An Interview with Jonathan Frakes of Star Trek: The Next Generation

Jonathan Frakes looks back on his years as Commander Riker, and looks forward to upcoming Official Star Trek Convention appearances.

By , Contributor

The weekend of December 12-14, 2014 will find Seattle- and San Francisco-area Trekkers convening at Creation Entertainment’s Official Star Trek Convention. Among the celebrity guests appearing at the concurrent conventions is none other than Jonathan Frakes, aka Commander Riker on seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation and its four feature films (two of which Frakes directed). We caught up with Mr. Frakes on the eve of the big weekend.

You have two Trek conventions on the same weekend: San Francisco on Friday, December 12 and Seattle on Saturday and Sunday, December 13. Hectic schedule.

It’s an interesting format, I’ll be very curious to see how it works out. A bunch of us are travelling, Brent [Spiner], Denise [Crosby], Marina [Sirtis], at least five or six of us are doing two days in two cities. [Ed. Note: Other Next Generation alumni appearing at both conventions are Michael Dorn and John de Lancie.]

Is that common, simultaneous conventions?

Only if you’re Bill Shatner. He’s notorious for hitting, like, three conventions in a weekend. Private jet, takes suitcases full of money out of three different cities.

At both conventions, you’re participating in a six-person Next Generation reunion panel, Friday night in San Francisco and Saturday night in Seattle. Looking forward to those?

That’s the best part of the event. That and the meal we get to have afterwards. For some strange reason, the Next Generation cast, it’s a bit of a cliché, really did become a family. That show was the first big break for all of us, except for LeVar [Burton] and Wil Wheaton who were kind of famous before. But the rest of us, who had been actors our whole lives, that was our break. We all shared this experience together and it changed all of our lives at the same time.

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You’re all still close?

We stood up at each others' weddings and are godparents to each others' kids. We still have lunch together. Marina and my wife are great friends. I just got off the phone with Brent yesterday and I talked to Dorn today. It’s surprising. It was 28 years ago.

It’s great that Creation Entertainment is organizing these reunions, what a treat for the fans.

Well, there’s so much stuff we know about each other, which makes those panels fun because nothing’s sacred. You’ve got to have some pretty thick skin. So we go after each other pretty well, it’s pretty entertaining.

How many conventions do you typically attend per year?

It’s picked up since the 25th anniversary a couple years ago, which saw a huge resurgence of interest. I think also partially because of the success of J.J. Abrams' movies. But it’s also because we started these reunion events. I do half a dozen a year probably. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. To be honest, you walk into a convention hall, and the people who’ve gone out of their way to come to see you are people who have been influenced by the show or are fans of the show. You have a leg up going in, because they’re inclined to deal with you in a favorable way. It feels like a blessing.

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Outside of the camaraderie between you and your former cast members, what are some other aspects you enjoy about the conventions?

I love the interaction. It’s generally so positive. You hear so many times about people who’ve been inspired by the show to become engineers, doctors, astronauts, physicists. Or they talk about how fabulous the time spent in front of Next Generation was because, “It was the only time I spent with my dad.” Or their mom, or their grandparents. And—not unlike the show itself—there’s a really honest, optimistic reaction to the show that never gets old. I also feel that people—actors, celebrities, whoever—should not do these conventions unless they enjoy it and want to share some time with the fans. I’ve seen people gruffly mistreating the fans and it doesn’t make any sense to me. Why did you come to this if you’re going to be cranky pants?

I’ve seen attendees, during the Q&A portion of the guest panels, argue with an actor over the details of his or her career. Have you ever experienced a fan who believed they “knew” your own career better than you do?

I haven’t had any experiences directly about my alleged career, but I do have an ongoing relationship with the fans who know the show so concisely that they remember episode names, who was in it. Or want to know why does the ship not go over warp 9.9, why are there no bathrooms on the bridge. I mean, there are episodes of the show that I haven’t even seen, let alone remember. I remember being at a hotel working on another show and there’s Next Generation on some cable network. First of all I think, “Look how young we are.” And then it’s like, “I don’t remember that guest star, I don’t remember that scene.”

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Then it’ll be a show I remember very fondly—or very negatively—and then you watch it like a train wreck. But I still literally see episodes that I’ve never seen. And that’s very entertaining for me. But there are fans at these cons who re-watch the whole 182 hour and all the movies yearly, or bi-yearly. And God bless ‘em.

With the season seven Blu-ray just out [December 2], the entire run of Next Generation is now in high definition. What has that experience been like, seeing the show fully restored and looking so great?

