"Freedom Fighter" by James Swallow
September 1998, Issue 254, pages 50-53
For actress Marjorie Monaghan, the off-kilter world of science fiction television has become familiar ground. Once, she was on the right side of the law as Jojo Thorson on Space Rangers. Now, she fights for the Mars Resistance on Babylon 5 -- and plays the love interest of Dr. Stephen Franklin (Richard Biggs).
Monaghan recalls that she was given out-of-order script pages when she read for her B5 audition. "I had read the first script," she says, "but the scenes I auditioned with were from the next show. I did my reading, and then I went home -- and hoped. I found out later that [B5 creator] Joe Straczynski was familiar with my work from Space Rangers and he had actually offered me the role based on that. The only other time this happened to me was when I got a part on Murder She Wrote."
Straczynski later revealed that he had also recommended Monaghan for that role. "Joe is interesting that way, because he's very aware of what's going on with actors. He's aware of who is doing what, and he watches for actors whose work he finds interesting. I find that very flattering."
On Babylon 5, Monaghan plays the enigmatic Number One. Surely it must be odd to portray so strong a character with such a non-descript title? The actress smiles. "Joe and I are playing a bit of a game about that," she reveals. "She has a name, sure, but it isn't disclosed in the fourth season. I could tell you [her name], but then I would have to kill you. I find it interesting to play characters about whom certain things are hidden."
She cites as an example her role as the ethereal Jhana in the Joe Dante-Caleb Carr TV movie The Osiris Chronicles. "In the pilot, she doesn't speak at all -- initially the character was supposed to be a mute, but they changed it to someone who had taken a vow of silence. I would have wound up speaking if the show had gone to series. It's actually very interesting when you play someone who has something hidden for a specific reason, because you can invent for yourself.
"Number One doesn't have a name, so she's less vulnerable, but a designation can become a name." Monaghan cites Robert Picardo's role as the Doctor on Star Trek: Voyager as an example. "Number One's name is different; it's powerful, and it really does express who she is. She has taken on this very difficult and dangerous life because she feels she must, and her name really personifies who she has become because of this choice."
How did Monaghan feel when asked to come on board such a well-established show? "At first, I didn't know I would be recurring as much as I am now. When you do a guest role, it varies from series to series. I have friends who watch Babylon 5 all the time, so I spoke to them about how Number One and Mars fit into the story that Joe had been telling. So I had an idea of what my place was."
She adds that the cast accepted her graciously. "The people on Babylon 5 were incredibly welcoming and wonderful to work with. My first two shows were with Biggs and Jason Carter, and they were just great. It was much simpler than you might expect."
Monaghan smiles regarding her character's romantic entanglements with Dr. Franklin. "It was fun. It got very silly on the set." Fans frequently question why Franklin chose Number One instead of Marcus. Her answer is, "It's the beard. He doesn't like beards." She also jokes with Biggs and fans at conventions about the "missing love scene."
The actress is no stranger to the devoted legions of SF fans who attend cons -- she made her convention debut through her guest shot on Quantum Leap's "One Strobe Over the Line" episode. She's warmed by their enthusiasm. "I still get fan mail for Space Rangers. It's rerunning in Europe and on the Sci-Fi Channel. I played a model in that Quantum Leap episode, and many of the costumes I wore were made to measure for me. When they did the first Quantum Leap convention, designer Jean-Pierre Dorleac asked me to wear one of the dresses for a fashion show."
In Space Rangers, Monaghan played Jojo Thorson -- a role that called for much running and jumping. "Jojo was one of the first women I played who was tough and active. I've played tough characters before, but Jojo was very in-your-face. When I was young, I was very shy and bookish, but now I'm more physical. I do a lot of martial arts, and Jojo was the start of that."
The actress remembers Space Rangers fondly. "It was such fun, and I loved that character so much. I enjoy playing a loose cannon. One of Jojo's defining instincts was the at she loved being a pilot, and wasn't the least bit interested in being a captain -- that would require her to be more serious, where as a pilot she gets to do what she wants. It was great fun playing with all the guns, too. The prop guy gave us all hand guns along with our files, and he gave me the biggest semi-automatic pistol as a joke. I became good friends with the other cast members. Linda Hunt [Commander Chennault] was great to work with, and Jeff Kaake [Captain Boon] and I will correspond."
Space Rangers was one of the first TV shows to use CGI for its special effects, so Monaghan, of course, had to act against a blue screen. "We did a lot of that, and I probably did the most, being in the cockpit right up against the windows. You have this screen in front of you, and while it's not particularly disorienting when they project the stars and such. I did have to ask them to clarify things when we were doing docking sequences like, 'Where do I look?' I didn't want to be looking the wrong way."
