Jonathan Frakes is Star Trek royalty. Not only did he play Commander William T. Riker on seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and four feature films, but he also directed two of them. He’s directed countless episodes of shows across the franchise. Starting with TNG, and continuing on to Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Discovery, and now, Picard. In fact, in season 3 of Picard, he’s featured prominently in front of and behind the camera.
Jonathan Frakes directed episodes 3 and 4 of this season, “Seventeen Seconds” and “No Win Scenario.” And in one of those, he spoke to his former Captain in a way that was inconceivable on TNG. We spoke to Jonathan Frakes about his work on Picard season three, a season designed to be the TNG cast’s final journey together. Spoilers for all of season three of Picard thus far going forward.
Nerdist: In the episode “Seventeen Seconds,” Riker talks to Jean-Luc in a way that you’ve never heard him talk to him before. You focused on Patrick Stewart’s face when Riker delivers the line, “Please remove yourself from the bridge.” We only hear you say it. Was there a reason you only wanted to show Jean-Luc’s face and not Will’s too in that moment?
Jonathan Frakes: I’m a fan of the importance of the reaction. I stayed with Riker making the decision to say the line, obviously, and then I turn. The power of the line playing on Patrick’s face and Patrick’s reaction is so devastating. I didn’t feel that I needed to cut back to see me say something that was that potent. I think often, those things work best as a reaction. You see that a lot.
“Seventeen Seconds” and “No Win Scenario” are like a mini movie together within the overall season of Picard. So do you feel that now you’ve got to do a trilogy of TNG movies based on these two episodes, because they feel so cinematic?
Frakes: Oh. I like that image. I’m going to steal that. Yes, I do!
You said in other interviews recently that you don’t really see Picard season three as a TNG reunion. Mainly because you guys never really stopped seeing each other in real life off-screen. In real life, your relationships all continued to grow and change. How much of that informed how you portrayed Riker this time, with the relationships with the old crew? Or did you just keep it all separate, and Riker is Riker, and Jonathan is Jonathan?
Frakes: Well, I aspire to be as honorable and prepared and loyal as Riker. I always have. But there’s something about the age of the actor and the age of the character that inevitably inform each other. Sitting with Patrick at the bar, having a bourbon, and looking into his eyes is not an uncommon scenario. For Riker and Picard to sit and have a bourbon at the corner of the bar is not a great stretch. But we have dialogue that is often much pithier than the dialogue that the two of us would talk about as Pat and Jonathan.
So when you guest starred in season one of Picard with Marina Sirtis, we learn that Riker and Troi had a son that passed away. That’s something that factors heavily into Riker’s character arc this season, especially episodes three and four. How did you feel as an actor when you learned that Riker and Troi had this tragedy as part of their history?
Frakes: I thought it was genius. It was Michael Chabon, who was with us in season one, created that whole world on that planet, on Nepenthe. Then, Terry Matalas, who took over as showrunner in season three, wisely used that character history to inform Riker’s behavior towards Picard about having a son. I thought it was so valuable and so usable, and not just convenient, but it was … I don’t think they planned it. I’m sure it wasn’t planned in year one that it would have this kind of weight in three. But it was kismet for all of us that it worked out that way.
So you just mentioned Terry Matalas [season 3 showrunner]. He has knocked it out of the park this season. Not to knock anyone else down who’s worked on this franchise, but I just feel like he gets Trek better than almost anyone in years. Is there any chance you can use some of Riker’s pull to get him a new Trek show when this is all over? Because I just feel he just deserves it. I would love to see you guys work together again.
Frakes: We’re all, frankly, hoping the same thing, because nothing would please me more or Terry more than to continue this relationship.
So at this point, you have a 35-year working relationship with the main TNG crew. But how was to be in front of the camera with Jeri Ryan (Seven of Nine) and Michelle Hurd (Raffi)? Because you’d only directed them before and not really acted with them.
Frakes: I know. I’d never had a scene with Jeri before! Which seemed bizarre to both of us, and I’m a huge fan of hers. I think what Michelle Hurd has brought to the show and what Michelle Hurd, more specifically, has brought to Michael Dorn and to Worf is absolutely thrilling, what the relationship between the two characters, the relationship between those two actors, and the energy and momentum that story in Picard season three. Because they’re really carrying the entire “B story” load, you know? They’ve got an entirely separate highway that they’re driving down that’ll eventually converge, but it is a … It’s the two of them. It’s really the two of them out there in the deep.
They’re incredible. I don’t know if you’ve seen that Worf’s introduction, where he says his name and lists all his accomplishments, to Raffi has already become multiple memes. Incredible how overnight, that happens.
Frakes: Yeah. And he just looks awesome as Worf.
It’s been over 25 years since First Contact. And many still consider it one of the best Trek movies. They use the music from First Contact in the closing credits, the Jerry Goldsmith score. Just, how do you feel First Contact still informed your work on Trek all these years later?
Frakes: That’s an interesting question. I was freed up on First Contact by having a little more time, a little more money. All which helps you design more interesting shots. It was obviously more cinematic than the series. Because back in the ‘eighties’80s and early ’90s when we made our show, they shot it in a very traditional, dare I say “dry” way. First Contact broke out a little bit, but the new shows, Picard, Discovery, Strange New Worlds are informed by J.J. Abrams’ cinematic film approach to filmmaking. I think it’s all for the best.
I know that Terry Matalas said that for this season of Picard, he wanted this to be the TNG crew’s Undiscovered Country [the swan song film for the original crew]. If this is really the end of the road for you guys together on screen, do you feel that you guys have achieved that with season three?
Frakes: I feel like season three ends on a very positive possibility of a future as opposed to an ending. I mean, it has a satisfying ending. But it certainly doesn’t have a tragic, book-slamming, close your computer kind of ending.
So you, and Patrick Stewart, Gates McFadden, and Michael Dorn were all on The View recently. And Whoopi Goldberg gave Dorn this award for the most appearances across the Trek franchise. With a Worf figure mounted on it, Which is well deserved of course. But we want to know when you’re getting your cool award with a Riker toy on it. Because you’re the only Trek actor to direct this many shows and movies. So when do we start a petition for Frakes to get his flowers?
Frakes: I was happy to see Dorn get that. But hat’s a good question. I have no answer for that one (Laughs)
Finally, we have to ask, how do you feel to have the term “Riker’s Beard” in the Urban Dictionary as shorthand for here’s when a TV show gets good?
Frakes: It is a great privilege, and I tell this story at conventions ad nauseam, that it’s the opposite of “Jumping the Shark.” People who didn’t know are thrilled. I mean, what a great treat. Almost as cool as having a PEZ dispenser with your head on it.
New episodes of Star Trek: Picard drop Thursdays on Paramount+.