Federation space is something Jonathan Frakes knows backward and forward so it’s no surprise that he’s back in Starfleet mode as the director of New Eden, the new Star Trek: Discovery episode that makes its premiere tonight on CBS All-Access, the subscription streaming service and home of the latest Enterprise from a sci-fi brand that now spans six different decades.
As an actor, Frakes is best known as the brave and dutiful Starfleet Commander William T. Riker, a role that took him through 176 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and four tie-in feature films, including two (Star Trek: First Contact in 1996, Star Trek: Insurrection in 1998) that Frakes also directed. The Riker character may have resisted promotions that would have put him in a captain’s seat of his own but in real life Frakes made the leap to the director’s chair with zeal. He’s now been a prolific presence in television for three decades with helming credits that include Burn Notice, Castle, Leverage, The Orville, and NCIS: Los Angeles.
Frakes directed an episode in Season 1 of Star Trek: Discovery and has now returned to direct two more for Season 2. CBS All-Access will soon be expanding its programming fleet with a Discovery spin-off and a new series featuring Patrick Stewart in a revival of Jean-Luc Picard, his iconic Next Generation role. Deadline caught up with Frakes this week to discuss the latest Star Trek generation of crew members, the ramping Stewart series and the nebulous nature of television in this era of new-tech competition and old-media churn.
DEADLINE: You’ve directed Star Trek feature films as well as Star Trek television episodes and even Star Trek video games. Now, with Star Trek: Discovery it’s called television but in its approach and ambition it feels like a platform that lives somewhere between the traditional ideas of TV and film. On-screen it feels close to cinematic with the resources and visual effects …
FRAKES: You couldn’t be more accurate. As a director coming in you’re encouraged to work that way — or to play that way, I’d almost say, which is really what it feels like. You’re given the time you need, the money you need, the equipment you need; and the quality of the department heads and the way Alex Kurtzman and the people running the show, all of it encourages you to “shoot to thrill.” And to not be afraid to try things and to do anything you can to make it special. You’re limited only by your imagination. And I think that’s an extension of the way that J.J. Abrams’ movies were. The freedom of camera movement and the exciting and dramatic use of light and color is something that audiences have come to get used to. Now, with Discovery also embracing the Roddenberry canon in a more valid way, it’s got the best of both worlds. I’m proud to be part of it.
DEADLINE:One of the hallmarks of Star Trek is the sense of family among the crew members. It’s a foundation cornerstone, really, for the international Star Trek fandom that got a foothold in the 1970s when the original series show was in reruns. Coming into Discovery, that was the facet of the show I viewed as its big question mark. The show’s scale and glossy spectacle would feel hollow if the crew didn’t find that chemistry.
FRAKES: Yes and when it does work, like it did for us on Next Generation and like it is now on Discovery, a lot of that has to do with casting. Sonequa Martin-Green, who is at the core of the show and is the heart of the show, is not only gorgeous and talented she is spiritual and very supportive and is a brilliant leader. Michelle Yeoh, Doug Jones, Anthony Rapp and Mary Wiseman, who plays the character of Tilly, seemed to me at the beginning to be so out of left field, but that character has become hugely popular. What I’ve learned from being on the set of this show is that they remind me of “my” show. They hang out together, they support each other, they stay on the set to watch each other shoot scenes and, as you know, that isn’t always the case in television.
DEADLINE: Far from it. That’s relatively rare and usually indicates good work is being done…
FRAKES: On weekends they get together and eat together and go dancing together and have fun together. It is like a family and it’s a thrill to be part of it. And I think it comes across. I mean, you do hear about shows where that’s not the case, like Moonlighting but it was certainly the case for our show. When we came in we all thought we had caught lightning in a bottle at the same time and that we were all blessed. We didn’t even know how blessed we really were. It changed all of our lives. These guys, they want to know about all of that history, they quiz about what things were like and what the conventions are all about and what the world is. They want to talk about Roddenberry and there’s an excitement to all of it. I was privy to that because I was from an old show and they sought me out. They’re very proud to be part of the family. We had to learn that as we went along but this crew came in their pumped.
DEADLINE: It sounds like you’re describing the experience of an alumnus returning to an academy to pass on the heritage and expectations.
