Jonathan Frakes on the ‘Trek’ Ep He Directed 31 Years Ago That Inspired ‘Discovery’ Season 5, Hopes for ‘Legacy’ & More

Jonathan Frakes has been directing episodes of various “Star Trek” series for the past 34 years, from his first episode behind the camera, “Next Generation” installment “The Offspring,” to the most recent episode of “Star Trek: Discovery.” He is continuity for the franchise that doesn’t quite exist in any other way.

And now, his “Star Trek” directing past is coming back to inform the present. An episode of “Next Gen” he directed in 1993, “The Chase,” is the inspiration for this entire fifth and final season of “Discovery.” A huge plot point from that episode — all of the sentient species in the galaxy (humans, Klingons, Vulcans, etc.) were “planned,” billions of years ago, to spring up as they have by a highly advanced prior species called the Progenitors, who seeded the rudiments of their/our DNA on different planets — forms the basis for this 10-episode final run of the show that relaunched the “Star Trek” franchise on TV. The Progenitors had the ability to create life, right? Well, their technology has been discovered once again, and very bad forces want to acquire it. Unless the crew of the U.S.S. Discovery can get to them first.

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Speaking to IndieWire about his work directing on “Discovery,” Frakes takes no credit for having had a connection to the original “Next Gen” basis for this storyline.

“It’s just by chance that ‘The Chase was my episode,'” he said. “In the old days on ‘Next Gen,’ you were assigned episodes [to direct] based on people’s availability. I’m very proud to have been a part of it, though and very excited that [‘Discovery’ showrunner] Michelle Paradise chose it as sort of the tipping off point for the season. But it was clearly by happenstance that it happened to be an episode that I had directed then, and now I’m involved with the finale of, so it’s thrilling.”

Frakes has now directed “Lagrange Point,” the second-to-last episode of “Discovery.” It takes the form of a heist plot, as the crew of the U.S.S. Discovery try to retrieve the Progenitors’ tech themselves. From the very opening moments, you can tell just how much the franchise’s aesthetic has evolved since Frakes first started directing. “My dear friend [and ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ actor] Robbie Duncan McNeil used to call it, ‘when you come and do my show, I want you to be able to shoot to thrill,'” he said.

And Frakes took that to heart: The opening shot of “Lagrange Point,” lensed by DP Maya Bankovic in her first collaboration with Frakes, sees the camera turn upside down, to explore the sprawling interiors of Starfleet Headquarters. It later flies through the sprawling interiors of a Breen ship where the heist takes place with a sweep that would have been unimaginable in “Trek” just a few years ago. “Tunde [referring to Olatunde Osunsanmi, the producing director who usually helms the “Discovery” premiere and finale episodes, given their enhanced scale] encourages that kind of freedom.”

Frakes is particularly revered as a director from among the various “Trek” casts he directs, for his affinity with actors. As the longtime character Will Riker on “Next Gen” and “Picard,” he knows exactly where they’re coming from after all. But there’s something that’s particularly unlocked their expressiveness: An AR wall from the virtual production company Pixomondo has been set up on the Toronto soundstage since 2021. “AR walls have changed filmmaking,” Frakes said. “Instead of standing in front of a green screen and trying to tell people, well, ‘there are going to be hundreds of people coming at you from this side, and this is going to be exploding behind you,’ it’s actually there, and the actors can see it and feel it.”

This has changed the cadence of production for many VFX heavy shows such as “Discovery.” Whereas these would have an extended post-production period following the conclusion of principal photography, now much of that VFX work has to be completed in advance so it can be captured in-camera during shooting.

“It’s a time suck, and it’s got to mean so much planning,” Frakes said. “I mean, I was told they need to know 13 weeks before we can shoot it, what sets are going to be created, because I think it’s 30,000 LED lights, and the assets need to be built. So it is a long process to get that canvas, if you will, in place before you go over there and put the live action parts into it.

Pairing the best of the new with the best of the old is the challenge of “Star Trek” these days. For as cinematic and sweeping as its series today look, they have to find ways to build on the nearly 1,000 hours of “Trek” that’s come before — not as fan service but as a way of acknowledging its history so that its present feels lived-in and real.

To that end, Frakes drew upon his experience with classic “Star Trek” villains the Borg in depicting the Breen (themselves carried over from “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”). “The Breen are not unlike the Borg in many ways,” Frakes said. “In that they were omnipotent and a lot of them looked alike. Likewise, Eve Harlow [who plays one of the villains, Moll, this season]. She had that great hair and those fabulous eyes and that passionate acting. She was so on-it. She reminded me a little bit of Alice in that, Alice Krige, who was our Borg queen [in ‘First Contact’] in that she had a full commitment to it, and is very smart. It’s a great villain. Also, the same thing with Amanda Plummer [on ‘Star Trek: Picard’]. The same thing was true there. This was an actor who came in and bit it off and owned it.”

As for another echo from the past, there’s the persistent drumbeat from fans for a continuation of the final season of “Star Trek: Picard,” which brought back the entire “Next Gen” cast, as “Star Trek: Legacy” — a handoff series that could be built around the new characters from “Picard” plus strategic appearances from old “Next Gen” faves. It’s probably the property “Star Trek” fans most want to see out of everything the franchise could do right now. And yet there’s been no movement on this from Paramount+, and “Picard” showrunner Terry Matalas now signing with Marvel to produce a “Vision” TV series for Disney+ seems like the idea may be dead in the water.

When asked if he has hopes, thoughts, or updates about “Legacy,” Frakes said, “I certainly have hopes and thoughts. Updates? I don’t have, but I do know that the franchise is in great shape. I do know that this ‘Starfleet Academy’ series is going to be an entirely different animal, and I think that the success of what I’m imagining, the success of ‘Section 31,’ Michelle Yeoh’s movie, is only going to catapult us further into the future, and my hope, obviously is that we’ll find a place then to continue the ‘Legacy’ story.”

We can dream.

The ninth and penultimate episode of “Star Trek: Discovery” Season 5 is now streaming on Paramount+. The series finale will air this Thursday, May 30.

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