Interview: Jonathan Frakes On Working For Pancreatic Cancer Awareness And Directing ‘Strange New Worlds’

For November, Star Trek: The Next Generation veteran Jonathan Frakes is doing what he can to bring attention to Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month as well as World Pancreatic Cancer Day on November 17. TrekMovie had a chance to talk to the actor and director about how personal this cause is to him and why he is working as a “PanCAN Ambassador” for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. And of course, we talk a little about Star Trek too, which includes his work directing the upcoming Strange New Worlds/Lower Decks crossover episode.

You are now more involved with PanCAN, can you talk about the work they are doing?

My brother Daniel and I were thick as thieves. We had an apartment together in New York, and when I decided to move to L.A. we bought a 1967 Chevy Sportvan that we drove across the country in a couple of weeks. It was a piece of s—t but we had a ball. And so 25 years ago, Daniel had jaundice and turned yellow and we took him to the hospital. They opened him up and then they closed him up. And they came to me and my mom and my dad and said, “We’re sorry, there’s nothing we can do, his pancreatic cancer is too far along.” Five months later Daniel was dead at just 41 years old. Around the same Kitty Swink—who is an actor who was with us on Deep Space Nine and is married to Armin Shimerman and part of the reason that I’m involved with this charity—she is now an 18-year pancreatic cancer survivor, which is unheard of. When Daniel died, there was a 4% survival rate. Last year after all the research that we’ve raised money for, there’s an 11% survival rate, which still sucks.

As an 18-year survivor, Kitty is not only sort of infamous in the pancreatic cancer fundraising community, but in our household for many years. When I’d be talking to my mom on the phone she would say, “How is your friend Kitty doing?” And you could see a smile come over my mom’s face. The idea and the hope that Kitty represented as a survivor in light of having lost her son. So Kitty is kind of a big deal to us. A couple of years ago, Kitty asked us to get involved with PanCAN and I said I would be more than happy to because I’ve never had a charity that I was so connected to. And when you’re connected to working for someone, it increases your compassion and your interest and your empathy and your involvement. And it feels good. The oldest thing in the book is it actually feels good to help others.

So, pancan.org is the website that all of your readers need to check out. We’re raising money to research early detection to avoid the kind of s—t that Daniel went through and that thousands and thousands of other people went through and hopefully find better treatment options. This disease has struck down so many people, like Alex Trebek. And more people with who I had a personal connection like Patrick Swayze—who was in North and South with myself and my wife Genie Francis. And I was on Highway to Heaven directed by Michael Landon, from whom I stole a lot of ideas about directing and how you approach the crew, and Michael Landon died from pancreatic cancer. So there’s a web that I identify with and it just feels to me that all the money and all the research that’s gone into other cancers has increased the awareness and increased the survivability—certainly with breast cancer and prostate cancer. So, I’m all in on early detection for pancreatic cancer.

Are there misconceptions about this disease or things you really wish you knew back then?

Oh, that’s a great question. About Daniel, yes. The fact that we didn’t get him to the hospital until he was jaundiced certainly suggests that he was not taking care of himself, or he hadn’t been to the doctor. That’s too far along. So I think the annual checkup is a big deal. Everybody out there when they go for their annual checkup needs to tell their doctors if they either have someone in their family who’s had pancreatic cancer or any connection, genetically. That helps with early detection, which is the key to this whole shebang.

And there is a special event happening on Thursday the 17th.

Yes, and again on pancan.org, which is a user-friendly website. There will be a Worldwide Forum. Essentially it is a worldwide Zoom event of survivors, doctors, entertainers, families, and support groups. It’s a day-long event that you can plug in and out of and participate in and obviously contribute.

You and Kitty and Armin have been involved with PanCAN for a few years; have they found Star Trek fans to be a particularly supportive group?

Yes. Star Trek fans are more amenable to helping others. I think that’s the nature of the fandom. It is inclusive, and it is certainly inclusive of people who have issues of any kind—psychological, physical, and look different. I think all the things that Star Trek stands for influences fans to be sympathetic, empathetic and, and supportive of an organization like PanCAN.

When we last spoke, you were excited about getting your first chance to direct Strange New Worlds. As it turns out, they picked a very special episode for you.

