Star Trek 50th anniversary: ‘Deep Space Nine’ star Nana Visitor had one wish as Nerys


As part of CNET’s coverage of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, I chatted with a dozen cast members from across the franchise about everything from Star Trek’s inclusive message to whether the ships are actually real.

By Ian Sherr

If Nana Visitor could have done one thing on Star Trek, she would have been captain.

Call it galactic jealousy that Kate Mulgrew ended up as Capt. Kathryn Janeway of “Star Trek: Voyager,” running a ship with a lot of strong female characters.

Visitor was powerful on her own. As Kira Nerys, Visitor played a freedom fighter who fought back the invasion of a militaristic species. Her race seemed to embody allegories to World War II, specifically the French Resistance and the Holocaust. Nerys was a fighter. Visitor loved that about her.

Even then, she wanted more.

“I really wanted to do Captain Janeway,” she said. “I wanted everything, but I didn’t want to leave Kira…I wanted to do it all.”

Visitor (whose first name is pronounced na-NAW) clearly had an emotional connection to her Star Trekexperience that made it more than a job. Maybe that’s because Star Trek was the only TV show she watched as a teenager, usually while eating dinner before work.

Or maybe it’s because executive producer Rick Berman wooed her to join the cast by telling her about the gritty and emotional stories “Deep Space Nine” would explore during its 1993-1999 run. That was enough to get her to ignore her manager, who told her being on Star Trek was career suicide.

startrek50cropped2.jpgFor the next seven years, she lived and breathed Star Trek nearly 16 hours a day. “It’s taken up a big part of my life and an important one,” she said.

Visitor also identified as Nerys so much she sometimes still slips into talking about her in the first person. “When we’d go on the Defiant,” she said at one point, referring to a ship on the show. Then she caught herself and said, “OK, when we’d go on the set of the Defiant…”

The realness of what the Star Trek series was able to create with sets, props and makeup had a profound effect. “I don’t have a really good handle on reality, not when my senses are being filled like they were on the show,” she said. “It was happening, and it was important. It was real to me.”Click for full coverage.

Visitor is currently working on a production of a play she wrote called “Bardo,” which explores suicide.

Star Trek 50th anniversary: How Gates McFadden kept her son from confusing her with Dr. Crusher


As part of CNET’s coverage of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, I chatted with a dozen cast members from across the franchise about everything from Star Trek’s inclusive message to how to play a fake doctor in the future.

By Ian Sherr

Gates McFadden didn’t watch much TV before she landed a role on the Star Trek revival “The Next Generation.” And when she admitted to friends she had almost no Trekkie knowledge, they were horrified.

“I didn’t understand what warp speed is or what a Klingon is,” she said.

That’s probably why she turned down the role. Twice. It took several conversations with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry to turn her around. His goal for her character, Dr. Beverly Crusher, was to give a woman a command position on the Enterprise and much more substance than Communications Officer Nyota Uhura had in the original series.

“It’s a character that has authority and it’s something people didn’t have in the show,” she remembered Roddenberry telling her. Crusher would be able to challenge Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, played by Patrick Stewart. She’d also be his love interest, in addition to being a widow and single mother.

“I had grown up when Gloria Steinem had happened and the question was, Can women have it all?” she said. “This was a different role. There was something modern about it.”

Even so, she felt the show didn’t dig as deep on some aspects of her character, like single parenting.

She also faced the challenge of being on “The Next Generation” and raising her son, who was born about halfway through the show’s 1987-94 run. Though many of us would be jealous of parts of his childhood (“My son learned to walk on the bridge, literally”), she struggled with separating Gates McFadden from Beverly Crusher.

One way she handled that was by letting her son watch rehearsals, but not the finished show. “I didn’t want him to project onto my character,” she said. “I didn’t want him to confuse realities.”

There were times the situation worried her. Once, she was inspecting an action figure of her character for approval, and her son blurted out, “Oh, a mommy doll!”

