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Jonathan Frakes - The Next Generation's Number One, Will Riker, and Trek director
The importance of Trek tech
Was accurate science and technical advisers an important part of The Next Generation?
I think not only had science become important but the audience had become so much more sophisticated. Theyíd tape the show and make sure that weíre saying something that is at least reasonably accurate or appropriate. We always trusted that someone had done the research before they got to us.
I never met any technical advisers. I know that they exist. I know that the first draft of the scripts always had lines with parentheses around the word Ďtechí, and the next draft would have those tech lines filled in with something that became ĎPillar-fillerí, technobabble or gobbledegook.
I was thrilled that the technobabble usually went to the very talented lips of Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton or Patrick. I mostly asked the questions and they had to come up along with the answers.
Holmes on the Holodeck
Having fun with virtual worlds - even when they always break down
I always enjoyed going into the holodeck. I wish we had done more of it, and I think the fans liked it as well. We used to go back to the Sherlock Holmes stuff and Patrickís crime-fighting private detective. We [also] did the Sherwood Forest stuff in the holodeck, plus I met the lovely and talented Minuet in a jazz club in holodeck. So I thought it was an opportunity that we could have used even more.
Very key to a good episode is to have something not work, and have our brilliant science team somehow fix it magically in the fifth act.
Are you proud to be associated with a show thatís credited with inspiring fans to study science?
Iím proud of the show on a lot of levels, but the idea that people are inspired to study anything is good news to me. If Star Trek has made them study science, all the better.
Frakes the fan?
Getting up to speed on Trek mythology
When I was auditioning for the role on Next Generation, I went out and rented tapes of the original show so that Iíd get some sense of the gestalt and what all the fuss was about.
I knew that it was a cultural icon, but I didnít know to what degree. I didnít really know what all the fuss was about until I tuned in. Then you could see how culty it had become, and I had no preparation for what would happen to us, obviously.
At the time it was an opportunity to get a pilot. You come to LA as an actor because you want to get a pilot and you hope that the pilot becomes a series and, God knows, if youíre lucky enough the series goes to a second year. We had no idea, I donít think any of us, that this would turn into a life-altering situation. Thank God it has. Itís been wonderful. From those series of auditions, all of our lives changed essentially. For the better, I should add.
The Real McCoy?
Fan scepticism greet the show at first
W we first started the audience was very, very sceptical. They were very loyal to classic Kirk, Spock and Bones Trek, and very sceptical of who we were and why we were there. It had been a long time between the two - the two shows.
We actually had three different contracts. We had a contract for the pilot, a contract for the first half of the first season, then a contract if, in fact, it was to be extended. They dolled out the additional signings as the show went off the charts.
It was the first hour drama made here directly for syndication, so it had broken the ground in a lot of ways, so it was able to be sold individually to two hundred and seventeen separate television stations in the States. with fifty percent of the advertising attached. It became a really big financial gorilla for the studio, and when the numbers turned out to be better than they had projected we, of course, were picked up.
Somewhere near the end of the first season, I think. it was clear that we werenít going to go away and we were different enough [from the original series]. I think the fear, from talking with fans about it, was that we were going to somehow try to recreate what they had on Star Trek - and we werenít. We werenít about that. Patrick couldnít be more different than Bill, and I certainly couldnít be more different than Leonard, and Brent couldnít be more different than the good doctor or from Leonard. So, we werenít interchangeable, even though there were times when fans kept asking me if I was in fact Captain Kirkís grandson. They wanted somehow to make a connection between the classic Trek and The Next Generation.
Gene Roddenberryís influence
The Star Trek creatorís influence on the show - and Jonathan
Roddenberry created our show. Roddenberry was a real champion certainly of mine. He took me into his lair. I auditioned for the show seven times over about six weeks before I finally was hired as Riker. I think other producers had other actors in mind. Roddenberry was very loyal. He saw something, he claims, in me. What he claimed was the Machiavellian glint in my eye that he somehow either related to or wanted Riker to have.
So, I used to go to Roddenberryís office on the Paramount lot before I had to go up to the studio - to the Vice President or the President, whoever I needed to audition for on a given day - and Roddenberry would regale me with what life was going to be like in the twenty-fourth century. He did it with such passion and he spoke so emotionally about what he believed the future would be. - Not Ďcould beí, but what he believed it would be. That, I certainly got caught up in and bought into. I think it influenced the way I played Riker for Gene. So I was really helped by Gene in a lot of ways.
