Jonathan Frakes Looks Back at His ‘Star Trek’ TV Directing Career, From ‘Next Generation’ to the ‘Strange New Worlds’-‘Lower Decks’ Crossover


That’s Jonathan Frakes’ reaction when he’s told he’s probably worked on more iterations of “Star Trek” than any other person alive.

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“I’ll take it!” he says with a massive grin.

Frakes’ “Star Trek” history truly is something to behold. He joined the franchise in 1987 as part of the cast of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” playing the rakish Commander William T. Riker opposite Patrick Stewart’s cerebral Capt. Jean-Luc Picard. Three years later, Frakes launched his second career as a director on “TNG” — or, as he calls it, “Next Gen” — ultimately helming eight episodes of the show. After “Next Gen” concluded in 1994, he directed three episodes each of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and “Star Trek: Voyager,” before directing two of the four “Next Gen” feature films: 1996’s “Star Trek: First Contact” and 1998’s “Star Trek: Insurrection.”

All told — including his work on “Star Trek: Enterprise,” “Star Trek: Discovery,” “Star Trek: Picard” and “Star Trek: Lower Decks” — Frakes has worked on 221 episodes of “Star Trek” over the past 36 years. Each of these shows have their own distinct dispositions and visual approaches — “DS9” skews darker, for example, while “Discovery” is more cinematic — but Frakes has managed to navigate each of them without ever losing sight of their innate “Trek”-iness.

That expertise was particularly important for his 222nd episode of “Trek,” directing last Saturday’s outrageously entertaining episode of “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.”

Titled “Those Old Scientists,” the episode posed a unique directorial challenge: Two characters from the animated “Lower Decks,” Ens. Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid) and Ens. Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), meet the crew of the Enterprise when they travel back in time 120 years — and into live action, with Quaid and Newsome embodying their roles for the first time.

“I didn’t campaign for it,” Frakes says of the gig. “But I’m told that the philosophy on ‘Strange New Worlds’ is that they try to assign a director to an episode that would be a good fit. And I think because of all the ‘Star Trek’ canon involved and because I knew the tone of ‘Lower Decks’ because I played Riker on that show, it made sense.”

“Those Old Scientists” deftly weaves the madcap comedy from “Lower Decks” into the more grounded tone of “Strange New Worlds.” The episode mines humor out of Boimler and Mariner’s starry-eyed interactions with their heroes — like Anson Mount’s Capt. Pike, Ethan Peck’s Spock, Rebecca Romijn’s Number One, and Celia Rose Gooding’s Uhura. But Frakes never lets the episode curdle into fan worship, or spiral into silliness; instead, it becomes a poignant (and deeply funny) expression of how “Trek” has captivated multiple generations of fans for over half a century.

Anson Mount as Pike appearing in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/Paramount+
Anson Mount as Pike appearing in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/Paramount+

Frakes also had the advantage that he’d directed Mount, Peck and Romijn when they originated their roles on Season 2 of “Discovery.”

“I knew from having done ‘Discovery’ for a year with Anson that he is really sneaky funny, even though you don’t see much of that with Pike,” Frakes says. “Rebecca, she’s a singer as well as a comedian. And Ethan has a delightful sense of humor. So I secretly knew that this was going to be a playground.”

Frakes was especially thrilled when executive producers Henry Alonso Myers and Akiva Goldsman, and the episode’s writers Kathryn Lyn and Bill Wolkoff, allowed Quaid and Newsome to improvise during several of their scenes. “Which doesn’t happen a lot on ‘Star Trek,’ as you probably have heard,” Frakes says. “I mean, especially in our fucking show” — i.e. “Next Gen” — “they were so strict. It was like we were doing Shakespeare or Chekhov.”

Frakes says one of the funniest moments of the episode — when Mariner tells Boimler that she didn’t expect young Spock would be so hot — was improvised by Newsome, and eventually, that energy “had an infectious effect” on the “Strange New Worlds” cast as well.

“It was just fantastic,” he says. “Maybe this will open some eyes.”

To commemorate his “Trek” directing career, the 70-year-old filmmaker shared (in an interview conducted before the SAG-AFTRA strike) some candid memories and insights from some of the standout episodes he’s helmed over the past 33 years — and the one he regrets doing.

“The Offspring”
“The Next Generation,” Season 3, Episode 16
First aired March 12, 1990

Frakes’ directorial debut is one of the best episodes ever of “Next Gen,” in which the android Lt. Cmdr. Data (Brent Spiner) attempts to create an android child he names Lal (Hallie Todd). Wrangling his fellow actors, however, proved to be a challenge.

“Our cast, as you probably know, is notoriously rambunctious. I was, for better or for worse, one of the leaders of that kind of behavior on the set. Some directors really didn’t like coming to work with us because we were that bad. We would be yakking right up until action. Part of it was because we were so well prepared because Patrick had set his high bar from the moment he showed up, that when you come into the morning, you have done your homework, and you’re in good shape. The smart ADs actually built time into days that were all on the Enterprise bridge, knowing that we’d all have to catch up because we hadn’t seen each other.

