Brannon Braga: From TNG To Terra Nova, Part 2
Yesterday, in part one of our exclusive interview, Brannon Braga talked about joining the writing staff of The Next Generation and subsequently working on TNG, Voyager, Enterprise and the features Generations and First Contact. Now, in the second half of our conversation, Braga addresses the harshest criticisms often leveled against him and Rick Berman, looks back at his post-Trek credits, including Threshold, 24 and FlashForward, and previews the much-anticipated sci-fi series Terra Nova.
What single episode of Enterprise holds up best and which one do you wish had never happened?
Braga: Ironically enough, my least favorite episode was a very, very early one called "Terra Nova." There happens to be an irony there. It was about finding a lost colony of humans, but it was boring and it was unfortunate that it was such an early episode. I'm sure there were other bad ones, too. But another early one that I really loved, that I thought was a classic, was called "Dear Doctor," where the framing device was Dr. Phlox writing to a human counterpart on his alien world. It had to do with the co-evolution of two humanoid species on a planet and which would survive. It was just a great episode of Star Trek. That's one I look at fondly. I also thought the AIDS-metaphor episode with T'Pol was very strong. It had to do with Vulcan mind melds, at that point in Vulcan history, being something that was considered taboo. To me, that's an interesting exploration of Star Trek and also tells us something about people who are ostracized.
Enterprise died young, and when it died, more than a few people blamed you and Rick Berman for "killing the franchise." Is that fair or unfair?
Braga: I will take full responsibility for any flawed or downright bad storytelling or creative decisions that hurt the franchise. I don't think, looking back, that that's the main reason it went away. So I don't think Rick and I killed the franchise. That's absurd. Did I stay on the franchise too long? Was the storytelling feeling feeble and familiar? I'm going to say no. I look at season three of Enterprise and say the whole Xindi species concept was really cool. That's a science fiction concept I'd never seen before. You had insects and aqautics with intelligence and culture. I thought that was a fascinating idea and we turned it into a season-long arc that I thought was super-fresh. I thought Manny Coto came in and breathed fresh air into season four. So I thought, creatively, the show was not on life support in season four, very far from it. But I do think there comes a point, whether it's Star Trek, Gunsmoke, I Love Lucy, when a show has run its course. One day, even Law & Order will be off the air. Whether you want to call it franchise fatigue or whatever, it's not always just about the show.
And, again, I'll take my share of the blame. I can't specify to you exactly what that is. I think, always, that I could have done better creatively, but I thought back in the TNG days, too. Also, there just are some real haters out there. There are some people who will go back and says, "Well, look at Braga's work on TNG. If you really look at it, that sucked, too." That's when I feel like I just can't win. There are just contingents of people who didn't like the work I did on the shows. They also need to keep in mind that Rick Berman and Brannon Braga were not the only two people making Star Trek. There were hundreds of people involved with the shows, including other writers and producers. We may have been at the top, but we were not the only ones. However, having said all that, I can't dispute that what J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof and Kurtzman and Orci did with the new Star Trek movie was pretty fabulous and modern. So I have to look at that and think, "Well, given some time passing and a hunger developing and fresh brains coming in with a really modern, snazzy, sexy take on the franchise, it was a really good thing." Sorry about the long, rambling answer. And I'm sure that when you post this I'm going to get more hate mail. It'll just fan the flames.
You ultimately spent 15 years in the Trek business. Would you trade it for anything?
Braga: No, never. That's one of the things that really stings about some of the fan criticism. Also, by the way, there are also fans who are really kind and supportive, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate those people. Those are the fans that kept me going for 15 years. Do you think I would have spent 15 years on something if it wasn't in my blood and wasn't the most passionate thing in my life. Some fans accuse me of not knowing Star Trek or (say) "He didn't watch TOS' or "He didn't see all the episodes of TOS. How dare he work on Star Trek." I wrote more episodes of Star Trek than anybody. Now, some people might say that's a bad thing, but why does everybody forget the good things? We referenced "Rick and Brannon killed the franchise," but Rick and Brannon were around at the heyday, too. It kind of reached an apex Kirk and Picard were on the cover of Time Magazine. TNG was ending. The movie was coming and Voyager had been announced. It hit this fever pitch and was at the top of the world, and it never really reached that peak again, though I think the J.J. Abrams has reintroduced Star Trek in a great way.
