The “Star Trek” universe is expanding again, and it’s keeping Jonathan Frakes fully engaged.
In 1987, Frakes landed a part that would truly become the role of a lifetime — Commander William Riker in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Though the new crew would ultimately be featured in seven TV seasons and four motion pictures, its fiercest battle, which did not go well at first, was to win over a fan base loyal to Capt. James T. Kirk and the original starship Enterprise crew.
Today, as both an actor and director, Frakes is on a mission to help win the same battle for a new generation of “Star Trek” shows. He’s in Toronto, Canada, directing episodes for the upcoming third season of “Star Trek: Discovery” after working both on both sides of the camera on the new “Star Trek: Picard,” which debuted Thursday on the streaming network that is home to both shows, CBS All Access.
Frakes talked with Newsday’s Jack Millrod last weekend about “Discovery” and “Picard,” which reunites him with the captain who called Riker his No. 1 — Patrick Stewart, who reprises his starring role as Jean-Luc Picard.
The story of the “Star Trek” franchise has been one of resilience, replete with seemingly final endings and unlikely rebirths. How surprised were you by latest one, “Star Trek: Picard”?
I was surprised when Patrick first showed up in Vegas a couple of years ago at a convention to announce it. He had made it quite clear that this was something that he was sadly but decidedly finished with … They clearly persuaded him that they could find a new story to tell and one that he was in fact quite intrigued with. I had the privilege of directing a couple of these early episodes, and then I acted with him later in the season, and he’s never been better. He is absolutely crushing it as this new version, this older, wiser, more complicated version of Capt. Picard.
We’ve seen you in the trailers. How much of a role have you had in this production?
I directed episodes four and five, and I acted in episode seven … Obviously, it’s a privilege, but it’s really been fun to see Patrick at the top of his game again and to feel the fans’ excitement about what’s to come.
From what you’ve seen so far, what do you think fans will like the most?
I think they are going to like how complicated and dense the story is. It’s the complexity of Picard’s past, his vulnerability, his dreams, his hauntings. As he said in one of the interviews I’ve recently read, it’s Picard — such a strong, solid, decisive, successful character — and 20 years later, this is a more vulnerable, and therefore, more interesting and more complicated man …
I think they’re going to adjust to — I’m not sure they’re going to like — the fact that there is no Enterprise, he’s no longer Capt. Picard, but there are seasonings of the familiar. Jeri Ryan’s presence as Seven of Nine I think is going to be a huge success. She’s fabulous in the show, and she better than ever. Everybody’s looking forward to seeing [Brent Spiner as] Data — he’s teased in the trailer.
I understand there’s a new No. 1 in Picard’s life.
It’s a –– Pitbull!
Have you gotten any teasing on that front?
The challenge faced by the creative team is not unlike the one that “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry faced when he introduced “The Next Generation” in 1987 — create something fresh that would appeal to new fans without breaking faith with the dedicated fan base you already have.
Well, it wasn’t easy then, and it wasn’t easy for “Discovery” after the success of J.J.’s world, after the first two [J.J. Abrams “Star Trek” reboot] movies. I think what I’m experiencing, if I’m not mistaken, is that the audience is very, very inclined to embrace “Picard” in a way that they were not “Next Gen” and they were not “Discovery.”
How well do you think “Star Trek: Discovery” and now “Star Trek: Picard” are measuring up to that challenge?
The writing is spectacular. The writers are brilliant, clever, creative. The stories are inventive and layered, and the characters on “Discovery” are from all walks of the galaxy — there’s a lot going on in both shows … “Discovery” is very much Michael Burnham’s journey, in the incredibly capable hands of Sonequa Martin-Green, and “Picard,” obviously, will be Picard’s journey. And I think that will provide the level of continuity and comfort for new fans of good writing and old fans of all things “Star Trek,” and everybody in between.
You knew “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry. How do you think he would see the work that’s going on today?
I think he’d be thrilled to see that his stories are still being told.
The third season of “Discovery” jumps so far into the future they’ve truly gone where no one has gone before. What do you think about what’s been shot so far?
First of all, the cliffhanger was great … and the return, I will say one should not miss the first few episodes of “Discovery” this season.
Over seven years of episodes and four motion pictures, you and your TNG cast mates developed not only a great chemistry, but great friendships and a shared appreciation for making mischief on the set.
The cast of “Discovery” reminds me so much of the cast/family of “Next Gen” in the way they treat each other and in the care they have for each other … It reminds me of us.
And that doesn’t always happen, does it?
Oh no (laughs). Oh no, it doesn’t.
Now that you’re spending most of your time on the other side of the camera, any regrets about the way you guys tortured some "Next Generation" directors?
Regrets? I was tortured. You have to have a thick skin.
How has having appeared in or directed episodes of every “Star Trek” show created since the original series helped you as a director?
The advantage, if anything, that I have is that I’ve spent a lot of time as an actor on the bridge of the great ship, and I find it’s particularly helpful for me with other actors, wonderful actors who say, ‘Oh my God, what do I do? Tell me where I’m supposed to sit. What do I — ' and it seems simple, but few of us have spent time on these glorious space ships. It’s a place that I’m oddly comfortable, and I can share that.
One of the movies you directed, “Star Trek: First Contact” may be the best film the franchise produced. Is it the work you’re most proud of?
It certainly is. It was the best script, the company had just come off a wonderful run on the show. It was mine to screw up.
Is there a “Star Trek” show or movie in your head that you’d love to work on? We never did get to see "The Rikers in Space."
I know — the wonderful half-hour single-camera comedy, “The Rikers in Space.” The wacky Uncle Data, and their little dog, Worf. There’s still time.