Earlier this week, Cryptic Studios released the House Divided update for Star Trek Online, expanding on the storyline that began with Age of Discovery. Following the actions of the matriarch of the House of Mo’Kai, J’Ula, as she brings her particular brand of governing in the Klingon Empire to the (future for her) year of 2411, House Divided focuses heavily on the Klingon storyline and Klingon characters both old and new.
Among those Klingons is Aakar, a special forces operative of House Mo’Kai during J’Ula’s timeline in the 2250s and grandfather of Gowron. Of course, Star Trek fans will remember Gowron from Next Generation and Deep Space 9 where he was played by the actor Robert O’Reilly.
Prior to the launch of House Divided, Cryptic Studios generously invited us to an interview with Mr. O’Reilly — who has taken over the role of Aakar — as well as Star Trek Online’s Lead Designer, Al Rivera. Of course, we took advantage of the offer. During the interview, we discussed the House Divided update, Mr. O’Reilly taking over the role of Aakar, and a variety of other Star Trek-related things — like stories from the set.
Since it’s been a bit since I’ve dipped into STO – I still have to play the Awakening update with Anthony Rapp – I asked for a bit of a rundown to catch me up on things and Mr. Rivera was kind enough to run me through it.
Al Rivera: “So Aakar is in an earlier [STO] episode with Rekha Sharma [Commander Landry on Discovery]. We introduced him earlier last year and we actually retconned the character for Robert to play. So, we didn’t have Robert at the time. So he’s taking over the voice acting now and we’ve modified the character to be more like him.”
Note: For those who may not remember, some of Aakar’s notable actions in earlier STO episodes involve run-ins with Commander Landry, one of theme resulting in Landry saving him from death only to have him turn on her and her allies later on. In essence, he’s not the nicest of guys.
MMOB: Was Aakar originally intended to be Gowron’s grandfather or was that part of the retcon?
AR: “That was part of the retcon. It wasn’t originally intended. It was something we talked about, but we weren’t in the position to work with Robert at the time and then when the opportunity came, we decided to make that official.”
MMOB: How did y’all end up deciding to work together since there was already someone else playing the character?
AR: “Well, if you had the opportunity to work with Robert would you?”
MMOB: Fair. Let me rephrase that. How did the process happen that allowed you to get together and rework the character for him?
AR: “As the story started progressing and we saw that we were going into a really strong Klingon story we wanted to get as many Klingons into the game this year as possible. Last year… Or maybe the year before that Robert, I met you at Star Trek Live…”
Robert O’Reilly: “Yeah.”
AR: “I think I met you twice.”
RO: “Yeah. Twice.”
AR: “I met you behind stage and was talking to John Hertzler who plays Martok and Robert was there and I think that was the genesis of, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’”
RO: “And I went, ‘Oh, yeah! I’d love to!’ And that’s how it began from my end – knowing about it. I knew about it through John, and it sounded exciting right away. So, I jumped on board.”
MMOB (to RO): Is Star Trek Online the first game you’ve voice acted for? Have there been others?
RO: “To answer your question directly, this is the first time in, quote, ‘modern times’. Years ago I did stuff*, but it wasn’t online. So, this is to my knowledge the very first time I’ve done this online.
“I mentioned it to my three boys, and they play games and they were excited. I guess it’s a generational thing, but they all do it. And I guess they’ve all been doing it for years unbeknownst to me, because when they were in high school, I discouraged it.”
*Note: This includes at least three Star Trek video games from the 90s in which he played the Klingons Gowron and Kavok.
One of O’Reilly’s sons even pointed out to him that he had a limited key from one of the Star Trek conventions that provides the player with special crew members. While showing it to us he added that he thinks he’s even going to play it now because he “want[s] to go through the universe” since “he’s never had the chance before.”
RO cont: “I’m at the point right now that I want to play because my curiosity is overwhelming. But I’ll probably put the spaceship in reverse and crash into something.”
MMOB: No, you’re fine. They fly pretty easily.
RO: “That’s good. I guess you have a lot of space out there.”
MMOB: Yeah. Unless you run into a sun somehow. But I have yet to do that, so I think you’ll be fine.
So, what can you tell us about what players have to look forward to?
