This Saturday is the big TREKtalks2 fundraiser livestream event featuring hours of panels with Star Trek celebrities from in front and behind the camera. Participants include Anson Mount, Scott Bakula, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, Terry Farrell, Nana Visitor, Brannon Braga, John de Lancie, Doug Drexler, Dan Curry, Mike and Denise Okuda, Dave Blass, Cirroc Lofton, Dr. Erin Macdonald, Robert Picardo, Naren Shankar, Armin Shimerman, Anthony Montgomery, Kitty Swink, Wil Wheaton, Rod Roddenberry, Dr. Mohamed Noor, and Andre Bormanis, all there to help raise money for the Hollywood Food Coalition
John Billingsley (Enterprise‘s Dr. Phlox) serves on the board of the Hollywood Food Coalition and both spearheads and cohost the event. We spoke to him earlier this week about his work with the organization and got some details about what to expect at TREKtalks. In the second part of our interview, Billingsley speaks frankly about the joys of working on the show, the tonal shift in season 3, the challenges of being on UPN, the pressure on the cast to sex things up, and more.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Star Trek shows often work in what’s happening today. Had Enterprise come out at a different time instead of around 9/11, do you think the tone of the show, and especially those later seasons, would have been different?
Yeah. One thing that happened is, Manny Coto was brought on, who subsequently went on to write for 24. And he wrote some of my very favorite episodes. But Manny, who I’ve worked with on a number of occasions, has a different sensibility, certainly, than I do, and I think probably a somewhat different sensibility than some of the Star Trek creators. So some of the third season was, in my opinion, given the nature of what happened on 9/11, leaning towards a philosophy that didn’t strike me necessarily as the Star Trek philosophy. And I say this with all due respect and deference to Manny; again, I think he wrote some of the best shows we did.
There was an episode [“Anomaly”] in which the question of whether or not it was legitimate for our captain to throw somebody into space because they weren’t coughing up the goods—it was presented as a moral dilemma fair, but it was very much the same moral dilemma that kind of undercut 24. And it was very much in our consciousness at the time, do the ends justify the means? Is it okay to waterboard somebody? Candidly, as a leftist, I was uncomfortable by aspects of season 3. And I say that with all due respect for Manny’s enormous talents.
We needed the tension of a serialized show. I think the show, particularly in the second season, was kind of drifty in that respect-I know Strange New Worlds works very well with standalone episodes. I didn’t think we were doing terribly well with standalone episodes, so I appreciated the tension of the chase and the urgency of the third season. But my problem was “the giant, horrible lizard creatures have attacked Earth and slaughtered us and we will go get them and we will kill them and it doesn’t matter nothing’s gonna stop us.” And then we invaded Iraq.
I was always more interested in more of the joy and confusion of exploration versus the killing of an enemy.
Exactly. I will say, and this has been pointed out to me, that at the end of the third season, it was revealed that the Xindi, too, were being manipulated. And you could argue that there was a—I won’t say anti-capitalist viewpoint, but certainly, an anti-colonialist viewpoint being expressed, which is always the thing that I’ve appreciated about Manny. He’s an extremely smart guy, he had an episode that was clearly taking on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. And from an atheist point of view, say, a pox on both of your houses to the extent that religion interferes with your capacity to actually get along.
I tend to kind of have complicated feelings about the third season. I think the fourth kind of found that sweet spot. My feeling about the show is—and you said it—is that it’s both joyful and confusing. The first ship, the first crew. I liked the fact that the weapons malfunction, I liked the fact that we were afraid to transport, I liked the fact that there was a sense of “Should we go, should we stay? What do we do?” I kind of felt they got away from that too quickly.
If Enterprise were being made today, do you think Phlox would have had husbands as well as wives?
I tried to play it with enough of a raised eyebrow to suggest just that. That was very much my goal. I frequently call myself the first polyamorous Star Trek character. I always thought that the husbands got together, the wives got together, the husbands and the wives, the husbands and the wives and the sisters and the brothers. I mean, it was an interesting culture in that they were cheek to jowl. So they had to have very strict rules about touching non-sexually, you don’t go around slapping people in the back on Denobula. Very strict courtship rules. but when the courtship was successfully effectuated, nobody gets it on like the Denobulans!
