The Sound of Their Voices
“When you're on camera, even though you try to lose yourself in the character, you are aware that there is a camera there capturing every moment of it visually. With doing a voiceover job, you are worried about the sound of it, and you have to make all those visual colors come out with your sound.” -- Doug Jones
Many of the most memorable performances in Star Trek’s history have never been seen. Because of its unique storylines featuring characters in every shape and form – from cosmic clouds to sentient nanites – Star Trek has from its earliest days depended on talented actors to convey emotion and give realism to alien characters using only their voices. These voice actors bring alive some of Trek’s best allies and adversaries. Let’s explore several favorites.
More than a few TOS voice actors did double-duty in front of the camera as well as in the recording booth. Majel Barrett Roddenberry is a defining example. While her most-iconic roles were Number One and Christine Chapel on TOS and Lwaxana Troi on The Next Generation, she contributed many voiceover performances in nearly every incarnation. Her voice was that of Federation starships in TOS, The Animated Series, TNG, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise, in addition to the 2009 Star Trek Kelvin universe film. Two entertaining moments occur in the episodes “Manhunt” and “Cost of Living,” where Lwaxana speaks to the Enterprise D’s computer and Barrett Roddenberry performs with herself as her character tries to locate Riker in the former episode and start the holodeck in the latter episode. When Lwaxana commands the computer to “run it for us, dear,” there is a wink and a nod to those watching who get the inside joke.
In addition to her voice work as the computer, Barrett Roddenberry also played many roles on TAS. She voiced regular characters Christine Chapel and M’Ress, as well as Amanda Grayson in “Yesteryear” and the cosmic cloud from “One of Our Planets is Missing.”
TOS star James Doohan was a master of dialects, having performed in thousands of radio shows before and after beginning his TV and film career. Doohan brought those talents to screen both in the accent he added to the Scotty character, but also to the legion of roles he voiced for TOS and TAS. He was the powerful Sargon in “Return to Tomorrow,” the M-5 computer in “The Ultimate Computer,” the Oracle of the People from “For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky,” and the Melkotian warning buoy from “Spectre of the Gun.” Further, Doohan performed a dizzying array of TAS characters, and his talents are showcased by the fact that he – like Barrett Roddenberry – would sometimes play more than one character in the same episode. Jimmy was both Kaz and Kor in “The Time Trap” and Koloth and Korax in “More Troubles, More Tribbles.” He played the Guardian of Forever in the animated sequel “Yesteryear” and Robert April, the first Enterprise captain, in “The Counter-Clock Incident.”
Fun mentions must include Gene Roddenberry voicing the role of the Galley Chef in “Charlie X” and Leonard Nimoy (using the pseudo name “Frank Force”) performing the U.S.S. Excelsior computer voice in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Producer and writer Harve Bennett voices the flight recorder visual computer in the same film.
Also appearing in front of the camera for some roles and as a voice only in other episodes is Barbara Babcock. She played Mea 3 in “A Taste of Armageddon” and Philana in “Plato’s Stepchildren” on screen, but also contributed many TOS voiceovers. She was the Tholian Loskene, the Beta 5 computer and the shape-shifting cat Isis in “Assignment Earth,” the Zetarians of “The Lights of Zetar” and she played Trelane’s Mother in “The Squire of Gothos.”
Joining Babcock for “The Squire of Gothos” as Trelane’s Father was James Bartell “Bart” La Rue, a talented voice artist who played the original Guardian of Forever in “The City on the Edge of Forever.” La Rue would appear on screen in announcer roles, both as an Ekosian TV journalist in “Patterns of Force” and a TV commentator in “Bread and Circuses.” La Rue also voiced Provider 1 (“The Gamesters of Triskelion”) and Yarnek (“The Savage Curtain”).
Voice work continued to be an important aspect of Trek, especially as computer effects and modern technologies allowed for the creation of even more spectacular aliens and creatures. For example, the teeny Teenaxi Leader of Star Trek Beyond (given the name “Steve” and title “Grand Audarch of the Teenaxi People” in the comic Star Trek Boldly Go #10) was computer-generated, but his impressive vocalizations – which added to the initial misdirection that the Teenaxians were actually immense aliens – were provided by actor Shea Whigham. Fans of the movie series Fast & Furious may recognize Whigham as Agent Michael Stasiak, but Trek fans know him as the aggressive and questioning leader of the Teenaxi.
Impressive sounding voices added by talented voice artists are able to add a realism to characters even if they are not quite computer-generated perfect in their physicality. Case in point, the TNG character Armus would have been a costume with Metamucil and black printer’s ink poured all over it if not for the performances by the actors who brought the socio-pathetic embodiment of negativity to life. Inside the imaginative costume was actor Mart McChesney (who also played the similarly silhouetted Sheliak in “The Ensigns of Command”) and supplying the imposing, malevolent voice that had a hint of vulnerability to it was Ronald Gans. Fans of Lost in Space may know Gans as the Alien Leader in “Deadliest of the Species,” which was one of his on-camera acting roles.
Sometimes, however, there are no special effects. No costumes. No creatures. Sometimes it is only the voice. The superlative example of this kind of voice work is that supplied by Debra Wilson, who played the voice of Captain Lisa Cusak in DS9’s “The Sound of Her Voice.” Using only her voice, Wilson delivered one of Trek’s most-memorable guest-starring “appearances.” Best known for her many years on MADtv, Wilson actually played Uhura in several of the show’s comedy sketches and was a Trek fan. Bringing with her that Trek affection in combination with her comedic timing and voice artistry, Wilson paints a full picture of a character the other characters – and audience – only get to know from Wilson’s off-screen performance. DS9 was not Wilson's first Trek adventure, as she played a role in the "Klingon Encounter" interactive ride/movie program at Star Trek: The Experience in Las Vegas a few months before.
As Miles O’Brien says about Lisa, “I never shook her hand and I never saw her face, but she made me laugh and she made me weep.” And that is the power of the voice.
Nicholas Jose S. Tenuto is a high school student and Star Trek fan. His poetry has been published in the Young American Poetry Digest. He is an award-winning photographer, and his “Tipple Ladders” image was an Illinois Parent-Teachers Association Reflections Art Competition State Qualifier. Tenuto is a recipient of the United States Presidential Award for Academic Excellence and a junior member of the Sons of the American Revolution. He's been attending Trek conventions since he was two weeks old, where he was held and given his bottle by actress BarBara Luna. His favorite character is the Doctor from Voyager. Tenuto is currently writing his first book, Lound, an original work of fiction.