Yes. It’s the crossover episode with Lower Decks in which Boimler played by Jack Quaid and Mariner by Tawny Newsome cross over into the ship on Strange New Worlds as their real selves. So they go from animated to three-dimensional and it is hysterical. It’s such a great idea.

Anson said the crossover goes both ways, with Pike also getting animated

Yes, which is a very smart way to bookend the show with animation.

Any specific reason you got picked for this one?

I think I was assigned this episode because I had done a couple of Lower Decks as Riker and because I’m a big fan of [Lower Decks showrunner] Mike McMahan, who was kind of a co-writer with [Strange New Worlds co-showrunner] Henry Alonso Myers. So I believe whoever made the decision realized that they’re stretching the limits of the comedy of Riker on Lower Decks and knowing me personally, this would be a good fit. And as you can imagine, it was a blast.

We previously talked about how Strange New Worlds offered the opportunity for directors to do different genres, so is this a comedy episode?

It is a flat-out comedy. I got to say, it’s a big swing. But they’re not afraid of big swings. I think that’s one of the reasons this show is so successful, don’t you?

Yes, the show is a throwback to standalone episodic storytelling, but with highly serialized character arcs which is an interesting hybrid.  

Yeah, and the inevitable character relationships develop over the season inside, in addition to those standalone episodes that they all go through together like Spock is having a thing with Nurse Chapel. And by the way, Boimler and Spock in this episode I did—let’s call them “Spoimler—are spectacular. And Anson [Mount] is a natural comedian. Anson is very funny. And so does Rebecca [Romijn], who I have worked with a lot. She’s got great comedy chops.

Did you get a chance to use the new AR Wall for Strange New Worlds?

Yes. It’s an absolute game changer. It’s completely changed the business, without hyperbole, in terms of what you can shoot in a warehouse without a green screen and create an environment. But there are a couple of limitations. Like you can’t shoot at speed, you can’t do 48 frames, you can’t do slow motion, you can’t piggyback the cameras in a way that you used to where you shoot them in an over and a single at the same time. There are things that are traditional filmmaking shortcuts that you can’t do on the AR wall yet.

The other thing is the lead time, you need months to build the assets. They now have to do that post-production type of effects as pre-production. But the actors have the advantage of really seeing the environment that used to be just green screen. On our show, we used to talk to f—ing X on a green screen that was a bunch of Cardassians or Klingons or whatever.

Jonathan Frakes on the set of Star Trek: Discovery in season 1

How you can help

In the past two decades, PanCAN has invested $174 million in groundbreaking research. This past year alone, PanCAN awarded more than $10.5 million in research grants as part of the largest-ever, single year total research investment of $25 million. People can support the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network by visiting pancan.org. They can also participate in a free, virtual event on World Pancreatic Cancer Day (Nov. 17), when survivors, caregivers, and researchers will bring to life some of the incredible stories about the impact pancreatic cancer research and PanCAN has made on their lives. To register for free, go to pancan.org/WPCD2022.

More to come from Frakes

Check back later this week for more from our interview with Jonathan Frakes, talking about Star Trek: Picard season 3 and his hopes for the future.


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I love Frakes. Can’t wait for the SNW / LD cross over. Happy to see the support for this cause as well. It’s a cancer that has hit home in my family too.

Frakes is just the best. Standing up for what’s right and giving us some of the best Trek. I’m (not so) secretly scared of how this crossover is going to go given how These Are the Voyages went, but I am still looking forward to it.

Yeah, I just don’t get the need or purpose for this crossover. Why taint the serious, live action Trek with the comedy cartoon Trek? Makes no sense? And the much larger general, non-hardcore fan audience that watches SNW is not going to get it…probably 7 out of 10 viewers will be like, “WTF was that?”

I get the feeling they want crossovers to kinda get the whole “shared universe” vibe that the MCU and the like have made popular. But IMO that is silly because Star Trek was a shared universe LONG before Marvel was even making movies! Trek has nothing it has to prove.

Well, and the previous Trek shows did crossover episodes from time to time, too. So it’s nothing new except this time characters cross over from an animated show to a live-action show. The opposite has already happened multiple times on both Lower Decks and Prodigy.

