Interview: Jonathan Frakes On Directing A Mini-TNG Reunion On ‘Picard’ And Prepping For ‘Strange New Worlds’

Jonathan Frakes returned to Star Trek as the director of “Fly Me to the Moon” for Star Trek: Picard’s second season, which brought back some of his old Next Generation co-stars John de Lancie and Brent Spiner to join star Sir Patrick Stewart. TrekMovie had a chance to talk to him about that reunion, bringing some First Contact vibes to the show, what he has in mind for Strange New Worlds, if he will return as Riker, and more.

Episode 205 feels like a kind of grab bag of different genres like action, psychological thriller, heist movies, and horror movie. Which were your favorite to play with?

I was thrilled to play with the heist genre. It’s a little Ocean’s Eleven that we’re setting up at the nightclub. But I also think it’s a callback to our friend the Borg Queen and the way that she was introduced to us in First Contact and has the same kind of control. And when she takes over Jurati, it’s a full-on callback, both visually and psychologically to what happened on the Enterprise in First Contact.

You can steal from yourself, right?

I think you should. [laughs] If it worked the first time! I hadn’t seen the completed visual effect of the fingers entering the neck, which is a complete homage to that assimilation in the corridor on the Enterprise in First Contact. It’s been wild to have Brent [Spiner] back as Soong. And [John] de Lancie, who’s my favorite nemesis in the history of Star Trek, as Q. So all that and we’ve got the astoundingly talented Alison Pill. I’ve got my old buddy, the good Captain Picard [Sir Patrick Stewart]. And this new Raffi and Seven relationship—their rhythm together is spectacular, I think. And we would be remiss if we didn’t mention how charming and sexy Santiago [Cabrera] is. The cast is great and I think the audience has warmed up to this show in a way this season that I didn’t know that any of us were expecting. But we’re thrilled by it.

I have talked to [showrunners] Terry [Matalas] and Akiva [Goldsman] about how this season was designed to have a different feel and tone. Did they talk to you about that approach to direct differently than in season one?

They didn’t talk to me about directing it differently, but they did talk to me about the tone and I was in complete lockstep with them. I thought that what they’re doing with this season and then casting the same actors in these parts–like Orla [Brady] and Isa [Briones] playing two parts—I thought was clever and intelligent. I think the idea of going back to Earth and telling this story about our condition is a really Star Trek appropriate cautionary tale that would have Roddenberry—despite his determination and loyalty to being an atheist—smiling down on us from somewhere. [laughs]

Jonathan Frakes with Brent Spiner and John de Lancie

You know these guys so well and they are your personal friends. They know these characters so well. So, no offense, but what is there for you to do as you are directing Patrick and these guys?

Just to keep them on track. First of all, let me just say I think both Brent and de Lancie may be at the top of their acting game. There is a confidence level in their work. I really enjoy watching them work as actors, as I always have, but they seem even more confident now than they were 30 years ago. Brent is playing a new character. Even though it’s a Soong. It’s not Data, it’s certainly not Lore, it’s certainly not the old Soong. And I think he has found, with the help of Akiva and Terry and Cindy [Appel] and the writers, this more cynical, wizened, and bitter character and embrace it. And I love the beard. I love the physicality that he’s put into it. The suit helps him. He’s different. And because Brent is so facile as an actor, he is able to convince. You completely forget about Data when you’re watching this, I think.

Who made the choice for John’s psychiatrist character to have a little fun and play into the Freud accent?

Oh god! We decided to do that on the set. And Akiva and Terry questioned it. And I said, “Well if you don’t like it, you could revoice it.” But everybody seemed to embrace it. It was a little on the nose. It was sort of sitting there like low-hanging fruit so de Lancie and I decided to pick it. [laughs]

While you were calling back to your work in First Contact, there was something different this Borg Queen, she actually isn’t the same character…

Right, but she’s informed by the power of the Borg, having assimilated all of mankind they could get a hold of. There’s a certain competence that this Borg Queen has. And a hunger and power. She’s different, obviously, because the actors are different. But I thought what Annie [Wersching] brought to this Borg Queen was fascinating. I keep thinking about some of the choices she made, some of them with a smile, some nasty, mean-spirited shit, and some threatening things that the Borg Queen said which Annie delivered with this mischievous, confident smile.

I also thing we’d be missing the boat if we don’t mention and congratulate both James MacKinnon and Neville Page, as well as Jason Zimmerman and that whole team, who have created this 2022 version of the Borg queen which is still dangerous, but kind of beautiful, and sexy and weird. There is a seamless blend of the practical effects, the prosthetics, and visual effects. And Dave Blass’ production design for the Queen, tied and drawn and quartered. I just think that the character is really well served in this show. And then by the end of episode five, she has essentially assimilated herself into Jurati, which is kind of the reverse Borg vibe.

