Jonathan Frakes has been a staple of the Star Trek universe for decades. On-screen, he played Cmdr. William Riker in Star Trek: The Next Generation. While working on The Next Generation, he learned to direct and went on to direct eight episodes of The Next Generation, three episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and three episodes of Star Trek: Voyager, as well as two films featuring The Next Generation's crew. He also guest-starred in episodes of Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Star Trek: Enterprise. He returned to the Star Trek fold as a director on CBS All Access' Star Trek: Discovery.
Most recently, he directed and appeared in Star Trek: Picard, reuniting with other cast members from The Next Generation. He's also directed for The Orville, a loving homage to Star Trek from Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, and even dipped his toes into Marvel universe. While quarantining at his home, Frakes spoke to ComicBook.com and discussed all things Star Trek related, including what's to come from the new seasons of Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard, as well as a few other topics. Keep reading to see what Frakes he had to say, and let us know what you think of it in the comments.
On Returning to Starfleet Service
Frakes reprise his role as William Riker in the episode "Nepenthe." In that episode, Riker and wife Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) were living on the titular planet with their daughter. He returned again in the season finale , "Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 2." In that episode, in a scene filmed at the Discovery set in Toronto, Riker returns in full Starfleet regalia captaining a ship at the head of an armada ready to oppose the Romulans. We asked Frakes if that was a different experience from what he went through in "Nepenthe."
"That was a really different experience because I was alone" Frakes says. "I was 'self-directing.' I was in a captain's chair. I had a spacesuit on. I had my beard trimmed, my Riker hair put back on, my bald spots covered up. It felt very familiar, and it was like a flashback. Because of how well 'Nepenthe' went, I was less nervous and, I've got to say, thrilled to have been asked back, to be perfectly frank."
That said, he adds that he hasn't been pining to play Riker in command all these years. "That was more of a surprise," he say.
"Nepenthe" finds Riker-Troi family living on a planet they'd traveled to in a desperate attempt to prolong the life of their sick son. That son died, but Riker and Troi remain on that planet with their daughter Kestra. We asked Frakes what he felt when he first read about Riker and his family's state.
"I think the first thing to mention is what an addition to the family Michael Chabon has been as a writer," Frakes says. "The thoughtfulness and the depth of character and the sense of irony, just everything that he's brought. I mean, he's a fanboy to start, but he's a genius in the mix. So, his hand on the tiller, if you will, has really been exciting.
"Given that, I was really glad that Troi and Riker were living in the mountains in a big house. It felt wonderful and different and somehow logical that they would have done what they could. I love that they had kids, and one has died and that they had gone somewhere to try to save his life. All that I thought was spectacular. And frankly, watching Marina's work with Lulu [Wilson], who played our daughter, who was also spectacular, which didn't hurt."
He went on to say that the entire experience was almost a kind of family reunion. "The whole experience was great, and as you saw in the social, I'm sure, Dorn came to visit, and LeVar came to visit," he says. "Without getting too corny or Pollyanna, it's really been great to be back in the Star Trek fold. It was great to be back on Star Trek: Discovery. I feel very privileged to have been part of that family, but this is really our family, the Picard show."
How Directing Discovery Compares to Picard
Frakes has worked as a director on Star Trek: Discovery since the show's first season. He directed two episodes of Star Trek: Picard. Given that the two shows have very different visual styles, we asked him about how the experience of working on the two shows compared.
"Discovery is a huge cinematic show on which you're encouraged to sort of shoot to thrill, I think very much inspired by J.J. [Abrams]'s movies. Olatunde [Osunsanmi], who's our producing director, have a very competitive shot-making policy. We brag about what we've done. It's a very healthy film-making atmosphere. There's no shortage of story over there, but you are really encouraged, they give you time and money enough to shoot with… cinematic's not the word because everything is cinematic. There's more action. There may be, or may not be more visual effects, but it's certainly driven by more visual effects. There's more characters, the ship is bigger, there's a lot of scope.
"On the Picard show, it starts with Picard and it grows out from that," Frakes says. "There's an intimacy to shooting Picard and a pace. The number of characters, he's only got five people on his ship, and he's got this little s***ty freighter that he's driving around in. So again, its the difference in the scope and the tone. Both are wonderful and I think there's room for both.
Frakes also touched on fans have reacted differently to the two new Star Trek shows. "I think there was an appetite for Picard because the hardcore Trekkers know Picard and it was leaked that Data would be on the show and then the wonderful addition of Jeri as Seven of Nine, and Jonathan Del Arco," Frakes says. "Those, I think, inspired the fans to want to see Picard.
"When Discovery started, I think it was much like our show [Star Trek: The Next Generation], that the fans were skeptical. 'Do we need another Star Trek? Who are these people?' And eventually, and it didn't take them as long to get 'approval' as it did us, primarily because of Soenqua [Martin-Green]'s appeal, but the story in that first season with Jason [Isaacs] and then Anson [Mount] in the second season, Doug Jones and the company is eccentric, as is the Picard company, but the Picard company is dense. It's only five people."
