Starlog #238, May 1997

Russ to Judgment

By Ian Spelling

According to Tim Russ, Star Trek: Voyager is right on course.

“It’s an ongoing challenge to make certain that the stories and Tuvok’s motivations are consistent with what has been established in the earlier episodes we’ve done,” says Star Trek: Voyager’s Tim Russ. “That’s my biggest challenge, at least. I try to keep track of what Tuvok is doing and saying in every scene we do. There are many other things to worry about, too, but keeping up the consistency of a character on a series is a major challenge in and of itself. Much of that is out of my control, obviously, and I have to go to the writers and producers to discuss things. Fortunately, they’ve been pretty open to my comments and suggestions.”

Russ, of course, is now in the midst of his third season as the stoic Vulcan Tuvok. When the series began, Russ dealt with countless questions about following in the footsteps of Spock and Leonard Nimoy, of being a Black Vulcan, of portraying a full Vulcan. It took a while for viewers to accept the character and, in fact, Russ himself. “That’s all in the past,” Russ asserts. Later, Trekkers seemed to nitpick about the program in general, often comparing it harshly to The Next Generation. The show’s ratings, not quite stellar to begin with, dipped during the second season. As production began on Voyager’s third year, the producers promised a different attitude and more of an emphasis on action.

Now, two-thirds of the way through the new season, the results of that revamping are becoming clear. The Voyager crew is complaining less about their plight and getting on with the business of exploring their part of the universe. And the ratings have stabilized somewhat, with several special episodes – notably “Basics, Part II,” “Flashback” and the “Future’s End” two-parter – scoring particularly well. “I really didn’t think that the show had problems during the first two seasons,” Russ maintains. “We’ve improved as weave gone along, as any TV show should. It just got stronger and stronger. Each episode got a little better. The major difference has been between the second and third seasons. There is more action and more levity now between the crew members. I think these changes were for the good.

“During the first two seasons, we were pretty consistent. We dealt with interesting themes and we had to introduce all of the characters aboard the ship. Next Generation had to do the same things, and they became immensely successful. But it takes time. Next Gen was not an instant success, and I think people expected Voyager to be just that. The stories and characters are evolving. The writers are learning different things, trying different directions. It’s all part of a natural process.

“The show needs to strike the right balance of stories, social themes and characters. That’s what Star Trek is founded on. You need that blend of good SF stories, good plots, interesting twists, interesting characters and action. It’s important,” he continues, “to blend those elements into each episode and also to space them out between episodes, which is why we’ll go from a quieter episode one week to an action-oriented one the next. It’s difficult to do it right, but we’re all getting better at it as we go along.”

Past Elements

Russ has said in the past that “Prime Factors,” the episode in which Tuvok broke every rule in the Federation rule book – and, perhaps more importantly, Janeway’s (Kate Mulgrew) trust – by trading for a device that might have helped the Voyager return home, was the episode that most surprised him, because it found Tuvok behaving in a very non-Tuvok manner. Mention of “Prime Factors” brings up the notion of what viewers will never see Tuvok do on Voyager. “You’ll never see him passionately involved in a romantic relationship,” Russ declares. “It’s just not going to happen. The character was not designed for that kind of thing. In ‘Alter Ego’ he became attracted to Marayna [Sandra Nelson] and had to deal with that. That’s probably the closest you’ll ever see him to being in a romantic situation.

“That show handled the situation very accurately and logically. Tuvok had to figure out how to get out of the mess he was in, and he did. That’s a good example of one of the quieter episodes, a character show. We learned a great deal about Tuvok and Harry [Garrett Wang]. It explored the character of Tuvok in several different ways. It broadened his horizons, in terms of his understanding human relationships, and it revealed to the audience new aspects of the character. I liked that. Tuvok needs to better understand humans, since he’s on this ship and is in contact with so many of them on a regular basis. It makes sense that he needs to – and wants to – better understand these people.”