Did that ever come up as something people talked about and then said couldn’t happen? Was it ever discussed?
Bob Picardo is a dear friend, and I make fun of him all the time. Bob Picardo lurked behind the shrubbery to pop up and say “How about I sing opera?” That wasn’t necessarily as available to us [on Enterprise] as actors. For instance, we were under an edict: No actor was going to learn how to direct on our show.
In the meantime, you had Roxann [Dawson] and Robbie [McNeill] all over it.
Exactly. And I don’t think that was a reflection on our particular cast. I just think by the time our show was on UPN, a dying network, the ratings were in the toilet. The word from on high was you don’t have the latitude that we might have given you back when we felt the franchise was really healthy. So to a certain extent—and I don’t want this to sound snotty, because Rick [Berman] and Brannon [Braga] were nothing but gracious to me—but I didn’t ever get the impression that it was like, swing the door open and come on in, let’s hear it. And I was very reticent about it. On “A Night in Sickbay,” when it alluded to my polyamorous background, I did not get on the horn and say, “Hey, can we pull this out a little bit?” I think I might have mentioned to the director that from my point of view, the boys are getting it on and the girls are getting it on and I’m gonna see if I can figure out how to do that just in the performance. And some people say they got that.
You mentioned UPN, which Scott Bakula has been critical of; do you agree with him that the show would have lasted longer or been better had it been somewhere else?
Undeniable. But the thing is, UPN was a dying network. You can look at it from two vantage points: Yes, we probably would have been better in the pre-syndicated universe, which is what the other shows were. But syndication was, as a concept, beginning to fade away. So I don’t know if that was going to be a feasibility. And if UPN could have interested other writers and producers to pitch shows, then they might have been able to get rid of us. They couldn’t get rid of us, they didn’t have anything else … the network was schizophrenic. It didn’t have the support of CBS. I don’t even think it’s a question of blame to go around, the world of television was beginning to change in that era. And we were one of those shows that was on that cusp.
Dominic [Keating] and I went to convention in San Antonio, early on. The show had been going on for six months, maybe. And nobody was there, and it turned out that San Antonio is one of the affiliate stations that was not airing Star Trek on Friday nights, because that’s high school football night. UPN didn’t even have the power to command their affiliate stations to air the product. That’s how weak UPN was.
And there was nowhere else to get it, it wasn’t like you could wait for it to show up on Hulu the next day.
That’s some of it. I don’t think any of this addresses the fact that for the premiere episode, we got, I think, like 10 million. In the second episode, we got 2 million. So people didn’t, on some level, dig it. Whether it was Star Trek fatigue, whether or not people were wanting something that was unique, or whether they felt that we were actually kind of off the reservation too much, I don’t know. But I think the writing on one level was on the wall. The fact that we went four seasons, to me is the miracle. It’s not that I was ashamed we didn’t go seven… I liked the character a lot, don’t get me wrong. And I really liked the other actors and appreciated my time on the show. But yeah, rubber headwear… I don’t know that I’d want to do it again.
We recently heard a story from the actress Kim Rhodes, who was a guest star on Voyager, who said that Brandon and Rick wanted her for T’Pol. Ultimately she was told she was “the wrong body type,” which she knew meant she was too fat. Was the network’s focus on sex appeal something that everyone there was super aware of?
It certainly became readily apparent. We weren’t the first and we won’t be the last show—I say this as an old fat actor: If you’ve got eight series regulars, eight series regulars are gonna be sexy… I don’t mean to point this at Kim. I love Kim and she’s a wonderful actress. You simply cannot be in this industry without on some level making your peace with the fact that it is a visual industry and there is a deep corruption at the heart of the nature of the way we, as human beings, emphasize physical beauty. And this industry makes its bucks on it.
What do you remember about the cast reacting to all those decontamination room scenes? Were people joking about it?
