As Star Trek: Discovery makes its return after its mid-season hiatus for “Chapter 2” of the CBS All Access series’ first season, the crew of the titular ship are joined by a Trek veteran — Jonathan Frakes. The once (and future?) Riker beamed in to direct the tenth episode of the season, “Despite Yourself,” which brings Michael Burnham, Captain Lorca, Ash Tyler and the rest into some very unfamiliar (for them anyway) territory.
Frakes of course is a veteran director at this point. While he still acts and does some voice work here or there, he has essentially transitioned behind the camera. And he got his start in the center seat on Star Trek: The Next Generation, where he shot some of the more popular episodes of that series before jumping to the big screen for Star Trek: First Contact and Star Trek: Insurrection. In the years since he has helmed other features and a ton of TV, but of course his return to the corridors of a Starfleet vessel are a moment for the man who invented his own form of sitting in a chair. I jumped on the phone recently to speak with Frakes about his return to Star Trek. As we talked, a blizzard was heading to the East Coast, threatening to ruin (or at least postpone) Frakes’ plan to join the annual Star Trek Cruise. Alas, we don’t have transporters yet! But instead we get the following highlights from my conversation with him.
Note: Full spoilers follow for this week’s episode of Discovery, “Despite Yourself.”
Frakes’ last experience with Star Trek — not including the convention scene — was when he appeared in the finale of Star Trek: Enterprise in 2005. Now, 12 years later, he says returning to space was very familiar despite all the time that had passed.
“It was wonderful,” he says. “It was like stepping into comfortable shoes, but with more toys, and more time. And a brand new family! I was just speaking to someone earlier about how similar the feel of the company is to our company, in terms of how the relationships, both on camera and off, are so intense, and everyone is so excited about this stage in their career. They realize, in a way that we just began to realize, sort of, as ours went on, that they’re now part of this incredible, popular, cultural icon. And as a company, each individual seems to have embraced it fully. There’s no one who’s jaded and there’s no one who’s cynical, and it’s a pleasure. And it’s great for the show.”
As for that Enterprise guest shot that he did, which is much hated by fans, Frakes seems to truly appreciate even that experience, and more specifically the opportunities that Trek has provided him as he has appeared in or directed a variety of the series.
“I take great pride in being part of it as much as I can,” he says. “I’m thrilled to be part of Discovery. Just as I was, even in the ill-fated appearance on the last episode of Enterprise. Just to have a piece of each – that’s why I’d like to be involved in some way in J.J. [Abrams]’s films. And it’s just been such a privilege to be in the family. It’s been fun to try to get a little taste of each course.”
Frakes is also very interested in the recent news that Quentin Tarantino is developing a Star Trek movie with Abrams. It seems that QT could be the magic that finally brings Riker back to the screen.
“I’m very excited about it,” says Frakes. “I asked, I e-mailed with J.J. about it, and he thinks it’s gonna be wild, was the word he used. I’m an eternal optimist, and I’m very, very hopeful that this actually becomes a reality. … And of course, selfishly hope that he uses actors from the Next Gen.”
Frakes also noted that his old co-star Patrick Stewart also seems keen to get in on the project.
“He volunteered himself immediately,” he laughed. “He’s no fool! He knows how to play his hand!”
There’s no doubt that shooting a television show in the year 2017 or 2018 versus in the 1990s is quite a different experience, let alone a big-budget sci-fi show like Star Trek. And while The Next Generation was a technical frontrunner in its day, it was still relatively limited in terms of budget and schedule and just plain technique when compared to Discovery. For Frakes, the difference was kind of like entering the final frontier.
“Well, I was privileged to have my cinematographer during prep, Colin Holt, and he filled me in on the lack of limitations that were put on us,” said Frakes. “That we were really, literally, encouraged to tell the story with the camera, in a way that… I had just come, actually, from doing an episode from The Orville, which is shot specifically to look like Next Generation. So that was a challenge and interesting in its own way. This, the Discovery, is, for shorthand, it’s very much in J.J.’s world of Star Trek, where it’s very cinematic, a lot of use of the crane, a lot of Dutch [angles], a lot of sweeping. And it’s encouraged to be cinematic. And when you have the time and the toys, it’s fabulous.”
That said, Frakes is careful not to fall in love with fancy shots and tech.
“You’ve just got to remember to not fall in love with your shots, and remember your story,” he said. “That’s a mistake that some directors allow themselves to make, or they’re encouraged to make by people who have invented and created these wonderful shots. And say, wait, but the really important thing in this moment is that we get in there really tight and see what she’s feeling. Otherwise that shot doesn’t mean s#!t.”
I had to ask what Frakes’ favorite episode of Star Trek as a director has been. (We left out the latest Discovery segment since it’s so new.)
“I am very sentimental about the first one [I directed], which was called “The Offspring,” where Data builds a child,” he said. “And I have a real soft spot for that episode. There was an episode that Brannon Braga wrote called “Cause and Effect” that I thought was, when I read the script, that he was taking the piss out of me, that it was a joke, because each act was exactly the same, sort of a Rashomon-type episode. So that was like a directing symposium. I had to figure out how to shoot each act differently and tell the story differently, but the scenes were exactly the same.”
Of course, Discovery recently did its own riff on “Cause and Effect” with the episode “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” which in some ways felt like a tribute to Frakes’ episode.
“They did reference a lot,” said Frakes. “But I’m gonna say, it’s a trope in a way, that sort of Rashomon idea of seeing the story from different points of view.”
I also had to remind Frakes that while everyone always calls “Cause and Effect” the “Groundhog Day episode” of Star Trek, in fact it actually aired before the Bill Murray movie was released.
“Oh, see? The precursor!” laughed Frakes.
I asked Frakes if there were any moments or deleted scenes that he wished he had included in one of his episodes or movies, and he recalled how Star Trek: Insurrection almost had Armin Shimerman (Quark) in it. Almost…
“I remember something that we did that they cut, that we went to the well one too many times,” he said. “We put [Star Trek: Voyager’s] Robert Picardo … and Ethan Phillips … in First Contact. And then we shot a scene with Armin, with Quark, where he made an appearance in Insurrection, and it just felt like it was so self-conscious that we just had to cut it. I had to call him on the phone and say, Armin, remember that scene from Insurrection? Don’t bother to go to the premiere!”
That’s O.K. though. When I suggested that he should’ve blamed it on Star Trek executive producer Rick Berman, Frakes laughed, “I did! You blame everything on Rick!”
Check out IGN’s review of the Jonathan Frakes directed episode of Star Trek: Discovery, “Despite Yourself,” right here. And look forward — hopefully — to more from Frakes on Discovery in Season 2!
Talk to Senior Editor Scott Collura on Twitter at @ScottCollura or listen to his Star Trek podcast, Transporter Room 3. Or do both!
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