Let's talk about some of your post-Star Trek output. How were Threshold, 24 and FlashForward as experiences for you?
Braga: Threshold was very short-lived. It was only 13 episodes. It didn't do very well. But what a cast. Carla Gugino, Peter Dinklage, Brent (Spiner) and all the rest. My God. I think the concept of alien invasion and a special task force trying to deal with it was a decent concept. I honestly think it suffered, despite the stellar cast and the fact that it was pretty well written, because I'm not sure the idea was fresh and engaging enough, although Falling Skies is an alien-invasion show and it's doing quite well. So what do I know. I think unlike Falling Skies, which is a very relatable show, Threshold was a bit esoteric and I think it was probably on the wrong network. Part of me wants to say that 24 was the best professional experience I've ever had, but then I think back on TNG and I'm like, "Well, you can't top that. That was pretty great." But I have to say that 24, for some reason, I just loved it. It had a really great writing staff. Everyone on that staff was an executive-producer-level writer who'd run a show before. So it was like having an all-star baseball team. Everyone was so talented. But, even given that, the show was nearly impossible to do, it was so complicated. But I just had a great time on that. FlashForward was really gratifying because I really enjoyed writing the pilot with David Goyer and I was able to produce the pilot. I didn't have much involvement beyond the pilot, but I loved the pilot. It turned out great. Up to that point, FlashForward was the most massive undertaking I'd been involved with, but Terra Nova makes it look like a student film.
Terra Nova is big and cool and loaded with dinosaurs and action and stunts and all of that. But people have to care about the characters that the dinosaurs might eat or you have no show. Take us through achieving the proper balance of spectacle to family drama with the Shannon family.
Braga: The elements of the pilot -- the people, the dinosaurs, the mysterious goings-on, the question of Will humanity survive? What is this place, really? -- are what are going to be explored on a weekly basis. It's interesting because, if you watch the pilot, you think, "It's all very new and splashy and dramatic," and all of that is in every episode. It's all set in the same town, so to speak, and I don't want to say we're doing a dinosaur of the week, but believe me, there are plenty of creatures every week.
A lot of the advance buzz about Terra Nova has to do with the cost of the pilot, but the reality is that the pilot was shot with the knowledge that you'd have a full 13-episode first season. How did that factor into the equation?
Braga: That's correct, and it made a huge difference. Make no mistake, this was an expensive pilot, but it's a highly unique situation because we were able to think of the pilot not as a pilot, but as our first two episodes. So the investment that we made wasn't just to make the gosh-darn most expensive pilot ever and blah, blah, blah. It's a really big pilot and very ambitious, but the money spent was an investment for the long-term 13 episodes, because we knew we were doing them. Most pilots, you build sets and hire visual effects people and then tear those sets down and let everyone go after you've wrapped, and then you see if your show gets picked up. In this case, because we knew we had a series going into, we built spectacular permanent sets from the get-go. That's not something you normally do. We built the town, or least a good chunk of the town, the colony, in the middle of nowhere, in Queensland, Australia, in the middle of the jungle. I don't think you'd normally do that on a pilot, not on that scale. We hired a visual effects team, led by Kevin Blank, that has literally built new technology to be able to do dinosaurs and other creatures on a weekly basis, that they would not have done had they not known this was going right into series.
You noted that the show is shot in Australia, but you're in an office in Los Angeles. How does that affect things, and how much time have you actually spent out on set?
Braga: Rene Echevarria and I were in Australia for a couple of months for the filming of the pilot, which was important, to help get the thing going. But we haven't been back since because we've been busy writing the show and doing post-production on the show here in L.A. And we hired John Cassar, who I worked with on 24, as our supervising director. So we have a general in the field to be implementing everyone's vision of the show. And that's been going very well.
Do you have an endgame for Terra Nova? Do you have a finale in mind and are laying tracks building to that, or are you laying tracks on a road that doesn't have a finite end yet?
Braga: In terms of the season, we're done with the writing. We just finished the other day, in fact. The final two episodes have been written and we've pretty much stuck to an essential game plan that we've always had in mind. It's a terrific finale. In terms of the series, we have ideas moving forward, but obviously not as detailed as we did for this first season.
To read part one of our interview with Brannon Braga, click here.