“It happened to be a Data episode, which are always great, because Brent is a genius. The sound department gave me a bullhorn. I had a lot of support, including from my acting company. But I realized what these other directors had gone through and what assholes we were. And I had not a leg to stand on in terms of asking them to behave.”

“The Drumhead”
“The Next Generation,” Season 4, Episode 21
First aired April 29, 1991

This courtroom thriller — guest starring classic Hollywood star Jean Simmons, then 62, as a Starfleet admiral obsessively investigating a possible conspiracy on the Enterprise — featured some particularly inventive camerawork. That was a rare event for “Next Gen,” which followed a far more locked down, straightforward style of cinematography that Frakes says was driven by showrunner and executive producer Rick Berman.

“I tried to stretch the envelope. Rick was very strict. He was very traditional in his cutting. I wouldn’t say I broke any boundaries. But I wasn’t told not to do it, so I did it. I was very big on connecting questions to answers. I remember moving around the room and climbing up and down and staying with people, instead it being cut, cut, cut, cut. I love when you connect what someone has said to the person who it said about or to.

“The wonderful Jean Simmons had asked to be on the show because she was a massive Trekkie. She and her friends used to watch on Thursday nights. What a great get for ‘Star Trek.’”

“Past Tense Part II”
“Deep Space Nine,” Season 3, Episode 12
First aired Jan. 9, 1995

“Deep Space Nine” starred Avery Brooks as Commander Benjamin Sisko, who oversaw the crew of the titular space station, including the unscrupulous bartender Quark (Armin Shimerman) and the studious chief of operations, Chief Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney), who had originated the character on “Next Gen.” The second half of this two-part episode is largely set in a speculative San Francisco in 2024, in which profound inequities are leading to an unstable society.

“It felt like a period episode to me — and now it’s essentially a contemporary show. We went for sort of a low and wide, gritty, lot of side light look.

“It was a very different show. I knew Armin and Colm, but all the other actors were new to me. And this was a more serious set than ‘Next Gen.’ I really loved Avery’s acting. I loved him in ‘A Man Called Hawk.’ Remember ‘Hawk’? I was a fan. Like every episode of television, you either make it or break it in prep. So if you’re prepared, and you have a plan, and you can sell that plan to your cast, at least in my experience, that’s when you have success. They trust that you know what you want to do, and they can help to execute it, everybody wins.”

“Voyager,” Season 2, Episode 3
First aired Sept. 11, 1995

This episode largely focused on The Doctor (Robert Picardo), a holographic artificial intelligence meant to serve as an emergency medical officer on the U.S.S. Voyager — but who becomes the permanent physician after the starship is stranded on the other side of the galaxy. Character actor Dwight Schultz guest stars in the episode as Lt. Reginald Barclay, a nebbish engineering officer who first appeared in several fan favorite episodes of “Next Gen.”

“Picardo and Dwight together? Trouble. First of all, they were two of the most clever characters, Barclay and the Doctor. But both actors are so facile and so quick. That was, again, the luck of the draw, because as I’ve said many times, you get 26 episodes in a season, they’re not all going to be home runs. That episode was a blast, and primarily because of those two actors.”

In the episode, the Doctor finds himself presented with the possibility that he’s a real person and not a hologram, but the rest of the crew of Voyager are simulations. The what-is-reality plot mirrored a similar storyline for one of Riker’s standout episodes of “Next Gen,” “Frame of Mind.”

“The lead voices of the writing staff certainly influenced that whole era, the Berman era, of ‘Star Trek.’ Shows were similar in flavor and shows were similarly produced, because of Rick. There was a tonal similarity to that that there is now with the new new ‘Trek,’ in which we are encouraged to shoot the thrill. It’s very cinematic in a way that our shows were not, necessarily.”

“These Are the Voyages…”
“Enterprise,” Season 4, Episode 22
First aired May 13, 2005

“Enterprise” — a prequel series starring Scott Bakula as Capt. Jonathan Archer, who commanded the first warp-capable starship to bear the name Enterprise — was canceled in its fourth season, the first time that had happened to a “Trek” show since the original series in the 1960s. For the “Enterprise” series finale, Berman and fellow executive producer Brannon Braga wrote a framing device set during the era of “Next Gen” and featuring Riker and Marina Sirtis as Counselor Deanna Troi. It was a similar conceit to the “Strange New Worlds”/“Lower Decks” crossover, in which “Trek” characters from the 24th century look back on an earlier era of “Trek” for inspiration. But as a send-off for “Enterprise,” it proved to be awkward in the extreme.

“We didn’t quite fit. It was sold as, ‘Oh, come on and do the episode, it will be a Valentine to the fans’ — it wasn’t a Valentine to the fans. The fans didn’t want to see us. Scott Bakula was such a mensch about it, but all these other ‘Trek’ shows went seven seasons. Nobody wanted to be on a ‘Star Trek’ show that didn’t get to go to seven. And the inherent insult in having characters from another series that had done well come in to essentially close the books on his episode — it just felt so wrong to me. I mean, it was a good episode. We had a blast doing it in many ways. The more I think about it, the more I hear from fans about it in particular, it may not have been the best choice we’ve made on ‘Star Trek.’ Again, they’re not all home runs. It’s just unfortunate that that was the last episode of that show.”

