Brannon Braga began career as an intern with Star Trek: The Next Generation at the beginning of the fourth season. He went on to have twenty-four TNG writing credits and he was also a co-producer on the show for the final season. Then he went on to co-write the first two TNG feature films, as well as take over as showrunner on Voyager, and lastly, he co-created Enterprise. After his long run with Star Trek, Braga kept busy as writer and executive producer on 24, Salem, Cosmos and currently The Orville. As part of our TNG 30th anniversary coverage TrekMovie spoke to Braga about his time on Trek, including how the show improved with Michael Piller, working within the “Roddenberry Rules” and what it was like co-writing the series finale.
TNG’s “neck-snapping” change in quality under Michael Piller
Star Trek: The Next Generation got off to what most consider a rocky start. You got involved in TNG when – and I believe I am paraphrasing something you once said – “when the show got good.” What were the quintessential things that nailed it as “good” by the time you got on board?
Well I am not going to make the distinction that it got good when I came on board. It had been good for a while. I was lucky enough to come at that time and a lot of that had to do with the writing. What else was there? The cast didn’t change and the sets didn’t change. It was the writing. I think [executive producer] Michael Piller had a lot to do with it. In its third season the storytelling was much sharper. They managed to find ways to create conflict that was believable but not violating [Gene] Roddenberry’s ethos. The story ideas were more grounded. Everything just felt more real. That is all the writing and you have to give Piller a huge amount of credit.
Piller was your first big mentor, is that fair to say?
Without question. It was a really creatively fertile time for all the writers there. Piller kind of assembled an interesting group. He had some experienced and brilliant writers like Jeri Taylor, and then you had us boys. We were in our twenties. We had never worked in television before. It was an amazing core group of guys who learned a great deal working with Piller and Jeri Taylor and Rick Berman. They were all mentors to me. I always tell people breaking into the business, “You will not do it alone. You cannot forge a career alone, you need to have people who take an interest and help you.”
What did you learn, more than anything from Michael Piller? What do you still remember and use today?
It seemed like magic at the time. It seemed like I was watching a magic trick that I didn’t know how to do. I would sit in those story breaks wondering “How in the hell is his brain working so fast?” That he could say “yes” or “no” to an idea. That he could see what act five needs to be. It was just crazy to me. What I remember is how clean his dialog was and how clear, and clarity is half the battle in writing for me. And just the sense of his integrity. Nothing was just tossed off. Whether an episode turned out great or not – we worked very hard on every one and he was our leader and he had a standard of that the shows be good and about something and have depth.
Do you think that if he didn’t come in as showrunner, that TNG wouldn’t have made it?
I have no idea as I don’t know what the ratings were in those first seasons. I can’t possibly speak to that. I don’t know.
But it might not have become as good of a show, perhaps?
I don’t know. I watched the pilot like millions of people and I was really intrigued and I really enjoyed it and then the second episode was kind of indicative of some of issues the show was having. That isn’t to say there weren’t some classic episodes in those first two seasons, but you do have to look at that third season and it is a neck-snapping change in quality, in my opinion. And that can only be attributed to the writing. Had the same regime continued? I don’t know. There were undoubtedly some questionable episodes, but there were some f—king great ones like “Q Who?” with the Borg. There were certain things that lasted that were amazing. So, I don’t know if I could say it wouldn’t have succeeded.
Fitting in to Roddenberry’s future
You have talked about how you and Ron were different, yet you ended up working often together on TNG show and the feature films. He has been outspoken on how he didn’t agree with the so-called “Roddenberry Rules” and recently said that he and the writers hated the replicators because they removed drama. Do you agree with him on those issues?
I can only give you half an answer because half of that involves Ron. But, to my recollection we never really talked about those things all that much. We were just telling stories. I did observe Ron chaffing, but we never had any creative clashes. I think when he came onto Voyager for that brief stint, he had some pretty bold idea on how to make that show kind of like “Year of Hell” the entire time, which was a great idea, but the studio would never go for it.
I do disagree with him, because I think the ethos of Star Trek in a future where humanity gets along and no matter your ethnicity, your so-called disability, everybody has a place…everybody. It is one of the most enduring qualities of the show. It is a future you want to be part of.
I always loved Barclay. You kept bringing him back. Did you like to have someone who really didn’t seem to fit into Roddenberry’s perfect 24th century?
I related to Barclay. Who doesn’t relate to Barclay? I am a nervous flyer and if there was a transporter I would be “No thanks, I’ll walk.” So, I brought him back to do an homage to The Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 feet” with the transporter [“Realm of Fear”], because there wasn’t anyone else you could use. Everyone else was kind of down with it. He was great from that first episode, which was incredibly effective to show that there are still some neurotic people in a Roddenberry universe. And I just love that moment when Picard called him “Broccoli.” He was fun.
Writing the final words for TNG
You have written a number of series finales, but for TNG’s you won a Hugo award…
Still my proudest moment, no offense to the Saturn Awards.
Finales can be very difficult, you look at The Sopranos, or Lost or Enterprise. What was it about writing “All Good Things” that clicked?
First of all, there was so much love for that show in the fan base that it was given a tremendous about of love right up front and bitter sweetness. So I do think the show and the fans’ appreciation and love played a role in it being successful and even being deemed good. At the same time, it wasn’t really the end. Subconsciously Ron and I knew we were doing a movie next so it freed us up a little bit to not be so “We are never seeing these people again.” That took some pressure off. There wasn’t a sadness writing that script. It was pure joy. Whereas Generations was more difficult.
It brings back Q which was a big part of the show and brings it back to the pilot. Then you had this narrative device of going back to the first season of the characters and the current season and the future and what a valentine to all the characters and what a great device. And it isn’t random, as Picard is the fulcrum and is unstuck in time. It had some nice moments like “The sky’s the limit” line at the end. We went round and round about what the last would be. I think even Rick [Berman] got involved. We paid attention to every detail.
More to come
This is just the first part of our special TNG 30th anniversary interview with Brannon. Look for part 2 coming soon.