It was the most challenging mission that any Starfleet crew would ever face but, somehow, the ship’s first officer was oblivious to the true nature of the peril.
“I didn’t understand the stakes, I didn’t really understand what we were getting into,” actor Jonathan Frakes says now as he reflects on the earliest days of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” which launched 25 years ago with the galaxy-class ambition of filling up the Federation space left by the original series. “I didn’t know at that point the cultural phenomenon that ‘Star Trek’ was. But, believe me, I learned pretty quick.”
Frakes, in the role of Cmdr. William T. Riker, was there when the broadcast journey began with the two-hour television pilot “Encounter at Farpoint” in September 1987 and, 15 years later, he was there when the credits rolled on “Star Trek: Nemesis,” the 2002 feature film that marked the end of the “Next Generation” era.
The crew logged 178 episodes (which were honored with 18 Primetime Emmys and a Peabody Award) and also beamed over to the silver screen in four feature films. More impressively, perhaps, the show succeeded in carving out its own distinct identity in a universe that had belonged entirely to the original “Star Trek” series (1966-1969).
“It was amazing to be part of it,” said Frakes, whose character left the Enterprise behind and accepted a command of his own near the end of “Nemesis.” “Riker evolved and changed over the years and that was a real gift for me.”
The gifts keep coming, too, with the silver anniversary of the series, which is premiering on Blu-ray in July and, for the first time, getting a special theatrical release. (Two episodes, “Where No One Has Gone Before” and “Datalore,” will beam into select movie theaters across the country on July 23 courtesy of Fathom Events and CBS TV.)
In April, at CalgaryExpo, Frakes and his old “Farpoint” colleagues – Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, LeVar Burton, Marina Sirtis, Denise Crosby, John de Lancie and Wil Wheaton — enjoyed an on-stage reunion that was particularly memorable.
“It was a panel at night and they introduced us and there were thousands of people who had gone to Ticketmaster or whatever and bought their tickets and they were hooting and hollering and shrieking and it was like we were the … Beatles,” the grinning 59-year-old said with a shake of his head. “It got very emotional for us. People were telling stories and it was like therapy or a wake but it was totally upbeat. Wheaton was 13 or 14 back when we started and when he said he was 40? All of us, that second, went like cod fish [with slack jaws].”
When it comes to warm camaraderie, Frakes says the ensemble didn’t have to do any acting. The automatic chief of their actor tribe was Stewart, the natural leader who played Capt. Jean-Luc Picard as a sort of statesman with a starship (a vast departure from Capt. James T. Kirk, the testy, testosterone-fueled test pilot of the original series).
“There was the high-mindedness of ‘Star Trek’ creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision again but we had this captain who was played by Patrick Stewart, who is the consummate actor and possesses this certain moral power and authority and is the kind of pro we all aspire to be,” Frakes said. “By the virtue of the bar that he set, we all came incredibly well-prepared. And because of that you can also have a lot of fun. Things are loose when everybody is on their game. The ‘Star Trek’ world is so serious, which is why we were so silly between takes.”
That also made the cast open for serendipity — the moments when improvisation or insight would tilt a scene from good to great or from great to sublime. “When you’re not afraid to make a mistake, some spectacular things can happen,” Frakes said. “If you’ve done your homework, that’s when you can be available for the stuff that’s in the air.”
The loose-limbed relaxation wasn’t there for Frakes in the early days of the show, however.
At the start of the series, Roddenberry had a very specific persona in mind for Riker — he wanted a taciturn, no-nonsense Midwest type, a Gary Cooper who exuded integrity and devotion to duty. That was a challenge for Frakes (“I’m a little more silly than that,” he said) but over time the character loosened up and the actor found there could be more of himself invested in the man known as ”Number One.”
“I looked very, very stiff in those early seasons because I was so intent on living up to the vision that Gene had, and it was not real fun,” said Frakes, who got a reprieve, finally, when he mentioned his love of jazz and his musical hobby to one of the show’s writers. “All of a sudden, Riker was playing the trombone, and they let a little bit of the playfulness in. And it all changed for the better.”
The trombone-playing dated back to the days when Frakes performed in the Liberty High School Grenadier Band in Bethlehem, Penn., and he said the local work ethic of the steel town remains part of his career rhythm today. On the set of “Next Generation,” the long stretches of idle time didn’t sit well with that factory-whistle spirit.
“I like a nap as much as anybody but I just wasn’t fully engaged — if you’ll pardon the expression,” Frakes said. “I loved my job, I loved the people I was working with, but I just felt antsy. So I looked around and asked: What’s the best job on the set? To me, the best job on the set appeared to be the director’s job. I knew something about staging, I knew something about acting, I had been around the camera a lot. So I started rolling around this idea.”
The actor took his thoughts to “Trek” producer and guru Rick Berman (the “keeper of all things ‘Star Trek,’” as Frakes puts it) whose reaction was to give Frakes all he could hope for — and perhaps even a bit more than that.
“He allowed me to go to what we now call Paramount University and I spent like 300 hours in the editing room, I’d go to pre-production and go to post-production, I’d go to scoring sessions and the sound-spotting and just all of it,” Frakes said. “I think in the back of his mind he was hoping I would lose interest. The last thing he wants is to open that floodgate of actors who want to direct.”
The path led to Frakes directing the 1990 “Next Generation” episode “The Offspring” — which introduces Lal, Data’s “daughter” — an especially well-regarded episode among fans and insiders (Dorn cites it as one of his two favorite episodes for the entire run, for instance). Frakes would direct more than a dozen other episodes on “Next Generation” and the other assorted “Trek” spinoff shows. His more recent work includes directing episodes of “Burn Notice,” “Castle,” “The Glades” and “V.” There was also some feature film work, too, and when you consider that the highlight moments there also involve the Enterprise — “Star Trek: First Contact” (1996) and “Star Trek: Insurrection” (1998) — Frakes seems light years removed from “Farpoint” and the role of Starfleet novice.
“The universe is a still a mystery to me,” Frakes said with a faraway expression, “but I think I’ve got a pretty good bead on ‘Star Trek’ at this point.”
– Geoff Boucher
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