AR: Me? Or you’re asking Robert?
MMOB: You first, and then if Robert has anything that he’s really excited about… that he’s allowed to talk about…
RO: “Like my great love affair with J’ula… and how we carry on through the universe…”
MMOB: Yes, because it looks a lot like love to me. Although, it is Klingon…
AR: “Without being too spoilery, we’ve been building up the Klingon story for a year now when we started doing Age of Discovery. As Discovery [the series] has a heavy Klingon emphasis we leaned into that with Star Trek Online. (Here, Mr. Rivera runs through the general story line of the Age of Discovery content up until J’ula and Aakar end up in 2411 – the game’s current present.)
“So, J’ula’s brilliant and Aakar’s brilliant security and a technical genius. They’re starting a war with the Federation. They’re not happy with the state of the Klingon Empire and believe it’s weak. They also believe the current Klingon chancellor is weak and decide to shake things up and get Klingons to get behind J’ula.
“So we’ll be continuing this story with the next season, Klingon Civil War – I think that spoils it right there with the title. We’ll be entering a Klingon civil war and we’ll be bringing new as well as returning Klingon characters and actors over the next year. You already know about Robert and John Hertzler. We’re also bringing back Rekha Sharma. But she won’t be playing Landry, she’ll be playing a Klingon.”
MMOB: It’s really not uncommon for Star Trek actors to play multiple characters in the Star Trek universe, even on television.
AR: “John Hertzler played a lot of Klingon characters.”
RO: “I did too, on both shows. In Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang (DS9)…”
AR: “Who did you play, Robert? I don’t remember.”
RO: “Well, I had myself billed as who I was when Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang was set, which was the 50s. I played the cashier at the counter, the guy they slipped the mickey to. They made me ill and I had to go running out. I was billed as my childhood name, which was Bobby Reilly.
“I grew up in New York City in the 50s and and my stage name is O’Reilly, because somebody already had my name. So I had to think fast when I was originally at SAG (Screen Actors Guild) and had to come up with another name that was close to my own name.”
RO: “I did!”
AR: “That looks like some crazy makup going on there.”
RO: “Oh yeah, the makeup on Kago-Darr was even more bizarre than any Klingon. It took an extra two hours. So it was almost six hours getting in. And if Enterprise had continued, he would have come back.”
MMOB: Alright, so if I’m remembering this correctly, because it’s been a while, there was an episode of TNG where someone asked Worf about the difference in appearance between current Klingons and their ancestors (Original Series Klingons) and he said something along the lines of “We don’t talk about that,” and it’s implied that something drastic like a disease event or something similar happened. So is that addressed in any way between present-time Klingons and Discovery-era Klingons in STO?
AR: “We don’t address it in any direct way. It’s similar to the Romulans in Picard where there are smooth-headed Romulans and ridge-headed Romulans. The smooth-headed Romulan who is supposed to be the good guy walks up and flicks the ridge-heded Romulan on the forehead and goes “Stupid Northerner.” And that’s all you needed to explain why they were different. They’re from different regions and different lineages and you’ll see different Klingons together.
“A good storytelling piece is that when you see a Discovery-era Klingon, you know it’s one of J’ula’s forces. But they’re Klingons, they’re the same.”
RO: “I like that. I had a much more bizarre one [theory]. We had a great battle with the Tribbles, and we ate them all and got furballs and threw them up and it caused a disease. That’s why we don’t talk about it. It’s embarrasing. But I think yours makes more sense.”
AR: “Well, in Star Trek Online we represent all times, all eras, all the fantasies of Star Trek. So in Star Trek Online you’re going to see year 2409 Klingons, Discovery Klingons… You’ll even interact with J.J. Abrams Klingons who look different, and TOS Klingons. You can be most of them right now and our goal is to let you to be able to play all of them. So it’s whatever fantasy the viewer wants to be a part of, what their Star Trek is.”
I was then shown a short clip highlighting some of the changes between the original Aakar and the Aakar that O’Reilly is now playing. Not only did they change his voice, but they also changed him visually, to more resemble O’Reilly.
