Brannon Braga talks new TV treks with series ‘Salem,’ ‘Cosmos’ reboot

Feb. 27, 2014 | 2:46 p.m.
Janet Montgomery as “Mary Sibley” WGN America's "Salem,” premiering SUNDAY, April 20, 2014 (10:00 p.m. ET/ 9:00 p.m. CT) on WGN America. (WGN America)

Janet Montgomery stars as Mary Sibley on “Salem,” which premieres April 20. (WGN America)

This article has been corrected. See below.

For some fans, Brannon Braga forever will be associated with Gene Roddenberry’s vast, influential universe — his work on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Star Trek: Voyager” and “Enterprise,” not to mention his screenplays for “Star Trek: Generations” and “Star Trek: First Contact,” kept federation space at the forefront of many imaginations for years. But these days, it’s not the far-flung future or even the politics of present day, but the distant past that’s captivated the film and television veteran. Braga is executive producing both the supernatural-inflected series “Salem” and the reboot of Carl Sagan’s legendary show “Cosmos,” featuring astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Braga describes the 17th-century-set “Salem,” the WGN series that’s set to premiere April 20, as a “unique blend of ‘The Exorcist’ with a little David Lynch thrown in.” The show centers on the Salem witch trials, the event’s perceived supernatural trappings and many of the real-life characters who spurred on the controversy. For a behind-the-scenes look at the series, check out a new featurette below.

Of “Cosmos,” he says, it’s a “science show that is an experience.”

Hero Complex recently caught up with Braga to chat about both projects. (As for “Trek”? “I’m not currently involved in the ‘Star Trek’ franchise,” he said. “Why, have you heard something?”)

Hero Complex: “Salem’s” first trailer painted the series as a fairly intense supernatural thriller. How did the project originate?

Brannon Braga: The initial concept came from a writer named Adam Simon. He just had this take on the Salem witch trials that was very unique — that is that witches are real and that they were in fact behind a conspiracy to drive the trials forward, which is a deep and sinister conspiracy that is what the show is all about.  Fox 21, the cable arm of 20th, came to me to team up with Adam ’cause they needed a show runner to help him develop the show.  I was really taken with the concepts.  You mentioned “Star Trek.” … I’ve been doing science fiction for so long, and though I had dipped my toe in the thriller with “24,” I really wanted to do horror. It’s always been a fantasy of mine to do something horror-related, and this was it. It was a brand of horror that was right up my alley. It’s pretty twisted stuff.

HC: How will “Salem’s” witches differ from other depictions?

BB: One thing that Adam Simon brings to the table is a deep knowledge of the history and of what the historical record tells us about these witches and the kinds of things that they did.  Of course, this is all recorded by the people of the day who really believed this stuff. The kind of witchcraft that they practiced is weirder than anything that’s been thought of today, much more connected to nature and biology. You read this stuff and it’s like, wow, this almost seems like it could work. It’s surprising to me that nobody’s really picked up on the great stuff that’s been written about these people.

Brannon Braga attends WGN America's Television Critics Assn. presentation of the upcoming drama "Salem" on Jan. 12 in Pasadena. (Jerod Harris/Getty Images)

Brannon Braga attends WGN America’s Television Critics Assn. presentation of the upcoming drama “Salem” on Jan. 12 in Pasadena. (Jerod Harris / Getty Images)

They have a world view and, as someone once said, the villain thinks they’re the hero. They have a point of view about humanity. They have a point of view about nature and man’s connection, or disconnection, to it, and they have an idea of what proto-America should be. They think that they should own the world. They want a country of their own. In their minds, they’ve been through genocide, driven from Europe and burned, most of them dead with a few left to migrate to America just like other people — on boats, hiding in cargo holds, sometimes having to suffocate on the journey because of a fear of being caught — and they are going to take this country. We’re putting our fiction firmly in historical context. Most of the characters on this show are based on actual people who lived, but we’re putting our own spin on them. It’s kind of like, here’s the story you didn’t know.

HC: What characters drive the story?

BB: Hopefully every character drives their own story, but probably the center of the storm is this character named Mary Sibley. Mary Sibley is a woman who was in love with a forward-thinking man who hated Puritans and hated religious repression and saw America as a place that should encourage free thinking and independence. Unfortunately, they are ripped apart by the Puritanical powers that be and he is sent off to war. He comes back seven years later when the show begins, and his name is John Alden — who was, again, a real soldier and one of the first American heroes — and he comes back for Mary only to find that she has married the head Puritan in town and that she’s a Puritan. I won’t get into too much, but let’s just say that that’s the tip of the iceberg with this woman. Mary Sibley is both our hero and our villain. She’s part Scarlett O’Hara and part Lady Macbeth….

I think the thing to know is that “Salem” is a unique animal.  If you like being scared and you like horror, it’s a great show. But it’s also a really heartfelt show, not a tongue-in-cheek show. We want the characters to seem real, and at the heart of the show is really an epic romance. To quote myself, it’s like “Wuthering Heights” meets “The Exorcist.”

HC: In terms of other series, do you have any favorites? What’s your take on “American Horror Story: Coven?”

BB: Well, I’ve avoided “American Horror Story” this season because I didn’t want to contaminate my thoughts with other witches, but I heard it was awesome. When I’m done with the first season of “Salem,” I’ll check out that show. I’m really into “True Detective” right now.  I consider that show a horror show. In fact, fans of horror should watch that show. They’re referencing a book called “The King in Yellow.” It was the book that influenced H.P. Lovecraft the most, and it’s a book of horror short stories. I also like “Game of Thrones,” “Restaurant Impossible.” … I’m watching the shows that most people are watching. I don’t have much time.

HC: You’re also producing “Cosmos,” a show in a totally different sphere based on the Carl Sagan series. 

BB: As you said, it’s totally different than “Salem.” “Salem” is about our darkest impulses and what happens when they consume us alive. “Cosmos” is about our brightest and best impulses and what happens when we follow them and the great things that we can accomplish. “Cosmos” is about our place in time and space and how we came to know it.  That’s what the original was about, too. It’s 13 new installments, not a remake. This is a new incarnation. At the core, it’s about how we are connected to nature and how we can do amazing things. There’s a great quote from the show: “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” It’s an immersive, cinematic show, and you are moved by it. You are moved by the staggering immensity of the cosmos and our humble place in it.

Astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson will host the new documentary series, "Cosmos." (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Neil degrasse Tyson will host the new documentary series “Cosmos.” (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

HC: Did you learn anything while working on “Cosmos” that surprised you or gave you pause?

BB: There are many new things in this “Cosmos,” but one thing that is in this one that was in the original was the cosmic calendar. We take all of cosmic time and condense it into one calendar year to give the viewer a sense of how small we are. Humanity is barely in it. The final minute of Dec. 31st is the Big Bang. We’re barely here, and the science to understand these things has only been here a few seconds. And the way we do it with visual effects is to make this giant calendar that Neil is standing on that is five football fields long. He’s walking on the calendar and all of these events are going on around him. It makes learning exciting.

FOR THE RECORD: In an earlier version, it was stated that Brannon Braga said the cosmic calendar wasn’t in the original “Cosmos” show.  He was misquoted and, in fact, said that it was in the original.

– Jevon Phillips | @LATHeroComplex

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