Cinefantastique Vol. 30, Number 9/10, November 1998

Vulcan Watchdog

Tim Russ on playing Tuvok, keeping an eye on the logic and consistency while turning to directing

By Anna Kaplan

Tim Russ, VOYAGER's resident Vulcan and keeper of the STAR TREK flame, welcomed changes he perceived in the show's fourth seasons. He said emphatically, "What's the point of watching it if it's not going to be entertaining? Our ship is unique in that it's out on its own. Being out on the frontier, it should have a frontier feel to it. There may not be so much law and order in a place where you're on your own. Your first objective is to survive, and you're going to have to break some rules, defy things in order to survive. You may have to compromise on occasion in order to survive. So by virtue of the fact that we are in the frontier, it should be a little wilder, more unpredictable, riskier. It makes it more interesting."

Russ praised co-executive producer Brannon Braga for his creativity and willingness, "To push the envelope."  With Braga at the helm, Russ said, "I think you will see a lot of things happening differently next year."

Ironically, Tuvok often functions as the voice of the conservative Starfleet approach. Agreed Russ, "He is a conservative element, usually the voice of reason or caution. He always speaks up about certain things they are going to do. 'Captain, are you aware of the fact that it may be dangerous? It may be a great deal of risk to Voyager.' He's always going to be there. That's his job.

Unlike Tuvok, Russ embraces new ideas. He enjoyed the past year, saying it was, "A very good year, an excellent year of much better stories. I think the five-story arc of the Hirogen was very interesting. They were fascinating characters, and very dangerous. We just had the two-parter 'The Killing Game' and it was very well done. I think it was received quite well, also. To put on a two-hour show like that in one night was just great. Again, here we go with defying convention, breaking the rules once in a while. That's what keeps people interested. I'm very happy with the stories this year." Russ was talking about UPN's break with tradition by airing "The Killing Game" all in one evening.

Speaking about a two-parter which aired earlier in the year, "Year of Hell," Russ said, "It was an absolutely wild, big roller coaster ride. Playing blind was a bit of a challenge. It's rare, especially [with] my character, to play outside what he normally does. That was interesting from an acting standpoint. It gave me something different to do, very different, because scenes that would normally be fairly simple, became complex because I couldn't see where I was going. I had to make it look that way, because we had nothing on my eyes. I would almost rather have played it with something covering my eyes, rather than to pretend, because it would have been even more real for me. I think it would have changed the performance, if I could not see where I was going. I would have loved to have had that handicap somehow. It was very difficult to pretend not to see, especially when another actor is talking to you. You have to look away from them, to avoid their eyes. When somebody calls you from off camera, the tendency is to look right at them, and you can't. It's very, very tricky. It defies everything that you naturally do with eyesight. I had to reshoot it or do another take because I looked where I shouldn't have been looking, at the other actors."

 In fact, co-writer Brannon Braga had originally thought of Tuvok suffering much more severe injury in the episode. Braga said, "He was supposed to be more damaged than that. We were actually going to have him blind and missing a leg, and we were going to do a FORREST GUMP-type of digital effect. He was going to have many physical problems, but for production reasons, we ended up with just blindness, which I think is unfortunate because of the Geordi LaForge connection." Russ was a leading contender for the role of THE NEXT GENERATION's Geordi LaForge, a part which went to LeVar Burton.

During "Year of Hell" a relationship developed between Tuvok and Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), who was partially responsible for his injury. Noted Russ, "You see how this bond could have occurred, or what direction it could have gone into. Right now there is a similar viewpoint that they have because of the fact that she has yet to develop human emotions on her own. Over a period of time she will, and should become more human as we go along, because she is basically human."

Tuvok's view of Seven changed during an earlier show, "The Raven." In that episode, he risked possible assimilation by the Borg in order to help her learn about her past. Explained Russ, "He was always somewhat hostile towards the fact that we had a Borg on the ship. He never liked the idea to begin with, because he is in charge of Security and Tactical. He warned that this is probably not a good idea. He is always on the lookout for her to mess up, and in the process of doing so he ends up learning about what happened, and understanding what happened. They form a bond at that point in time."

