How Borgs, Vulcans and doctors showed diversity on 'Star Trek: Voyager'

The cast of "Star Trek: Voyager" meets for a virtual reunion on the YouTube show "Stars in the House," on May 26, 2020.
The cast of "Star Trek: Voyager" meets for a virtual reunion on the YouTube show "Stars in the House," on May 26, 2020. (Image credit: Future)

Days before Americans across the country came together in demonstrations against racial inequality, "Star Trek: Voyager" actors also discussed the benefits of diversity in a reunion show.

Among other cast members, the long-running series featured the first woman "Star Trek" captain (Janeway, played by Kate Mulgrew), a black Vulcan (Tuvok, played by Tim Russ), a Taiwanese-American human ensign (Harry Kim, portrayed by Garrett Wang) and a Klingon portrayed by a Hispanic woman (B'Elanna Torres, played by Roxann Dawson.) 

Many of the cast members reunited May 26 for a fundraiser to support struggling entertainment industry professionals (who were affected by set closedowns related to the novel coronavirus pandemic) on the YouTube channel "Stars in the House." Much of the stars' conversation centered on what "Star Trek" meant for promoting diversity.

Related: NASA's SpaceX launch is not the cure for racial injustice on Earth 

When looking at the franchise even outside of the 1995 to 2001 "Voyager" series, diversity abounds to the present day – including the first openly gay doctor in the franchise during "Star Trek: Discovery", which premiered in 2017. The original series, which ran from 1966 to 1969, included the starring black actress Nichelle Nichols at a time when many black actors struggled to get any kind of work.

"I think what the fans will agree, what set 'Star Trek' apart from everything else ... was the inclusiveness," Jonathan Lapook, the chief medical correspondent for CBS News, said during the reunion show. He briefly joined the reunion as he has used "Star Trek" technology in his reporting to draw analogies with MRIs, displays of vital signs and other modern-day technologies doctors have enjoyed in the decades since the series debuted.

But diversity still has a long way to go, according to Mulgrew. She said she was grateful to be the first woman captain on "Star Trek," but her sons were upset that she spent so much time working away from them. Her children, who were 10 and 11 when the series started, still have not watched her "Star Trek" performances more than 25 years after the series finished, she admitted.

"My least favorite thing [about the role] was the conflict that still exists for all women in a leading role who are raising children by themselves at home," she said. "I'm afraid I may have brought that on to the set a few times. I tried not to, but it was ongoing for seven years."

At least three actors spoke of their challenges of working as characters with less traditional emotions – Jeri Ryan, who played a human newly separated from the Borg alien collective; Robert Picardo, the hologram medical doctor who assisted crew; and Russ, a Vulcan alien whose culture was trained not to display emotions.

"He was colorless and humorless and dull as could be," Picardo said of his computer character, "The Doctor," in the early years of the show, "but the great thing about the concept of the character was that he was a piece of technology that was willful, and had kind of a bad attitude because he wasn't being respected." Picardo added that the more he leaned into that aspect of the character, the more his character's personality emerged.

"You are trained to show a range of emotions for years and years," Russ added of being an actor newly approaching a Vulcan character, "and then I end up playing this role for seven years where I didn't show any."

Ryan said her Borg-human character has seen quite the evolution from being a newly reformed human in "Star Trek: Voyager", to a more traumatized yet more fully formed individual in the new "Star Trek Picard" spinoff, which debuted earlier this year. "There was so much growth because she started not even human, so that was wonderful," Ryan said.

The actors alluded a few times to the uncertainty that the pandemic has produced for the entertainment industry; the new season of "Picard," for example, suspended its planned start of filming this month until at least the fall. But Mulgrew said that her captain character would have agreed with the quarantine measures. 

Related: What would Picard do? Investigating outbreaks in 'Star Trek: The Next Generation'

"I would certainly abide by what science dictates, to the rule," she said, including wearing masks, staying 6 feet (2 meters) away from others when outside, and "staying in as much as she possibly can."

