What were YOU doing 11 years ago tonight? If you were a Star Trek fan, odds are you watched the premiere of the Enterprise episode “Dear Doctor.” It marked the 13th episode of the first season and it was not only a nice showcase for John Billingsley as Dr. Phlox and a strong hour of drama, but it proved to be one of the most controversial episodes of the entire series, with arguments about playing God with another species, debates about evolution and some very on-the-nose dialogue that rubbed more than a few people the wrong way. Even its production created controversy: UPN demanded an altered ending that put Phlox and Archer on the same page rather than left them disagreeing. StarTrek.com checked in with Billingsley – a sharp, well-informed guy who loves a good debate – and he graciously jumped on the telephone last week to talk.
So you’re minding your own business and along comes the “Dear Doctor” script. Did you sense that it had “controversy” written all over it?
Billingsley: I figured it probably would be controversial. I had, to be honest with you, two reactions to it. One, on a purely selfish level, it was the first episode that actually featured me to any great extent and it was the first opportunity I had to, I felt, put a bit of a stamp on the guy. So I was primarily concerned as an actor about what I was going to do and less concerned with what the issues presented by the script were. But I had a feeling that probably there’d be some upset. I’m not sure I agreed with its ultimate argument. I did not have my finger on the pulse of the controversy among the fans. I wasn’t aware of it until well after the fact. I was never one to pay much attention to the chat lines or to hook into the various sites. So, unless somebody went out of their way to say, “Hey, what’s happening?” or “What do you think about…?” I just let things go by most of the time.
But were you at least pleased that a Phlox episode followed the Trek tradition of tackling an issue with a lot of gray area?
Billingsley: Yes. I definitely agree that, just for me personally, aesthetically speaking, the episodes over the arc of four years that I thought had the most impact and held the most interest for me were the ones that actually did deal with issues. The cloning episode (“Similitude”) in the third season was particularly good. There was an episode (“Cogenitor”) in which Trip interferes with a couple’s decision to use their quasi-servant as a person to breed for them. That was one that got people’s panties in a twist a little bit, and those are the kinds that are interesting. So I’m glad that “Dear Doctor” was one that provoked some folks. It was dark. It creeped people out: an entire race of people are going to be doomed to extinction. I rather liked the darkness of Enterprise when it chose to be dark. I always wondered, “Gee, what would Enterprise have been like if were a cable show?” The fans might have rebelled. It might not have been what they wanted, but to me it would have been interesting.
How frightening is it to you that this episode aired 11 years ago?
Billingsley: Oh my God. You know what? After you reach a certain age, it’s all terrifying. I bumped into a guy at an audition yesterday. He’s a guy I acted with on stage 30 years in Seattle. I hadn’t seen him in a million years. “How are you?” “Well, I’ve got two kids. One is 25, one is 27, getting his Masters…” Oh my God. Oh my God. So, it’s a surprise to think “Dear Doctor” is 11 years ago. At least it’s not 30 years ago.
Yet. It’s not 30 years yet. Speaking of time, though, how do you look back on your Enterprise experience? Was it a good four years?
Billingsley: It was a blast, aside from the obvious benefit of making series money for the first time. For me and my wife, Bonnie, it cemented our future. We’re able to not work if we so choose, or if the industry so chooses for us. (Laughs). But it was also a lovely group of folks. It was by and large a fun show to do. You always have ups and downs. There are episodes I was fonder of than others, and I’m sure all the fans would agree there were periods of time when I thought the show was perhaps not really running on all cylinders, but you certainly make allowances for the fact that it was the umpteenth iteration of Star Trek and you can only go to the well so often. If I’m sorry about anything, and this is in no way to slight Rick (Berman) or Brannon (Braga), but I think when they brought Manny (Coto) on board he brought an interesting perspective and a fresh take and had such an obvious love for The Original Series. He was able to bring a bit of spark to our final season. It’s a shame, as is often the case, that by then the ship had sailed and it was too late to save the show. Having sad that, there are other factors as well. UPN was a failing network, and we wouldn’t have survived for four years if it hadn’t been for the fact that the powers that be knew that UPN was going to go under, so why worry about trying to bring fresh programming in? Also, and I heard this from a number of fans, the local (UPN) affiliates would not always show Enterprise. We went to a convention – one of the first I went to – in San Antonio, and nobody showed up. We found out later that the UPN affiliate in San Antonio usually preempted Enterprise for high school football games. So there were a lot of problems that had nothing to do with our execution.
You’ve always been pretty busy as an actor. You were back on True Blood last year and you’ve completed the indie films Trade of Innocents and Red Line. How’s business these days?
Billingsley: Things were running pretty well for four or five years after Enterprise. I had a series called The Nine that I was very happy with, although it didn’t last. But as is doubtless the case with many character actors right now, I’m in my 50’s and there are fewer roles, and it’s a very, very tricky marketplace for a ton of reasons. The studios make fewer movies. Residuals are down across the board, so actors are making less from their residual stream. The bottom line is that a lot of fancy-dancy names are now working for a lot less money, so it’s a lot harder to get the nice jobs. The good news is that Bonnie and I had a really nice 15-year run (she appeared frequently on Chuck) and we’re OK. I’ve acclimated to working when the work is there, and as much as I like to work, acting is not the be-all and end-all for me. We’ve got a lovely life. I love to read. I love to travel. And I love my wife’s company. Plus, I just did a Nikita and I’m doing Southland this week. So I certainly can’t complain.
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