He said in the 24th century thereíll be no hunger, there will be no greed, and all the children will know how to read. He really was an exceptional visionary - a wonderful, ironic, talented, charming fun-loving man.
What Gene Roddenberry wanted in the relationship between Picard and Riker
I think what he was originally interested in was the three generations of leadership that were represented by Picard, Riker and Wesley Crusher. Those three characters were three men in different stages of their lives. I remember him emphasising how duty was important to all of them. Loyalty and all the classic Star Trek characteristics were embodied in those three characters at different stages in their lives.
[The relationship] developed inevitably as the relationship between Stewart and Frakes developed. When it became clear that we were going to be lifelong friends, I think that influenced the relationship between Picard and Riker as well, to the benefit of the show. It really served us both very well I think.
We were both envious of Dataís character. Data stuck out immediately as the most popular character on the show for obvious reasons. One was Brentís talent and the other was that the character was written as if all things human were new to him. It was a wonderful canvas that Brent painted very carefully. Patrick and I were playing very involved human beings. Both of us have said how we wish we could be articulate as our characters were in situations of anger and frustration. It was fun to play these guys, but it was also a little unrealistic. As is the nature of the biz, I guess.
Number on captain
Jonathan on Patrick Stewartís reaction to being picked as one of the worldís sexiest men
Oh God! He wasnít called the worldís sexiest man, it was something like that, but he was told about it while he was in England doing something. He called Brent on the phone and he said, ĎBrent, darling, do you know someone named Cindy Crawford? Iíve been chosen with this Cindy Crawford as the most beaudacious man on television.í He never lived it down.
The fun of working with such a great cast important part of The Next Generation?
I donít know if [it was] -forgive the pun - the stars were lining up appropriately or the good taste of Roddenberry, Rick Burman and Bob Justman, or just dumb luck, but something happened when we all came together. Not only were we a wonderful ensemble cast, but we became a family.
Iíve worked on other shows as an actor where the stars do not get along, donít speak, and the shows carry on just as if theyíre the best of friends. I donít think it would have been as much fun to make.
The good points about being in a long-running franchise
Well obviously the steady work is something that we can never complain about as actors. We did a tour of a Tom Stoppard / Andre Previn play called ĎEvery Good Boy Deserves Favourí. Patrick directed and Brent, Patrick, Gates and Colm and I were all in it, so we had an opportunity to cash in on the caché of - of Star Trek in that regard.
But on the other side of the coin, itís a pigeonhole that one is put into. Iíve taken to the high road that itís better to be type-cast than not to be cast at all. Thatís my current philosophy on that.
Working in front of a blue screen to achieve complex special effects shots
Talking to blue screen, talking to ice crystals, talking to piles of tar, talking to people with rubber on their heads, spikes coming out of their ears, ridges on their nose - itís all become part of our lives, and itís very interesting to watch guests come on to the show and have trouble with it.
It was something we did every week, was talk to an Ďxí on the screen and assume that it would ultimately have a nose. We talked to blue people, I mean, what itís like? It - these Itís absurd, thatís what it is. Itís never boring. There is that.
Why were the non-human characters always so popular?
Well, Data I figure, is loved by the fans because he - desires to understand the human condition so much, and I think he, as a result, expresses the human condition, beautifully.
I think itís the actors that the fans fall in love with. Certainly Marina, who plays a Betazoid, is a wonderful attractive, talented, sexy actress, and that makes, therefore, the Betazoids all the above. I think itís in the actor.
Being recognised by the legions of Star Trek fans out there
I was affected by being recognised, but Iím married to a very famous soap opera star named Jeanie Francis who plays Laura of Luke and Laura fame. Weíre talking about Play It All on the Beeb. I was used to being with someone who was recognised all the time, everywhere we went - supermarket, restaurants, dry cleaners - so the the novelty was now to be recognised as Commander Riker instead of Mr Jeanie Francis, so that was the only change.
I think the fan base is just astounding, and weíre truly blessed by their loyalty. I think theyíre loyal. Iíve said this before and a lot of people have, but I think theyíre loyal because of Geneís vision of the future being so positive - where people and races treat each other with respect, and there is no racism and there is no sexism.