The actors also shared reminisces of their time on set, along with other thoughts about the legacy of "Star Trek" to future generations.

Ryan said that coming on to the show in Season 4, midway through the run of "Voyager," introduced some challenges in fitting in with the cast — not least the issue that her Borg costume made going to the bathroom very difficult. Shooting on set would suspend for 20 minutes as assistants helped her out of the costume and back in, she recalled, which led to an unfortunate idea on her part.

"I actually got so sick, my first season on the show, because I felt so bad it was a production shutdown. I just did not drink all day. I got really ill. Not a good thing to do," Ryan said, laughing at the memory. But even with her troubles, Ryan always felt she could have it worse.

One of Ryan's crewmates on the show was Ethan Phillips, who played Neelix, a Talaxian cook. Getting Phillips ready to portray Neelix required putting on features such as whiskers, pale skin and hair protruding from the top of his head. "He had a miserable, miserable head of makeup to be wearing, and he never complained," Ryan said in awe. "I was there for four years. I never heard this man complain."

Phillips, listening in, acknowledged the hours-long makeup process for filming was "difficult." He added, however, that the character Neelix was a joy to play. "I liked that he had a big heart, and he wore it on his sleeve. That's rare ... I liked Neelix a lot. He was a good fellow."

The actors without extensive makeup had problems of their own to face. Several "Voyager" alums recalled the Starfleet uniforms, which left little to the imagination and were also very hard to move around in. "It was very tight and hot to move around in," recalled Wang of his uniform, saying the worst moments came when sitting down. 

Wang doesn't appear to be too soured by the memory, however, as Wang and fellow castmate Robert Duncan McNeill (who played Lt. Tom Paris on "Voyager") are co-hosting a new podcast, The Delta Flyers. Both actors are rewatching "Voyager" and providing behind-the-scenes analysis, episode by episode. McNeill said watching his own work in Season 1 has been painful ("He was kind of a jerk," he said of Paris), but the character growth that produced in later seasons was worth the trouble.

A generation after "Voyager," however, the actors say their characters continue to resonate with fans. Dawson said her character's struggles with depression and mental health are discussed often at comic-cons. Picardo said he still gets a kick out of speaking with astronauts, engineers and other people in the space program who decided to pursue their careers because of "Voyager."

One of Picardo's favorite contributions to space, however, came when he broke out of his rigid "Emergency Medical Hologram" persona to make a moving contribution to NASA's and the European Space Agency's Cassini mission at Saturn, which ended in 2017 after 20 years of service in space. 

Picardo gave Cassini an operatic send-off on YouTube to the tune of "La donna è mobile" (Woman is Fickle) from the opera "Rigoletto," by the 19th-century Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi. Some of the lines Picardo sang included: "Bravo, Cassini! Have some linguine. You showed us Saturn's rings and lots of pretty things."

Speaking in May about the operatic opportunity, Picardo said he enjoyed doing the homage to the long-running mission. "It was the most-viewed performance I ever did on the Internet," he said.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon:

  • One good thing you can say about the Borg. They accepted everyone. They discriminated against no one.
  • Hudata
    This is a minor point and I may get some flack for this, but Tuvok always bothered me. Not that Tim Russ didn't do a fine job, but while it makes sense that doctors, the Borg, and many other groups would reflect Terran racial diversity and that Vulcans might be racially diverse as well, somehow the idea that sentient beings would evolve on a planet orbiting Epsilon Eridani with copper-based blood would have exactly the same racial variations humans have struck me as improbable, and that detracted a bit from the verisimilitude of the Star Trek universe. Maybe Spock should have been green and Tuvok orange or something.
  • Lovethrust
    Romulan privilege always bothered me.
  • Hudata
    Tom2wxxx said:
    One good thing you can say about the Borg. They accepted everyone. They discriminated against no one.
    On the other hand, how much diversity can you have in a population whose central tenet is assimilation?