FRAKES: It did have a little bit of that kind of feel to it and I have to admit I was thrilled by that. I have some issues embracing the role of the old guy. I still think of myself as a kid even though I look in the mirror and see the white beard that used to be black. But there’s a pride of ownership. Our show is 31 years old. William Shatner’s show is more than 50. And now here’s this new show that is incredible and seeks to follow all of that and do it, as you said at the beginning, in a new cinematic way.
DEADLINE: If the show does represent some new hybrid found somewhere between film and TV, what would you see as the inherent challenge that might come with that new middle ground. Is there a tricky part to it?
FRAKES: The truth is I’ve felt that the reason that really any show ever works — and this goes back, ironically, to something else you just mentioned — is because the audience cares about the relationships. And, in this case, that means that family, as you put it. So all the bells and whistles, all the f—— explosions and space battles and all the bulls— that everybody cares so much, none of that matters if people don’t care about the relationship between [Martin-Green’s character] Burnham and Mr. Spock or if they don’t care about Tilly or Saru. Either consciously or subconsciously, the audience needs to be invested in the relationships. That’s the success historically of Star Trek and any TV drama, like The West Wing, for instance, it’s about the people and personalities. Everyone knows the importance of that on Discovery but the thing is it can’t really be manufactured without brilliant, thoughtful writing. You have to care about that and on Discovery that’s why it’s working.
DEADLINE: I’ve known the Discovery showrunner Alex Kurtzman for years now, I interviewed him back when he was doing Fringe, the first Star Trek movie and Transformers. And, unlike his writing partner, Bob Orci, Alex was not a deeply devoted Star Trek fan growing up — just the opposite, Alex came into his Trek experience with a casual level of knowledge about the history and a detached outsider’s perspective on the story and characters. I think it was a benefit in a way, it kept things accessible by filtering Trek through a “civilian’s” point of view. That reminds me in a way of the arc of your experience with Trek. You were more or less uninitiated when you came in to Next Generation but you ended up as the only Next Generation cast member who directed episodes on multiple Trek franchises and as the director of two Starfleet feature films…you started as an outsider and ended up as guardian of the brand.
FRAKES: That’s a very, very astute observation. I came in unaware of the cultural phenomena of Star Trek and I believe the same applies to Alex. And just maybe that served both of us very well by making us not feel too precious about the words Star Trek and the canon that came before us. That’s really a very astute observation.
DEADLINE: What are some of your other take-aways about working with Alex?
FRAKES: He’s very kind which I really like. It’s a great quality for a producer. But maybe an all too rare one, too. [Laughs.] He’s very smart and he’s very encouraging. I like his Discovery family and I like the freedom that he encourages. When he took over the show, essentially, we had a really productive sit-down where he explained the arc of the season, essentially, and we talked about Trek in general and my guys and about Roddenberry. He was interested in all of it, and it was a pleasure really talking to him and listening to him. He’s got a great curiosity but he also has great vision. Gene Roddenberry was an atheist so he didn’t believe in heaven, of course, but you know if he was looking down on all of this I think he would be very, very pleased with the hands that Star Trek is in these days.
DEADLINE: The Jean-Luc Picard series lives in the future and remains wrapped in secrecy so I won’t dwell on the topic but one quick question: Since you and your fellow Next Generation cast members remain close, I wonder what their reaction is to the news that the project is ramping up?
FRAKES: The feeling is we would love to be part of it. But the feeling is also that it’s Patrick’s show. [Laughs.] Having said that, I can’t imagine a world where there’s no reference to what happened to the rest of the Next Generation cast. Patrick isn’t playing Capt. Jean-Luc Picard this time, he’s done with [that phase of his career in] Starfleet in this show. That’s about the only thing I do know about the show. Patrick and I had a steak dinner a couple of weeks ago and this man, who I’ve known for 31 years now, is so excited about this show he’s like a little kid. It’s fabulous! He’s thrilled and excited to be invited into the writer’s room and he’s a producer on the show and he’s part of the development of the story arc. It’s terrific. I mean he is a guy who is fully engaged.
DEADLINE: Really? I can’t believe you just did that…
FRAKES: I didn’t do it intentionally but, you know, I kind of like it! [Laughs.] I knew there was a good soundbite out of this somewhere, I could feel it. That’s the first time I’ve said that but I bet it won’t be the last. If you see it in any other interviews from now on you can say, “Hey, he said that to me first.” You inspired it.