She recalls a particular episode, "Banshees," where the Rangers were sent to an alien-infested ship to rescue a deaf boy. "There's a part where the banshees attack the ship, and one of them attaches itself to the cockpit windows. I'm yelling at it -- but to show me where it was, they had this fuzzy werewolf head on a broomstick. I said, 'You can't be serious,' and it was all I could do to keep from laughing."
As the pilot of the Rangers' "slingship," Jojo's domain was the cockpit area. Monaghan was strapped into the flight harness. "That whole cockpit was on a gimbal, so it rocked and moved. That's nice as an actor, because you don't have to bounce around, and it makes it more realistic." The actress also went to the trouble of figuring out what each of her fake consoles did to keep her actions consistent. "I had to decide which switches and buttons did what, because it was important not to look like an idiot."
But after only six episodes, Space Rangers was cancelled. "I was very, very upset," says Monaghan. "The cast had gotten quite close. There were script problems and some kinks that needed to be worked out, but we also knew that we had some very good producers and writers who could have worked them out, so it was very disappointing. It's the same with The Osiris Chronicles, although we only shot the pilot for that [it finally aired in early 1998 as The Warlord: Battle for the Galaxy]. When you know that a story has immense potential, and is never given the opportunity to fulfill that potential, it's disheartening. Space Rangers was never really given a chance. It wasn't promoted. It was moved around, and they only aired four episodes, out of order. It's frustrating when that happens, because you get emotionally invested in the characters, the story and the people you're working with, and it's very hard when that's suddenly cut off."
Besides roles in Deadly Games and The Pretender, Monaghan also had a part in Albert Pyun's SF kick-flick Nemesis. "I'm not really recognizable in that, with a wig and everything. When I came out of the makeup trailer, people were doing double-takes. I look very different with dark hair."
Action roles, from a duplicitous sailor in JAG to a game warden in The Sentinel, are clearly to Monaghan's taste. "I like playing capable action women," she says. "I'm not the least bit interested in being on Baywatch."
Her next action role rinds her co-starring with Richard Roundtree as LA Paramedics. This new WB TV series is a midseason replacement currently shooting.
Like her characters on Space Rangers and Star Trek: Voyager (Freya in "Heroes and Demons"), Monaghan's Number One on Babylon 5 is another tough, daring, no-nonsense woman. "I enjoy these roles. Most of what I've done in science fiction is action characters, but in other genres I've been able to play women who are a bit softer. One of the things I like best about SF is that it creates interesting women who are intelligent, strong and capable -- and yet they're still women. They're not trying to be men -- they are very female, and they needn't be flat or one-dimensional. I like those characters, because I know many women who are strong, intelligent and feminine all at once, but you seldom see them on television or film. Thankfully, it's changing."
Having played Freya, named for the Norse version of Aphrodite, Monaghan sees connections between that archetype and SF's equivalents. "I'm pretty familiar with Beowulf. I had to read it in junior high, and I was totally drawn into it." After being fitted for her hefty Freya costume, Monaghan went to see executive producer Rick Berman for approval. "I walked into his office with the whole thing, the wig, the sword and the helmet, and Rick just looked at me and shook his head. I said, 'This is what I wanted to be when I grew up!' I had two people dressing me for that part -- I had on leggings, a tunic, the boots, a big studded belt, a mail shirt, the animal skin, a scabbard and a cloak that was all counter-tied -- and then we had to figure out how to get a clock under it for the scene where I got stabbed. No wonder these people had pages -- you cannot dress yourself like that."
Later, she discovered that fellow B5 actress Patricia Tallman, also a stuntwoman, had been part of "Heroes and Demons." "Pat saw a picture a fan had drawn of me as Freya, and it turned out that she had doubled me in that episode of the stunts, but we didn't recognize each other when we met on Babylon 5, because we had both been under 50 pounds of stuff on Voyager."
Besides liking Old English poetry, Monaghan is also an avid fantasy reader. "J.R.R. Tolkien was one of my very early favorites, and I've read most of Anne McCaffrey's Dragonrider books. I grew up reading more of the SF-fantasy rather than the hard SF genre. What I love about it is by taking something out of the everyday, fantasy gives you a perspective shift that creates all kinds of new possibilities that don't occur to you if you stay in the here-and-now. It's a very positive genre.
"I love the stories of heroism in myth, and I've always been fascinated with allegorical storytelling. I'm pleased that women like Freya always appear in those kinds of work, as well as goddess figures like Diana and Athena. I've always admired those characters, and I think they can help you learn things about yourself and about your possibilities as a woman and as a person. I'm happy to be cast that way, and I think it's important for young girls -- and young boys -- to see these kinds of women."
Marjorie Monaghan hopes that the kinds of female role models she plays will expand out of genre fiction and into more mainstream stories. "Hollywood is slow to change, but it is changing. I hope to part of that change."
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