Jonathan Frakes talks Star Trek: Discovery’s trolls, the brilliance of Blu del Barrio, and leading by example in our new video series, To Boldly Ask…
To put it simply, nobody has the perspective on Star Trek that Jonathan Frakes has.
As Commander Will Riker in Star Trek: The Next Generation (and Tom Riker, the transporter clone, as Star Trek: Lower Decks likes to remind us), Frakes has led away teams into certain death and grappled with Romulans in the spirit of James T. Kirk. As a director he’s overseen arguably the greatest movie of The Next Generation era, Star Trek: First Contact (1996), as well as episodes of Star Trek Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.
Jonathan Frakes was literally handpicked by Gene Roddenberry and shared the screen with the cast of The Original Series, creating a chain that stretches from the birth of the series to its latest incarnation. How many other people can say that?
Behind the scenes he’s seen Star Trek: The Next Generation go from pretender to the throne to true king in the eyes of the fans, so the opprobrium that often greets the new shows, primarily Star Trek: Discovery, in the murkier corners of fandom is altogether too familiar.
“It seems absurd,” he tells Ian Spelling in the first episode of our new Star Trek interview series, To Boldly Ask…, “but also, you know as well as anybody, people react to Star Trek. It gets so deep into the weeds and so specific.
“I mean, when our show came on the air, nobody wanted to see an English captain with a French name. They wanted Kirk, right? They also had no interest in Data, they wanted Spock. They wanted Bones. And they were resistant to our show for many, many years. I remember going to work in the first season of Discovery and the same, the same kind of reaction without having seen the show.”
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Star Trek: Discovery and Getting They/Them Right
Resistance towards Star Trek: Discovery has coalesced around two strands, a specific racist and misogynistic hatred for the character of Captain Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) that doesn’t dignify a response, but also a resistance to an uplifting queer family consisting of Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) and his husband Commander Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) as the adoptive parents of the non-binary Ensign Adira Tal (Blu del Barrio) and trans Gray Tal (Ian Alexander).
During our prep for To Boldly Ask…, Spelling recalled hosting a panel with del Barrio and seeking clarity on their preferred pronouns and how comfortable they were taking questions on Adira’s gender identity, speaking admiringly of the actor’s articulate and empathic response. It was striking – and it’s sad that it is striking – to see someone prepared to learn and understand, and apply that understanding.
It’s a journey that is reflected back at us in the form of Jonathan Frakes.
“I, as a director, feel responsible to lead by example,” he said. “Especially in the pronoun world and it’s so important. It’s so Star Trek. It’s so important in the real world, it’s important in our world, and it’s particularly important in Roddenberry’s vision of the future and our handling of the present. So Blu, when I first worked with them, they were a she, and they were phenomenal.”
Frakes directed the brilliantly understated “It’s they now” scene in the Star Trek: Discovery episode ‘The Sanctuary’ (S3, Ep8) in which Adira’s gender identity entered canon. Del Barrio told Forbes: “I wanted Adira’s journey to mirror mine. I didn’t want to do anything that I hadn’t already done. I didn’t want Adira to use ‘they’/’them’ pronouns until I was out.”
“I had a scene with Anthony Rapp,” recalls Frakes, “and Anthony and I were not only astounded by Blu’s talent, and complete, disarming confidence on the set that we felt responsible, obviously, for getting the pronoun right. It’s the least we can do.
“And yet, because I’m almost 70, and because we use pronouns grammatically, sometimes we make a mistake. And I must say, in my experience, I’ve never been punished for making the mistake. But I’m so conscious… and it becomes easier and easier and easier.
“But for the crew, for whom it was probably more strange because they come from an environment where maybe it’s either less part of the world or less part of their morality, or whatever the right word is, it felt extremely important for me to lead by example. And to do that, I had to be on point. Sometimes I’ve screwed up but I get better and better and better.
“And it’s very important. And it’s great that it is part of our brave, strange world – not so strange.”
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The Next Generation’s Imperfect LGBTQI Record
Trill have being used as a vehicle for LGBTQI themes for as long as there has been Trill. Although a little more timidly executed, the matter-of-fact way in which Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell) maneuvered through the wake of her male predecessor Curzon led to a number of storylines that have only grown in resonance. Some, such as her lingering feelings for Lenara Kahn (Susanna Thompson) in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode ‘Rejoined’ (S4, Ep5), are less queer coded and more… well, queer.
Unfortunately, this was an exception, rather than a rule: a queer story in which the queerness was not the story, the taboo amongst Trill is revisiting the relationships of a past host – that both characters are women isn’t deemed notable. For the most part, queer themes were backgrounded unless they could be cloaked in black-and-white facepaint. An egregious omission given the 1990s saw a number of landmark victories for LGBTQI rights in the US, Canada, UK, and Australia, with many struggles playing out in the public domain – and in popular culture – in a way that hadn’t been possible a decade earlier. The 1992 Quantum Leap episode ‘Running For Honor – June 11, 1964’ (S4, Ep12), sent Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) to save the life of a gay man being harried by homophobic classmates at Naval Academy, the 1996 Babylon 5 episode ‘Grey 17 is Missing’ (S3, Ep19) casually gave the station a gay bar, and with his first Doctor Who novel, Damaged Goods (1996), future showrunner Russell T. Davies firmly established the queerness of new companion Chris Cwej. (The Doctor also uses space cocaine, but we’re not here to talk about that).
Former executive producer Rick Berman gave a somewhat mangled – bordering on the offensive – defense of Star Trek’s position in a 2011 interview with StarTrek.com, saying, “We just felt it would be better to deal with concepts of prejudice against homosexuality and topics like AIDS metaphorically, in ways other than human gays on board the ship. So we developed a number of different stories that dealt with same-sex relationships, that dealt with metaphorical diseases that were similar to AIDS. But they were all done in alien fashion to try to get people to think about these things as opposed to just hitting it right on the head, which would be having a gay character on the ship.”
Ignoring the suggestion that prejudice and AIDS are apparently the only narratives available to “human gays” (yikes), even those allegorical tales came up short. Frakes refers specifically to the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘The Outcast’ (S5, Ep17) in which Riker falls in love with an androgynous alien who identifies as female – a taboo in her society. In his 2014 article for TrekCore, Rob Heyman notes that “For many fans of the show, ‘The Outcast’ failed to deliver on its promise of a gay-rights episode. […] the alien lead was noticeably female in appearance and voice (a female actor did play the part), which kept the dynamic between her and Riker comfortably heterosexual. For what was to be a bold, water-cooler episode, it felt far too safe and conventional for its ambitions.”
“Clearly the story was meant to be that Riker and this androgynous character had chemistry,” says Frakes. “Physical chemistry, emotional chemistry, and the character should have been cast as a man I think – that was the story that was being couched in there.
“And they – the network or someone – didn’t have the guts to do that. So they cast an androgynous-looking woman so Riker would not be perceived as gay, perhaps. I’m not quite sure what the thinking was. But it always seemed like a missed opportunity.”
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James Hoare is editor of The Companion. He has been “working in publishing” since the early 1990s when he made his own Doctor Who fanzine to sell in the school playground.You can find him on Twitter @JDHoare