I’ve really enjoyed that part of it. I’ve actually worked with that company, CBS Digital,who did the remastering, on another project that I had been directing. They were so passionate and painstaking. With the special effect shots, it was a frame-by-frame project. It took years. And, you know, part of me is a cynic who says it’s just another greedy way to make some more money by reissuing something that, everyone who wants it already has it. The other side of it is that it’s quite spectacular what the technology has been able to produce, especially with the special effects shots.

How did the opportunity arise for you to direct your first episode of Next Generation?

I found myself doing a lot of waiting, and I had too much energy for that. So I stayed on the set and realized, obviously, that the best job in the world is the job of the director. I shadowed all of our directors for the first couple years. Then I approached Rick Berman, who was sort of the keeper of all things Star Trek, and voiced an interest. He and the editors were very generous with their time. I spent about 300 hours in the editing room. I’d go to pre-production meetings with Rick, and then casting, post-production, scoring, foley. So I was blessed with this opportunity to be on a show at Paramount on the lot and be able to learn from the top, in each department, what was needed to produce an episode of television.

Was it a natural transition for you to go from directing episodes to feature films, starting of course with First Contact?

The major difference I find in retrospect is that with feature films there is more time and more money. And obviously there’s also more at stake. But First Contact, arguably the best Star Trek movie before J.J.’s first one—maybe that and Wrath of Khan—had a script by Brannon Braga and Ron Moore, who were our two fair-haired, wunderkind writers. The Borg were our greatest nemesis. I was lucky to get Alfre Woodard, James Cromwell, and Alice Krige as the guest stars. It was blessed. And it was the perfect way to start as a first movie for me.

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Considering box office returns weren’t as widely reported back in ’96, do you remember the moment you found out First Contact had opened at number one with $30 million?

I’ll tell you a wonderful story about that. I had finished the movie, delivered the movie, gone to the opening. My family and I went to Great Barrington, up in the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts, to visit my oldest, dearest friend. And sort of to hide out, frankly, and wait to see what happened. The movie opened very successfully. And I got a phone call from DeForest Kelley, who I barely knew. He was a neighbor of Rick Berman and had asked him for my number. He called to congratulate me on the success of the movie. What a great moment. He was my favorite. DeForest was the best of our whole family.

Having directed a variety of shows since your Trek days, what kind of research and preparation goes into directing an episode of a well-established TV show? Is it ever like cramming for a test, depending on your familiarity with a given series?

You do have to cram. For instance, NCIS: Los Angeles, you’re hired to do an episode of that show. And that show looks a certain way and it’s shot a certain way. You cannot go in there and reinvent the wheel. The actors know their characters. The crew, we’re when in those standing sets, like the conference room or Hetty’s office or the bullpen, the actors go to their spot. We put the camera in a certain spot. Just like shooting the bridge of the Enterprise.

What I also do during prep is watch the episodes that have taken place between the last time that I was there and the time I’m shooting, so I know what’s going on in the story. But your responsibility is to shoot their show. Same is true on Castle. There are three sizes of close-ups that you must get during the interrogation of Castle and Beckett. If you don’t do it, you’re just an asshole and you’re not making the show properly and you won’t be asked back. It’s keeping the train on the tracks, staying focused on the moment-to-moment, telling the story clearly. These shows that are successful and have been on the air for years do not want to be reinvented.

What have you been working on most recently?

I just finished a brand new show called Hindsight, which I love. It’s a scripted drama, or dramedy, on VH-1 about a woman who leaves her husband at the altar and gets a magical redo of 20 years. She goes back to 1995. It’s a period piece set in the ‘90s. Michael Trim, from Orange is the New Black, did the pilot, then I came in and did two episodes. That was so exciting because it was a new show. You could create the look you wanted, you could do what you wanted to do.

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And then I finished the last season of Falling Skies, which is a show that is shot in a very specific, war documentary, handheld-camera style. So you go back to shooting the show the way the audience, when they’re going through the channels, will say, “Oh I recognize it, that’s Falling Skies.” So it’s part of the job. Honor what has been done before and maintain it.

What are some current shows that you would love to jump in and direct an episode of?

I watch and would love to do Ray Donovan, Homeland, The Newsroom. I’ve been watching this show, this English show, called Happy Valley, a cop drama. I like Sherlock. But I’m just happy to be doing some non-sci-fi stuff, like this Hindsight that I’m crazy about. And I’m about to start on the family show Switched at Birth. I’m lucky to do a variety of stuff.

Special thanks to Jonathan Frakes for his time. For more information about Mr. Frakes' upcoming Star Trek convention appearances, visit the official site.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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