Star Trek: Discovery Season 3
Frakes is again working on Star Trek: Discovery in its thrid season. He tells us he directed three episodes of the new season and that they're finishing up post-production work on that last episode he direct, the twelfth of the new season. He talked a bit about how the show has grown and evolved in its new season, particularly growing around the character of Michael Burnham.
"Discovery has primarily to do with Sonequa's character, as you'll see," he says. "At the end of season two, we flash-forwarded I think 930 years. Michael Burnham has found a new core, not to mention a new partner in crime. So again, there's a big tonal shift on that show, less driven by the pain and guilt of her past and more about the magical reunification of the Discovery crew and wherever she went off to. God knows where she went as the Red Angel. So those two things coming back together is very much the theme, and how grateful everyone is and what's next. It's got a lot of action-adventure and not so much pain."
Frakes has also worked as a director on The Orville, Seth MacFarlane's comedic homage to Star Trek: The Next Generation that started out on Fox and will make the jump to Hulu in its upcoming third season. He shared some of his thought on that series, as one of the stars of the show that inspired it.
"[MacFarlane] really went for it in terms of people from Next Gen," Frakes says, noting that The Orville employs Star Trek alumni such as Marvin Rush and Brannon Braga. "And I think, if I'm not mistaken, the audience were surprised that Orville was as serious as it was. I mean, it's wonderfully funny, but it's no Family Guy, certainly. I think Seth's a wonderful storyteller and he loves him some Star Trek and he really wanted to be the captain of a spaceship and God knows he made Fox enough money that he can be. And now that he's on Hulu, he has more freedom to play and nto be limited by time, not be limited by censors, so I think he's in the best of all possible worlds at the moment."
Unfortunately, Frakes says he's not a part of the show's third season. "They made a decision to have Seth and John Cassar, who's the producing director, direct all the episodes of the third season of that show, much to my chagrin, but that's the way it goes," he says.
Still, he's holding out for a cameo role. "I keep waiting for a phone call," he says. "I am available. I've got the beard."
Star Trek: Picard Season 2.
Speaking about the future of Star Trek: Picard, Frakes told us that he expects to return for the shows second season, and he expects some other old friends to be there as well. "I do expect to be back to direct the show, and I also think it'd be a good bet that we'll some other members of Next Gen because I think the 'Nepenthe' test went very well.
We asked him what he meant by "the 'Nepenthe test.' He said, "I think to see if there was an appetite. I think they suspected there was, but I think to see if it would resonate to have Picard reunite with some fo the people in his creative way. I'm glad we didn't come back on the Titan, for instance, that we were found on another part. It's 33 years or something. As Picard as changed, so has Riker and Troi and so has Seven."
The Marvel Magic
It's recently resurfaced that Frakes had a job playing Captain America before he got hired onto Star Trek: The Next Generation. He's been in the Marvel orbit since then, directing the episode of Agents of SHIELD that tied into Thor: The Dark World and directing an episode of the X-Men series The Gifted. We asked if he'd been a fan of the Marvel universe before that. He admitted "It was new to me... My father was an English professor and forbade us to read comic books."
That said, he's been consistently impressed with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. "I think the Marvel franchise ever since Iron Man, it's just been spectacular," he says. "But I don't how Marvel has consistently found the right chemistry, that hit after hit after hit. I mean, really, I think again it has to do with tone. They know what the audience wants. They know that it's not terribly serious, and yet it has to be somewhat serious, and they love a little bit of irony, a little bit of sarcasm, a little bit of buddy movie. It's got all the right elements to appeal to a huge swath of society. And it's an international phenomenon. They really deserve credit for knowing their audience. It doesn't hurt that they have the greatest movie stars in the world playing their characters and an unlimited amount of money and brilliant creative people at the helm, but it is quite an amazing success story."
Star Trek Movies
Frakes directed two Star Trek movies, Star Trek: First Contact and Star Trek: Insurrection. With the next Star Trek movie still gestating under Noah Hawley and Quentin Tarantino's project still a possibility, we asked Frakes for his thoughts on the future of Star Trek in cinema.
"I'm very intrigued by both Quentin Tarantino and Noah Hawley," Frakes says. "Those are good pedigrees right there. Those would be a wonderful addition."
That said, he wouldn't presume to offer advice on how to put Star Trek on film, especially if J.J. Abrams is still involved. "I'm a big J.J. fan," Frakes says calling Abrams' work to Spielberg. "I don't know that I have any advice that he hasn't already taken. I think those writers would be fascinating."
Live Long and Prosper
Frakes signed off with a message for fans awaiting new Star Trek and dealing with quarantine. "Stay safe, stay home," he says. "It's an odd time. We will survive. And may you all live long and prosper."