AR: “I love the way Robert delivers his lines because as we got to know each other, I came to know Robert as Robert and then he can just turn it on. The way he delivers his line is so brilliant. It’s like a completely different person. I’d watched many years of his acting on television and then the first time I met him it was like, ‘Hmm… That’s not Gowron. What are you talking about? Is he behind that guy?’
“And then you hear him when he turns it on in the booth. It’s so Gowron, it’s soo good.
“It’s really joyful to build something and then have someone like Robert come in and bring it to life.”
MMOB: I feel like this is a benefit that Star Trek Online has that almost no other game has. It offers the ability to work with people that have been building something for decades. And it allows you to tie everything in together and fill out the universe, particularly the parts that can’t be done in television because there’s not enough time.
AR: “Yeah. Well… Shoulder of giants kind of thing. They’ve given us a lot of material and it makes my job a little easier and a lot more fun. And then we have the opportunity to work with really fine people and in some ways, childhood heroes. I’ve been very blessed to work with these people and to tell these stories and flesh out the stories.
“That’s one of the things we do. We find stories that haven’t been finished and left dangling threads from all the episodes that we see never really went anywhere. We picked it up and flesh it out and tell a full story out of it.”
RO: “It’s funny because I was a fan of the original show. I was in college. I never had a date on Friday nights because I was always watching Star Trek. Over the years I even became friends with Jimmy Doohan (Scotty). To see these shows continue too… It’s just amazing. Now, we’re truly generations of all being fans and it continues. Thank you for that.”
AR: “Do you know [Doohan’s] son, Chris?”
RO: “Yes. I haven’t seen him in years. But yes.”
AR: “So, we’ve gotten to know him and he plays his father in Star Trek Online. He does a dead ringer for his father. I think he’s one of the only characters that we have that is not played by the original actor. But I think it seemed pretty appropriate to have Chris play his father.”
Note: Here I did ask about dates for things but got the obligatory “Soon”. Partially because as Rivera notes, schedules can still be wonky with current conditions. So, then I inquired as to if they’re all still working from home.
AR: “Yep. I’ve been home since early March.”
MMOB: What about the voice acting? I know that some developers either delayed content or issued it without voice overs because it’s so difficult for voice actors to work from home. So how is that being handled?
AR: “I’ll tell you what we’re doing and then I’ll let Robert tell you what his experience was like. We didn’t do any voice acting for a while, especially when things were very unknown and people didn’t know how to handle things and it was a complete lockdown. We had originally hoped to bring Robert and John Hertzler into the studio to record with us. The two of them have really great energy together. It’s fun to work with them. (John’s signed my bat’leth so I really need Robert to sign it, too. So, I hope to bring them into the office at some point.)
“But we also record at pretty much any recording studio in the world, and we have a studio called Voice Trax West that we’ve been working with for ten years in LA. They started to slow-open and released a covid policy regarding cleaning, masks, and conditions. So we worked things out with Robert. I hope he had a good experience.”
RO: “Yeah, I had a great experience. They sent me the list of all the things they did and what I was required to do. I drove there and parked. When I came to the door, someone answered it but said ‘I’ll be leaving.’ He left, I walked in the studio and followed directions he’d given me and got into the booth. Then he came back into the control room. So it was all incredibly safe.
“When we all got together audio wise, I was nervous because it was the first time I’d done this in a long time – probably well over 15 years. But once I said the first line, all the nerves went away.
“It was just a lot of fun. And it was well done by the studio.”
AR: “And then myself and the audio director were piped into his headset so we could direct him.
We also made it clear to any voice actor that we’re working with that if they don’t feel comfortable with going and doing the work, that’s fine. We were prepared to go without voice if we had to. But we were able to make it work.
“A lot of our regular actors are scale actors – the non-Star Trek celebrities, we’ll say. They just do this as a living and have studios in their house. They pick up all the regular characters and we record directly with them via their home studios.”
MMOB: One thing I’ve noticed – and y’all are pretty good at this anyway, just rolling out content on a pretty regular basis to keep players entertained. I feel like you’ve really been doing that since the lockdowns began. There’s always stuff to do and it’s not the same dailies and general content that would drive you out of your mind because you’ve done it six million times.
