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Jonathan Frakes on Relaunching ROSWELL
The sci-fi show moves to a new Monday night time slot on April 10.
By Edward Gross
April 03, 2000
ROSWELL is a television series fighting for survivalnot surprising given its fairly lackluster ratings throughout its first season. Unlike other shows in similar situations, however, this one actually has its network, the WB, serving as the one doing the fighting. Step one was to move the show from Wednesday at 9 to Monday at the same time beginning on April 10th. Step two was to encourage a dramatic shift from teen angst to heavier sci-fi, which suits executive producer Jonathan Frakes just fine.
'As the Official Spokesperson for the Paranormal, I'm comfortable with all things alien,' laughs Frakes, forever known as STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION's first officer, Commander William Riker, and as host of numerous paranormal specials. He adds that he's not concerned about going up against Fox's Monday night hit, ALLY McBEAL. 'I think it's a different audience,' he says. 'If we're going to be sci-fi, we certainly don't want to be opposite VOYAGER. If nothing else, when sci-fi fans find a show, they are passionate and loyal, so we'll take a crack at the shows on in that time period. ALLY is a different audience, but anywhere you go, Monday through Thursday, you're going to butt heads with another show with power. I think that ROSWELL is going to be one of those second-year phenomenons, where it will catch on.' It was certainly a lesson borne out of the success of THE X-FILES and BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, neither of which gained much attention in their first year.
He feels just as strongly about the new emphasis on science fiction. 'The network actually encouraged us to go sci-fi because they had enough teen angst,' Frakes explains. 'The only resistance we felt had to do with the budget we had. We had a budget for a teen angst show. When you do a sci-fi show, your special effects budget has to go up; your costume budget has to go up. They haven't done it yet, but I'm sure they're going to have to next year if they're going to try and make this change. THE X-FILES is a very expensive show to produce. They have to give you all the toys to work with, and it takes more time. It's the STAR TREK phenomenon: you make a little movie every week; it's not just talking heads.'
For those of you just tuning in, ROSWELL is based, in part, on Melinda Metz' young adult novels, ROSWELL HIGH (published by Simon & Schuster imprint, Pulse). The series begins when high school student Liz Parker (Shirl Appleby) is accidentally shot while waitressing at the Crashdown Café. She is miraculously saved by fellow student Max Evans (Jason Behr), who has the power to heal. As events unfold, Liz learns that Max, his sister Isabel (Katherine Heigl), and their friend Michael Guerin (Brendan Fehr) are the offspring of the aliens that crashed at Roswell in 1947. As things continue, a largely unrequited romantic relationship develops between Liz and Max, while at the same time the aliens attempt to throw Sheriff Valenti (William Sadler) off their trail. This isn't easy, however, as Valenti is a man on a mission, determined to clear the name of his father who was ridiculed for his belief in the existence of extraterrestrials on earth.
It is from within this mix of elements that ROSWELL has emerged, striking a chord with the audience, if not in terms of ratings, certainly in terms of a loyal following, as evidenced by the sheer quantity of websites devoted to the series.
'We have a great cast,' offers Frakes as part of an explanation for the show's popularity. 'We've got the cream of the crop because we cast before pilot season last year, so we got the best young actors that were out there. Also, [executive producer] Jason Katims has that offbeat, MY SO CALLED LIFE writing voice, and John Bartley, our director of photography, has given the show a very different look. So there's a cool look for the show; it has great actors in it; and it doesn't talk down to the audience. It's about fucking aliens [not aliens who...well, you know]. Everyone wants to believe that there are aliens, or want to talk about them at least. They want to think that there's something else out there. That's why all of these specials I've done have been so successful. There is constant interest in this subject. The dialogue alone about it, whether anyone believes it or not, goes on and on and on, and it keeps people coming back. Plus, these kids are very sexy. They have a big fan base, and a lot of kids are tuning in because the stars are hot.'