There definitely is something different going on here. It isn’t the usual First Contact-like assimilation. Can you talk about what exactly do you see as going on between these two? Is Jurati falling for it? Does she like it?

That is a really, really astute question. I feel like Alison has chosen to like it, or not to resist it as much—interesting drop of word… resistance. She obviously had no choice but she trusts. In the episode before five, she tells Picard, “Let me go in there And I gotta figure this shit out with the Borg.” She trusts that she has a big enough brain that she can not be assimilated. And then to see her with that wonderful callback to the First Contact assimilation and the corridor where the spikes come out of the Borg Queen’s hands and essentially, I guess, enter Jurati and incorporate and take the power. She has the power now over Jurati’s behavior, some of which Jurati is able to resist, but ultimately, we’ll see that it’s very complicated, what’s going on inside our friend Jurati at the moment.

Jonathan Frakes and Alison Pill on the set of Star Trek: Picard

You have been doing a lot of Star Trek directing lately, but these episodes are different with the contemporary setting and a lot of location, especially in the next episode which you also directed. Can you talk about what that like to get out of the studio more?

Anytime we do any of those of the Star Treks, personally, it’s great for me to get off the bridge for change. And to get out of the spacesuit and get into a different environment. It was great back in Next Gen to do the Dixon Hill stuff or go to the Minuet stuff. And then on Deep Space Nine, we went back in time. There’s something about taking the kids out of the camp that they’ve been in and sending them to another camp that affects the crew. It affects the actors. And I believe it affects the audience. So I think that going to LA and shooting Seven driving a cop car is visually a blast for everybody. And it is different enough from what we’re used to seeing our characters do that everyone benefits on all sides of the camera, behind in front of, and in the audience. I think if we don’t take too long at the fair, I think it’s good for a show to mix it up.

Is it right that in the last year you have directed for all three live-action Trek shows?

I haven’t started on Strange New Worlds yet. My slot from season one disappeared because of my schedule on Picard, and the COVID of it all. So I got to do Discovery last year. I’m actually next week going up to Toronto to do an episode for season two of Strange New Worlds.

So with Strange New Worlds already on your mind, how do you approach directing Picard differently than that and Discovery?

You approach it the same. which is to make sure you have a plan and that you are serving the script. What changes is the dynamic of the set. Who’s set is it? One of the things I found as a director that really helps… I’m going to Strange New Worlds and I know one of the cinematographers. I know a few of the designers. I have the privilege of having spent so much time with Anson [Mount] when he was Pike on Discovery. And I am really proud to be part of Ethan [Peck]’s development of Spock. And I’ve done three series with Rebecca [Romijn]. So those relationships are in place. So that’s really what helps me is to have some places that I can plant and build from.  It’s hard to go in as a guest on these shows and not know somebody or something about it. And not all Star Trek’s are created equally. Each of them has a director’s guide, if you will, a kind of stylebook and what they aspire to do. I’m told Strange New Worlds is a much more episodic and one story at a time, which I’m really looking forward to. Because both Discovery and Picard are linear. In that regard, it can be standalone and we can go with a style for a show, which is something I know they embrace on Strange New Worlds. So I’m looking forward to that.

Jonathan Frakes and Patrick Stewart on the set of Star Trek: Picard

Alex Kurtzman is cooking up more Star Trek. Would you be interested in coming on for a role like Olatunde Osunsanmi for Discovery, and being an executive producer/director for a series? Or would that cramp your style to play the field?

You ask a very interesting, prescient, accurate question. And you have answered it for me as well. It’s better for me, first of all, to be able to stay home instead of working for nine months of the year in Toronto. I think I’m better off, bouncing around and bringing whatever I can bring. Because I know what a grind the producing/directing job is. If I had it in LA, I would jump on it. But to go to move away from my wife and her job and life here, because she’s got a career here, is too long. One month is long enough. So I’ve managed finally to put family first. [laughs]

Any chance you are going to step back from behind the camera and put on the spacesuit as Riker again?

I think the Pizza Riker and the Riker that saved the day in season one was plenty of Riker.

There’s never enough Riker, I’m sorry. And isn’t there some more Lower Decks?

Yeah, Riker lives on in Lower Decks with Boimler. I love Riker and Lower Decks.

Yeah, I see him as almost a Riker from an alternate jazz universe.

