FRIENDS AND FAMILY
In Voyager's pilot episode Caretaker the seeds of friendship are planted between Ensign Harry Kim and Lieutenant Tom Paris when the former Maquis rebel prevents the young ensign from being swindled by Quark on Deep Space Nine. In this same story it is also established that Chakotay and B'Elanna Torres are close friends and that he and Paris have and old score to settle. Whereas the rapport between characters such as Kim and Paris, Janeway and Lieutenant Commander Tuvok and recently Tuvok and Seven of Nine continued to develop, it seemed as if Chakotay's relationships were put on hold.
"Early on they hinted at something between B'Elanna and Chakotay but then they put that on the back burner," explains Beltran. "Now I pretty much have a close relationship only with the captain and that's it, but even the chance for a romance between those characters has fizzled out. As far as having friendships with other characters, I think it would be interesting if Chakotay were a little bit more curious about Tuvok the Vulcan. How about Paris? Supposedly at one time we were friends and fought together in the Maquis. Those seem to be possibilities for close personal relationships involving my character."
Chakotay was involved in a rather tempestuous relationship with Seska [Martha Hackett], a Cardassian spy in Maquis clothing who eventually joined the Kazon. In the second-season episode 'Maneuvers' the commander is captured by the Kazon and, unknown to him, Seska steals a sample of his DNA and uses it to impregnate herself. He discovers this in 'Basics'Part I, but his efforts to rescue the child result in Voyager being seized by the Kazon. His custody battle with Seska ends abruptly with the climax of the third-season opener 'Basics'Part II when Seska is killed and Maj Culluh [Anthony De Longis] escapes with the baby.
"I was disappointed to see that story line end because Martha did such a terrific job as Seska and it was a pleasure to work with her. It was fun exploring the rather bizarre relationship between the two characters," he chuckles. "I didn't care that much for the way they wrapped things up with Seska and Chakotay, but I realise it was a time issue and they had to resolve the whole thing quickly."
Besides the ongoing Seska/Chakotay saga, the show's first two seasons showcased Beltran's acting talents in stories such as 'Initiations' in which the commander fights to gain the trust of a young Kazon and the Janeway/Chakotay romance tale 'Resolutions'. Unfortunately, the series' third season was not nearly so generous to the actor. After appearing in the amusing story 'False Profits', Beltran had very little to do until Chakotay helps to rescue Janeway from a creature which feeds on the souls of the dying in 'Coda'. Following this is one of the actor's favourite episodes, 'Unity', in which the commander falls in love with a former Borg. Chakotay is then used as a living relic to prove the evolutionary theories of an alien scientist in 'Distant Origin'.
"That episode was directed by David Livingstone," recalls Beltran. "He's a fine director and he tries to do something different every time he directs, which is admirable. This time, though, he decided he wanted to put the camera right up my nose," he laughs. "I found that to be very, very discomfiting, to say the least. I didn't have too much fun on that episode and it's a shame because it had a very interesting and solid premise. However, I wanted to strangle David and, believe me, I'm not insulting him because he's a good director, but If he reads this he won't be surprised because we've already talked about it."
In the season's penultimate story 'Worst Case Scenario' Chakotay is reunited briefly with his former lover Seska when a holodeck program malfunctions.
"It was terrific to work with Martha again and I think that, for the most part, it is a well-written episode. Like so many episodes, though, they had to wrap things up in a hurry due to the hour format and sometimes things get a little too tidy at the end."
BORG ON BOARD
Voyager's fourth season saw a major shake-up in the cast with the departure of Jennifer Lien [Kes] and the arrival or Jeri Ryan's character Seven of Nine. Coincidentally, it was an audition scene that Ryan did with Beltran that ultimately convinced the actress to join the series. Although the actor happily welcomed Ryan to the fold, he has become concerned about the show's recent shift to favouring it's female characters.
"You have a captain who knows everything and is practically omnipotent and now you have a Borg woman who knows everything and is practically omnipotent. Where is the crisis or conflict in that? Of course, all the guys are sort of following behind, so that's been a bit disappointing. I understand that the character of Seven has to be developed and that the show's writers and producers and the audience like her – we all do. Seven is a great addition to Voyager but I don't know if the show can sustain itself with two women at odds with each other week-after-week."
"Nemesis was an interesting idea, however, and again, I don't want to come off sounding like I'm being critical of the writing because I'm not," stresses Beltran. "I take full responsibility as far as my acting goes in anything I say about the writing. My one problem with this story, however, is that we really don't see why Chakotay comes to hate these people [the Kradin] as much as he does, when other races have treated Starfleet a lot worse. I think he was kinder to the Vidiians," he jokes. "I just don't feel the episode lived up to its full potential."