The same could be said about Frakes' career, which includes a number of projects in various stages of development, among them the black comedy STEVE WAS HERE, which he'll be directing for Centropolis by the end of the year from a screenplay by MY FAVORITE YEAR's Norm Steinberg. Then, of course, there is the potential STAR TREK 10, which he may or may not direct following his helming gigs on the eighth and ninth films in the series, FIRST CONTACT and INSURRECTION.
'I think STAR TREK 10 is probably a step behind the next TV series,' he muses. 'I know that Rick Berman has a commitment to Paramount to get the next series up and running. While he's doing that, I know there have been primary meetings and discussions on 10. Certainly there are no writers on board, no director. I have a feeling it will be 2001 maybe 2002 before we see STAR TREK 10. The new series was supposed to have been in development by this point, but they're behind schedule.'
Although he hasn't been asked to direct the film, surely he must have some opinion as to what direction any potential film should travel. 'I think the next film has to be huge,' he says without hesitation. 'I think the stakes have to be higher than they were for INSURRECTION. I don't think it can be as inside as the Borg in FIRST CONTACT. It's got to be a galactic war movie. It's got to be balls-out, and I think that will bring all the fans back. We did a horror movie with FIRST CONTACT, which was fabulous. And we did a softer, intellectual romance with INSURRECTION, which was also cool. But I think for STAR TREK 10, the first TREK of the new Millennium, I think it's just got to be balls-to-the-wall. A big action war epic with the Federation on the line, with the Enterprise on the line, with mankind, earth or something the audience can relate to on the line, and play that great Picard heroism and have people get knocked around. I think we're great when we're doing action and we spice it up with other elements. I think that's the success of the show.'
He points out that DEEP SPACE NINE managed to capture some of the elements he's talking about during the show's far-reaching story arcs involving the Federation-Dominion-Cardassian war. 'They certainly had a dark edge to it, which was cool,' Frakes opines. 'They didn't try to be NEXT GEN; they tried to be DEEP SPACE NINE. It was in a different place; the characters were different. They had a big fucking war with the Cardassians, and all kinds of shit was happening.' He pauses for a moment, then adds, 'I'm not usually big on action movies, but I think for our franchise it's exactly what the doctor ordered.... Of course, they haven't asked me for my opinion.'
One project he doesn't mind offering his opinion on is the oft-delayed TOTAL RECALL 2, on which he has more or less given up. 'We might as well just take that one away,' he concurs. 'I don't see that in anybody's future. It's either because of Arnold or whether or not Miramax wants to take a chance on an $80 or $100 million movie. Do you want to make that kind of movie now? Do you want to make a TOTAL RECALL 2 with what's going on with Arnold at the box office and what's going on with that genre? I hate to say it, but if he's going to make another sequel, wouldn't you make T3 instead of TOTAL RECALL 2, because there's a bigger chance of making money? TOTAL RECALL is an old movie now and it looks like one. I shouldn't say this, obviously, because I'd love to do that film, but they blew smoke up my ass four years ago, and nothing's happened since. I'm not holding my breath.'
He doesn't allow any of this to get him down, though, as the world of ROSWELL seems to be providing him with plenty of creative satisfaction. 'The show has really evolved over the course of the season,' he says, 'especially in the last three months as it's moved into more of a sci-fi show and not a high school show. We're exploring the aliens' mythology and their history, and it's taken on an all-new X-FILES-like approach to this subject as opposed to teen angst, which is what it seemed to have a lot of in the beginning.'
One question the shift to more sci-fi raises is whether or not the new approach will alienate (no pun intended) viewers who latched on to the show for the romance between Max and Liz. 'I hope not,' says a candid Frakes. 'I have a feeling that seeing the leads in jeopardy is only going to make them want to stick around to see how they react. It's the MOONLIGHTING or X-FILES syndrome: you don't want to see them too happy.'
From the way he discusses the show, it's pretty obvious that Frakes believes ROSWELL will be back for a second season. 'Something tragic would have to happen,' he says. 'There's a lot of shit beneath us that would have to drop before they drop us. They'd be crazy to cancel this show. They committed to 22 episodes in the first season, which they don't do for every show. I think if they spend some dough on the relaunch when we come back on Monday April 10th, it will indicate that they're behind us.'