Star Trek: Discovery Breaks 50 Year Old Franchise Tradition

By Chris Snellgrove | Published

Star Trek: Discovery is returning for its fifth and final season on April 4, and it’s fair to say that both the show’s biggest haters and the biggest fans will be tuning in to see whether Captain Burnham and crew can stick the landing. However, what most of these fans don’t realize is that the show is on its way to breaking with a proud Star Trek tradition that has lasted half a century. Here it is: unless he somehow pops up in a surprise cameo role, Discovery will be the first Star Trek show in 50 years to end without an appearance from Jonathan Frakes.

Number One

This actor became synonymous with Star Trek when he starred as Commander Riker in the hit sequel series The Next Generation. Under Gene Roddenberry’s advice, the character was very stiff in the first season, but it didn’t take long for Riker to grow a beard, pick up a trombone, and establish himself as a Starfleet officer with both sex appeal and swagger. In short, Jonathan Frakes became a mainstay of the franchise in general, and his influence soon extended to other series.

Deep Space Riker

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For example, Jonathan Frakes memorably appeared in the Deep Space Nine episode “Defiant,” but not as his familiar William Riker character. Instead, he appeared as Thomas Riker, a transporter clone of William Riker that the Enterprise encountered in The Next Generation episode “Second Chances.” Thomas had previously wanted to focus on his Starfleet career, but in DS9, he decided to strike out on his own and join the Maquis, and he was ultimately sentenced to a Cardassian labor camp after he tried to steal the Defiant.

Sadly, we never heard from Thomas Riker again (on the show, at least; he featured heavily in the excellent novel Imzadi II by Peter David). But the fandom continued to get plenty of Jonathan Frakes in the last place we expected to see him: behind the screen. After directing eight episodes of The Next Generation, Frakes directed three episodes of Deep Space Nine, three episodes of Voyager, and the feature films First Contact and Insurrection.

Frakes Likes It Behind The Camera

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The directing bug never really left Jonathan Frakes: in addition to a wide array of other projects, he would later go on to direct eight episodes of Discovery, six episodes of Picard, and one episode (the Lower Decks crossover episode “Those Old Scientists”) of Strange New Worlds. However, before he loaned his immense directorial talents to NuTrek, Frakes appeared in the Voyager episode “Death Wish.” There, he was briefly summoned to the Delta Quadrant by Q to help make the case that a fellow member of the Q continuum shouldn’t commit suicide.

Ending Enterprise

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Additionally, Jonathan Frakes controversially appeared in the series finale of Enterprise. Despite that show taking place well before The Original Series, the finale (“These Are the Voyages…”) features Riker revisiting these past events via the holodeck. Frakes was as charming as ever, but many Enterprise fans chafed at the idea that the series finale was essentially transformed into a bonus episode of The Next Generation.

For better or for worse, Enterprise was the last Star Trek series before the arrival of Discovery; that series gave way to Picard, a show in which Riker appeared in both the first and final seasons. Unless Disco somehow shoehorns in a cameo, this will be the first franchise series in 50 years (since the end of Star Trek: The Animated Series) to end without an appearance from Jonathan Frakes. 

Maybe Traditions Should Be Broken

That may not seem like a big deal, but it would mean that Discovery (always intended to be a kind of love letter to all things Star Trek) would end by breaking a franchise tradition stretching back for half a century.

With that being said, we’re not necessarily championing the idea of Jonathan Frakes popping up in Discovery, especially as Riker (we’re getting enough of him via excellent Lower Decks cameos). Instead, we mostly want to draw fans’ attention to how indispensable Frakes has become to this franchise, both in front of and behind the camera. Whether or not we somehow see him in Discovery season 5, here’s hoping he continues to deliver the best-directed episodes the fandom has ever seen.