It all turned out fine, she said, and she’s happy with the 25-year-old man he’s become.

As to her on-set son, Wesley Crusher, she felt  he got a bad rap from fans who complained he was both annoying and boring.

Star Trek 50th anniversary: Robert Beltran says the Prime Directive is ‘fascist crap’


As part of CNET’s coverage of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, I talked with a dozen cast members from across the franchise about everything from Star Trek’s inclusive message to how they really felt about their characters.

By Ian Sherr

Robert Beltran is known for two things in the Star Trek universe: playing Commander Chakotay in “Star Trek: Voyager” from 1995-2001, and complaining about it to the press.

Get Beltran going, and he’ll grumble about just about anything related to Star Trek. He didn’t like the monotony of shooting. (“I often say it’s like working in a factory.”) And he’s not a fan of its predictable format. (“I kept telling the writers, ‘If you can just take three minutes off a bridge scene and write another scene with human beings talking, the show is going to be much better.'”)

He even rails against the show’s “Prime Directive,” a guiding principle that prohibits Starfleet characters from interfering with the development of alien civilizations.

“The idea of leaving any species to die in its own filth when you have the ability to help them, just because you wanna let them get through their normal evolutionary processes is bunk — it’s a bunch of fascist crap,” he said. “I much prefer the Cub Scout motto.” (The Cub Scout motto, by the way, is about doing your best and helping others.)

So, it’s safe to say Beltran’s not much of a Trekkie. He barely watches TV anyway. He prefers the arts, music and stage work. He writes poetry and composes music.

startrek50cropped2.jpgThough initially he hoped the Chakotay character could present opportunities to explore culture and identity, Beltran, a child of Mexican immigrants, ultimately realized that wouldn’t happen much. But he’s made peace with it, and come to appreciate aspects of his life as a pseudo nerd-celebrity. Like many  Star Trek cast members, he appreciates the fan enthusiasm that’s helped keep the franchise alive.

“I also knew I was going to work with a bunch of great actors and a great crew,” he said, adding that the seven years he spent on the series were well worth it. “I wouldn’t trade them for anything.”

Beltran, 62, is currently turning toward more theater work and focusing on his music

Star Trek 50th anniversary: Can you imagine an alien that squawks? John Billingsley did


As part of CNET’s coverage of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, I chatted with a dozen cast members from across the franchise about everything from Star Trek’s inclusive message to how to convincingly play an alien.

By Ian Sherr

If John Billingsley had his way, you’d have heard him squawk like a bird in the middle of his lines.

He was auditioning for the part of Phlox, the ship’s doctor on “Star Trek: Enterprise,” which ran from 2001 to 2005. The character was part of a race of aliens called the Denobulans that hadn’t been depicted on the Star Trek shows before.

When the actor read for the part, the producers requested a slight alien accent. Billingsley had no idea what that meant or what a Denobulan would sound like. So after unsuccessfully bouncing a few ideas off his wife, he decided to give his character “kind of an Indian lilt.” And a squawk.

Since no one told him not to squawk, he continued to do it “in moments of rapture,” even after he landed the part.

But the bird sounds were not to be. When he tried squawking during production for the pilot, they told him to stop screwing around.

“I figured, go for the job you would like to have,” Billingsley remembers with a laugh. “At the time I was auditioning, I thought I’d like to be a bird — and I was going to give him something to flap his wings about.”

Though Billingsley played an alien, he appreciated the fact that he didn’t have to learn the long and intricate history of the Vulcans or how to speak Klingon. “What were the Denobulans like? They were like me.”

Billingsley spent two and a half hours in makeup each day becoming his character. That’s about the same amount of time it took  Michael Dorn, who played Worf on two other Star Trek shows, to morph into an Klingon. Billingsley routinely turned on classical music and squinted at The New York Times without his glasses while being transformed.

