In today's Sci-Fi Blast From The Past, Marina Sirtis talks about her experiences playing Counselor Deanna Troi in the small and big screen versions of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
As the pressures of living and working in today’s world continue to increase so, too, does the demand for psychiatrists, counsellors and other trained professionals willing to lend sympathetic ears to troubled souls. Although the quality of life enjoyed in the late Gene Roddenberry’s fictional twenty-fourth century Star Trek universe may be vastly superior to that of our own, it is not without its problems. Even the highly trained men and women serving aboard Federation starships sometimes have difficulty coping with their professional or personal lives.
On Star Trek: The Next Generation, half-Betazoid, half-human Counselor Deanna Troi is responsible for the mental well-being of over one thousand people aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. Troi’s ability to establish an empathic connection with most species is a welcome bonus when it comes to doing her job, but it is the counsellor’s training and experience that often prove invaluable to Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his officers. British- born actress Marina Sirtis had been in America barely five months when she was asked to audition for a part on The Next Generation. She originally read for the role of Security Chief Lieutenant Natasha Yar, but Roddenberry decided that Sirtis’s dark ethnic looks would be better suited for Counselor Troi.
“When I went in it was basically just another audition,” recalls Sirtis. “I wasn’t a huge fan of Star Trek, so I wasn’t particularly excited about the prospect of getting on the series. I was nervous but it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’ve gotto get this part.’ I had six auditions and, of course, with every one you realize you’re getting closer and closer. By the time the last audition came around I could just about speak. I could say my lines but that was about it. There was no chitchat or anything like that,” laughs Sirtis. “I was terrified because I’d never been through such an extensive process before. It was one audition a week for six weeks and by the end of it all you were desperate to get the job.
“Even after the final test I had to wait a few days to find out if I had the part because there was a question of whether or not Gates McFadden [Doctor Beverly Crusher] was going to do it. If she didn’t, then the actress who was, I think, second in line to play the doctor, and who was British as well, was also up for the part. They wouldn’t have wanted three Brits, as Patrick Stewart was already playing Captain Picard, so maybe I wouldn’t have been picked if Gates weren’t cast as Doctor Crusher. I didn’t know any of this at the time, so it was interesting the way things turned out. When I finally got the job I felt like I needed a long nap and a tranquilizer,” she jokes.
Sirtis and her Next Generation costars made their syndicated television debut in the United States in September 1987 with the two-hour pilot episode Encounter at Farpoint. In this adventure the crew of the Enterprise, now under command of Captain Picard, arrives at Deneb IV to pick up new crewmembers. While there they must discover how a technologically inferior race known as the Bandi is able to offer the Federation the use of a brand new base called Farpoint Station. Counselor Troi’s psychic powers play a crucial role in helping Picard and company expose the terrible secret the Bandi race have been hiding. The show’s producers felt, however, that Troi’s abilities were a bit too useful, so in subsequent episodes she is able only to sense the emotions of others. Unfortunately, the nature of the character still proved to be a major stumbling block when it came to her being included in the action.
“They couldn’t quite figure out what to do with Deanna,” explains the actress. “They kind of got stuck on the fact that she was psychic and that really crippled the writers. It was like, ‘Oh, well, if she’s psychic then she’ll know what’s going on and then we won’t have a story line. We need to get her off the bridge or write her out of the episode,’ or whatever.”
Counselor Troi’s absence from four first-season episodes - Hide and Q, Datalore, 11001001 and Heart of Glory - did nothing to ease Sirtis’s fears that she was going to be dropped from the series. “It was a nerve-racking time for me,” she says. “I always had the feeling that I was an inch away from being let go because I could see that they were really having a problem writing for Deanna.
“By the second year we had lost Gates McFadden and Denise Crosby [Lieutenant Yar] and gotten Diana Muldaur [Doctor Katherine Pulaski] for a year. Consequently, I was the only young woman left in the cast so I was given all the girly story lines, which was terrific. When we got to the third season they figured, ‘Oh, wait a second, Troi’s a psychologist, so she can have an office. She doesn’t have to be on the bridge being decorative all the time. She could be somewhere else.’ The good thing about that was, ‘a,’ it gave me some days off from sitting there on the bridge and saying nothing, and, ‘b,’ you began to see me counselling, which was something I really enjoyed doing.
“I was very pleased with Deanna’s development over the years,” continues Sirtis. “Sometimes it seemed as if it took a long time to get to certain points but once they got there it was like there were these sort of little epiphanies for the writers. The office was one and then, I think, during our sixth year when we did Face of the Enemyit was like, ‘Wow! She can kick ass when she’s not possessed by an entity.’ That same year I wore a regulation uniform for the first time since the pilot and they realized, ‘When she’s in uniform she can do all these things. We can give her a phaser and a tricorder and send her on away teams.’ I sometimes wondered why they couldn’t think those things up before instead of as situations arose in each episode. But they liked what happened with Troi and then stuck with it, and that made me happy.”
