It’s fair to say that Robert Picardo was an established actor when Star Trek: Voyager launched in 1995. Not only did he already have a long-running drama in the form of ABC’s Vietnam war medical drama China Beach on his resume, but he was an old theater hand, and a regular member of horror-comedy auteur Joe Dante’s ensemble, with sometimes minor but memorable turns in The Howling (1981), Innerspace (1987), The ‘Burbs (1989), and Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990).
As the often abrasive Emergency Medical Hologram (EMH) aboard USS Voyager – the equivalent of an overclocked PC that you never shut down – the Doctor provided plenty of comic relief. Picardo played a key role in shaping the character’s dialogue, even suggesting subplots, drawing on his experience with the writers of China Beach.
“It's really in the way you do it whether an actor's suggestions are welcome or whether they're obnoxious,” he tells veteran Star Trek correspondent Ian Spelling in the latest episode of To Boldly Ask… “So I would literally stop by the office, I would call on the phone. The first meeting I had was with [showrunners] Jeri Taylor and the late and wonderful Michael Piller. I had an idea for a B story for the Doctor, that the Doctor is so convinced that his patients act like babies. This is early Season 2. It was basically a Chakotay episode [‘Tattoo’ – S2, Ep9], but the B story was, the Doctor in order to show his patients how they should behave when they're ill, his program has changed so that he has the symptoms of having a cold, and he's going to show how great a patient he is. Then, of course, he's a terrible patient. He's like a big child. It's an old gag, but I envisioned it as basically a three-scene runner.
“I remember Jeri and Michael, both were like ‘You're not looking to become a writer.’ They were very careful. They didn't want to establish giving credit to any cast. Star Trek has been generous enough with allowing actors to direct, I don't think they wanted to open that particular can of worms in the writing room as well. But I said ‘No, no, I’m just looking for things that I think would be fun for the character to play.’ So they took that idea and made it much better and put it in the show that was sort of the beginning.
“Often, I would call just with line suggestions, jokes that I thought were funny. I would get an advanced copy of the script and call and say ‘What if I said this here’ and it was taken down, often by the writer's assistant. Then, if they liked the idea, the lines showed up in the script. Later, when the rewrite pages came out. Before we started shooting that episode, you would see a little asterisk and there was my joke if they liked it, if they didn't like it, it didn't show up.”
Shaping the Seven of Nine/Doctor Relationship
For Picardo, his greatest contribution to Voyager lore was in the relationship between the Doctor and Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), who joined the crew in ‘Scorpion, Part II’ (S4, Ep2) after being yanked from the Borg Collective. The cool and statuesque Seven replaced the departing Kes (Jennifer Lien) in the ensemble, leaving Picardo without half of his medbay double act.
“I said to [writer and producer] Brannon Braga, ‘I'm very concerned because Kes has been the emotional sounding board for the Doctor. She's been his confidant, and ostensibly, he's teaching her to be a medical assistant. But she's really helping teach him about his growing sense of entitlement as a member of the crew, even though he's an artificial intelligence. So if he's gone,’ I said, ‘I don't want to go back to just being a windbag and a joke because I have no one to reveal that other side of the character to, anymore.’ And Brannon said, ‘Well, we have a new character Seven of Nine coming, think about how you could relate to her.’”
With Seven as a human fashioned in the image of a machine, and the Doctor as a machine fashioned in the image of humanity, the two shared an aspirational, envious, and sometimes disparaging view of mankind.
“I thought, kind of a student/teacher gag, taking the relationship I had with Kes and flipping it so that the Doctor has the ego to think he's a better teacher of how Seven should reclaim her humanity than a real human would seem to have a lot of comic possibilities. I specifically suggested we could have roleplaying exercises in which I would teach her appropriate behavior under different social situations. That culminated in the first time we did it [‘Prey’ – S4, Ep16]. She was the doctor and I was the patient, and I was teaching her that interaction. But that culminated after four years or three years with ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ [S5, Ep22] our My Fair Lady episode where Henry Higgins is, is teaching his Borg Eliza Doolittle, how to go on a date and. of course, falls in love with her, which was a very sweet episode.”
The Real Reason the Doctor Went Unnamed
It’s Picardo’s determination to shape the Doctor’s story that led to one of Voyager’s enduring small mysteries – why the character was named ‘Doc Zimmerman’ in the original publicity materials. The name – a tribute to production designer Herman Zimmerman – was going to be the name that the Doctor eventually settled on, but Picardo pointed out that revealing their hand too early would ruin the surprise.
“The reason my character never got a name on the show is my fault,” he admits. “We were all set to premiere. They made the opening credits where it said ‘Doc Zimmerman played by Robert Picardo’ and [I said to co-creator] Rick Berman, ‘We're doing all these episodes. May I choose a name? May I be entitled to pick my own name? But we're telling the audience from day one what my name is going to be,’ and he said ‘You're right.’ And they changed it right before we premiered ‘The Doctor.’ And in that moment, I unwittingly ripped off 50 years of British science fiction television. I didn't even know. I had no idea.
“All of the original Bible for the show, all of the first season scripts, it's ‘Doc Zimmerman.’ My character whenever I have a line, it says ‘Doc Zimmerman says…’ I feel bad for [Star Trek production designer] Herman Zimmerman. That character, the tribute character never happened. The visual effects department gave me a copy of that digital frame in the opening credits where it said, ‘Doc Zimmerman played by Robert Picardo.’ So I even have that somewhere framed.”
In the end, the Doctor’s inability to choose his name became a running gag, and ‘Doc Zimmerman’ – albeit, Dr. Lewis Zimmerman – became the original creator of the EHM, who naturally modeled it on himself – winning personality and all.
The Return of Dr. Zimmerman and the EMH Mark I
With Seven having returned in Star Trek: Picard, and Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) and Chakotay (Robert Beltran) enjoying an animated afterlife in Star Trek: Prodigy, it’s inevitable that Ian Spelling should ask Picardo whether he’s considering a comeback.
“I still live with the character and I still enjoy the character,” he replies. “However, obviously, holograms – it's the Data issue too – we're not supposed to change physically, and of course as a human, I didn't get that memo. If you're a hologram, My appearance is not supposed to age and as a human, it's inevitable. I could easily play Dr. Zimmerman again, because Dr. Zimmerman is in the same timeline, as certain of those Star Trek series.
“What I would find very funny is to have the doctor and Zimmerman working together. Let's put it this way, let's say you're a 40-year-old person watching, imagine your 18-year-old self or your 16-year-old self working side by side with you during the day on some very critical or important mission. Your job was to work with your 17-year-old self at age 41 – wouldn’t that annoy the hell out of you? Well, I think there are a lot of comic possibilities if you can age down the doctor to do a scene with his knowledge that there's a large age gap between the doctor who's 41 or 42 and his, you know, and his late 60s creator.
“In any case, the answer is yes. It's fun to revisit the character. I'm really happy that Kate [Mulgrew] is now talking openly about it, now that they've established the precedent with Star Trek: Picard that there's a passion in the audience out there to see the legacy actors again in new stories mixed with wonderful, younger new actors.”
This article was first published on October 29th, 2022, on the original Companion website.
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