AR: “We’ve been building Star Trek Online for twelve years, I’ve been on this project for twelve years. We’ve got a good process and a good team. We took some lumps in the beginning. Some things got delayed, some things got smaller. That’s to be expected.
“But, we also have robust tools and we have a robust set of event systems. So we’re able to take things and put them together in a new way and throw it out there relatively easily on our side to keep people entertained while we’re building the new stuff.”
MMOB: (I kinda switched gears here after Mr. O’Reilly showed us a Klingon head he had hanging out near his desk.) I know there are a lot of cases of actors that end up acting in something so culturally loved – particularly something like science fiction – and they got involved with it because it was a job and then they really kind of hate what comes after. So, I love seeing actors that love the series they’ve been in.
RO: “I agree with you and I believe most of the actors on Star Trek were fans of Star Trek, before they were in the show. It’s almost part of the family thing that we all live in, and through, and with. In that way, it’s very family oriented and a lot of us feel that way.
“The original guys… not so much. Because, they were the originals, they started it all. They didn’t have anything before them. But we did. And we were lucky that way, I think.”
MMOB: I remember when The Next Generation came out and of course, it wasn’t like now where all the information is available ahead of time. My dad was very excited about it and we sat down to watch it and he was a little confused because he literally took “Next Generation” to mean the kids of the crew of the original Enterprise.
It took a moment for everyone to be like, “Oh. No… But this is still really cool.”
AR: “It became cool when Robert came on the show.”
RO: “It was a thrill. And to work with Patrick Stewart was heavenly. He was really the first actor I worked with on Star Trek and he’s such a generous guy as a performer and actor. It was a great way to start. Period.
“Just a quick funny story about Patrick Stewart… I was on the set for the first time and we get up so early in the morning. Basically, a lot of Star Trek actors are theater actors, so we’re used to evening work. And then all of the sudden you’re thrown into a job where you have to wake up at three o’clock in the morning, you have to be on the set at 4:15, and you have to sit in a makeup chair so you don’t talk that much. All of a sudden, you’re thrown on and you have all these lines.
“So, we were both kinda trained the same way. I went behind the curtains on the side of the sound stage and [did some voice and mouth exercises resulting in noises that are difficult to type out] and I hear in the distance, the same thing… like an echo.
“We both thought we were being made fun of by each other. Then we realized we were both doing the same thing. So it felt like I found a friend.
“Your mouth is mush in the mornings and you have to get it working again. The added problem was that with Klingons, we had a whole set of teeth that were a detriment to being understood. We had to work through the teeth, literally.”
AR: “Do you have your teeth?”
RO: “You know, I do still have my teeth, but they don’t fit any more. My teeth have changed.”
MMOB: I can understand how the teeth would be a hindrance but considering the whole growl-y, deep thing of Klingon voices, were they beneficial in any way?
RO: “Only that they’re so uncomfortable they made you meaner. Which is part of the character, so it worked. As did the makeup. That made you even meaner.”
AR: “We’ve had several Ferengi on the game, so we had Aron Eisenberg, Armin Shimerman, and Jeffrey Combs and a few others. Most of them had their teeth and definitely insisted they needed their teeth because it changed their voice significantly. We end up making a new set of teeth for… I think it was Armin.
“But we’ve never had to do it for Klingons.”
RO: “Well, the Ferengi teeth are top and bottom. Ours were only tops. So they interfered with our cheeks. So over time on camera it can drive you crazy but it didn’t change the vocals at all.
“They [Ferengi actors] did complain they had to learn not to put their tongue out because they could bite their tongue.”
As we got closer to the end time for the interview, Mr. O’Reilly noted a few general things about Star Trek actor life – including the thousands of people that have appeared in Star Trek media and how some of them went on to be exceedingly famous. He also noted that a benefit of the character that he’s most well known for playing on the series being Klingon is that he doesn’t have to worry about being accosted by fans when he goes out to dinner.
Unfortunately, we hit the end time and had to say goodbye. But I’d like to once again thank Mr. O’Reilly and Mr. Rivera as well as the rest of the Star Trek Online staff for their time.
The House Divided update is available to play as we speak, and the STO team is already at work on the next batch of Klingon-filled content. You can find more information on the current update on the STO site.