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Star Trek’s USS Commander-turned-director shoots to thrill but always with heart

Frakes as Commander Will Riker in the series Star Trek: The Next Generation, which ran from 1987 to 1994.

Frakes as Commander Will Riker in the series Star Trek: The Next Generation, which ran from 1987 to 1994.Credit:CBS

Few directors have found such ease with the syntax of Star Trek storytelling – Nicholas Meyer’s magnificent turns with the films The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country are standouts – but Frakes, who directs on two of CBS’s current Star Trek shows (Discovery and Picard) balances both the essence of the founding vision, the atmosphere and tension and the specificity of the language.

“It’s sort of a corny answer, but I think as [Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry always said, the heart of this is the family,” Frakes says in our interview. “And I find specifically with Sonequa Martin-Green, who’s the number one [castmember] on Discovery, that she and I are always after the emotional core, the emotional centre of the scene, in spite of the spectacle.”

As a big-budget science fiction show, Discovery “always shoots to thrill”, Frakes says. “And we’re very grandiose with camera movement and lens flares. We’re very big on big cinematic [moments], but the stuff people remember is what they feel when you get into that close-up at the end of the scene. That’s what they leave with. That’s the heart of Star Trek.”

That will be truer still for the show’s third season, which has just launched, in which the USS Discovery is catapulted forward in time to the year 3188, where the capability of faster-than-light space travel has been lost and the all-powerful Earth-led United Federation of Planets, at its peak in the 22nd and 23rd centuries, has crumbled.

But it is a truth in filmmaking that sometimes time and money are the key factors that differentiate between good and bad outcomes. And in the era of peak television, series such as Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard have the benefit of cinema-scale television budgets, particularly when compared to their ’60s, ’80s and ’90s predecessors.

“That’s an understatement,” Frakes says, laughing. The shift, he says, has come with leaps in technology and the altered expectations of the audience. “The audience is so much more sophisticated. And visual effects, which are a part of our shows in a big way, have gone up exponentially. To look at the [1960s-era] original series, their visual effects were laughable by today’s standards.

Jonathan Frakes as Riker in Star Trek: Picard, commanding the USS Zheng He.

Jonathan Frakes as Riker in Star Trek: Picard, commanding the USS Zheng He.Credit:CBS/Michael Gibson

“What’s going on now on Disco and Picard, they’re so spectacular that you believe that you’re on a ship, you don’t feel like you’re on a set,” Frakes says. “It is completely cinematic, and [executive producer] Alex Kurtzman says, ‘if you want to try something, you should try it, if you feel it’s going to work, you have permission to make it work’.”

It also marks a dramatic departure from the somewhat straight frame and pace used on series such as The Next Generation. “People still love our show, but I say to kids who watch it, ‘does it feel slow to you?’ And they say, ‘maybe a little’,” Frakes says. “I think we all take information in much more quickly than we used to.”

Jonathan Frakes and Next Generation co-star Marina Sirtis lent their voices to the animated series Star Trek: Lower Decks.

Jonathan Frakes and Next Generation co-star Marina Sirtis lent their voices to the animated series Star Trek: Lower Decks.Credit:CBS

As a director, Frakes says he has particularly learned how much of the episode depends on what happens in the post-production edit, versus the action that takes place on the show’s cavernous sets in Toronto, Canada.

“Just surgically removing lines, changing the reaction, picking a reaction, starting a scene at a different point: I’m still discovering how valuable the edit can be,” Frakes says. “I think what I’ve learned more is that the making of a television show is done primarily in the prep, the 10 days or whatever before filming, obsessing about our episode before we get to the floor.”

Jonathan Frakes directing Star Trek: Picard, pictured discussing a scene with actors Jeri Ryan and Patrick Stewart.

Jonathan Frakes directing Star Trek: Picard, pictured discussing a scene with actors Jeri Ryan and Patrick Stewart.Credit:CBS/Trae Patton

Perhaps the most significant change between the original Star Trek – once described as Roddenberry’s “wagon train to the stars” – and its 90s spin-offs The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, when compared to the modern era of Discovery and Picard, is that the newer shows play more ambitiously against the optimism that Roddenberry infused into the earlier shows.

“There’s a dance that started with [the war-focused] Deep Space Nine, and [the question of] was that too dark? After Gene died, there was a sort of a loosening of the reins,” Frakes says. “Gene felt that there shouldn’t be tension, there shouldn’t be conflict. He didn’t want to have conflict in the company, in the bridge group [of characters]. And that just flies in the face of drama.

Jonathan Frakes directing the action on the set of Star Trek: Discovery.

Jonathan Frakes directing the action on the set of Star Trek: Discovery.Credit:CBS/Russ Martin

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“When Gene passed, the writers started to feel less responsible to that, where it wasn’t the driving force as it was and I think that helped all of the shows,” Frakes says. “Now with Alex’s vision, Picard is in many ways darker than Discovery. And it takes its time, and it’s wonderfully dense. There’s plenty to think about.”

In Picard, for example, Frakes says, the audience’s expectation around central character Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) is shaken. “You’re looking forward to what the character is going to be, but this guy’s having some dark, dark thoughts and some self-doubt and some vulnerability that he didn’t have as the captain on Next Generation. I am not sure Gene would have approved, but I think he’d be quite proud that his show has lived on.”

Star Trek: Discovery airs on Netflix. Star Trek: Picard airs on Amazon Prime Video.

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