Crossing The Threshold: Braga's 100thBy Caillan Davenport
Posted at May 23, 2003 - 8:17 AM GMT
Brannon Braga's Star Trek career reads like a Hollywood fairy tale. After winning an Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Writing Internship on Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1990, he was soon hired as a staff writer. Less than ten years later he was executive producer of Star Trek: Voyager.
As of last month's Enterprise episode, "The Crossing", Braga, now one of the franchise's chief creative forces, has written one hundred episodes of Star Trek. In this article, Trek alumni and fans share their thoughts on the course of Braga's career over the past thirteen years.
Born in Bozeman, Montana, Braga was educated at Kent State University and the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he majored in theatre arts and film-making. While at UCSC, he studied under Professor Eli Hollander, who was later reincarnated as an outlaw in TNG's "A Fistful of Datas". "As a student, besides being a smart guy, funny, and full of invention, Brannon showed astute judgement in the brand-selection of the soy-milk he drank during class breaks," Hollander recalled.
Indications of Braga's taste for the macabre, a feature of many of his Trek episodes, emerged at UCSC. In 1990 he made a short film entitled System Error, which had a big impact on his future employer, Next Generation executive producer Michael Piller. "Brannon came to Trek through the wonderful Television Academy intern program he had done a short film in college in which, as I recall, he starred himself as a man who literally devours himself. I could recognise a remarkable (and perhaps tortured) imagination at work."
TNG was in its fourth season when Braga first entered the world of Star Trek as an intern. During that year, he was one of five writers to craft "Reunion", which centred around the return of Worf's mate, K'Ehleyr, before he penned the teleplay for "Identity Crisis".
"When his short term internship ended, we brought him aboard as a staff writer as we liked to do with talented young writers and train them how to tell stories on film effectively," Piller said. "Brannon was obviously one of the great students and his work and confidence grew with every script. When he started trusting himself and allowing his work to tap into that tortured imagination, he produced some of the most provocative episodes in the franchise's history.
"And of course, as with all fine students, I learned as much from him as he learned from me."
In season five, Braga co-wrote "The Game" and "Power Play" before penning his first solo effort, "Cause and Effect", in which the Enterprise-D is trapped in a time loop and explodes over and over again. It was one of the episodes which made Braga's reputation as a quirky, unpredictable writer.
"I had the chance to meet Brannon a couple of times in his early TNG days," said longtime Trek critic Tim Lynch. "At the time, episodes with his name attached to the 'written by' credit were almost always a treat: snappy dialogue, a willingness to experiment with the characters, and some of the more twisted concepts to ever wander the decks of the Enterprise. Friends of mine (including budding scriptwriters) always commented on how his episodes were the ones they looked forward to the most.
"There was 'Cause and Effect', his first time-travel story (and the first time of many when he got to blow up the ship), 'Frame of Mind', one of the best 'question reality' shows in Trek history, and 'Birthright, Part I', which introduced the concept of Data dreaming, and which inspired me to pitch a story to the franchise. It didn't sell, obviously, but it's rare that any piece of fiction inspires me to write a sequel!
"His opinions and mine have diverged on occasion about what 'Good Trek' happens to be, 'Genesis' and 'Threshold' being some of the more ... significant ... disagreements but those disagreements don't change the power of his early work, nor of the effect he had on shaking up TNG, sometimes when it most needed it."
Throughout TNG's sixth and seventh seasons, each successive Braga script seemed to get more outlandish. Some of the most memorable moments included the Deanna Troi cake from "Phantasms", Beverly Crusher making love to a ghost in "Sub Rosa", and the crew "de-evolving" in "Genesis". By the end of the series, he was the acknowledged master of high-concept Star Trek.
In Braga's last TNG episode, he and co-writer Ronald D. Moore managed to combine a science fiction premise with touching and effective character moments. "All Good Things" was the highest-rated Next Generation episode ever, earning Braga and Moore a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and the series itself an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series.
