Brannon Braga has been a part of the creative team behind Star Trek for fifteen years and is responsible for writing several highly acclaimed episodes, such as the award- winning Next Generation finale, All Good Things. More recently he co-created and produced Enterprise, a prequel series which ran four seasons before its cancellation. In late June he was here in Iceland to speak at a conference on atheism and The Grapevine decided to pester him with some questions on religion and Star Trek.
/// You’re here for a conference on theism/atheism, and from all appearances the line-up of speakers is impressive. How did three small atheist organisations in Iceland bring the likes of you and Richard Dawkins aboard?
– Well, Richard Dawkins is certainly a giant in the world of scientific thinking. I’m just a science fiction writer and I’ve never considered myself a celebrity. For me personally, the primary reason I came here is to see Iceland. I’ve always wanted to come to this part of the world, and when the opportunity came along I had to take it.
/// What is it about Iceland that attracts you?
– It’s a combination of things. In countries like Iceland and Sweden you have both astounding natural beauty and socially progressive societies. The progressiveness of countries like Iceland and Sweden is very interesting to me.
/// Do you have high hopes for the convention itself?
– This is the first time I’ve been invited to a convention on atheism, I mostly get asked to attend science fiction related events. I am an atheist myself, but I’ve never been the type to preach about it to others, each to his own belief is my philosophy. At the same time, there is just something really special about an organised atheist event all the way over in Iceland and I’m glad to be a part of it.
/// Do you think you will have much to discuss?
– Atheism is a strangely paradoxical thing because it’s essentially a non-belief. So it’s kind of funny to even have atheists come together. We all agree on what we’re talking about, that we don’t believe in God or religion. But I think it is an opportunity to promote critical thinking, if nothing else.
/// So for you it’s more of a skepticism thing than a non-belief thing?
– Yeah, I mean, I’m not out to bash religion. I have no problem with religion unless it’s too intertwined with government and politics. In America, for instance, some people want to teach creationism in public schools and I’m totally against that. But for the most part religion is a fascinating human phenomenon and I’ve got nothing against it per se. I just don’t think it’s really… good thinking. But religious people aren’t alone in believing strange things, look at astrology, UFOs and things that are just… you know, just dumb.
/// You’re starting to sound like James ‘The Amazing’ Randi and Michael Shermer (both prominent figures in the unofficial North American ‘skepticism’ movement).
– I once attended a conference that Randi organised, and he’s quite literally amazing. I myself am a bit of a novice at this kind of thing, but he’s been active for decades.
/// What is the topic you will be covering for the convention?
– It’s actually a very interesting topic: ‘Star Trek as an Atheist Mythology’ – which immediately raises questions. Does atheism need a mythology? Can it even have one, by definition? My conclusion is that it does need one, can have one and already does. Star Trek is the future as imagined by Gene Roddenberry, where earth is a paradise and there is no more war, poverty or hunger. Mankind has solved all of its problems with reason, science and compassion…
/// A lot of parallels with John Lennon’s Imagine lyrics, then. “No religion, too.”
– Exactly. Religion is gone. Even though it hasn’t been fully explored in the show, a key part of that future for humanity is the secular nature of their society. They have dropped religion partly because there was no place for it any more. It is a future that any atheist would dream of.
/// You were co-creator of the most recent Star Trek series, Enterprise. That show had an episode dealing with religious fanaticism and suicide bombers, and it attracted a lot of attention. It’s not the first time you have drawn comparisons between aliens and human societies though, is it?
– When we do any kind of story on Star Trek we tend to look for a metaphor. We haven’t set out to bash any specific religions, just exploring alien belief systems and the aspects they have in common with contemporary belief in the real world. We don’t want to get too preachy or personal, we just explore areas in general; like we do with social issues such as discrimination or prejudice.
/// Do you think much of the Star Trek fan base is made up of atheists?
– I don’t know of any hard statistics, but I have to believe that science fiction fans tend to be critical thinkers. The word ‘science’ is in the phrase, so you’re surely going to get a large percentage of people who lean towards critical thinking but not necessarily atheism per se. They’re a pretty smart group, as a whole.
/// The series you co-created, Enterprise, got a fairly poor reception from the established Star Trek fan base. What do you think happened there?
– I don’t know, and it’s a question I have been asked a lot. I’ve been working on Star Trek for fifteen years and until recently the number one question I got was: ‘Why is Star Trek so consistently popular?’ But now things have changed, and Star Trek is off the air for the first time since The Next Generation began running. As someone who was intimately involved with its production, I’m not going to sit here and tell you Enterprise was a bad show. There was room for improvement in some areas, but I’ve thought that about all the Star Trek shows I’ve worked on. I think the premise just got tired and people needed a break. We’ve studied the viewer ratings very thoroughly, and the conclusion we came to is that Star Trek went into a downward spiral all the way back when Deep Space Nine started and each subsequent show has been less popular than the last. People had just had enough, and Paramount probably made too many Trek shows too soon.
/// Do you think changing established canon and altering the Star Trek timeline angered the hardcore fans? There was a backlash on the Internet.
– Look, we did violate continuity a handful of times – always for good reason. There was a definite backlash on the Internet, but as always with that medium it can be hard to tell if it’s twelve or twelve thousand people complaining. That being said, the show took a dramatic turn for the better in the third season and we got more positive reactions to the third and fourth seasons. We found our voice, we found the show. There were some good episodes in the first two seasons, but those seasons certainly could have been more exciting.
/// What is the future for Star Trek?
– The TV shows are getting a break, and I am extremely happy with that. On the movie front, J.J. Abrams (creator of television shows Alias and Lost) is working on a new movie. And it’s going to be a sequel again, this time focusing on a young Kirk and Spock. I’m sure you’ve heard all this before…
/// It’s a rumour that’s been going around, but is it confirmed?
– Oh, it’s true, it’s absolutely 100 percent true. I can’t imagine it will be out before 2008 though, so further details regarding the plotline and even casting will have to wait.
/// Well, eh, we confirmed it here first. Kind of. Lastly, what is your next project?
– I usually have to commit at least a year of my life to any project I start, so I’m planning this thoroughly before I take the big leap. What I really want to do next is create a sci-fi series that takes place today. No more aliens or time travel, less of the fantastical elements and more storytelling.