Sometimes, the stars align. Jonathan Frakes earned his stripes as a director on Star Trek: The Next Generation and then went on to direct First Contact and Insurrection, as well as episodes of Deep Space Nine and Voyager. For the better part of the two decades since, he’s made his living primarily as a director, calling the shots on everything from V, Leverage, Castle and Falling Skies to NCIS: Los Angeles, The Librarians and Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce. And on January 7, he’ll return to the Trek fold with the 10th Discovery episode, “Despite Yourself,” which will kick off the second chapter of Discovery’s freshman season. StarTrek.com caught up with Frakes for a conversation in which he previewed “Despite Yourself.” And be on the lookout, after “Despite Yourself” airs, for another StarTrek.com interview with Frakes in which he’ll provide a past-tense breakdown of the episode and its pivotal moments.
How did it work out that you’re directing an episode of Discovery?
I've been lobbying to get on the show since the very, very beginning, back when Bryan Fuller had been attached. Fuller was attached to the Star Trek family, from Voyager, I think. Fast forward to Olatunde (Osunsanmi), who had shadowed me quite a bit on Falling Skies, becoming a producing director for Discovery. Olatunde is awesome, and he learned to direct episodic TV on Falling Skies and was a wonderful mentee of sorts. He went on to become the producer/director of that show, which Noah Wyle did. I did a few episodes of Falling Skies with Noah and The Librarians with him, too. Olatunde was on Discovery and said, “Well, do you want to do the show?" I said, "I would love to do the show, I've been trying to do it for a year." So, the next thing you know, I got a slot and I got an incredible script.
What can viewers expect to see in “Despite Yourself”?
You know I can’t tell you much, right? Lorca's depth of character continues and there’s this wonderful business with L’Rell, Mary Chieffo's character.
It's beautifully shot, it's a great story, and there's lots of loose ends tied up. Lots of questions are answered, and it's a… cliffhanger. I think I can tell you that.
How did you prep? Did you watch episodes that had already aired? Did you go up to Toronto to watch them shoot?
I watched everything that had been cut together. I read all the scripts, coming in. It's a big show, so it's a 10-day prep and a 10-day shoot. The sets are built up at Pinewood Toronto, so I spent a lot of time getting a feel for these new bridges and corridors. It's obviously a very familiar feel, but at the same time, it's a much grander, grandiose, more spectacular production design. Stylistically, the camera movement and the action, the level of stunts, the beautiful costumes, all the aspects of the show are no expenses spared and the money is on the screen.
The Discovery cast and crew had been together for several months by the time you arrived. How tight were they all as a unit, and how open were they to direction from you?
They reminded me of us, of Next Gen. They had unified for a number of reasons. One was the madness that’s part of the beginning of any show. The other is that most of them were from elsewhere and were now gathered on the bridge of Discovery -- or the Shenzhou at first -- in Toronto. Jason (Isaacs) was cooking dinner every Sunday for the entire cast, and they’d gather and debrief. They'd come in and watch each other work. It was so similar to the Next Gen family that it made me proud. And, from morning to night when I was there, they picked my brain about my Trek experiences.
This was all of them. Some of these guys had watched everything. Some of them were in the middle of watching the different shows and movies, and the key episodes. They’d watched a lot of Next Gen. They were working their way through Voyager and Deep Space and Enterprise, and there was a lot of discussion about what it was like on the set, specific things about the costumes and about ship shapes and about how the props work and makeup and hair. They asked about protocol and beaming and all the things that we did on our shows. They were fascinated by it all. Sort of like the people at a convention, they wanted to hear anecdotes about what happened with so-and-so, what happened off-camera, what happened when we did this. So, it was a joyous place to be, and by the time I got there, the show had found its legs and the train was running very, very smoothly.
How did the shoot itself go?
Wonderfully. I had a cinematographer named Colin Hoult, who I would take anywhere and I'd do anything with. And because it's a big show with alternating DP's, I got to prep with him, and have dinner with him, and live with the episode with him. So, we had quite a cunning, extensive and wonderfully ambitious plan going in. And with Olatunde and the producers, if you suggest, “It’d be great if we used this toy,” or, “It’d be great if we did this stunt…” If they like the idea, they find the money to do it because this was the season to really prove themselves. And they’ve done so successfully, with is why they got a second season pickup.
What was it like for you, personally, to be back on a Trek set?
I loved it. There was a symmetry to it. I am very proud of having been part of all of these Trek shows. I felt that way back during our show, and then to direct our show and a couple of our movies, and then Voyager and Deep Space, it was great. And even the sort of ill-fated appearance on Enterprise, to have had my hand in all of them, I'm proud to be that guy. So, it felt right doing Discovery.
How satisfied are you with how “Despite Yourself” is coming together?
I think it's the best episode of the year. Of course, I'm a little biased. I think it's going to be very exciting for the fans. Sonequa is amazing. I think she is a magical new face for the franchise. I'm a big fan.
How hopeful are you that you'll be back to do more in Season 2?
Confident. Hopefully confident. Confidently hopeful.
What else are you working on in the meantime?
I'm trying to sell a pilot, and I just finished a fascinating show called The Arrangement, which is loosely based on Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes's relationship with Scientology. I did one of those because Robbie Duncan McNeill is the producing director of that show.
And, lastly, you’re about to set sail on Star Trek: The Cruise II. In fact, this story will run while you’re on the boat…
My wife and daughter are coming with me, which should be fun. I’m pretty excited about a reading I’ll be doing of the Scopes Monkey Trial with John de Lancie, Ethan Phillips and Robert Picardo. I know there’s a Riker Chair Mounting Contest, which I’ll be interested to see, especially since I suggested it. Not sure how much chair mounting I’ll do myself, though.