Star Trek homeSkip to main content

Gates McFadden on Podcasting, Activism, and Wanting to Be an Alien on Star Trek: Discovery

The doctor is in!

Star Trek, Gates McFadden

The doctor is in! Gates McFadden launches her new podcast, InvestiGates: Who Do You Think You Are, this week, where she’ll be having intimate, one-on-one conversations with her close friends like Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Brent Spiner, Marina Sirtis, Michael Dorn, John de Lancie, Robert Picardo, Nana Visitor, and so many more. We spoke with the TNG star about podcasting, the new Star Trek shows in production, and the franchise’s history of activism as well as her own.

Gates McFadden's Upcoming Podcast, InvestiGates What made you decide to do a podcast?

Gates McFadden: Brian Volk-Weiss, the CEO of Nacelle, called me up and said, “Hey, listen, I've been thinking about this. How would you like to do a podcast with your Star Trek friends?” And I said, “No, no, no, no, we're not going to do a Star Trek podcast, they would never agree to that. We talk about it with so many people, that's not what we talk about when we're talking to each other.”

Luckily, he kept after me. I was back and forth about it. Then I remembered that I had turned Star Trek [The Next Generation] down twice. And they came back to me a third time, and then I took it, and that changed my life. So I thought, “Well, you know what, let me just say yes” [to this podcast].

They’re all your friends; did you learn new things about them that you didn’t know before?

GM: I learned things about pretty much every single person that I did not know before.

You’ve got quite a lineup. Who are excited to talk to that you haven't yet?

GM: That would probably be Whoopi Goldberg. She’s such a centered, sincere, strong, funny, everything person. She has been through quite a journey in her life. And I have enormous admiration for her, and respect.

Star Trek: The Next Generation

With all the new shows in production, have you been watching any of them?

GM: When Discovery started, I watched it for a little while. And then because I kept meeting up with them at conventions and things, I watched the premiere of the third season and was blown away. I think the third season is just fantastic.

I would love to be on Discovery. I don't care if I'm an alien. I think it's a really cool show! I love all the different characters, it's so inclusive. It's quite extraordinary. And Sonequa is a very powerful actor.

She has a strong in-person presence, too.

GM: [Sonequa], Michelle Hurd, and Alison Pill, too. There are very incredible women on these shows.They’re people who — when you see a cast of the show — make you go, “Yeah, I really want to get to know all of them.” And that's truly how I feel when from the very first time I met them. Wilson Cruz is just so lovely. I think of Doug Jones and all the things that they have done. They're really amazing.

And Star Trek is being progressive in the way that it had the promise of when it premiered in the ‘60s, and has struggled with for a while to get there.

GM: It's getting there now. It's so cool.

Do you think that we're there, at this point?

GM: Well, I don't think you ever want to say we're there. But so many of the promises that we talked about, that I heard, “This is what we're going to do, and it's going to be this and that…” they have now really come to fruition.

It's happening now, it will continue to happen, I hope, on so many levels. And I see the results of even our characters, on Next Gen; the women who were not as strong as I would have liked, perhaps, but I see the results in the  women [who grew up watching us] who are surgeons, and scientists and nurses. And, you know, the men who have gone into practice, because they liked the character of Dr. Crusher, or Troi.

Star Trek: The Next Generation

What do you think makes something distinctively Star Trek versus just being sci-fi or a cool story?

GM: I think it's the positive vibe of it. It’s something where you feel there is a larger group of people who have grown up as part of the Federation, even if they've left the Federation at this point, who have wonderful ethical values, and believe in science and truth, and want to do good, and want to learn and are curious. I think it's the same thing that's taking us to Mars.

Star Trek gets you excited about the future. I loved Alien, I watched Alien many, many times in prepping for directing “Genesis,” but Star Trek has people who you see week after week and — even if they disagree — they don't kill each other. They try to find another way to deal with things.

The key is that there are some solutions that we can work together on, it might not be the perfect solution yet. But we can work towards understanding and acceptance of each other and tolerance. We also have to keep learning how to question in a way that is not completely destructive.

[Star Trek] is something that the entire family can sit down and watch. I do think that's important. We are so fractured in so many ways in our society today.

We are, and we don't know how to have conversations anymore. People are shouting at each other, but nobody's listening.

GM: Right? And everyone's just sort of “This is what I'm saying.” And “How can you say that?” This is the way we had it in our election. And it’s destructive, you don't really hear anymore, and you don't really pose questions that make you think. Star Trek makes you think. When it’s done well, the best of the Star Trek episodes make you think “What if?” Bad things happen, and how can we collectively and as individuals work to find solutions?

And it may not be perfect, but it's better than either completely walling off and going away saying, “I'm not going to deal with this” or being just incredibly destructive and saying “I just hate everybody. I want to just blow it all up.”

It’s about learning, thinking. Having new possibilities.

And then Star Trek, both the people on it and the fans, have a good history of activism. But you have a real history of activism, right? You've been like that your whole life.

GM: I have. I grew up in a very Wonder Bread part of Ohio. Everyone, you know, looked the same... I think finally, by the time I was in high school, there was a “Chinese” restaurant that was chop suey and you know, had really nothing to do with Chinese cuisine. I don't want to offend Ohioans, the Buckeyes: I love you guys, and now it's totally changed.

When I went to Boston, I was with all these students who were protesting—the women's movement was happening. Angela Davis was at the university where I was, and Abbie Hoffman as well. It was a whole new world, and it was both exciting and scary. But I learned so much just about life, and how the world wasn't like where I grew up, the world was a much bigger place. And actually, there was a lot more going on in Ohio than I was aware of, because I just didn't look.

That was during the Vietnam War, and I had so many friends who had to go fight in the war. And my brother had a very low draft number. It was a really scary time. So many things were changing.

When I went to France, people just assumed I might as well have been Nixon's daughter. People would see you and make a judgment about who you are as an American. And I was shocked, because I’d go, “No, no, no, you don’t understand. We had the Black Panthers on our campus…” but to them you're just an American who's privileged and over here studying, they don't know that you're cleaning apartments and struggling to have enough food to eat. We all think with such stereotypes. I'm sure I do too. And what we always need to do is stop doing that and look and listen and just be in the moment and see who that person is and have an encounter.

Star Trek: The Next Generation

In terms of encounters, it looks like conventions are coming back, slowly. Are you apprehensive about it? Or what are you looking forward to about it?

GM: Well, I love running into friends and I love meeting new fans and seeing old fans. You know, I will see how it goes. I'm not really that apprehensive because I've been vaccinated. This might change if suddenly a new [variant] comes up.  I think it's going to work out for conventions. I'm not apprehensive, I'm actually excited. And there are so many nice people in the whole Star Trek world, I'll be happy to see them again.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Laurie Ulster (she/her) is a freelance writer and a TV producer who somehow survived her very confusing adolescence as the lone female Star Trek fan in middle school. She's a writer/editor and was the Supervising Producer on After Trek.