Yes, Terra Nova is a show filled with futuristic time portals, dystopian conspiracies and people-eating dinosaurs, but says executive producer Brannon Braga, the toughest part of scripting Fox’s new sci-fi epic was nailing down the family drama at its center.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
The new Fox sci-fi series Terra Nova is epic in scope, boasting futuristic time portals, dinosaurs, and earth’s imminent demise. It’s also had an epic number of writers contribute along a somewhat fraught path to its two-hour premiere.
Nova was originally conceived by British writer Kelly Marcel, who, as show lore now goes (yes, they already have show lore!), successfully pitched the idea to producer Aaron Kaplan in a London pub over a couple of pints. According to EP Brannon Braga (Star Trek: The Next Generation, 24), from that fortuitous start, the fingerprints of many scribes would follow.
“There were a lot of writers that had a hand in this,” he says, adding that fellow EP Rene Echevarria was instrumental in writing the series opener. “It was a long, tormented and tormenting, but ultimately rewarding, process because the script turned out wonderfully.” It is a story steeped in loads of sci-fi yumminess: a future earth population on the brink of extinction and a “fracture in time” that gives them a second chance 85 million years earlier among the dinosaurs. But more than anything, Braga says this is the story of one ordinary family, the Shannons.
Braga spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about the unusual genesis of the series, the challenge of a two-hour premiere and how, without wanting to compare the two, he sees a connection between Terra Nova and Gone With the Wind.
Obviously, this is a great example of a development process that involved a lot of writers, but do you think it’s one that the series is ultimately better for?
I wouldn’t recommend this process to anyone. In fact, it is not typical. This was just a script that was a very challenging concept to get right [and] turning a one-hour into a two-hour had to be done just right. You never want to do something unless you can do it right. A two-hour pilot on television has to move in all the right ways. It’s a lot to ask of an audience to sit for two hours when they’re used to the hour.
Photo: ©2011 Fox Broadcasting Co.
Stephen Lang and Jason O'Mara in Terra Nova.
It had a lot of production challenges. It’s a very ambitious television show. There was a lot of scrutiny applied to the script, and it was very hard.
With its futuristic/prehistoric sci-fi storyline and the ordinary family at its center, Terra Nova is kind of a genre mashup. What do you consider it to be?
A family adventure. That’s what took the longest to nail down in the writing of the pilot, the family component; turning them into three-dimensional, relatable people despite the madness going on around them.
We’ve coined this “an intimate epic.” There’s tons of stuff going on here spanning millions of years, but at the center of it all is a family. That’s really what it’s about. I hesitate to use this analogy because I’m not comparing them, but Gone With the Wind was not about the Civil War. It was an epic, but it was about how it affected one house…
Ironically, called Tara.
You know, strangely enough, you’re pointing that out, and I never even considered that. Totally unintentional. But the magic solution here is that everything is told from the perspective of this one family. That’s what makes it work.
One of the sub-themes seems to be global environmentalism à la Avatar. You even have actor Steven Lang [who also stars in Avatar]. How big a theme do you think that will be throughout the series?
The idea of an environmental message is not a part of this show at all. It is an element that is present, but it would be a challenge to make a show where that was a major theme. It sounds pretty dull, quite frankly. Al Gore managed to make a pretty entertaining documentary about it, but that’s not what our show is about. Our show’s about people and what they’re capable of. It’s not just the environment they screwed up. As episodes progress, you’ll see that a lot of bad things happened including some terrible wars and acts of brutality that caused the complete collapse of human civilization.
So what the show’s about is second chances and starting over and the question [are] people are even capable of that?
So far the show seems to using a straightforward narrative style, unlike the sort of Lost approach. Will it continue to be straightforward or will there be some jumping back and forth.
This is not an experiment in narrative deconstruction, no. We pretty much chose to tell good old-fashioned stories. Having said that, there are some narrative flashbacks that we deploy later on in the season that are pretty cool. It’s for the sake of the storytelling and never in a gimmicky way.
How many writers are working on the series?
Eight, including me and Rene.
With that aforementioned family vibe, how conscious are you of how edgy you can get here? How edgy to do you want to get?
It’s funny, we’re not thinking [about it]. We’re aware but, look, this is a show where dinosaurs eat people, and people get strange parasites they have to have removed. All sorts of weird, gross, scary stuff happens on the show. It’s part of the appeal of show. It’s all in how it’s depicted.
Are there gross out and scare factors? Yeah, but it’s done in a tasteful way. I do believe there will be a viewer discretion warning at the top of the show. I think they’re referring to the fact that there’s going to be some scary dinosaur stuff.