How A Real Case Of Bell's Palsy Affected Star Trek: Voyager's Admiral Bullock

In the "Star Trek: Voyager" episode "In the Flesh" (November 4, 1998) the U.S.S. Voyager encounters a mysterious space station that contains a perfect simulation of Starfleet Academy back on Earth. The simulation contains familiar faces from Starfleet Academy, including the friendly groundskeeper Boothby (Ray Walston). Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) is suspicious of the simulation, and some investigation finds that the "humans" she encounters inside are actually genetically altered members of Species 8472, vicious aliens from an alternate dimension full of fluid. Species 8472 is convinced that humans intend to invade their dimension and take over, and they are using simulations to better know a potential enemy.

Armed with this knowledge, Janeway enters into negotiations with Species 8472, hoping to end the hostilities between them and the Voyager. The negotiations are held with Boothby, a woman named Commander Valerie Archer (Kate Vernon), and the grumpy Admiral Bullock (Tucker Smallwood). 

Tucker Smallwood will be familiar to most viewers, as he has been a prolific supporting player in films and TV since 1984. He has appeared in soaps, military dramas, and multiple sci-fi shows; he was on "Babylon 5," and played a semi-regular on "Space: Above and Beyond." He was also in nine episodes of "Star Trek: Enterprise." 

Appearing on "Voyager," however, was a fraught experience for Smallwood. According to an interview with in 2015, Smallwood had been diagnosed with Bell's palsy in 1998, an affliction that affected the muscles on the left side of his face. Smallwood's first instinct was to withdraw from acting but calls from Paramount had him auditioning again. He figured since he was an alien, a semi-paralyzed face might aid his performance. He found that it did and that he was able to be confident again.

Playing aliens

Smallwood wasn't in a great place in 1998. He had auditioned for a different sci-fi series and said that the director didn't like him for the role. Personally, he was struggling as well, having recently lost his father. Then, unexpectedly, he woke up one morning to find half of his face had become paralyzed. He wouldn't know why until later. It was during this time that he got a call from Paramount. Smallwood said: 

"I woke up one morning, looked at myself in the mirror and thought I'd had a stroke. I was stricken with Bell's palsy. I didn't know what it was at the time and I very quickly learned a lot more about it. Only half of my face worked. I told my agents, 'You can't send me out now. If they see me like this, I'll never work again.' So, for months I didn't go out. Then I got a call from my agents saying, '"Voyager" called and would like to see you for this character.' I said, 'Well, he's an alien. I can do that. I sound okay. I only look like hell.'"

Enough time passed that Smallwood began regaining control of some of the muscles in his face, and he started to figure that playing a nonhuman character wouldn't be severely impacted by Bell's palsy. He only became a little concerned when he learned that his alien character was disguised as a human. He wasn't going to be getting a classic "Star Trek" alien forehead or facial ridges. He had to put his own face out in the open.

A boost of confidence

Watching "In the Flesh" reveals Smallwood's talents openly. One wouldn't be able to tell he was stricken with Bell's palsy. He recalls getting a very positive response to his performance, saying:

"The muscles in my face were very, very slowly starting to respond, but I did not have full control over the muscles. Then I discovered that, yes, he is an alien, but he's an alien who looks like a human being. He's disguised in a shape-shifting way as a human being. However, I got the role and when people saw the work they said, 'You were so implacable. You were so stern.' I said, 'It was the only expression I had.'"

Those compliments boosted Smallwood's confidence and left him thinking very positively about "Star Trek." He always wanted to play an alien, and his first experience was nothing but positive. He said:

"[I]t was very affirming. People all over were kind to me throughout this experience. You tend to want to withdraw, especially if you make your life visually, so to speak. I didn't know if I'd ever work again, and that was the start of my working again." 

Indeed, he was now part of the "Star Trek" family. And, because he still wanted to play an alien with proper makeup, he was hired to play a Xindi Primate Counselor, a character with good old-fashioned forehead ridges. He played the part in nine episodes. Smallwood, now 80, still works from time to time. His last film was 2021's "Together Together."