Emotional Barometer - A Chat With Star Trek: The Next Generation's Marina Sirtis

By , Contributor

Paramount Pictures

Marina Sirtis as Star Trek: The Next Generation's Counselor (and Commander) Deanna Troi

On Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Jean-Luc Picard often called upon the empathic abilities of his ship’s counselor Deanna Troi in order to help him better determine if an alien was being sincere or deceitful. The half-Betazoid, half-human was, however, more than just a walking, talking lie-detector, which she proved countless times during The Next Generation’s seven seasons on the air.

British-born actress Marina Sirtis brought beauty along with brains and a true sense of warmth to the character of Deanna and made it her own.  She originally read for the role of Security Chief Lieutenant Natasha Yar, but original Star Trek creator and Next Generation creator/executive producer Gene Roddenberry decided that the actress’ 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 got to get this part.’ I had six auditions and, of course, with every one you realize you’re getting closer and closer.

“By the time last one came around I could barely speak. I could say my lines but that was about it. There was no chitchat or anything like that,” she recalls with a laugh. “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 not, 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 perhaps 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.

The Next Generation made its American TV syndicated debut in 1987 with the two-hour episode “Encounter at Farpoint.” In it, Captain Picard and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise-D set out on what appears to be a routine mission, but are subsequently drawn into a mystery involving an alien race called the Bandi. Counselor Troi’s abilities play a crucial role in helping expose the Bandi leader for who he truly is. There were concerns expressed by the show’s producers who felt that Troi’s psychic powers were a little bit too good, so therefore in later episodes she was only able to read the emotions of others. This led to some confusion with the show’s writers insofar as just how to include the character in the action.

“They couldn’t quite figure out what to do with Deanna,” explains Sirtis. “The writers kind of got stuck on the fact that she was psychic and that really crippled them. 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 ship’s bridge or write her out of the episode,’ or whatever.

“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 season two 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 season three they figured, ‘Oh, wait a second. Troi is a psychologist - let’s give her 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 it not only gave me some days off from sitting there on the bridge and saying nothing, but you also began to see my character counseling, which was something I really enjoyed doing.

“I was very pleased with Deanna’s development over the years,” continues the actress. “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 little sort of epiphanies for the writers.  Deanna’s office was one and then, I think, during our sixth year when we did 'Face of the Enemy' it 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, which made me happy.”

By the time The Next Generation‘s seventh season came around it had been decided by its production company, Paramount Studios, to transfer the show and its characters from TV to the feature film world with the seventh Star Trek movie Generations. The cancellation of the TV series was a great disappointment to Sirtis, who, along with a few of her fellow cast, would have been content to continue their journey on the small screen.

 

“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 of us sitting around the poker table holding hands. It’s funny when you look back now, because Michael Dorn [Lieutenant Commander 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 actress went on to appear in three further Trek movies, First Contact, Insurrection and Nemesis and also reprised her role of Deanna Troi in episodes of the third and fourth Trek spin-off TV series, Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise. Her most recent work includes guest-spots on Make It or Break It and Grey’s Anatomy. When it comes to Star Trek, there will never be anything quite like what she experienced on The Next Generation.

“The thing I miss most about working on the series is the people,” says 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. We totally clicked as people and I miss not seeing them every day.”

Please note, all photos above copyright of Paramount Pictures.

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