"Random Thoughts," an episode about thought crime, gave a glimpse into Tuvok's Vulcan mind. It explored a society of telepaths who have prohibitions against violent thoughts, but Tuvok discovered a black market of these very ideas. Russ said, "There's always going to be somebody who doesn't want to do what everybody else wants to do. In any individual society with freedom of thought or freedom of speech, people are going to exercise it. It may not always be pretty, which is the trade-off for that kind of freedom. This [episode] dealing with thought crimes, and those who are in power not being aware entirely of what was going on, was very interesting. I thought it was pretty cool, dealing with what's in people's minds, and using this stuff as a drug, as it were. The human desire, in fact, to alter reality, to alter one's state of mind, apparently that's something that we have inherent in us."

Tuvok risked a mind meld with the black marketeer to discover the truth, and to stop him. He allowed the criminal to experience primitive, violent Vulcan emotions. Explained Russ, "He had to, under the circumstances. This individual tapped into the primitive Vulcan veneer. He was seeking that, and what he got was too much. He got to the core. What he was looking for was exactly what he found. The Vulcans do have this in them, it's simply controlled. Tuvok used that to fight back against this individual to eventually bring him to justice. That kind of thing is always risky, as we demonstrated in 'Meld'. I think it was a good point for us to bring up, because we never really examined melding until VOYAGER. It was just something the Vulcans did. We didn't know what it involved. It's extraordinarily risky. As a matter of fact, the Doctor commented upon it vehemently. He said that he objected to the fact that we take part in this type of practice, because it's dangerous, especially with other aliens. If you do it with your own people, it's one thing, but with another alien, it's got to be a nightmare, because you don't know what you are getting into. Spock [Leonard Nimoy] had done it, and paid the price on a couple of occasions. It's very, very tough to do that, and it's risky. We've normally only done it to try to either extricate Voyager or himself out of a situation."

"If you envision a scene a certain way, it's rewarding to see the process happen, to find out whether what you planned will come to life."

Russ' most important experience during the season did not involve acting. In fact, he got his first chance to direct an episode, one called "Living Witness." He explained the process, saying, "I had been working on it for the past three years, ultimately, up to the point where I got to actually do it. I was next in line, and it was my turn. It was nice to  get a chance to do it, and a good show as well. It's a wild piece, with a couple of twists and turns, and a chance to see us in a very different light."

What did he enjoy about directing? He said, "The part that's the most rewarding really is seeing whether or not what you planned or envisioned actually comes about. If you envision a scene a certain way, it's very rewarding to see the mechanical process of that happen, and then to see it on the screen when it's played back, in the same way that you envisioned it, to find out whether or not what you had planned was going to come to life. It was very interesting seeing that process happen. That's the challenge and it's the fulfillment that comes out of it."

He continued, "There are a couple of small points here and there, things I would have liked to have done differently. I can't do anything about that now. Anything that you've done as a type of artwork is never completely finished. It's never done exactly to satisfaction. There's always something you could do better. But ultimately, the piece is wonderful. And I've gotten very good feedback from it as well."

Overall, in summing up the season Russ declared, "The Hirogen stuff I liked a great deal. The World War simulation was interesting. Out of all that we've done, I think those were definitely interesting for me. They were very different. I'd have to say the one that I directed was one that I liked a great deal, because of my different participation in it. It was a turning point for me. Taking on this particular responsibility was really something that I was anxious about up front. I was concerned about whether or not it was going to happen successfully or not. Embarking on that for the first time, a project with that scale, with that much money behind it, it was something to adjust to."

Would he like to direct again? He said, "I'd do it again, absolutely. It's not something you would do on a weekly basis. It's something you'd do between, from project to project. I'd like to do it again on a different show, actually. That's what I'd like to do, direct something different. I'd have to do it during hiatus. So the next hiatus would probably be the only time I get a chance to do it."

In the meantime, Russ planned to travel and go to a couple of STAR TREK conventions during the break between the fourth and fifth seasons of VOYAGER. Just before the season ended he tried his hand at something completely different, a radio play called "We Have No Home" which he performed at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Southern California. He played a character named John Horse, who tried to find a homeland for the black Seminoles of Southern Florida. Russ explained, "That was a kick, because doing radio is very different from doing television or film. You only have your voice. The only thing that communicates is your voice. It's very tricky to try to make your voice substitute for the way you look, for your eyes, your expression, and everything. Everything has to be in your voice, all the nuances. There was a lot of it in this piece. It was in almost every other page of dialogue. It was a pretty heavy part, and that challenge is really something I like to take on. It's something different than what I'm doing on a daily basis now."

Russ is always trying to find a challenge, a change in his routine. So he is looking forward to the next season on STAR TREK: VOYAGER as they all try "to push the envelope."