That particular episode was directed by Robert Picardo, following in the footsteps of Robert Duncan McNeill as a Voyager actor-turned-director. Russ gives Picardo a positive review. “It was wonderful to be directed by Bob. I think actors make great directors,” he says. “They know the whole routine. Bob had everything lined up and drawn out. It went very quickly as a result. There were very few delays. He had some element of adversity in terms of certain actors not being available to him for certain things. So, Bob had to improvise on the set a few times, right on the spot. He was also very helpful to me. The show, I think, came off very well.”

If all goes according to plan, Russ will make his own directing debut on a Voyager episode sometime next season. The actor is as pragmatic about the prospect as he is enthusiastic. “The director’s position in this circumstance is that he or she is working for TV and for the producers. You must work within a certain style and shoot for the people paying for the whole operation,” he reasons. “My main contribution will be, hopefully, to bring my show in under budget, but also to work successfully with the actors. I want my episode to be done as efficiently as possible and to tell the story as well as possible.

“Time travel is always a wonderful, complex way of storytelling.”

“You’re limited in what you can do by being on TV. It’s really producer’s medium, not a director’s Producers have the power and you shoot what they want to see. You have to shoot coverage for scenes. No matter how beautiful and wonderful your scenes may look, they’ll chop your head off if you come in with something that they can’t cut around. They have to cut the show to 42 minutes. It will be a very daunting task. I’ll have to rise to the occasion. I’ll be spending a million-plus dollars of someone else’s money. That’ll mean a few sleepless nights for me right there. I think I would prefer to start with a quieter show. A ship show or a bottle show would be fine with me. Every show involves some sort of optical this, or special FX that, and that’ll be interesting to deal with. We have a hell of a production staff, and most of them have been doing Star Trek for a long time, so I’ll have a great deal of help in those areas. It should be interesting.”

Present Aspects

Interesting is also an apt word to describe most of the episodes in which Tuvok played a major role Reflecting on episodes past takes Russ back to the second season entry “Persistence of Vision.” In that show, the Voyager enters a psionic field that causes each crew member’s innermost thoughts to surface. Tuvok  has visions of his wife, T’Pel (Marva Hicks). “I liked that show, and I liked that we got to see what kind of woman Tuvok  is married to,” Russ says. “It was also a rare opportunity to see our characters in the past without having some sort of memory or flashback thing.”

In “Cold Fire,” Tuvok works with Kes (Jennifer Lien) to hone her telepathic powers. “I liked the idea behind that show,” Russ explains. “It was very interesting to be affected by Kes discovering her powers and inadvertently using them on me.”

Tuvok next figured prominently in “Resistance,” in which Tuvok and Torres (Roxann Dawson) are taken hostage by he Mokra. While attempting to rescue them, Janeway befriends an emotionally wounded Alsaurian named Caylem (Joel Grey). “It was wonderful to work with an actor like Joel Grey. I thought the episode had great production values and a very good story, too,” enthuses Russ. “It was a chance for Roxann and me to work together, even if it was in a torture cell.”

A few episodes passed before Russ received the teleplay for “Meld,” in which Tuvok risks his life to understand the motivations of Lt. Suder (Brad Dourif), who ha murdered a fellow crewman. “That was an opportunity for Tuvok to stretch out to find what’s under the surface of the Vulcan veneer in a very direct way,” notes the actor. “It was wonderful working with Brad. It was an excellent way to look at random violence – a very intense episode.”

“Innocence” found Tuvok stranded on a planet after a shuttlecraft crash. There he encounters several terrified children, terrified because they seem to be disappearing one by one into the night. “We had a chance to see how Tuvok interacted with children, who could very easily have been like the children he left behind. There is some direct insight into how he would handle things and also a chance for him to reflect upon missing his own family, how much they were in his thoughts,” Russ says. “He seemed reluctant at first, dealing with the kids. Then, he warmed up to it, which seemed right to me.”

