When UPN's "Star Trek: Voyager" premiered in 1995, it had a healthy start. There were enough fans of Gene Roddenberry's franchise to spread around, the producers figured, and the response was terrific for a new series with a ship piloted by a woman: Kate Mulgrew's Capt. Kathryn Janeway.
But three seasons later, the show had sagged. Changes were needed, more than simply giving Mulgrew a haircut. So the producers sharpened the writing, came up with inspired plotlines and invited a stunning female character on board with the intriguing name Seven of Nine.
Seven has attracted viewers for "Voyager" and a lot of attention for Jeri Ryan, 29, who is trying to balance a budding career with a family and a Chicago commute.
And Seven is one smart character. She may ooze sex appeal in her catsuit costume, but she's cool under pressure and a serious fighter. She is, after all, a Borg.
In the "Voyager" storyline, a Borg is a villain, as is a Klingon. Seven was human until she was assimilated into the alien Borg Collective. The Borg think and act as a group, like ants that singlemindedly labor as one unit. Seven had been part of a group of Nine until Janeway severed her link to the Borg and forced her to adapt to human society--a rough task, but one that Ryan believes makes her a watchable character.
Her Borg heritage, her own prickly manner and her obvious attractiveness have put her at the heart of many relationships. She is often in conflict with Chief Engineer B'Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson), who is half Klingon, and fascinating to Officer Harry Kim (Garrett Wang).
Now, about that slinky bodysuit, which demands attention.
Ryan does not shy away from discussing it. And no, she did not have to audition in it. "The costume had nothing to do with the audition," she said. "I think they had this idea that they needed a sexy female character. The costume was designed around that. And it's fun. I have no problem with the costume. (Designer) Bob Blackman outdid himself. And it...got the desired effect."
Which is: more viewers.
"If that's attracted people to the show, it's the good writing that's kept them," she said.
But the new Seven character was intended to make a ratings splash, as Ryan was aware. "I felt a lot of pressure but, granted, a lot was self-induced in the beginning. It's the first and only new [major] character added to an existing show in 'Star Trek' history. So I did feel like it was a big responsibility, and I would love to take credit myself for the ratings increase, but as much or more goes to the writing--and the costumes."
An Internet search using Ryan's name yields several sites devoted to her "Voyager" physique.
"This whole experience is so surreal," she said. "It's very strange: to type yourself up on the Internet and see way more pictures than I remember seeing of myself, plus interviews I barely remember giving."
But that doesn't spook her the most: "What's really strange is the five action figures." Toy figures of Seven, she said, are due in stores this year.
Not surprisingly, Ryan can no longer go grocery shopping without being recognized. And it's not just kids who know her.
"It's women in the grocery story mostly, which was fun. I was remarkably surprised when I got [a role in] 'Star Trek,' because I didn't know much about it to begin with. You tend to get a myopic view of who watches 'Star Trek' if you don't watch it. And I've been very surprised about who watches it," she said.
"It's a great show for women." After all, she noted, there are three strong female characters in "Voyager." Most notably Janeway. And don't forget Torres.
Busy as her professional life has become, with taping the series plus photo shoots and appearances at "Star Trek" conventions, Ryan devotes time to her family as much as possible. That includes a husband, who's a banker in Chicago, and a 3-year-old son, she said.
"Star Trek: Voyager" airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on KCOP.