Jonathan first Star Trek movie memories and his desire to direct one himself
Actually, I remember watching Star Trek Four ( the one with the whales, as they often refer to it) as an out and out fan. I thought it was a wonderful movie, and like First Contact, was a movie that stood out on its own. You didnít need to be a Star Trek fan to enjoy it, and thatís a - thatís my memory of the movie, outside of watching them obviously for research and preparation of other jobs.
I had started to direct episodes in the third season [thanks to] the generosity of Rick Berman and putting myself through Paramount University. As it became clear there was going to be a couple of Next Generation. movies, I threw my hat in the ring and again to Rickís credit and to the studioís credit, they decided that they should stay with someone in the family and I was the lucky one.
[Before Paramount University] I knew something about acting and about how the set worked, but I knew very little about editing, for instance, and post production. What I had to do before I was given an episode to direct was learn the other aspects of what - what was needed. It has served me so well to have spent those three hundred hours in the editing room, going through post and going through the working with the composer. Just observing it all and then getting to do it all, as opposed to being given an episode to direct and then having someone else cover up the areas that you donít know anything about. Itís allowed me to continue to direct outside of space, which has been a gift.
The challenge of directing First Contact
I felt when I was given, First Contact, which was such a great script, that I had been given the keys to the car and that it was my job not to crash it. Thatís how it feels with the franchise, because it is what it is. It is certainly Paramountís biggest franchise - arguably one of the biggest franchises in the business. So, your job as a director or as an actor or producer, whatever, sort of not to screw it up, but keep it on track.
Again, I mention Rick Berman who I worked so closely with on all the shows, but certainly on the movies. We have similar taste and care passionately about what weíre putting out, knowing that itís going to be scrutinised. We keep the ship on track, and itís hard to do that and do stuff thatís brand new and interesting. That where the challenge really comes.
How the Star Trek movies compare to other science fiction on film
Star Trek movies are budgeted differently because we can make them for less money than big sci-fi movies and because we have some of the sets built. I also think itís fair to say that with Star Trek movies, whilst there are special effects certainly (and the audience come to expect special effects), theyíre built around the relationships, the family, and they just happen to be in space. A lot of other sci-fi movies are built around the visual effects, and thatís secondary on our shows.
Tell us a story
Has Star Trek survived so long because of its classic Homeric story-telling device?
I think itís a band of people heading off into the future, but I think itís also that Star Trek is not afraid to address big, ballsy issues - philosophy, duty, loyalty, friendship. We do it with gusto, we do it without our tongues embedded in our cheeks and without winking at the audience, and I think people respond to that. There isnít a lot of that. Thereís a lot of fluff on television, a lot of very funny, sitcoms and a lot of drama in which thereís personal tragedy. But big issues, big philosophical issues about race, or about philosophy are not dealt with in a lot on television, and, on Star Trek, we do it every day.
Give me Five
Thoughts on the fifth Star Trek series, Enterprise
I think the idea of Star Trek Enterprise is brilliant. The idea of going into a prequel essentially, a hundred years before Kirkís Star Trek is smart on so many levels. The expectations of where we will have gone are eliminated because the audience now is so educated from Next Gen, Voyager and Deep Space Nine.
The design, Herman Zimmerman, Bob Blackman and others are able to doÖ The bridge has practical lights on it and there are things to hold on to., The costumes have pockets in them. I envy all this. Donít get me wrong, but I think thereís something assessable about this show taking place not too far from the time that we live in now.
I went to greet our newest captain and welcome him to the family. Scott Bakula, wonderful, wonderful actor who seems to be having a good time. All the rumour around Paramount is that this cast is gelling wonderfully and that the showís in great shape so letís hope thatís the case.
Star Trek Ten
The inside scoop on the next Trek movie
Star Trek Ten. - Nemesis is the working title - is written by John Logan, who wrote and was nominated for an Academy Award for Gladiator. I believe it will address the issues we spoke about in terms of loyalty and duty, but I think you can count on it [being] bigger, more like a war movie. With First Contact we made sort of a horror movie, thriller, and with, Insurrection we did a kinder, gentler Star Trek. I think with the first Star Trek of the new millennium it will be back to being a big action movie. I would count on battles in space.
Why is the look of the Enterprise such a design classic?
I think that the design of the Enterprise is Herman Zimmermanís genius, and I think that by keeping Herman on as the designer through all the different stages of Star Trek has kept this consistent look that that a particular artist brings to the table - no pun intended. So, I think itís Hermanís vision of the future.
When we negotiate our contracts, Paramountís company line is that the ship is in fact the star of the show!