For Jonathan Frakes, bringing Will Riker back to the screen for Star Trek: Picard wasn't as easy as throwing a microwave pizza in the oven. In fact, the adored Next Generation actor and longtime director was "very nervous coming back to act again," so much so, that he meticulously crafted every Riker moment to perfect precision. Jean-Luc may have joked about Will becoming a "pizza chef," but talking to Jonathan Frakes reveals that this is a man who carefully considers every ingredient for the art he cooks up.
As Star Trek: Picard speeds towards its final two episodes of Season 1, SYFY WIRE caught up with Number One himself to discuss everything from his longtime devotion to shipping Riker/Troi, how he directed two starkly different episodes of Picard, and what's next for Season 3 of Star Trek: Discovery.
**Light spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Picard Episode 7, "Nepenthe."**
Like Jeri Ryan and Jonathan Del Arco, Jonathan Frakes makes it clear that the process of finding Riker's voice was one of pure collaboration with the creators of Picard, specifically showrunner and writer Michael Chabon.
"I had very long, very specific conversations with Michael about Riker’s turn-of-phrase. For every scene," Frakes explains. "He slipped me the script early, and I worked on it for a long time. We had a line-by-line, word-by-word process. He understood completely and what ended up on the page was a total collaboration. I didn’t change the story, but I changed certain rhythms. I’m not sure if they felt more like Frakes or more like Riker."
Part of Frakes' devotion to getting Riker so precisely correct is connected to his longtime belief that Will and Deanna's romance on The Next Generation should have never been side-lined. Basically, Frakes was shipping Riker/Troi before TNG was even on the air.
"When they introduced this story that Marina [Sirtis] — Counselor Troi and I — have a family and live on a planet that looks like rural Maine, it felt like a gift. The obvious gift being that we got to play together with our friends from 33 years ago, but it's also the idea that Marina and I had both held onto a very specific story for these characters. We held it close to our hearts for many years, and the writers had seemed to give up on it," Frakes says, before getting a little salty that it took sooooo long for Deanna and Will to reconnect.
"At the beginning of The Next Generation, Troi and Riker were lovers before they transferred to the Enterprise, and then that [story] was buried so that they could be whatever — available to relationships with random aliens," Frakes laughs the Riker laugh and then continues. "But, we held onto this relationship and insisted to each other that we maintain it. And as a result —I think — it resurfaced in the final movie [Nemesis] in which the two characters were married. It was very important, this relationship, we take it very personally and we feel wonderfully vindicated to see them return."
The return to the role of Will Riker is hardly the first time Frakes has beamed back into the world of Star Trek since the ending of The Next Generation. He famously directed the films Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Insurrection and numerous episodes on Deep Space Nine and Voyager. He's also directed episodes of Star Trek: Discovery, starting with the Season 1 episode "Despite Yourself," and in Season 2, both "New Eden," and "Project Daedelus." In Picard, Frakes directed two of the most exciting episodes in Season 1; "Absolute Candor," and "Stardust City Rag."
"They could not have been more different in style," Frakes explains. "It was a wonderful challenge. 'Absolute Candor' felt like a classic Trek, and it also felt like a western. While 'Stardust City Rag,' had this noir-ish, night club, Westworld-vibe. The look and the cinematic influences on both were very different. And ironically, we shot them as a block, overlapping. So, we had to maintain an awareness that they were two different things."
Was this like shooting two totally different movies at the exact same time?
"Yes," Frakes says, and you can hear the smile his voice. "Luckily, a lot of the same characters were in both stories."
In terms of cinematic style, fans of Star Trek have Frakes to thank for making First Contact as edgy as it was back in 1996. This sense of danger certainly translates to Star Trek: Picard, something Frakes says is a natural progression from the way Trek was made several decades ago, to the way its made now. "If it's meant to be horrific and it’s meant to be terrifying, then the story will do it, the acting will do it, and the visual effects, are now the third part of that collaboration."
As someone who dressed-up as Riker for Halloween in fifth grade in the year 1992, this writer can say, with some authority, that the generation who grew up with The Next Generation, is, in some ways, the faction of fandom most open to change. And no one is more aware of the ever-changing whims in fandom as Jonathan Frakes.
"A lot of the feedback is coming from your generation and maybe the one after it. If you grew up in a Star Trek house, our show was the Star Trek of your generation. And that has impacted the viewers of both Discovery and Picard, but specifically Picard," Frakes says. "For the first time, the audience was inclined to be accepting and was looking forward to and not dreading it or suspicious. Which hasn't always been the case! Our show [TNG] was received with great skepticism, some would say, hostility. People wanted their Kirk, Bones, and Spock. Discovery was received with skepticism because fans had just adjusted to the J.J. world of Trek. But Picard brought with it, your generation, my generation, and whoever else we could bring along. There was a very palpable and positive appetite."
Speaking of the future, and a sense of optimism, Frakes' most recent Trek project isn't just the return of Will Riker on Picard. And that's because he's just finished more work behind the camera, directing a block of episodes in Star Trek: Discovery Season 3. So, not only has Number One just revisited Next Generation nostalgia, but he's also seen into the far future of the Trek franchise.
"As we know, they’ve gone 930 years into the future. And in that is optimism. Certainly for Michael Burnham," Frakes teases. "She's had a life-changing experience over the break between seasons. The new season isn't driven by fears of the past. It’s driven primarily by this second chance that the crew of Discovery is given. It's brighter. More complex. I think it's thrilling."
Star Trek: Picard will air its final two episodes over the next two weeks on CBS All Access. Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 premieres sometime this year.