ENTERPRISE EXCLUSIVE: In The Beginning With Brannon Braga
As the March 26th release of Enterprise season one on Blu-ray approaches, we've decided to dig into the archives to retrieve this interview with co-creator and executive producer Brannon Braga written prior to the show's 2001 debut.
Enterprise, of course, was the fourth spin-off to the original Star Trek and serves as a bridge between the feature film First Contact and the Enterprise of Captain Kirk. The interview with Brannon is presented as it was originally written back then.
ENTERPRISE: TALKING NEW BEGINNINGS WITH BRANNON BRAGA
Written by and copyright Edward Gross
So can someone please explain the Enterprise phenomenon? Let’s face it, pretty much everyone was tired of the franchise by the end of Voyager’s run and the vast majority of people were ready for Star Trek to warp the hell out of here for a couple of years. Yet here we are once again, on the threshold of the fourth television spin-off of Gene Roddenberry’s 1960s creation and somehow there’s genuine buzz about this show. What gives?
“It’s inexplicable,” admits a similarly surprised Brannon Braga, who co-created the series with Rick Berman and serves as executive producer, “but a lot of people feel exactly the same way. The general reaction we’re getting to the concept and what people are seeing is kind of a renewed excitement about Star Trek. If you really stop to think about it, there hasn’t been a new Star Trek show introduced in seven years. What I’m hoping is that it’s just a cool concept, with cool-looking people and great characters. I’m hoping that’s what it is.
“The show seems to have a little bit of a different vibe,” he continues, “which is how we wanted it to be. I think if we had just plopped out Starship Intrepid with Captain Jameson and set it in Janeway’s time, people probably wouldn’t have had this reaction. I think we would have been back to the weariness that a lot of people have referred to. So I think it’s the concept, I think it’s the casting of Scott Bakula, I think it’s the way the uniforms look – it’s the whole ambience of the show that people are responding to as a pretty good idea. That’s all I can figure out, because, to be honest, on some level I’m just as mystified as you are.”
Enterprise, as is probably well known by now, is set a mere 150 years from today, serving as a sequel of sorts to the feature film First Contact and the original Star Trek series that starred William Shatner as Captain James. T. Kirk. As such, it serves as an introduction to many of the things that have become standard in the Trek universe, ranging from aliens to technology. Scott Bakula (who captured the hearts of sci-fi fans as time-leaping scientist Dr. Samuel Beckett on Quantum Leap) stars as Captain Jonathan Archer, who leads the earth vessel Enterprise into space as part of humanity’s first exploratory mission beyond our solar system. The result is that the audience will be presented with characters who are closer in spirit to today’s people than the completely enlightened humans of the 24th century.
“This show is about you and me,” he explains. “These characters are closer to us and as a result, they’re more contemporary, relatable, fun people. The line, ‘Don’t screw this up,” which is used in the promos, is definitely typical of this series and the kind of thing people are going to say that you wouldn’t hear in a million years on the other shows.”
Braga also emphasizes that due to this fact, Enterprise provides the perfect platform for character conflict, something that, to a large degree, was lacking on The Next Generation and, to a large degree, Voyager (Deep Space Nine, of course, thrived on it for years). “There’s a whole throughline between the Vulcans and the humans where they can’t fucking stand each other. We’ve got a character, Tucker, who’s a guy from the South and he’s a brilliant engineer, but he’s never been to an alien world in his life. He doesn’t know how to act, he doesn’t know what to say. In one of the episodes we visit an alien world and an insect crawls into his sleeping bag and he flips out and tries to kill it with his boot. You’d never see Riker do that. But these are more, I think, realistic characters. At least that’s what I’m hoping.”
The casting of Bakula alone should ensure that. Let’s not forget that this is the guy who, as Dr. Beckett, became a retarded boy, a woman and a monkey (!) among many others on Quantum Leap, and made it all completely believable.