Like many Star Trek cast members, Billingsley, now 56, began his career as a stage actor. He moved to Los Angeles to try his hand at TV at the age of 35 and ended up as a “character actor.” In Hollywood parlance, that means he played a specific type. He wasn’t the crusading attorney or the gruff cop. Instead, producers cast him as a child predator. A lot.

startrek50cropped2.jpgHe was up for the part of the tech whiz on the action show “Alias” once, but didn’t get it.

So when the opportunity to join “Star Trek: Enterprise” came along, Billingsley was open to it. He’d watched the original “Star Trek” as a child, but he didn’t, in his words, “grok” it. He preferred magazines and books, including the works of notable sci-fi authors Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. “I have been a big reader all my life,” he said.

That’s probably why he felt a connection to Phlox, whose Buddhist-like attitude he appreciated. He also liked that his character used holistic medicine and didn’t rely on technology, at least not too much. “It was nice to play a good guy and someone whose value system and temperament is much closer to my own,” he said.

Billingsley, you see, is a self-described  Luddite, and found the technobabble Star Trek is so well known for the most challenging part of the job. Thankfully, most of it was medical babble, which was easier to manage.

Star Trek 50th anniversary: Don’t call Tim Russ a Trekkie


As part of CNET’s coverage of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, we talked with a dozen cast members from across the franchise about everything from Star Trek’s inclusive message to how actors show emotion when their character has none.

By Ian Sherr

Tim Russ may be among the most-cast actors in Star Trek shows and movies, but don’t call him a Trekkie.

In fact, the 60-year-old actor, who appeared on “Star Trek: Voyager” from 1995 to 2001, for many years saw Star Trek as just another job. Sure, he’d seen reruns of the original series, mostly since there weren’t many TV channels when he was growing up. But before he began his Star Trek career, he knew about as much about the franchise as he did about “Gilligan’s Island.”

“It was my job,” he said. “It could have just as well been ‘Baywatch.'”

Russ is a sci-fi nut, though, and when he was cast, he took the part because he remembered how interesting and edgy the original Star Trek show’s stories were.

“They had social commentary,” he said. And to a black kid growing up in the turmoil of the ’60s, the issues the show tackled hit close to home. Gene Roddenberry, the creator, “dealt with the conditions of what was happening,” Russ said. “I was very much aware obviously of what was going on with the turmoil of civil rights and Vietnam, and that was all brought out in his stories.”


Russ was first cast on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” as a terrorist named Devor, not the character he’d ultimately play. Russ held two other roles — one as an unnamed “Lieutenant,” the other as a Klingon mercenary called T’Kar on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” — before being cast as Tuvok, the Vulcan head of security for “Star Trek: Voyager.” He called it a seven-year audition process.

Russ likes to think about big-picture issues, which is probably why he appreciates sci-fi so much. “It allows you to challenge the human condition,” he said. He particularly enjoys self-contained stories, like H.G. Wells’ novel “The War of the Worlds” and the TV show “The X-Files.”

The actor is still involved in Star Trek, though not in an official sense. He’s directed and acted in fan projects like “Star Trek: Renegades.” Some of his most recent work outside the Star Trekuniverse includes “Junkie,” a gritty film he directed about a small town riddled with a heroin epidemic.

Star Trek 50th anniversary: The show turned Robert Picardo into a giant science nerd


As part of CNET’s coverage of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, we talked with a dozen cast members from across the franchise about everything from Star Trek’s inclusive message to whether Siri can replace the ship’s computer.

By Ian Sherr

Robert Picardo thought he’d just landed the most boring role in the Star Trek universe.

He’d been asked to play the “Emergency Medical Hologram,” an interactive computer doctor on “Star Trek: Voyager,” a show about the seven-year journey home for a starship flung across the galaxy by an alien being. Picardo’s character, called “The Doctor,” had nine lines in the pilot episode that ran in 1995, and none of them seemed interesting to him.