Near the second season’s end, one of the series’ finest hours, “Tuvix,” aired. In it, Tuvok and Neelix (Ethan Phillips), the textbook definition of opposites, are blended into one entity named Tuvix. The episode concluded in a most controversial manner, with Janeway restoring Tuvok and Neelix as separate beings, destroying Tuvix. “It was a long week off for me,” Russ says, referring to the fact that he himself was hardly present. “Tom Wright played Tuvix wonderfully. I thought he played the nuances and subtleties of both characters brilliantly. It was a good idea, to see those two characters in one body. It was definitely a little strange to watch another actor play my role.”

Season two wrapped with “Basics, Part I,” in which the Kazon leave the Voyager crew stranded on a planet and make off with the ship. The episode set the stage for the Doctor (Picardo) and the repentant Suder to save the day in “Basics, Part II,” the third season opener. “Both of those episodes were designed for some rock ’n’ roll. There was lots of fighting, lots of combat against the odds,” Russ recalls. “It also dealt a little with the impact Tuvok had on Suder, which I liked. I thought Brad did some really nice work in those shows.”

Season three of Voyager happened to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Star Trek. Thus, the producers decided to create an episode that tapped into elements of the original series. The result was “Flashback” and the presence of George Takei as Sulu and Grace Lee Whitney as Janice Rand in a Voyager adventure. The story revealed – via a Janeway-Tuvok mind meld undertaken to help determine the cause of painful childhood memories that threaten Tuvok’s life – that Tuvok served under Captain Sulu on the Excelsior at the same time the classic Trek crew was battling the Klingons in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

“An excellent show,” Russ rave. “Again, we had an opportunity to develop bits of Tuvok’s past, where he came from, what he has done, what he’s all about, how he got into the Academy, what occurred there, why he left and why he eventually came back. It had good action sequences, a wonderful tie-in to the original series and to Star Trek VI. It was also a pleasure to work with George and Grace Lee Whitney.”

November 1996 brought the “Future’s End” two-parter, in which the crew arrives in 1996 to thwart the actions of an egomaniacal businessman (Ed Begley, Jr.) and thereby save the future. “That was a chance for us to get out of the studio and shoot on location. I thought both episodes were excellent. Time travel,” Russ argues, “is always a wonderful, complex way of storytelling. It can be difficult to do, but wit’s very entertaining to watch. I loved the story and thought it was worthy of two episodes. I particularly liked interacting a bit with Tom Paris and helping to solve the problem.”

Russ already discussed “Alter Ego,” so the latest episode to review is “Rise.” “That’s another show with an interesting idea behind it: A group of aliens and Voyager crew members trapped together on a planet and desperate to escape. I liked that it was part escape story and part murder-mystery. I also liked that Ethan and I finally had more than a few seconds of screen time together. We had some real scenes.”

As busy as he has been with Voyager, Russ has managed to make time to pursue some of his other interests. Whenever possible, he and some musician friends perform at a coffee house in the San Fernando Valley. Russ plays electric guitar, bass and sings. During the last major Voyager hiatus, he produced and essayed a supporting role in an urban drama called East of Hope Street, based on a script he wrote. Russ and his partners are currently screening the independent feature for distributors and hope it will be released theatrically this year.

In the meantime, Tim Russ is back on the set of Voyager, breathing life into Tuvok and gearing up to direct. And that’s all fine with him. “It has been a very rewarding experience for me, in a number of ways,” he explains. “This has been a chance to work on a series on a regular basis. In terms of having a home as an actor, it has been incredible. Before Voyager, I had no idea what to expect on a day-to-day basis I had guest-starred before, but once you get right in the middle of it, it becomes much more profound. I’m working with a wonderful group of people on Voyager, which is another big plus. I’m going to get to direct, which has me very excited. My expectations coming into the show were ‘Let’s wait and see what happens.’ And it has been wonderful, just wonderful.”