"Despite Yourself" -- Episode 110 -- Pictured (l-r): Director, Jonathan Frakes; Shazad Latif as Lieutenant Ash Tyler; Sonequa Martin-Green as First Officer Michael Burnham of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. Photo Cr: Jan Thijs/CBS © 2017 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved.
"Despite Yourself" -- Episode 110 -- Pictured (l-r): Director, Jonathan Frakes; Shazad Latif as Lieutenant Ash Tyler; Sonequa Martin-Green as First Officer Michael Burnham of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. Photo Cr: Jan Thijs/CBS © 2017 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved.

“Despite Yourself”
“Discovery,” Season 1, Episode 10
First aired Jan. 7, 2018

After “Enterprise” went off the air, Frakes continued a robust directing career, including episodes of “Leverage,” “Castle,” “NCIS: Los Angeles” and “Burn Notice.” When “Trek” returned to TV in 2017 with “Discovery”  — starring Sonequa Martin-Green as the complicated and hyper-competent Starfleet officer Michael Burnham — Frakes leaped at the chance to return to his roots. To date, he’s directed seven episodes of the show.

“That was my new home, ‘Discovery.’ And that first episode, getting to know Sonequa — she’s very special, on a lot of levels. She’s not only a fantastic actor, but she is a great leader and very spiritual. She was very welcoming. I was very glad to be part of that company in the beginning of the series. To a person, they said, ‘So what’s this going to be like? What are the conventions like?’ They were all being welcomed into the family in a way. Every new show has a different reaction from fans, but we’re all a big family. I mean, it sounds a little Pollyanna, but it’s really true.”

“Discovery” will end its run with its fifth season, which is set to premiere in 2024. According to Frakes, that wasn’t quite the plan.

“I directed the first half of the finale of Season 5, which turned out to be the real finale. So that was a very emotional end as well. When we did it, we didn’t know it was the end. And then [‘Discovery’ executive producer and director] Olatunde Osunsanmi had to go back up and do two or three days of new stuff to actually make the finale the finale.”

Jonathan Frakes as Will Riker and Patrick Steward as Picard in "No Win Scenario" Episode 304, Star Trek: Picard on Paramount+.  Photo Credit: Trae Patton/Paramount+. ©2021 Viacom, International Inc.  All Rights Reserved.
Jonathan Frakes as Will Riker and Patrick Steward as Picard in "No Win Scenario" Episode 304, Star Trek: Picard on Paramount+. Photo Credit: Trae Patton/Paramount+. ©2021 Viacom, International Inc. All Rights Reserved.

“No Win Scenario”
“Picard,” Season 3, Episode 4
First aired March 9, 2023

Frakes reprised his performance as Riker in one episode of Season 1 of “Picard,” but he was still shocked when executive producer Terry Matalas invited him and the rest of the “Next Gen” cast back for the third and final season of the show. Frakes had directed several episodes in the first two seasons of “Picard,” but in Season 3, Riker is effectively a second lead alongside Picard, and in “No Win Scenario,” he’s faced with leading the crew of the U.S.S. Titan out of an impossible situation. Frakes had never directed an episode of TV that also required so much of him as an actor.

“On ‘Next Gen,’ I was assigned episodes that were Riker-light, consciously. On the third season of ‘Picard,’ when it was clear that I was going to be in all 10 episodes, the powers that be didn’t want me to direct and get distracted from playing Riker. But the director of Episodes 3 and 4 was not able to come down from Canada to do it, so I was able to step in. And I’m sure they did not plan on me having to do a big fat Riker episode, which, in a way, I think helped me as Riker.

“As a director, you’ve got a lot going on. And the less you’re thinking about the acting, often, the better the acting is. I’m married to [‘General Hospital’ star] Genie Francis, who’s a wonderful actor and a wonderful wife and a wonderful coach. I remember distinctly she said to me, ‘You don’t have to worry about playing Riker worrying about being a leader. What you do every day when you go to work [as a director] is lead a couple hundred people through the thing. So stop stressing about that.’”

Matalas has made no secret of his desire to continue the story from “Picard” Season 3 with a spin-off series called “Star Trek: Legacy.” Frakes says he’s “very interested in the idea of it.”

“I think they can’t deny not only the fan reaction, but the fact that the numbers put the show at the Top 10 on the streaming charts. And that season of ‘Star Trek: Picard’ was arguably the among the best seasons of any ‘Star Trek’ — I think we all agree on that. I mean, ‘Star Trek’ fans are loyal. It’s not millions and millions of people, and it’s not the youngest fandom in the world. But I am an eternal optimist, and I believe in a perfect world, they will find the assets and the energy and hire Terry to put together this ‘Legacy’ show and that will, in fact, come to fruition.”

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