John Billingsley’s role as Dr. Phlox on Star Trek: Enterprise was something of an anomaly for him: a steady gig as a series regular – and one as a good guy. And even though Enterprise ended its run prematurely, after only four seasons, Billingsley clearly made a lasting impression. Star Trek fans still love Dr. Phlox – a medic as easygoing as he was capable – and they continue to appreciate Billingsley’s work as the character. StarTrek.com recently caught up with Billingsley for an exclusive two-part interview in which he responded to questions provided by you, our readers. Part I follows, and be on the lookout tomorrow for Part II.
When you signed on for Enterprise, were you expecting to play Dr. Phlox for seven years, since that’s how long the previous shows had run?
I guess I was, actually. I remember that the producers tipped the nod. I think it was (executive producer) Rick (Berman) who said, “Be prepared for a seven-year ride.” I didn’t know all that much about Star Trek. I’d watched the original show as a kid. I was aware of the fact that the franchise was a phenomenon and that it had an incredibly loyal fan base. But my main thought was, “I’m not a starving actor anymore.” I’d been doing reasonably well, but a series is what puts you in a different tax bracket.
Did you have a favorite episode that was NOT a Phlox episode, that you just thought was good Star Trek?
I’d say the one (“Similitude”) in which we cloned Trip (Connor Trinneer). I thought that was the best episode for a lot of reasons. Everyone in the cast was involved and everyone had an emotional through-line. Some episodes, of any show, actors are used to convey information or they’re shunted aside. That episode, I thought it was the best of our ensemble pieces and it did what Star Trek does best, which is to deal with a topical question that has some sociological significance in a way that brings humanist values into play. And I got to handle a baby.
And what was your least favorite episode of Enterprise?
I think it was the episode with Padma Lakshmi (entitled “Precious Cargo”). It wasn’t her fault, but she played an alien princess. She and Trip were on the run from whoever was pursuing her. I don’t remember all the details. I thought that was an unfortunate episode all around. It just didn’t work. Again, no fault of the actors. It just didn’t come together. And it was at a touchy point in our second season. We were holding on to not-great, but adequate audience numbers and after that episode our numbers just plummeted and we never got the audience back again.
What storylines did you want to explore that you never got the chance to?
I put that in a box for myself because you have no control over that as an actor, unless you’re the lead and you’re one of the executive producers and have a hand in shaping the way storylines evolve. It’s fruitless to ask yourself those questions, especially if you’re a supporting character guy. You don’t help yourself too much by entertaining the fantasies. Bob Picardo, I think, did a wonderful job on Voyager of asking them for stories and suggesting plot ideas. I did a little of that in the first couple of years, but didn’t make any headway, so I let that go. But for me it would’ve had to do with the Denobulan culture. I would have been interested in finding out more about Phlox’s species and his people and what their belief systems were. Any time I got a little information about Denobula, that was wonderful. It helped me flesh the guy out. Any story that moved in that world would have been great.
What happened to Dr. Phlox’s wives?
My idea was that Bonnie Friedericy (Billingsley’s real-life wife, who’d guest starred as Rooney in the Enterprise episode “Regeneration”) should have played all my wives and that if we ever saw another Denobulan male it should have been me. That way, everybody on Denobula was either John Billingsley or Bonita Friedericy.
What do you miss most about Enterprise?
The people. It was a lovely group of people and I miss working with them. Seven years cements you as a family and four years doesn’t quite do that. So, we love each other and it’s always a joy to see each other at conventions, but I think some of the bonds I see were forged between the cast members of the other shows… I don’t think we had quite enough time together to get there. So that was the thing I was saddest about, having to say goodbye to folks I was really getting to know and love.
Was it necessary for Dr. Phlox to smile so disturbingly wide, especially since they only had you do it three or four times during the show’s run?
(Laughs) Was it necessary? I don’t know. I think the idea was that it’d be his signature. I think they (then) realized that might get old fast. Also, when our budget got cut in our second year some of the more extraneous digital effects had to be reduced, and that was one of them. I don’t know how much it cost, but every time you had a digital effect you had a little bit of a ka-ching, and I think they decided the ka-ching wasn’t worth the bang. I did like the fact that I got to blow up like a puffer fish in season four. That was actually one of my favorite moments.
One fan called Dr. Phlox positive, charming, peaceful, friendly, etc., and then asked how much of that was you, how much of that was the writing and how much of that was the writers building on what they saw in your performances, and/or vice-versa?
I suspect it was a synthesis. As writers get to know you they write towards your perceived strengths. I was concerned initially that the doctor might be primarily a source of comic relief. I was glad they provided the proper amount of gravitas for him to be taken seriously as a doctor, but I think the idea always was that he was an optimist, and as an actor you play into what they’ve written. Because I’d played so many psychopaths and sociopaths and serial killers and tormented souls and drug addicts and lunatics, Dr. Phlox is perhaps my favorite part if only because it was a chance to be giddy and delightful for four years. I rarely have the opportunity to be that kind of guy.