The final TNG episode struck a chord with former scenic artist and Star Charts author Geoffrey Mandel. "I was fortunate enough to be working as a production assistant on DS9 when they were filming 'All Good Things', and it was a treat to see the Enterprise-D bridge restored to its first season appearance, and Denise Crosby walking the stage in a Starfleet uniform again!
"Like all the best Brannon Braga episodes, 'All Good Things' presents a tricky psychological puzzle for the viewer (and the characters) to figure out, and presents familiar faces in a shocking new light: Picard with a failing memory! Data with human emotions! It also does a brilliant job of summing up the many changes that have taken place over seven seasons, showing how these characters have grown, and offering a tantalising glimpse of their possible future. Although I have been moved by many of Brannon's scripts, nothing has ever affected me so much as the final scene of 'All Good Things', when Picard asks his officers to deal him in for a hand of poker...the sky's the limit!"
Star Trek novelist Dayton Ward described "All Good Things" as "a showcase for everything I like about Star Trek: The Next Generation". "The story succeeds because of the camaraderie and sense of family developed between these characters over seven seasons, and it is these qualities that take centre stage to drive the story forward. It also manages to provoke the viewer with thoughts on friendship and that you should remember to stop and enjoy life rather than simply plunge headlong through it, things many of us take for granted as we go about our hectic, day-to-day existence. Some may view the episode as treading too far into sentimentality or even sappiness, but to me it was a perfect way to end the series on an unqualified high note and one of the best examples of a story in the finest Star Trek tradition."
After the end of The Next Generation's television run though he later co-wrote two TNG feature films Brannon Braga joined the staff of Star Trek: Voyager, which launched in 1995. He would remain with the series throughout its seven-year odyssey through the Delta Quadrant, eventually becoming showrunner and executive producer.
Many of Braga's early contributions to Voyager, such as "Parallax", "Emanations", and "Projections", shared the same mind-bending qualities he had brought to TNG. "To me, Braga will always be the King of the Fake-Out Script," said Julia Houston, columnist at SciFi.About.com. "'Frame of Mind' and 'Projections' show him in his element, starting with a situation that seems to be one thing, then another, then another, until we have a sci-fi solution that makes sense of things. He's great at writing characters while they're completely off-balance while keeping them within their assigned personalities. He can be demonic at times, but that's what makes his fake-out stories so fun."
Then came "Threshold", quite possibly the most vilified Brannon Braga episode ever. It would be wrong to suggest he had never had a misfire before this "Imaginary Friend" and "Aquiel" stand out as sub-par efforts but with "Threshold", Braga reached a new level of infamy. As Voyager reviewer Jim Wright of Delta Blues put it, "Poor Brannon. Whatever else he may accomplish, he's as forever shackled to 'Threshold' as George Lucas to Jar-Jar."
The episode, in which Tom Paris breaks the Warp 10 barrier only to mutate into a amphibian, kidnap Captain Janeway and then mate with her, takes outlandish sci-fi to the extreme. "Hey, I enjoyed 'Threshold'," Wright said. "It was very Old School, very Original Series. It didn't take itself too seriously. Even so, what I remember best about the episode is the development of Tom Paris and Captain Janeway, as individuals and in their human relationship. If Braga has an overriding creative legacy, it's the melding of often surrealistic 'high concept' plot devices with deeply meaningful character growth."
Braga was a key creative force on Voyager throughout its run, penning many of the show's biggest two-part "event" episodes, including "Scorpion", "Year of Hell", "Dark Frontier", "Equinox" and "Unimatrix Zero", with fellow scribe Joe Menosky. But he also contributed to more sedate character pieces such as "The Cloud", "Someone To Watch Over Me", "11:59" and "Life Line".
"Brannon Braga's writing style is perfectly suited to Star Trek," said Five Minute Voyager's Colin 'Zeke' Hayman. "He's a natural science fiction writer, full of weird, imaginative story ideas. More to the point, he knows how to make concept and characterization work together, and he has a great touch with dialogue. I think he's probably the franchise's most underrated writer."