“I thought he was humorless,” Picardo said. Instead, he wanted to play Neelix, a new alien who enthusiastically joins the Voyager crew as a guide and cook. The actor was, however, a bit worried about the makeup. Producers wouldn’t tell him if it involved a prosthetic head, something pretty much every actor despises because the makeup process is long and the get-ups are usually uncomfortable to wear.


Robert Picardo as The Doctor (who names himself “Joe” in the last episode. Yes, we waited seven years for “Joe.”) / CBS

He didn’t get the part, but the producers contacted him again to play The Doctor. They told him to be funny, but he still thought the dialogue seemed too serious. “I bluffed my way through the audition,” he said.

When he got to the part where The Doctor is left alone in the ship’s sick bay, he looked around and said the line, “I believe someone has failed to terminate my program.”

Then he ad-libbed: “I’m a doctor, not a nightlight.”

That channeling of Dr. Leonard McCoy’s famous catchphrase from the original Star Trek series (“I”m a doctor, not an escalator!“) landed him the part and helped him change The Doctor into one of the most beloved characters on “Voyager.”

Pretty soon, Picardo realized the ongoing gag about The Doctor was that he had an awful bedside manner — and a superiority complex. He was programmed to embody nearly all the show’s medical knowledge, but he was stuck treating the crew’s scrapes and bruises.

At one point, Picardo recommended to the writers that his character become an opera fan. The idea of seeing his emotionless face on the screen while gut-wrenching arias about love and loss play behind him seemed hilarious.

Turned out he was right.

Picardo, now 62, graduated from Yale University with a drama degree after starting as a pre-med major.

He seems to have a penchant for playing neurotics and doctors. You may remember him from “The Wonder Years” as Coach Cutlip, a PE teacher whom Picardo imagined as wanting to teach English but who gets shafted with something else. “I played a character who had the IQ of a stupid walrus,” he said. The role  earned him an Emmy nod.

In “China Beach,” he played a doctor drafted into the Vietnam War who starts the show being kicked in the groin by a woman disgusted by his sexist attitude.

After “Star Trek: Voyager,” which ran from 1995 to 2001, Picardo got involved in another popular sci-fi project. This time, it was the “Stargate” franchise of TV shows about a modern secret military program using ancient alien technology to travel to the stars. He was supposed to play a bureaucrat whose inquiry justified  a clip show. But his “douchebag” version of The Doctor’s bedside manner went over so well the producers invited him to join the cast.


The Doctor changed Picardo’s life in other ways. He was asked to join The Planetary Society, co-founded by famous astrophysicist Carl Sagan. The nonprofit acts as an advocacy group for space science and exploration, and it has led Picardo to work with celebrated figures like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

At first, Picardo said it seemed a little weird being revered while sitting on stage next to actual astronauts. “Now I not only made peace with it, I went ‘Gosh, if I’m gonna get this opportunity, then I’m gonna celebrate it and embrace it and see what I can do in my own small way, to help bring the science fiction fan to real science,'” he said.

Asked what type of Star Trek tech he wished he had, Picardo didn’t say “the transporter” like nearly everyone else interviewed for this series. Instead, he talked at length about  the $10 million Qualcomm XPrize to invent a noninvasive medical scanner — the real-life equivalent of the medical tricorder from Star Trek that could instantly detect any illness or injury.

Star Trek 50th anniversary: Poking fun at Trekkies made this Questarian value them more


As part of CNET’s coverage of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, I talked with a dozen cast members from across the franchise about everything from Star Trek’s inclusive message to how best to lampoon the Trek universe.

By Ian Sherr

What if TV broadcasts of Star Trek were intercepted by a technologically advanced but naive race of aliens?

That’s the premise behind “Galaxy Quest,” a 1999 parody/homage that lovingly hits on every aspect of Star Trek, from the corniness of the original series to the incomprehensible technobabble to the pajamalike costumes and, of course, the franchise’s dedicated fans. You didn’t need to know Star Trek to get the gags, but diehards could spot many inside jokes, including Alan Rickman’s masterful sendup of Leonard Nimoy’s love-hate relationship with his character, Spock.