“Scott’s a really good actor and he’s great as Archer,” says Braga. “Archer is the kind of captain who is much more down to earth. He’s incredibly commanding and all things captain, but he’s also a Chuck Yeager kind of guy in that you can imagine having a beer with him. What’s great about having Scott Bakula in the role is that you already feel like you kind of know and like him. So when you see him as Archer, you already feel comfortable with the captain. That’s really good for the show.
“To get an idea of who Archer is,” he elaborates, “imagine something between Chuck Yeager and Kirk. He’s new, there are no protocals, he’s got a temper, he doesn’t really like Vulcans that much. He’s anything but the full enlightened man that Picard was, but he'’ certainly space worthy and savvy enough that he was chosen for this mission. Honestly, the things he's encountering are brand new for him. As we like to say, he is making history with every light year. He's going to be making up the rules as he goes along."
One thing that can’t help but be noticed is a renewed vigor in Braga’s voice, driving home the point that he’s pretty excited about the opportunity offered by this new take on Trek. It’s probably safe to assume that he had become as weary of the franchise as anyone else.
“Are you kidding?” he muses. “You’d better believe it. I needed something new, something fresh. As a writer, I don’t think I could have written one more line of dialogue for Voyager. I really had just about had it with the 24th century. One thing I’m finding here after having written the pilot plus four episodes is that I do feel that I’m writing a different television show. I’ve got the best that Star Trek has to offer in that I still get to come up with cool aliens and stuff, but I just feel like I’m writing contemporary characters, which is really liberating.”
And given the climate of current television, it probably makes perfect sense, particularly when one considers the success of such dramas as The West Wing and The Sopranos.
“Actually,” Braga notes, “Rick Berman and I were heavily influenced by those shows. We watch television, too. Week after week we would watch shows like The Sopranos and we’d say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could just write people without having to worry about that somewhat stylized, neutral way of talking?’ We were really pining to write characters like that. This concept allowed us to really start writing more naturalistic characters. This will not be a series that picks up storylines week to week, but when you’re dealing with people who are making all of the first discoveries, you can’t help but pay more attention to what they’ve discovered along the way in terms of what they know and what they don’t know.”
Generally speaking, whenever the producers of Star Trek have attempted to develop a new take on the franchise, there are a number of permutations that said series goes through before it reaches the air. Indeed, the Internet was alive with rumors, among them the oft-discussed Starfleet Academy concept. With Enterprise, though, this was the only premise that was developed.
“About two and a half years ago, Rick called me and said, ‘What do you think about setting it between First Contact and Kirk’s time?’” Braga recalls. “And I said I thought that was a great idea. We started talking about it and considered what it would give us, and it evolved from there. We never considered another concept. We thought that First Contact seemed to be more of a relatable film some how, because it had, again, those characters from the near future versus the distant future, and it allowed a more non-Star Trek audience to embrace Star Trek. You didn’t really have to know much to enjoy that movie. The same is true of this show.”
One of the enduring strengths of the original series was its ability to deal with sociological issues – albeit a little too directly. Enterprise, it would seem, has that same potential since its setting is so close to our time period.
“That’s something we try to keep in mind week after week, certainly with characters like Seven of Nine and The Doctor on Voyager,” says Braga. “We were always trying to keep that very Roddenberry-esque theme alive, and that’s no different here. At the same time, we have tried to avoid being real on-the-nose about, ‘And this is our AIDS show.’ I think Rick and my taste is to be a little more subtle and not be condescending.”
Probably the biggest “issue” the producers are having to deal with is the Internet community and those who are always on the look out for continuity errors – things that don’t exactly jive with events or facts revealed on the original series.