Yeah! Exactly right. [laughs] 

Jonathan Frakes on the et of Star Trek: Picard

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The TNG / ENT TNG lite directors have Lower Decks, Discovery and Picard. Let them play there. Leave the TOS series alone, let’s be different and bring in new TOS fans for SNW.
There should be a check list:
Question #1) If you are doing Enterprise, do you a) have peace with the Klingons b) give the Captain the ability to phone Starfleet command for help and instructions c) ensure you can use phasers on stun and beam away in dangerous situations d) include a dumb nonsensical time travel reset arc or e) none of the above.
Question #2) You have a colorful bridge with cool display panels behind the Captain. Do you a) Replace the console with a bland door b) replace the console with a bland unattractive monocolor c) Add some hard drive blinky lites that in no way could indicate anything of value d) Ensure set is so large no two characters can communicate in the same scene while the commander sits in a static chair or e) none of the above
Question #3) You are doing a TOS show. Do you a) Ensure the ship has a magic mushroom drive b) Ensure they can phone Starfleet Command for instructions that the Captain doesn’t have to take ultimate responsibility for anything c) Not show any colonization or danger on the final fronter in favor of nonsensical time travel arcs d) Play holodeck all day e) none of the above.
Question #4) You have the opportunity for Kahn to come in and trick everyone into believing that he can outstrategize enemies given the loss of Vulcan. Do you a) Make Kahn a poor dude who just wants his family back from an evil Starfleet Admiral b) Have Kahn beam from Earth to the Klingon home world c) Blame drones by firing them at the Klingon homeworld and ignore the fact they are saving Ukraine right now because the horrid political analogy doesn’t really apply to anything at all d) Make artificial intelligence equal to life e) none of the above.
If they don’t answer e to all the above questions, just don’t let them around SNW. Picard, Lower Decks, even Prodigy, transfer them please. This should be space the final frontier, exploration, all that.

Considering it’s the writers who determine plot points and Kurtzman is also a writer and executive producer..

No, I really don’t think your ideas are gonna work.

No, and God forbid that it would ever work, Trek ideological litmus tests being a really bad idea as a condition of employment. I can see the point of keeping the technical departments separate and distinct if you want each series to have its own identity, which turned out to be a real issue with ‘Voyager’ and ‘Enterprise.’ But good directing is good directing, and Frakes has proven himself in that capacity over and over again. If the stars align and he likes the material, no reason he shouldn’t go anywhere the producers want him.

Excellent interview!
We have Picard now, SNW next month, then The Orville in June. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

If SNW ends up in the same category as Picard or Orville in June it would be an embarrassment.
We want sci-fi exploration of the final frontier, Wagon Train to Stars, Five Year Mission to explore strange new worlds please!
No bland snoozefest that only works as a comedy. No nonsensical time loops. No flying hotels in space.

To quote Tonto in another context, “What’s this ‘we’ s#%t, White Man?”

Amen, brother!

That second photo gave me a chuckle. “Doctor, doctor, doctor, doctor, doctor…”

This was a great interview! Honestly I did have issues with this episode, but not due to the directing, just the writing frankly. BUT I have to disagree with giving Q the Freud voice. I love Frakes, but it didn’t work for me at all. And I hate to say this, but he’s a much director than Lea Thompson too.

And it was great someone finally asked him the question a lot of fans, especially here, wanted to know and that was will he ever get more involved in these shows creatively other than directing and he gave a direct and satisfying answer. I would love for him to be involved more with SNW and Discovery but yeah it would require a big upheaval in his life and he’s not hurting for work.

So happy he’s directing SNW next season as well! I’m sure Frakes pinch himself every day. He probably thought he was done with Trek for good a decade ago and now he’s just involved in the franchise as he was when TNG went into the movies and was both in front of and behind the camera on DS9, VOY and ENT.

I agree about the Freud accent — not a good choice at all! Other than that, I thought the episode was done really well.

Hate to be in the minority, But I liked the Freud voice.

GET OUT GARY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I liked the voice too. lol typical Q for sure.

Mr. Frakes = Best Trek Director (IMHO).

There are a lot of Nick Meyer fans.

Man, I would love to work with Jonathan Frakes. He’s just a natural motivator. You can read it right there in the interview.

Part of me wants to see all the other actor-directors that came out of the other Trek shows directing for new Trek too. Guys like Levar Burton, Roxann Dawson and Robert Duncan McNeill should try their hands as well. I do remember reading somewhere that the producers had approached Robert Duncan McNeill to direct for one of the shows but he couldn’t do it because of a scheduling conflict.

I agree with this so much. I would love to see Levar Burton, Dawson and McNeill direct too. You’re right McNeill was suppose to direct a Discovery episode but he was too busy. Frakes has basically cornered the market on former legacy actors directing the new shows. But I guess besides the fact he’s a great TV director he also directed two of the films and gives him a bigger reputation. I don’t think that’s why they chose him obviously but just that everyone knows what he’s done in the past and love working with him.

I watched episode 3 through 5 just in last several hours and can say I actually found myself enjoying it. Guinan I grew on me after a few minutes and its believable enough. The idea she’s be in that exact same bar and location with a remarkably similar scene to the one seen in 2400 is a big, big stretch though. Couldn’t really buy that, so that’s a shame the writers could be a bit more creative and sensible here.

The Agnes and Borg Queen scenes are strong and very interesting.