I was! I was saying “I got blue underpants, when do I get to… you know?” I made a joke one time I think to Chris Black at a party. I said, “Come on, Chris. When am I going to run around in my underpants?” And he said something like “what if you run around without your underpants?” Bring it on. So although Chris left the scene in the third season, there I am strutting my stuff.
One of the things about Enterprise that was challenging for me as a viewer was that it did feel retro in terms of women.
I felt like there was a lot of Voyager sort of backlash involved. I don’t know if you would agree with that.
I’m not enough of a student to necessarily know what that means, Voyager backlash.
Voyager had a female captain who was a very strong character. And the other star was Jeri Ryan as Seven, they had Roxann Dawson as Chief Engineer, so women for the first time in Star Trek really were in charge and quite prominent and pretty much in every main story. And watching Enterprise, I kept wondering, was it “Enough with the women”? T’Pol as the main female character was in the most ridiculous outfit…
Yes. I get it. I know that was one of the things that was a bone of contention. I’m still nowhere near as hip to what I believe Star Trek stands for, and I really appreciate its ethos, but I’m not as hip to the intricacies of the individual series and episodes. I know was that the whole introduction of Jeri Ryan was an attempt to kind of set up the show in the latter half. And it seemed to have worked, to my understanding, which is what I think led to T’Pol, taking nothing away from Jo[lene Blalock]. I think she actually did a very nice job, especially over the arc of four years, really finding a way to kind of get into her much more. I mean, Spock is half human, so he’s got a little bit more room to play. T’Pol had to be, and Jo had to be ,or felt she had to be, more straitjacketed in terms of what kind of emotional range she had within the space she was allowed to move. I think she actually did very nice and nuanced work.
Undeniably, they’ve put her in a va-va-va-voom suit, and they’ve got her running around, you know, half naked all the time. She’s on the cover of Maxim magazine. But again, I’d go back to my earlier point, which is Star Trek is still a television show, every television show and every movie traffics in sexuality and traffics in the exploitation of both women and men. Connor is running around in his underpants all the time, too.
But there’s a difference between sexy, which is TV, and then a certain sexism, which I did feel watching it, you know?
I don’t dispute that. And it was largely a male writing room. As an actor—because I will frequently go back and forth between putting the cultural critic hat on and then putting an actor hat on—what I liked was that my character kind of floated in, had an ironic sensibility, could cock a snoot at all of it, including the sexism and the retro shit, and then wander out again. So I did make a bajillion jokes about like, “Really? We’re gonna go in and oil each other down…”
And I felt badly for Linda a little bit too, because Linda was the character who was the most timid on a certain level. I definitely can see looking at that through a sexist lens. I could also just say that I think, and doubtless this is sexism, if you try to make a guy the one who’s like that, they wouldn’t have done it. So they turned that into the woman’s shrinking role. I was glad they let that go more and more and more. But I don’t know that they ever really quite found a way to bring Linda’s potential strengths to the forefront.
Yeah. And I feel like in the beginning, they pitted T’Pol and Hoshi against each other in weird, unnecessary ways when they were both interesting characters. And Hoshi’s journey, someone being terrified to go on a starship is not a weird point of view.
It’s not a weird point of view but I’m kind of responding to what you said, which I think is very interesting, that if you only have two women on the ship, and if one of them has to be the embodiment of what it is to be terrified, yeah, I can definitely see—and I think you’re right—that that is perhaps unconsciously and perhaps consciously sexist.
You mentioned Phlox drifting in and out with his fun comments, but you also got a lot of really dramatic, intense stories on that show. Phlox went through a lot of hellish stuff. Which was more interesting to you to play?
The sensibility remains the same, whether or not he’s in a pickle, or whether or not he’s in a scene where he’s more amused by the scene on one level where the captain comes in and says, save my beagle. You want to spend the night here? That’s fine. I enjoyed those scenes a lot. Because I think at his heart, Phlox goes on a suicide mission. I mean, why does this guy say “Sure, I’ll go along. First time you’ve ever gone into space, I have no idea who the crew is…” A betting man would say probably they’re not going to make it out alive. I think that’s sort of indicative of Phlox’s sensibilities.