But it was Enrico Colantoni who won over many a Trekkie’s heart with his portrayal of Mathesar, leader of the Thermians, the alien race at the heart of “Galaxy Quest.” The civilization of octopoidal aliens was in disarray until broadcasts of the “Galaxy Quest” reached their planet from Earth.

Believing the TV episodes to be “historical documents,” the Thermians modeled their lives on the show’s teachings. And when they got into trouble with the evil General Sarris, they head for Earth and ask for help from the “Galaxy Quest” actors, believing them to be extraordinary space-farers.

Although Colantoni knew about Star Trek — fellow Canadian William Shatner is a legend, after all — he didn’t know about the conventions “Galaxy Quest” would parody. “It didn’t dawn on me there was a whole subculture.”

startrek50cropped2.jpgTo help create Mathesar, he drew from “The Coneheads,” a massively popular “Saturday Night Live” sketch about aliens with conical-shaped heads stranded on Earth. He borrowed the characters’ monotone speech, but replaced their robotic personalities with a heartfelt innocence.

“I made him born again,” Colantoni, now 53, said of his character. “His innocence was so transparent. He wasn’t hiding anything.”

“Galaxy Quest” fans may remember talk of a “Galaxy Quest” TV series in the works before actor Rickman died. The death stopped any efforts, Colantoni said, and he hopes it stays that way. But if a TV series does come to be, he wants to be invited, because he enjoyed playing an alien.

“Any character where you’re allowed to extend the imagination beyond the here and now is great fun,” he said. “I know how much fun an actor has when they put on goofy makeup.”

Of the many things he learned from playing Mathesar, Colantoni said he developed a deep appreciation for Star Trek’s fans. “When I found out these people were real, I discovered compassion where I might have made fun of them before,” he said. “They’re no different than a sports fan or a fan of anything.”

It also taught him that sci-fi is about the human spirit. “Human evolution is where Star Trek lives,” he said.

Colantoni’s since gotten into directing, including an episode of the sci-fi drama “iZombie.”

Star Trek 50th anniversary: How the cosmos forced Dominic Keating to watch reruns


As part of CNET’s coverage of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, I talked with nearly a dozen cast members from across the franchise about everything from Star Trek’s inclusive message to their favorite characters.

By Ian Sherr

Dominic Keating watched the original series religiously as a child growing up in the UK, but he didn’t keep up with Star Trek after that.

It wasn’t until he was living on a commune in Malibu, California, in 1994 that he began watching again. He was sharing a satellite dish connection with someone, and that someone controlled the box. It was either set on adult programming or “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

That ended up being a good thing, because fellow British actor Patrick Stewart, became a role model. And so, when after seven years in Hollywood a part in Star Trek came along, “I knew I’d hit the mother lode,” he said.

Keating only watched a few episodes of “Star Trek: Voyager,” a couple of the older movies and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” But he knew Star Trek was going to change his life.

What he loved most about the experience, was working with people like Scott Bakula, best known for starring in the sci-fi series “Quantum Leap” a decade earlier. Bakula signed on as Captain Jonathan Archer on “Star Trek: Enterprise,” which ran from 2001-2005. Bakula was a real gentleman, Keating said. To this day, whenever he’s confronted with a challenging situation, he asks, “What would Scott do?”

Keating also really likes the conventions: “It’s like being Brad Pitt for the weekend.”

startrek50cropped2.jpgNow 55, Keating has kept his sci-fi connections alive by voice-acting in the hit dungeon exploring game Diablo III, and joining the cast of the upcoming sci-fi comedy film “Unbelievable!!!!!” He also recently recorded an audiobook version of “The Iliad.”

Here are edited excerpts of Keating’s answers to my warp-speed round of questions.

