Though his regular TV tour aboard the Enterprise came to an end in 1994, Jonathan Frakes has never strayed too far from the final frontier since first building Cpt. William T. Riker into an iconic series mainstay on Star Trek: The Next Generation. In recent years, Frakes has reteamed with TNG’s Sir Patrick Stewart on Star Trek: Picard at Paramount+, while also voicing his fan-favorite character, in animated form, on Star Trek: Lower Decks.
In a recent discussion of how Star Trek continues to ride science fiction’s progressive edge when it comes to exploring social themes, Frakes told entertainment outlet The Companion (check out the full, extended interview there) that times have definitely changed in the decades since he first boarded the TNG cast for a “life changing” turn in his own TV career. But, he added, the series has always made an effort to hew to Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision of inclusiveness — even when the times haven’t been quite ready for it.
Confessing that today’s Star Trek handles social themes more gracefully than The Next Generation could sometimes manage, Frakes cited the 1992 TNG episode “The Outcast” as a case where gender-agnostic treatments caused far more studio fret back in the day than they do on current series like Star Trek: Discovery. Declining to cast a man to play the role of Soren, the gender-indefinite alien whom Riker falls in love with, he said, has “always seemed like a missed opportunity.”
‘Riker was sent to a planet of androgynous beings — and clearly the story was meant to be that Riker and this androgynous character had chemistry,” he said. “…And the character should have been cast as a man, I think… The network, or someone, didn’t have the guts to do that, so they cast an androgynous looking woman so Riker would not be perceived as gay, perhaps? I’m not quite sure what the thinking was. But it’s always seemed like a missed opportunity.”
If that sounds critical, Frakes definitely delivers his doses of Star Trek self-reflection with tons of love. Being cast alongside Stewart in The Next Generation, he said, “completely changed my life; my career; the focus of my career — and all for the better. Thirty-five years ago, I was that guy who had just strung together a couple of guest spots…[but] in 1987, the pilot I was able to get happened to be Star Trek: The Next Generation. So I didn’t know enough about Star Trek to know that that was life changing. But looking back 35 years, it was hugely significant.”
Even with its casting choices, “The Outcast” may have pushed social boundaries when it first aired in the early 1990s, just as current Star Trek series do in newer ways today. Pleasing die-hard fans while preserving the mainstream appeal of Star Trek, said Frakes, has always been a delicate balancing act — as the early reception for The Next Generation demonstrated at the time.
“People react to Star Trek, get so deep into the weeds and so specific about things and so precious about it,” he said. “I mean, when our show came on the air, nobody wanted to see ‘old English captain with a French name.’ They wanted Kirk...They also had no interest in Data; they wanted Spock. They wanted Bones.”
Frakes likely isn’t letting those kinds of expectations hold him back from his latest Star Trek task: directing a crossover episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds that mixes in animated segments with the characters of Lower Decks. Watch for that episode to arrive sometime in the not-too-distant future, as we await word for Strange New Worlds’ Season 2 premiere date from Paramount+.
Looking for more sci-fi adventure in the meantime? Check out Battlestar Galactica streaming now on Peacock.