There was a little part of me that always felt that in an ideal world, Phlox’s unflappability would’ve been even greater than they allowed it to be. Because I think that’s one of the things he signed off on. We have, Westerners, human beings, we have our own particular relationship to mortality. I didn’t know enough about Denobulan culture so I kind of just invented my own shit that never kind of came out. But my sense is that in Denobulan culture, there’s a line, at which point, it’s gravy from here on. When gravy from there on in, it’s like, eh, so what’s the worst that’s going to happen, I’ll get blown out of the sky. So it goes.
I do think he kept that sense of wonder and excitement. He brought that every time he walked into the room, everybody was reminded the show is about exploration. Like, look at this guy.
And I liked that. Generally speaking, I thought they maintained, for the most part, a legitimate sense of Phlox, the outsider who has curiosity, amusement and fascination. There were times when I thought some of the dilemmas, particularly I think, the one called “The Breach,” I watched that again and it’s better than I remembered it. There were aspects of it, that I felt were somewhat hard for me to swallow down in terms of what I believed about Denobulan culture, that it was an imposition of a Western understanding of what race hatred would mean that wasn’t necessarily easily squared with the way I kind of took to know Denobulans to be but that’s maybe quibbling.
And generally speaking in terms of the dramatic to the comedic, it was nice to play a character that has that wider range, that’s unusual. So I enjoyed it. I truly did always look forward to getting the script to see whether I was gonna get to do much. I mean, I never was at the point was like, ‘Oh, I hope I’m not in this.’ I always wanted to be in it.
The other thing I confess, it’s just dear to my heart… I’ve gotten to be on the convention circuit for the last 25 years. And so I’ve gotten to know, a goodly number of the folks who are connected to this franchise. And I’m always overwhelmed at how thoughtful and kind and frequently erudite and interesting and well-informed the community of people who worked on all these shows are, and I’m very proud to count many of them as, if not close friends, at least friends that I always welcome seeing.
I think as viewers, we all feel that too. The actors, the writers, the designers, everybody who works on it, it’s a beautiful, giant community. And I think people really want that in this weird, dark, f—ked-up world that we’re in right now.
I agree. And it’s so arbitrary. It was just an audition for me. I was actually up for Alias. I didn’t get it and that was like, “That’s the end of that pilot season, damn.” And then Star Trek comes up. I go and audition for an alien actor with a slight alien accent and you know, it’s like a job. But when I got it, it’s like, “Oh, I do understand and appreciate the cultural importance of this franchise. And this is going to change my life.”
There are fans who think that the new area of streaming could find a way to bring back Enterprise in some way. Do you see a way that that could happen?
No. Not without radical—I mean, I mean, okay, first solve Trip is dead. Two, the actress who played T’Pol is not coming back to television. She has three children, she’s retired. And Scott [Bakula], I don’t see doing it. Scott’s got another show on now. So just start there. But beyond that, I think you have to have somebody who’s burning to tell the stories and that’s the [Mike] McMahans or whoever. I hear the fans are interested, but you don’t get that to happen without somebody like an Alex Kurtzman saying “I love Enterprise and I want it to continue.” And I don’t see that person emerging.
Like Terry Matalas advocating for The Next Generation.
Exactly. And even then you still have to find a way to pitch the product, somebody’s got to agree to put millions of dollars into making every episode of it. I just don’t think that’s likely. What you talked about earlier, about maybe enough appreciation on some people’s parts for those aspects of the show, that they’d like to bring some of the characters back the way that happened in Picard, that seems more feasible to me.
I’m the only one [from Enterprise] probably still alive. Denobulans are very long-lived, I’m just putting it out there.
Where to watch TREKtalks2
TREKtalks2 takes place on Saturday, January 14, 2023. The pre-show begins at 9:45 AM PT and the whole event can be watched on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Twitch. You can donate to the Hollywood Food Coalition directly or through the TREKtalks2 page.
Follow John Billingsley on Twitter.
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