Jim Wright attributed Braga's success as a Trek scribe to the fact that "he hasn't played it safe". "Braga has a knack for provocation, and he doesn't stay his hand. He's barbecued my sacred cows and Riverdanced on my heart more than once (see "Fury"), and I'm not alone. It's put his work and his caricature in more than one fan's crosshairs. But Brannon's willingness to take those creative risks and keep taking them has produced remarkable results over the years."
However, while individual episodes stand out, Voyager as a series has generated criticism on issues such as continuity and characterisation. "I can't say that I have loved and admired everything he's ever done," wrote reviewer and three-time Strange New Worlds winner Mary Wiecek at her web site. "Somebody dropped the ball big time on Star Trek: Voyager, and since it was supposedly his show, I think he has to take the blame.
"But, but, but...when I look down the list of episodes that Braga has written, I have to admit that there is much to admire. He's penned many of my very favourite Trek outings. In Next Generation, he wrote 'Parallels' and 'All Good Things'. In Voyager 'The Cloud', 'Emanations', 'Deadlock', 'Scorpion', 'Year of Hell,' and 'Timeless'. And he wrote my favourite Enterprise episode to date, 'Carbon Creek'."
Enterprise. The latest Star Trek series is very much the brainchild of Braga and longtime franchise head Rick Berman. In addition to the premiere, "Broken Bow", the pair wrote or co-wrote seventeen episodes of the show's first season and thirteen instalments of the second. As one of the two people responsible for shaping the course of Star Trek's future, Brannon Braga has come under fire from fans unhappy at the creative direction of the series.
"Maybe he lacks the necessary far-sighted vision to be co-running the franchise," said Mary Wiecek. "Or maybe the franchise is going to be just fine. I happen to like Enterprise, but the jury's still out, and the ball remains in the air. Only time will tell, and time, as Soran will tell you, can either burn you badly, or bring you bliss. Braga's ultimate legacy to the world of Star Trek is still unknown."
Steve Krutzler, webmaster of TrekWeb, said that despite the criticism, Braga has managed to take Star Trek in new directions over the years. "It's not easy at the top but he's written some of the most memorable episodes and brought an edge to Trek heretofore unseen. He once said in an interview that he liked to take an idea and turn it on its ear to make for a story that challenged expectations for a Trek episode. I think that's what made scripts like 'Cause and Effect', 'Frame of Mind', 'All Good Things' and 'Scorpion' some of the best. I would love to see what a solo Brannon Braga Enterprise script looks like!"
Whether they're a card-carrying Bragaite or one of his most ardent critics, most Trek fans would manipulate the timeline to have his job. "There have been times I wished I were him, sitting in the hot seat at Paramount, or at least seated next to Jeri on the living room couch when Boston Public is on," said Jim Wright. "But more often than not, I'm happiest just to sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labour. Brannon's paid his dues, from intern to executive producer, and as a writer he's earned my respect many times over. He entertains me, consistently, and that's no mean feat."
But with our video collections, still-in-the-original-packaging action figures and web sites offering daily news updates, it's comforting to know that Braga can be just as much a fan as the rest of us. Jeffrey Combs, a familiar Trek guest actor who plays the recurring role of Shran on Enterprise, had this to share: "During the shooting of my first Enterprise episode, 'The Andorian Incident', Brannon came down to the set to welcome me and asked if I would mind signing a poster for him. It was a very large, vintage, French poster of a movie I had starred in titled Re-Animator. I was touched and honoured that Brannon, whose work and accomplishments I admired, would ask such a thing of me. I'll always remember that with deep fondness."
It seems only fitting to end with a tribute from veteran Trek writer Michael Piller, who spotted something special in the up-and-coming writer who ate himself. "When it was time for me to leave Trek, I knew that we had strong, creative people in place like Brannon to maintain the quality that Roddenberry demanded of us all. I think Gene would have been proud of Brannon and of Enterprise."
Thanks to Michelle Erica Green for her assistance with this article.
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Caillan Davenport is one of the TrekToday editors.