Star Trek 50th anniversary: Jeri Ryan reaaaaally wants a transporter


As part of CNET’s coverage of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, I talked with a dozen cast members from across the franchise about everything from Star Trek’s inclusive message to how it feels to be a sex symbol to nerds.

By Ian Sherr

Jeri Ryan didn’t want the role at first.

The then up-and-comer was trying to kickstart her career after earning a theater degree and winning the Miss Illinois beauty pageant (she later competed in Miss America, coming in fourth place).

“I wasn’t remotely interested in science fiction,” Ryan said of her pre-Star Trek days. Sure, she’d watched some episodes of the original series. But she’d also heard the shows had a history of stymieing some actor’s careers.

Then Ryan read about her character, Seven of Nine, a human kidnapped as a young girl by a cybernetic race known as the Borg. She then spends decades participating in the atrocious “assimilation” of other species before she’s snatched back by the Voyager crew. Aboard the ship, she begins to rediscover her humanity.

One audition scene involved her sharing with her eventual love interest memories of laughing during her pre-Borg childhood.

“It showed so much potential for the character,” said Ryan, now 48. “It was beautifully written.”

After she joined “Star Trek: Voyager” in the middle of its 1995-2001 run, ratings shot up more than 60 percent. It may have been her compelling storyline, but it might also have had something to do with her skin-tight uniform. She wasn’t bothered.

“The character herself was the complete opposite of a sexual character,” she said. “It was the antithesis of what this character was aware of.”


Anyone who’s followed Ryan knows she wasn’t pigeonholed. Within a month of “Voyager” ending, she had a part as a lawyer-turned-teacher on “Boston Public,” a drama about inner-city schools. She’s since become a prolific TV actor, with roles in “Bosch,” “Body of Proof,” “Leverage,” “Major Crimes” and “Helix.” (Some of her co-stars are having quite a good run as well.)

“It gave me a career,” Ryan said of  Star Trek. And that’s why she attends Trek conventions, to thank fans for making it all possible.

Star Trek 50th anniversary: Worf wasn’t a wuss thanks to Michael Dorn


As part of CNET’s coverage of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, I talked to a dozen cast members from across the franchise about everything from Star Trek’s inclusive message to whether they really could speak Klingon. 

By Ian Sherr

When Michael Dorn was getting ready for his role as Worf on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” the showrunners barely told him anything about his character.

Well, that’s not entirely true. He did get one hint from Gene Roddenberry, the former airline pilot who dreamed up Star Trek. “Gene just said, ‘Make the character your own,'” Dorn said.

Worf was born to a warrior race of aliens called Klingons. They routinely went to war with the United Federation of Planets, the organization upon whose Enterprise starship the show took place. Now, Worf was going to be a member of the crew.


Dorn as Worf. It may look simple, but that forehead took hours to put on. / CBS

Dorn though it would make sense a Klingon would find it hard to be accepted.

So, while watching his colleagues act out scenes without him, Dorn noticed the camaraderie developing among the characters. He decided to do something different — make Worf an outcast.

Dorn took many subtle actions to make Worf feel out of place. For the character’s voice, he spoke in lower tones and in a more deliberate way. He also made Worf seem more anxious to go to battle than the rest of the crew, always the first to warn that an alien wasn’t trustworthy or that they should be ready to fire on a likely adversary.


The result was that Worf was a commanding presence. But Dorn was worried it wouldn’t last. The security officer he played was routinely beat up by aliens invading the ship. Soon, he believed, the audience wouldn’t trust that Worf was a capable warrior.

Roddenberry reassured him the scenes weren’t meant to make Worf look weak, but rather to make the invading aliens look strong. Still, Dorn protested. So they found a compromise. Worf would use sword-like weapons in battle, making him seem more capable and harder to defeat.

After some research, Dorn and the show’s visual-effects producer, Dan Curry, invented the bat’leth, a double-sided scimitar-like weapon. They also created a form of Klingon martial arts with which to use this new weapon in battle.

The bat’leth has since become one of the most iconic pieces of Star Trek lore.