Jonathan Frakes on Directing ‘Star Trek’: Looking Back on ‘Discovery’ & Ahead to ‘Strange New Worlds’ Season 3

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For Star Trek: Discovery‘s penultimate episode, an icon from the franchise stepped behind the camera: Jonathan Frakes, who starred as Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation and reprised the role on Picard.

And for him, it was just returning to a set he enjoys, for his eighth episode behind the camera on Discovery. In the episode, members of the crew infiltrate the Breen ship in hopes of getting their hands on a key piece of tech for their mission to find the Progenitors’ power. But even amidst the action, there’s time for some emotional beats.

Below, Frakes takes us inside the episode, looks back on Discovery, and teases a Strange New Worlds Season 3 episode he directed.

What excited you about this script as a director?

Jonathan Frakes: There’s a lot more action than I’m usually given, and the whole direction, if you will, of the season was that we find more action and more levity, two of my favorite parts of the business. So I was thrilled. The ending where the ship literally flies in the tailpipe of another ship I thought was really ambitious and great to storyboard and a beautifully executed by JZ [Jason Zimmerman] and all of our friends over at the visual effects department, but also the contrast between—Burnham [Sonequa Martin-Green] and Book [David Ajala] have a story that they clearly have not found time to sort out about their relationship. They’re in the midst of all this chaos. And, the B story, the wonderful story with our Kelpian and our Vulcan with Doug [Jones] and Tara [Rosling] is so beautiful that they’re in love and about to get married during the chaos of this fight with the Breen. So the contrasts of tone were very interesting to me.

I was going to point to Michael and Book’s conversation because it’s with their helmets on, so talk about directing that emotional scene.

Yeah, Maya Bankovic was my cinematographer on that. We desperately needed a way to see their faces because I mean, I get the Breen all look alike. I get they all wear helmets, and I get that that’s the premise of the show and it’s already been established, but it’s very hard for the audience to know who’s who. I can see that Burnham’s a little shorter than Book, but I mean, they’re all wearing ridiculous helmets and costumes, and so we found a way to take the liberty of having what we would call a camera inside the helmet where we could literally see their faces. And when we tested that and everybody approved that, that let us breathe a little more easily, that when we had intimate conversations while they were pretending to be Breen, we could actually shoot it like a tight closeup. So that certainly helped.

But there’s very little time in this story for them to [talk], and she pulls him aside in the middle of this chaos in the Breen hallways to just give them a little taste—because she didn’t have a chance. She saw him in engineering and wasn’t able to have a private moment. Then they had the meeting where they decided who was going to go there, and there was no real private moment there. I think that was a great part of the writing, that there was so much going on that these two lead characters whose lives have been altered by the information that Michael got in 508 at the library was… I think you’re waiting as an audience member, she’s got to say something to her about this, doesn’t she?

We’ve also been following Adira’s (Blu del Barrio) journey as they find their place, and we get to see them step into that a bit in this episode going on this mission. There’s also a slight sense of dads seeing their kid off to college when they’re leaving.

Yeah, I think that’s enabled by Tilly [Mary Wiseman]. Tilly has been a mentor to Adira in a way that, in addition to Culber [Wilson Cruz] and Stamets [Anthony Rapp] being parents, the three of them have encouraged that character to embrace their confidence, if you will. And I thought that was a very sweet little walk and talk where the three of them are walking down, like dropping them off for college. That’s a good metaphor for it. And the stiff upper lip that they took was, “I’ll be fine dad, don’t worry. I’ll be back.” And I think it was very relatable.

You mentioned that ship flying into the other ship…

That was all storyboard and we talked about it and the chaos of all that, but I didn’t get to execute any of that except shooting the plates for it. Also, that whole green ship was on the AR wall, which is a trip in itself, that set when it’s that exciting and that incredibly detailed. It’s changed filmmaking, these AR walls; instead of imagining what might be on a green screen behind you, you’re literally in a volume that has everything that the actors need and what the filmmakers need, what the camera needs to tell the story. So many of the visual effects that are not put in later, they’re put in as part of the extensive and expensive planning of the AR wall set. And that was a very successful version of that I thought.

What scene did you have the most fun directing?

I like the scene in the ready room where Burnham puts the pieces together and the decision sort of in the moment, “Well, I’m going to go and you’re going to go and you’re going to go and you’re going to go, and that’s how we’re going to do this.” I loved Burnham’s decision making. Also, I was crazy about Callum [Keith Rennie] at the end, pacing, pacing, pacing, pacing, pacing, and then deciding again in the moment, “Here’s what we’re going to do.” I like when the leaders make powerful decisions with confidence, and both of those scenes reflected that.

You’ve directed across Trek series. What have you found that’s unique to Discoverythat you enjoy directing?

I have a special fondness for Discovery because it was the first Star Trek after the old ones that I was asked back onto, so that family of actors reminded me a lot of our family on Next Gen. So I have a real soft spot [for them]. [They went through] what we were going through on our Season 1, which is now we’re part of this Star Trek universe, what does this really mean? And they were the first ones back. I mean, they opened up this whole new wave of Star Trek. So there was a certain skepticism that I warned them about. I was like the elder who’d come to town to tell what it’s going to be like. I said, “Your lives are going to change.” And that’s what DeForest Kelley told me, and it was true. They did, and they have, and I think we’re all very grateful to be part of this family.

David Ajala as Book, Director Jonathan Frakes, Blu del Barrio as Adira, Callum Keith Rennie as Rayner, Sonequa Martin-Green as Burnham and Anthony Rapp as Stamets in 'Star Trek: Discovery' Season 5 Episode 9 "Lagrange Point"

Michael Gibson / Paramount+

You’ve directed eight episodes of Discovery. What are you going to miss about this show?

I’m going to miss Sonequa. I’m going to miss Doug. I’m going to miss Anthony. I’m going to miss Tunde [Olatunde Osunsanmi]. There’s a lot of people over there that I have built long professional and personal relationships with. The cast is quite something. Mary. I mean, I remember when Blu first arrived and Anthony Rapp and I had the first scene with them in the corridor, and it was so clear to us that the talent that this actor had brought from one of the schools in London and Anthony and I had this moment where we looked at each other because both of us had been doing it a long time, and it was so clear like, “Holy s**t, this one really gets it,” and it’s been true. So watching them grow has been spectacular for me. As always, it’s all about the people. There’s nobody better as a leader than Sonequa.

Picard had that great next generation reunion, which I loved. Could we see you as Riker again? Have you heard anything?

I haven’t heard anything, but I’m available.

What else is coming up for you? What else have you directed that’s still to come?

I just finished a fabulous episode of Strange New Worlds that we actually finished editing last week, so that’s for next season. And I’ve got a couple of pilots that I’m trying to get developed and up and out, and I’ve got my son’s wedding that we’re planning and I’ve got a whole pile of conventions to go to, and then I’ll look forward to Starfleet Academy, which is coming up in the fall.

You said Strange New Worlds. Anything you can say about that?

I can say that it is maybe the best episode of TV I’ve had the privilege of directing. The story, as you’ll see, ends up being a Hollywood murder mystery, and that’s about all I’m allowed to leak.

Star Trek: Discovery, Series Finale, Thursday, May 30, Paramount+

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Season 3, TBA, Paramount+

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