In the late 1980s, actor Jonathan Frakes, who portrayed the dashing Commander William Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation, approached the show’s producer Rick Berman with his interest in directing an episode. Berman was skeptical that the show’s second lead, who had no professional experience behind the camera, was up to task, and told him that if he wanted to direct on Star Trek, he’d have to go to school first.
So, he did.
Or, rather, he invented one: “Paramount University,” the actor-to-director apprenticeship program that would lead Frakes and a string of other of Starfleet’s finest from the transporter pad to the director’s chair. Frakes spent the first two and a half seasons of The Next Generation shadowing the show’s more experienced directors, visiting the dubbing stage and editing bay, and attending various seminars until he could demonstrate the necessary skills. And, midway through production of TNG’s third season, Frakes got his shot directing a bottle episode, “The Offspring,” which would go on to become one of the show’s more memorable installments. He was subsequently invited to direct seven more episodes of The Next Generation, two of the show’s four feature films, and twenty episodes of subsequent TV spin-offs, up to and including two recent episodes of Star Trek: Picard. In between return trips to the final frontier, Frakes has directed two additional features and dozens of episodes of cable dramas and network procedurals.
Frakes is an actor’s director, and his experience as one of the faces of Trek’s most popular incarnation has given him a unique rapport with the casts that have come after him. He’s worked as either a director or a guest star (usually both) on the set of every live-action Trek series since The Next Generation, and has become the connective tissue between the franchise’s prolific run on broadcast television and its current batch of streaming series. Watch any interview with a cast member from Star Trek: Discovery, and you’ll see their face light up at the mention of his name. He’s known for his positive attitude, his cordial relationship with his actors, and his habit of breaking into song whenever the energy on set dips. One oft-shared story comes from a Zoom meeting about COVID safety, in which the Discovery cast was warned against unnecessary talking, shouting, or singing. Mary Wiseman, who plays the ship’s young officer Sylvia Tilly, replied, “Who’s gonna tell Frakes?” provoking uproarious laughter from the bridge crew.
Frakes’ singing on set is a habit that stretches at least as far back as The Next Generation, as was fondly recalled by co-star Wil Wheaton on The Ready Room, the official Star Trek aftershow which Wheaton now hosts. It’s one of the things about life on the set of Star Trek that hasn’t changed. The production has seen a great deal of technical evolution, however. Nimble digital cameras have replaced the unwieldy film units used in the 1990s, actors now stand under cool, customizable LED lights rather than blazing incandescents, and the sets themselves have more of their own lighting and effects elements. This allows directors the time and freedom to be more dynamic and expressive in their camera movement.
“The technology has changed, but the day to day work of telling the story hasn’t,” says Frakes, who recently got to turn the camera back on himself and his old friends from The Next Generation for two episodes of Star Trek: Picard. This season of Picard reunites the cast for what’s been billed as a final adventure, allowing Frakes the opportunity to direct Gates McFadden (Dr. Beverly Crusher) and Michael Dorn (Worf), along with star Patrick Stewart (Picard himself). Coincidentally, each of these co-stars followed Frakes’ footsteps and got their proverbial directing degrees from Paramount University.
Throughout the 1990s, it became tradition for Star Trek cast members to receive on-the-job training and direct an episode or two, and even to return and direct future spin-offs. A dozen series regulars (and one prominent recurring guest star, DS9’s Andrew “Garak” Robinson) would take at least one turn in the director’s chair, with some actors using this experience to launch long, prosperous careers behind the camera. The Next Generation’s LeVar Burton (Geordi La Forge) and Voyager’s Roxann Dawson (B’Elanna Torres) and Robert Duncan McNeill (Tom Paris) are each still directing television today.
However, since the franchise was relaunched on streaming television in 2017, no cast members have been granted the opportunity to direct an episode. This isn’t surprising, considering that the modern live-action series have fewer episodes in a season, and that the youngest of the new series has only shot a total twenty episodes.
“I think the opportunity is going to be there,” says Frakes. “Though I don’t think they hand out those directing slots willy-nilly anymore. And it’s not for everyone. I’m not sure Patrick [Stewart] enjoyed directing.” One gets the sense that a turn as director had become something of a rite of passage on the set of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, but that those days are long gone.
Nevertheless, Frakes thinks that this drought of new graduates from Paramount University might soon come to an end. On the set of Star Trek: Discovery, of which he directed seven episodes, he says he was shadowed regularly by actor Anthony Rapp, who portrays the titular ship’s astromycologist, Lt. Commander Paul Stamets. Unfortunately, news broke earlier this March that the upcoming fifth season of Discovery, on which filming has already wrapped, will be its last.
“I do believe Anthony was ready, willing, and able to direct and he probably will in the future,” says Frakes. “I suspect, if the show had been picked up, he would’ve been given the opportunity.”
Though the conclusion of Star Trek: Picard might mark the end of Frakes’ on-screen tenure as William T. Riker, his service as a director is ongoing. His latest effort is expected this spring, an unprecedented crossover episode between the live-action Strange New Worlds and the animated series Star Trek: Lower Decks, on which Frakes has also been a guest star. The episode is, in his words, an “a flat-out comedy,” the likes of which was never seen on The Next Generation.
The veteran director speaks about the collaborative process of small-screen filmmaking with bright-eyed excitement. “So much of the work is done in prep and so much of the work is detail-oriented in terms of the technology and the equipment and the collaboration with the department heads, which I love. You can lean on them when they’re great, and most of our department heads, obviously, on Star Trek are spectacular artists. So, you’re inspired by them, and you can trust them to get shit done that’s gonna be more interesting than what you might have done. It’s like working with a great editor; they find stuff in there that you hadn’t thought of.”
Even after thirty-five years, Star Trek is still offering Jonathan Frakes new frontiers to explore, with a smile on his face, a spring in his step, and a song in his heart.