I enjoyed these more than I though I would.
I think watching 3 episodes straight instead of just one really worked for me so I’ll be doing the same again and wait until I can watch eps. 6-8. Looking forward to it.

There’s never enough of Riker!!!!

I agree. But I wonder if he is just messing with us and we will see Riker again in Picard season 3. Perhaps the whole TNG gang (minus Data, but with Spiner as Soong).

After my feelings about jumping ship after episode 3, and being advised to stick with it just a bit longer, I am once again feeling appalled at the state of modern Trek. It’s rudderless. Jumping from one scene to the next with little true flow or understanding of how proper drama works. Or how Star Trek works. Or logic and intellect. So we’re halfway into this Season 2. And we’ve got further proof that the writers have ZERO idea of how things work in a professional organisation, or the chain of command. Which is why the crew were always more professional (and believable) in TOS, TNG etc. Writers often had had prior experience of doing service, or working in the Police force, or being familiar with those (family, friends) that had etc. Modern writers seemingly have none of that and seem to have as their only ‘rock’, pop culture references and winks and nods to far better written dramas and films from the past. None of these characters acts in a professional manner scene-to-scene. Take Rios. In episode 1, he told his crew to stop firing at the “Borg” “Queen”, and he had to issue that command three times before they ceased. Can you imagine Picard or Kirk or Janaway having to issue an order three times before the crew acted professionally? Officers are trained to react and still obey orders under considerable stress. There was no sign of that understanding whatsoever in that scene.

Take Raffi, as but one example. There is NO WAY somebody that ill tempered and ill disciplined would make the grade in the Starfleet we traditionally (at least) know from prior (pre 2009) productions. Michell Hurd – a superb actress – truly gives it her best shot in a badly written, haphazard and schizoid role. The appalling writing means there’s VERY little chance at all of any chance for crackling chemistry with Jeri Ryan. Her character would fit in far better in Discovery with it’s frequent and ludicrous use of over-emoting, bursting into tears, and “ACT-ing mo-ments”. Emotional moments placed there ‘just because’, not because it’s been earned by good quality writing to develop naturally from the scene, or that the writers really understand emotions beyond sitcom or soap level drivel. Acting moments are, like Star Trek moments, seemingly put into a blender and sh*t out at random and patchwork’d together with thin scripting, yet top quality production values to fool many into thinking they’re watching quality entertainment…

OK, so we haven’t had anything close to an eyeball being slowly pulled out whilst the victim screams in agony, like Season 1. But, we’ve had a Starfleet officer slitting throats (and Raffi wise-cracking afterwards!) (read that again if you don’t ‘get it’. Starfleet officers do not slit throats to get out of a scrape!). We’ve had the use of sh*t, pr*ck, and in episode 5, they couldn’t resist another F-bomb. Why am I so angry? I’m angry because episode 1 showed THEY CAN STILL DO IT, IF THEY WANT! Episode 1 (as MANY had commented joyfully) was quintessential Star Trek. Star Trek that is exciting, well written, well acted, has an edge, BUT has the class not to cross it, so it can be watched by every age group, so it’s ultimate message of ‘we can do better as a race working together’ can be appreciated, and inspiring to all! Instead it’s been snatched away from the younger audience members. And for what? Is having cussing and casual neck slitting violence in Trek warranted to make it “cool” by some in the audience? Do the producers and show runners truly think it makes Star Trek ‘less square’ (it survived VERY well being a somewhat niche show without pandering to the masses!) by being ‘edgy’ in some way?

I am disappointed and ANGRY with Sir Patrick, Frakes, Spiner, the snow runners, the script writers for allowing this to happen. Shame on you all! I was inspired by Star Trek as a kid, as were millions. And now you’ve rendered it suitable for 13/15 (depending upon the episode ratings!) year old demographics only! Bravo! Proud of yourselves?….. You shouldn’t be.

My last hope is Strange New Worlds. Though as Kurtzman is behind this one too, I am sure it’ll be “course correcting” episode to episode as it tries to pander towards every pop-culture whim that’s flavour of the month, rather than ploughing it’s own course. All his others shows have the same failure mechanisms – chopping and changing throughout and not knowing which direction they’re taking tonally, or in terms of demographics. Will Strange New Worlds be the live action FAMILY friendly Trek many fans desire? Time will tell, but my well of patience has pretty much run dry. This “franchise” needs a FAR more appropriate show runner.

Loved 1 and 2, 3 was good but 4 and 5… No. Better get better quick in every way. More Star Trek please. It’s ok to be Star Trek!

“Any chance you are going to step back from behind the camera and put on the spacesuit as Riker again?
I think the Pizza Riker and the Riker that saved the day in season one was plenty of Riker.”

Maury Povich meme goes here.

“You said you were done playing Riker — that was a lie” lol.

“April 1, 2022”