True but it’s not the animation vs live action crossover that worries me. It’s the time difference. Other than the holodeck, i’m not sure how they are going to do this without yet again using some sort of time travel.

And they clearly had the thought in mind when the cast Lower Decks. I know it’s a thing now in animation, and it’s very welcome, to have the actors more often look like the characters (or the other way round, ob) but it does make it really handy if you want to bring them to live action.

If season 1 of SNW has shown anything it is that current live-action Trek is by all means not just serious stuff.

I really like SNW and a big reason is that it’s more lighter and comedic than the other live action shows at the moment. Outside of the Gorn episodes, it didn’t take itself so seriously all the time the way DIS and PIC does. It can gear itself to more fantasy type stories as well which we have never seen in DIS or PIC so far either. Captain Angel for example is a ‘villain’ on SNW but she could totally fit in LDS as well IMO.

Yeah LDS is a more broad comedy obviously but they are both lighter, optimistic and fun shows. Now trying to combine LDS and DIS would feel too different tonally, but it doesn’t mean it can’t fit in that show either. But not as easily as it can with SNW IMO.

I don’t think Trek has been so serious and great over its many iterations that Lower Decks in any way “taints” it. They clearly love Trek and go just as hard for the sincerity as they do the goofiness/fun poking.
Doesn’t taint it any more than, say, handing someone who’s only seen TNG some choice episodes of TOS would “taint” their understanding of Trek.

SNW is the show that did Star Trek’s version of Freaky Friday in its first season. We’re not talking The Expanse here lol. Like LDS itself, the show can be goofy, but more importantly, pull it off well.

I’m convinced the show will do a musical next season as well (but prepared to be wrong on that).

Jonathan Frakes is a great one (and so are Amin & Kitty), and I hope that more fans are going to the website to spring into action. We’re a positive bunch of dreamers, but it doesn’t end there! 🖖😊👍💸💸💸🔬🩺💊

At first glance, before reading the headline properly, the words Jonathan Frakes and Pancreatic Cancer scared the cr@p out of me! I’ve lost my sister and two colleagues to it in the last 6 years, so seeing his name and that cancer in the same sentence was momentarily alarming (“red alert!”). Fantastic that he is working with that charity.

Sorry for your losses :(

Lost a coworker to this as well. I’m sorry about your sister.

Just this morning I was mentioning the movie Ghost to our kids and when I mentioned Patrick Swayze my wife asked, “He died of pancreatic cancer, right?” I answered, “Yeah, him and Alan Rickman. And Alex Trebek, of course.”

We have a personal connection. There was a couple who were very long-time friends of my wife- and of course became my friends as well- who travelled the furthest (not counting the people who flew) to get to our wedding, coming in with their newborn fifth child. At the wedding the mother got a pain in her stomach, saw the doctor the next day, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and died after fighting it for ten months. She was an amazing woman. Our oldest is named in her memory.

All power to Frakes and Swink and every one else fighting this.

Love Frakes and can’t wait for the crossover! The LDS/SNW was the second episode I really want to see. The first was the LDS/DS9 crossover and that didn’t disappoint! 😂

And it’s great to see him using his celebrity to get the word out about causes like this. Lost a friend/coworker to it a decade ago.

Thanks Jonathan for your work with pancan.org. I know the survival rate is low, but research is working. I know a good friend who has been lucky enough to qualify for immunotherapy treatments. We thought it was hopeless, but here we are 3 years later and he continues to do well.

As for Frakes, he looks like the last 3-4 years have been good to him. He looks fitter and healthier than when he started directing Discovery – perhaps getting back in front of the camera was good incentive. No matter what, I am glad he embraced the opportunity to direct new Star Trek. There is no doubt in my mind that connections to TNG, Voyager and classic Trek is improving today’s product!

Give Frakes the ST4 gig, bring in Moore&Braga to script (Yesterdays Enterprise type thing with kelvin cast & some TNG cast)

LOVE this guy!!! He’s so classy (even when he’s cussing like a pirate).

Give him his own Riker show. He has gone back to Starfleet, he has a new command, Deanna didn’t want to do it, they are separated but still close and in touch, but there’s a complicating factor with a new love interest on board.