After seven seasons Paramount Studios, the production company for The Next Generation, decided to transfer the series from television to the movie screen with the seventh Star Trek feature film Generations. In the program’s swan song episode All Good Things...Picard meets up with some old friends and battles a familiar foe in an effort to save the human race from extinction. Sirtis, along with a few fellow castmembers, would have happily continued working on the show and were disappointed when it was cancelled.
“Just call me Cleopatra, Queen of Denial,” she laughs. “Because I had only three days off in between the series and the movie, to me it was like it wasn’t over, do you know what I mean? The last scene we all shot together was the poker scene and we have a picture now of us just sitting around the poker table holding hands. It’s funny when you look back now but Michael Dorn [Lieutenant Worf] couldn’t wait for it to be over. He was itching to get out of his Klingon makeup and get on with his life, but when we finished that take he was absolutely sobbing.
“I just couldn’t accept that it was over. It didn’t really hit me that this was it until we’d finished filming the movie. My last day on the movie set I was kind of wandering around like a lost soul thinking, ‘No, this can’t be it, you know? It’s going to be like Dallas. I’m going to wake up and it’ll be as if I’ve been in the shower. This is all a dream and the series is going to go on for another three years.’ So for me the last episode didn’t pack the kind of emotional punch that the movie did when we finished.
“The thing I miss most about working on the series is the people,” adds the actress. “I think if you asked any one of us we’d all say the same thing. I did a lot of theatre before I came to America, and you get this real kind of group thing going where you all swear you’re going to keep in touch and meet up after the play ends. Of course, you never do or at least rarely do. On The Next Generation we became best friends. Not long ago I went to the Hollywood Bowl to watch Patrick [Stewart] do show tunes with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. When I’m in New York this Thanksgiving I’m going to see his play [A Christmas Carol]. Michael Dorn and I talk regularly and recently I had dinner with Brent Spiner [Lieutenant Commander Data]. We totally clicked as people and I miss not seeing them every day.”
In 1996 Sirtis reprised the role of Troi in the eighth Trek feature film Star Trek: First Contact in which the Enterprise crew must travel back in time to stop the Borg from altering Earth’s history. Troi tries a number of unconventional counselling techniques including getting a bit tipsy when dealing with the eccentric scientist who discovers warp-drive technology, Zefrem Cochran (James Cromwell).
“I’m obviously biased but I think this is the best Star Trek movie of the eight. I think it is a great film, Star Trek or not. It has a good story and wonderful performances. It has certain references that, perhaps, non-Trekkers may not understand but, in general, I think that if you’d never seen Star Trek you could still go to see First Contact and enjoy it.
“Personally, for my character, I loved it because it opened the door to a different side of Troi we’d never seen before. That door has stayed open and that whole kind of wacky, zany Troi thing has continued into the next movie, which is great for me because I like to do things that are different.”
The Enterprise crew go in search of the Fountain of Youth and their lost comrade Data in the next Star Trek film Star Trek: Insurrection, due out in theatres across America in December. Sirtis is enthusiastic about her work as Counselor Troi in the movie, particularly as most of her scenes are opposite Jonathan Frakes (Commander William T. Riker), director of this film as well as First Contact.
“We’ve kind of left the deep, meaningful, ‘Oh, the pain, the pain,’ Troi behind a little bit in the movies now in exchange for her lighthearted, jokey, teasey and ‘cute’ side. It was challenging for me to do that because there’s been a two-year gap since I last played Troi. What I found was, and I’m not at all sure if it’s because of the fans or the producers or just the really positive response that drunk scene in First Contact had, that the writers said, ‘Let’s keep her in that upbeat mode a little longer.’ So there’s much more Marina in Troi now than there was ten years ago and that’s fun, but it’s also kind of scary because I’m not a real personality actress. I like to create characters and I tend to get slightly nervous when the character comes too near to being me. It was a real test to get past that nervousness and try to be convincing because this was something very close to me and my relationship with Jonathan, so it was an interesting few days when we were doing those scenes together.”
When The Next Generation first premiered back in 1987 it did so to a legion of die-hard classic Star Trek fans who did not take kindly to the new incarnation’s invading their turf. Although it took the programa little time to catch on, it managed eventually to win over most of the skeptics and Sirtis, for one, is pleased with the outcome.
“That first season it seemed to me that everyone was sitting back with their arms crossed saying, ‘Who the hell do you think you are? How dare you try to do another Star Trek! We’re happy with the one we’ve got. No one can replace Kirk and Spock.’ I felt that we really weren’t expected to succeed, so it was absolutely terrifying. I’d never worked on anything before that was going to be so closely scrutinized by so many people. It wasn’t an experience I particularly enjoyed,” laughs the actress.
“Once we’d won the fans over, though, and they saw that we weren’t the usurpers of the throne of the original cast, then it was fine. Now I think I probably enjoy fandom more than anyone in the cast. It’s like a bonus as opposed to the sheer terror that it was imbued before. I love doing conventions and meeting the fans. They’ve given me everything I have in my life right now, so I’m very grateful.”
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