In 'Scientific Method' Chakotay and Neelix become two grumpy old men when an alien genetic experiment alters their DNA and causes them to age prematurely. "I love that scene with Ethan in sickbay where the two of us are sitting on the medical bed comparing ailments. I felt sort of like George Burns opposite Milton Berle," he chuckles. "Ethan and I fool around a lot on the set and we have our running jokes with each other. He can make me laugh at the drop of a hat."
Veteran performer Kurtwood Smith guest-starred on the two-part Voyager episode, 'Year of Hell' as Annorax, a Krenim scientist who asks Chakotay to help him change history in order to restore his civilisation to it's former glory and to be reunited with his dead wife. Smith had previously appeared as the Federation president in the feature film, 'Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country' and as the Cardassian Thrax in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode, 'Things Past'.
"I've seen so much of Kurtwood's work over the years and it was a thrill to be able to perform with him," says Beltran. "I admire his focus as well as his enthusiasm and stamina. He's a real trouper, a hell of an actor and a nice guy."
Neelix turns to Chakotay when he suffers a loss of faith after being brought back from the dead in the episode, 'Mortal Coil'. The commander guides the Talaxian on a vision quest in hopes of helping him better understand his doubts about an afterlife. When Neelix decides that life is no longer worth living, Chakotay stops him from making a terrible mistake.
"Well, I guess our writers and producers know that Ethan tries to commit suicide a lot and I'm always talking him out of it. So they wrote this scene and it was pretty much like one of our phone conversations at three o'clock in the morning. No, I'm kidding," laughs Beltran. "This is another well-written episode and a particularly good one for Ethan. It's nice when we all have an episode we can really sink our teeth into and enjoy and this is definitely on of them."
Despite the fact that he spends much of his working life cruising through Outer Space, Beltran tries, whenever possible, to fit in some terrestrial activities. During the hiatus between Voyager's third and fourth seasons the actor directed and starred in the Classical Theater Lab's production of 'Hamlet' at the Actors' Gang Theatre in Los Angeles.
"First of all, I just have to say it was a terrific experience and I was not the same person afterwards as the person who went into it," he notes. "That's one of the reasons I wanted to do it, because I thought it would mature me in a number of ways, so in that regard it was extremely valuable.
"Artistically, I made some mistakes in that, because I had a lot of friends I wanted to work with, I tried to put together two different casts that would alternate performances. I would be the sole Hamlet, of course, because I was the only one who could guarantee that I'd be there for every show. Everyone else was either working elsewhere or trying to get jobs since they were not getting paid a lot to be in the show. It became impossible, however, to schedule rehearsals with two casts, so, in the end we went with just one and a few understudies. I had to get a commitment from everyone that they'd be there for every performance, otherwise we'd have to close. Twice I almost came close to dropping the whole project, but it was miracle after miracle that kept it all going. I'm very proud of the production and it accomplished what I wanted, which was to present one of the greatest plays every written."
When it came to directing it, I didn't want to," adds Beltran. "I offered that job to a couple of people, one in particular who is a very good friend of mine and a fantastic director, but he just wasn't available when we began rehearsals. So I took over because I figured it would be a good idea to get everybody on the same page and headed towards my vision, simple as it was. Finally, my friend was free, so he took over and I was able to concentrate on just playing Hamlet. He was immensely helpful and I wanted to give him the director's billing, but he declined. He said, 'No, it's your vision. You're still the director.' There's a theatre company in San Francisco that's thinking of having me play Hamlet with them, perhaps in the spring of 1999. It might be Hamlet sort of long in the tooth, but it might be fun to do again."
Away from cameras and the stage, Beltran supports the National Down Syndrome Congress.
"My youngest brother has Down syndrome, so I grew up understanding it. I have a lot of empathy for families that have Down syndrome children because they're like a blessing to the family. So I just feel that because of my little brother I should be involved. Luckily, Star Trek fans are so wonderful. I think at one convention they actually raised something like one thousand dollars. I hate squeezing money from people. I didn't ask them to do it, they just did, and I'm most grateful. I need to do more. We all need to do more."
Beltran is currently hard at work in the Delta Quadrant filming Voyager's fifth season and hopes to become involved in the show's director training programme. "I'm trying to get this small film together that I'd like to direct, so I want to learn more about that side of the business. A good place to do that is working on Voyager," he enthuses.
Transcribed by Janie Hodges
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