Behind The Scenes With "Star Trek's" Jonathan Frakes

The "Next Generation" star remembers the sci-fi series while enjoying a second act on the other side of the camera.

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    Jonathan Frakes in a scene from the 1988 movie "Star Trek: Insurrection."

    He may have spent years as the U.S.S. Enterprise’s second-in-command, but Jonathan Frakes is the one in charge on set these days.

    With the second season of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” making its Blu-Ray debut Dec. 4 to close out the sci-fi classic’s 25th anniversary celebration, Frakes looks back fondly on his role as Commander William Riker, known to his crewmates as “Number One” – most notably in a compelling extra on the new release in which he gathers on camera with the entire cast of “TNG” regulars for a spirited reminiscence of their seven-season stint on the series.

    The second season set also features painstakingly reassembled hi-def versions of the episodes, including fan favorites like “Matter of Honor,” an early peek into Klingon culture; “Q Who,” which introduced the menacing Borg; and an extended cut of “The Measure of a Man.”

    While Frakes, 60, revisits his memories of his time working in the elaborate universe first created by TV producer and futurist visionary Gene Roddenbery, he’s also enjoying a still-thriving behind-the-camera career as a film and television director. Today his credits include helming various episodes of popular series like “Leverage,” “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “Burn Notice” and “Castle” – most recently the well-received “The Final Frontier,” a sly, stylish installment about a murder at a fan convention for a popular sci-fi TV series.

    Congratulations on the ongoing celebration of the show's 25th anniversary. It must be a really singular phenomenon to have been a part of it over all these years.

    It's surreal that 25 years ago, something is still giving us this gift. I’m off to a convention this weekend to Comic‑Con in New Orleans with all the cast. Just the idea that we still have an audience is astounding to me.

    It must have been a real treat to be able to be able to get together with everybody and just really sit down without a giant audience to reminisce for this Blu‑Ray release?

    It was wonderful. The add-on, I guess, is on this second season from our Calgary panel, where we were sitting around taking the piss out of each other. It's wonderful. It's candid and it's funny. It's emotional and it’s revealing. It was a great morning. We did it one Sunday morning when we were all in for a convention. It's a pretty special group of people.

    I imagine that your cast have stayed somewhat close just because of the frequency of conventions and those sort of events.

    Well, I think we would have stayed close regardless of the conventions. Something happened with this cast that's not true of other casts that I’ve been around. We've all stood in each other's weddings and been godparents to each other's kids. We still look forward to seeing each other. We go to dinner and lunch and drinks and check in. I just emailed Patrick [Stewart] this morning because the new ‘X-Men’ [film] has just been announced again. I made some dinner reservations with LeVar [Burton], Brent [Spiner], Gates [McFadden], and Marina [Sirtis], [John] de Lancie for this weekend. It's just a great group – and merciless.

    How quickly did you realize that Gene Rodenberry and his team had captured lightning in a bottle for a second time? How quickly into the show did that happen for you?

    I don't think we realized it early on – I personally didn't realize until third or fourth season, and I think that was based on sort of the reaction. We were received so skeptically when we initially aired because of the loyalty, the fans of the core audience had for Kirk and Spock and Bones, understandably. They really needed to be convinced that we were worthy.

    A favorite Riker episode early on is in the second season, ‘A Matter of Honor,’ and I think we started to see that more playful side of him. Was that sort of a breakthrough episode for you and the character?

    Serving on the Klingon ship? That was a great episode! That was Rob Bowman, one of our important directors I work with on ‘Castle’ now. That was one of my fondest memories. I'm a big Klingon fan. I kid about having a Klingon experience that others don't. So I can relate to Worf – and obviously Lursa and B’Etor.

    Was it around that time that the directing bug kind of started to bite?

    I shadowed the directors through that entire second season and then spent a lot of time in the editing room with the editors who were very generous with their time. So that was my Paramount university period with most of season two and the beginning of season three until Rick Berman finally relinquished that episode to me, and I was so over prepared, it was insane. It proved to be a real benefit that my wonderful wife, Genie Francis told me to keep persevering.

    The episode of ‘Castle’ that you directed was so clever and fun.

    Oh my God! Wow – Wonderful. What a great idea. That's Rob Bowman. He's the executive producer, and the guy who directed that Klingon episode. They called me early in the season and said, ‘We're going to juggle this schedule so that when your slot comes up, we're going to give you this murder in a “Star Trek” convention episode. And I want to be the first to tell you, because I’m sure you’ll hear about it.’ We got great publicity out of it. And because of Nathan's [Fillion] sort of – what is the word for it? He's an icon because of ‘Firefly.’ But we were able to drop a lot of Easter eggs of both ‘Firefly,’ ‘Star Trek.’ So we peppered the cast with people from other sci-fi shows. There were some inside jokes for good fans. It was a real treat to work on that.

    Nathan's a real fanboy himself. Did he pester you with any ‘Star Trek’ questions?

    He always does! I did that show a few times, and he's a full-on geek. He's like Wil Wheaton – my two favorite go‑to geeks.  

    What has that loyal fan base that will follow you into any project meant for you over the course of time?

    It's a gift that I am eternally grateful for. I learned from my wife, again who has the same type of situation from playing Laura for 37 years on and off on ‘General Hospital.’ The Luke and Laura phenomenon is not unlike the ‘Star Trek’ phenomenon, only the fans are different. And the reason that these conventions are successful is that there are people who are so loyal to your show, that one should be – and I am – grateful. When you stop being grateful and stop enjoying it, I think it’s a good time to stop doing the conventions.

    Do you have some directing gigs lined up that we're going to see in the next few weeks or months?

    Yes. I have two. I just finished an ‘NCIS: LA.’  I did a Christmas show of ‘NCIS: L.A.’ I have a Christmas episode of ‘Leverage’ that's going to air in a couple of weeks that I just finished shooting a new show for me called ‘Falling Skies’ which is the Spielberg show that Noah Wylie stars in on TNT. It's a very tough show. It's post-apocalyptic. I mean it's shot like a movie, but it's a very rough world. We shot in rainy Vancouver for three weeks. I'd done a couple TV movies with Noah, ‘The Librarian’ series. He’s one my favorites.

    Perhaps the J.J. Abrams “Star Trek” films have precluded the notion that the TNG crew might reunite on the screen, at least for a while. Have you guys thought about that, or talked about it?

    I am very hopeful. I'm not sure where we would be – I happen to be a fan and a friend of J.J.'s and I think he's rebooted the franchise in the most successful and wonderful way imaginable. And I'm really excited about the second movie. I think maybe some version of what they did with Leonard Nimoy in the first movie would be the way to go: they would pepper in one of us. I would imagine they'd start with Picard if they could. It would involve our usual time travel/quantum anomaly/black hole/some sci‑fi version of how we all get there.

    What was the most important or most interesting piece of advice that Gene Rodenberry passed along to you?

    Gene Rodenberry: I auditioned seven times for Riker. And in the last two or three times, I would go to his office where we went to whichever executive needed to convince, and his belief and passion about the 24th century was so real. He said to me, ‘Jonathan, in the 24th century, there will be no hunger, there will be no greed and all of the children will know how to read.’ That stuck with me, and I'll never forget the look on his face, the sort of Machiavellian grin, and those big hands of his. He'd pat me on the back and say, ‘Now, let's go up there, and I want you to play this part.’ And then he was the one who actually called me on the phone when I finally got the job. It wasn't an agent. It wasn't a manager. It wasn’t the studio. He called me directly and said, ‘It’s done – you’re playing Riker.’ That was obviously a huge turning point for me.