“Continuity is not a pain in the ass at all,” he notes. “It’s only a pain in the ass when it prevents us from telling a story we want to tell. When we did the Voyager two-parter when they went back to earth in 1997, Roddenberry had established that there were horrible Eugenics Wars in that time period. If we had paid attention to continuity and depicted the Eugenics Wars, the audience would have said, ‘What the hell are you doing? Are we in an alternate universe?’ The truth is, the people who know that reference from that particular episode of the original series is quite small in the grand scheme of things. There’s a great phrase on the Internet called ‘Continuity Porn,’ which means that there are continuity fetishists out there. People to whom if you just mention a name from the original series, it’s cause for celebration. It’s always a fun thing to do, and God knows we’re sprinkling plenty of that into this series, but we don’t let it interfere with good storytelling. The bottom line is that you have to take license. The first Star Trek movie had a starship Enterprise in it that looked different from the one in the TV show. It had to, because 10 years had passed. It had to look like a cutting-edge, Star Wars-type special effect. This is really no different. Even though our ship predates that ship, we can’t have a ship that looks like that because it won’t look good. So you have to walk the line.
“In developing this Enterprise,” Braga elaborates, “we kept in mind a tour of a nuclear submarine we had done a while back. We really took our cues from that. This ship is somewhere between a nuclear sub and a starship. We don’t have shields. We have something called hull plating. Photon torpedoes don’t exist. There’s some sort of torpedo that is very much like a high-tech missile. And the list goes on. You know, we do have certain things. We do have a transporter that’s just designed for cargo. It’s been approved for people, Starfleet has approved it, but nobody wants to use it. They’re all nervous about it. Some parts of the Enterprise look like the space shuttle, some parts look like Kirk’s ship and some parts look like nothing you’ve seen. But it’s definitely more rudimentary and more cramped, and I think much cooler than any of the ships we’ve designed so far. It’s not Picard’s bridge, which looked like the waiting lounge at an airport. It definitely has a more realistic look to it, yet it’s no less cool. ”
Although Enterprise will deal with familiar aliens – the premiere, “Broken Arrow,” features humanity’s first contact with the Klingons – the series introduces its own unique antagonist, the Suliban, who offer a fairly unique threat to this universe.
“The Suliban are interesting creatures in that they’re very much like humans, but they’ve taken evolution into their own hands,” Braga details. “They’ve acquired super advanced bio-engineering techniques, where they can basically rearrange their DNA to do anything. I find that rather interesting. More importantly, though, they’re getting this technology from the distant future. They’ve made a deal with the Devil from some faction from the distant future, and they’re essentially soldiers fighting some sort of temporal cold war. Somewhere in the distant future there are different factions on different temporal cold war fronts and different centuries. One of those fronts, obviously, is the 22nd century. We won’t for a very long time know who or why this is going on. We see this as an ongoing mysterious element for the show that we will revisit from time to time. What it gives us in a TV show that is a prequel and is also, to some small degree, a sequel, is that you’re also going to see elements of Star Trek that haven’t happened yet versus Star Trek that happened long ago. I can’t explain it further because I haven’t quite developed it yet. All I can tell you is that something is going on in the very distant future of the Star Trek universe that is affecting what’s going on in the prequel universe. Again, it’s not something that will happen every week., but we’ll revisit it every ten episodes or so.”
The audience can only hope that this will be different from what Chris Carter did with The X-Files, where that show’s conspiracy never seemed to answer any questions without raising even more. In the end, the audience didn’t get much in the way of non-convoluted information. “We just don’t want to plop it out all at once,” he says, “but we will certainly hope to tantalize the audience. It will hopefully be the best of what The X-Files had to offer in that it will be something that provokes discussion and intrigue. But we’re not in the business of hiding things for sake of hiding things.”
One thing that’s obvious is that Braga, as well as everyone involved, views Enterprise as a fresh, all-new chapter in the franchise’s 35-year history that will allow for innovations rather than repetition of what’s come before.
“We know painfully well the mistakes that we’ve made in the past,” he admits, “and we know what has worked and what has not worked. The problems we had were usually lackluster character dynamics, cheesy stories, cheesy-looking aliens, some kind of a tired feeling at times of certain elements. On the flip side, we’ll have brand new problems, but at least they will be brand new problems versus old problems.”
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