By Eric Deggans
Times TV/Media Critic
Sitting in a sparsely furnished office at the same downtown studio complex where Mad Men is filmed, René Echevarria is acutely aware that he's living the geek's dream in Hollywood.
Down the hall, longtime friend and fellow executive producer Brannon Braga is helping him craft one of the most anticipated new shows of the fall network TV season: Fox's time-travel-and-dinosaurs epic, Terra Nova.
It's an ambitious project, attempting feature-film-level special effects — dinosaurs! time travel from a polluted future! futuristic swamp buggies! — on network TV's drastically smaller timetable and budget. It's also grandfathered by the king of the geeks, sci-fi film legend Steven Spielberg.
Echevarria, whose life as a TV writer started back in 1989 when he sent an unsolicited script to Star Trek, has a career studded with similar success: working with Braga and Trek creator Gene Roddenberry on Star Trek: The Next Generation; collaborating with Avatar auteur Jim Cameron on the Fox series Dark Angel; writing with Moonlighting creator Glenn Gordon Caron on CBS's Medium.
Now he's taking notes from the director of E.T. and Jurassic Park on how to make dinosaurs look realistic on the small screen.
For a St. Petersburg native who once thought of following his pathologist father into medicine, it's a long way from staging performances of old Carol Burnett Show scripts at the Cathedral School of St. Jude.
"You know, for a long time I strove to get out of sci-fi and do what I perceived as serious drama," said Echevarria, who remembered submitting recaps of old Trek episodes as book reports when he was a kid at St. Petersburg Catholic High School. "Then, not long ago, I finally came to Jesus about (it); hey, this is what I love and there's an appetite for it out there."
With trademark self-deprecation, the Humanitas- and Peabody Award-nominated writer looks past photos of his wife and kids to think about where he is today.
"In certain very nerdy circles, I guess I'm a rock star."
Big bang for the buck
Echevarria's latest adventure started with a not-so-simple question from Braga:
"How'd you like to go to Australia next week?"
Even though he'd been working on MTV's ambitious revamping of Teen Wolf, Echevarria knew what his old friend meant.
Braga had been teaming with Spielberg on an ambitious new TV show about a family from 2149 that flees a polluted world by jumping 85 million years into the past.
After convincing his wife, who was pregnant, that a trip down under would be a fun adventure, Echevarria was onboard, too. He flew to the show's Queensland set in October 2010 to tweak the script as production started.
The plan was to roll out the show the way Fox's Glee debuted a year earlier, with a splashy May debut, several new episodes and then another big debut in fall 2011. But the plan changed, and the two-hour debut was moved back to this week, on Monday.
Sci-fi geeks and industry observers expected the worst, that the show's effects, especially the dinosaurs, were too costly or not good enough. Or both.
Echevarria disagreed. As with most new series, producers needed to tweak the pilot a bit with extra material filmed after the show was picked up by the network, he said. But since they filmed in Australia, that wasn't possible before the May air date.
"We put ourselves in a situation where we had to hit a grand slam (in Australia), and we maybe hit a triple," he added. "We had to go to bat one more time to bring it home."
Not that the visual effects aren't a challenge. Each Terra Nova episode takes six weeks longer than a typical TV drama to complete, as effects wizards use computer graphics, motion-capture technology and even puppets to create realistic-looking prehistoric animals for an audience weaned on the big-budget spectacles of Avatar and Jurassic Park.
"Even five years ago, this show would not have been possible," said Echevarria, pointing out the design for a dinosaur puppet that will fit over an actor's head, displayed on the Apple computer in his office. He laughs at rumors that their budget tops $100 million — "That would be great!" — as other reports cite $4 million per episode for a 13-episode season.
Despite the struggle with effects, producers say their biggest challenge was casting the family that hops back in time. They ended up choosing British star Shelley Conn and Irish actor Jason O'Mara, last seen in ABC's ill-fated drama about a time-traveling police officer, Life on Mars.
This time, O'Mara plays Jim Shannon, a cop thrown in jail when other officers discover his third child, in violation of the population laws of 2149. In this world, the air is so polluted people wear oxygen masks outside, a fresh orange is a prized find, and signs everywhere warn that "A family is four" — two parents and two children.
Two years later, Shannon escapes from prison with help from wife Elisabeth (Conn), and joins a group of people sent through a mysterious, naturally occurring rift in time to reach a pollution-free, prehistoric past (through a cheeky twist, the show stipulates that the time travel creates an alternate reality, so there are no worries about affecting the future they left behind).
Avatar alum Stephen Lang plays the tough commander of the new colony, looking far younger than his age of 59. Despite all the effects, Echevarria said, their focus remains on making the human characters compelling for viewers.
"Casting is so important on TV, because you're inviting these people into your home," he added. "When you talk about a movie, you say Julia Roberts did this or Mel Gibson did that. But when people talk about TV shows, they say the characters' names. Because that's who they're inviting into their homes."
O'Mara returns the favor when speaking about Echevarria, calling him "the glue that keeps the show together."
"He's highly diplomatic," added the actor, speaking during a recent party for Fox's new fall shows in Los Angeles.
"Part of his job is to please everybody at the same time," O'Mara said, his voice slipping from his natural Irish brogue to the American accent he uses on the show and back again. "You would think that was impossible — and it probably is — but he's really, really good at it."
That diplomacy was tested during a Los Angeles press conference for Terra Nova in July, when TV critics pressed Braga and Echevarria over the delayed debut and differences between the original pilot and a revamped version shown at the popular sci-fi convention Comic Con that month.
"I understand the skepticism," Echevarria said after the session ended. "But I have no doubt we'll pull this off. No doubt at all."
A doctor of words
He wasn't supposed to be doing this.
Back when Echevarria was growing up in St. Petersburg, it was expected he'd become a doctor and build a practice with his father, also named René.
A 1980 graduate of St. Petersburg Catholic High School — where the St. Petersburg Times' art critic, Lennie Bennett, was among the English teachers who praised his Trek-focused book reports — he got sidetracked after walking into an audition for the musical Cats at Duke University.
Armed with a history degree, he headed for the theater scene in New York City, where he was waiting tables when a script submitted on a whim to Star Trek got him a job writing for the syndicated Next Generation series, and its spinoff Deep Space Nine.
"I was always attracted to the human side of the story and less to the spaceships or aliens or whatever," said Echevarria, 49, whose jet black hair and surname hint at his Cuban roots. "Brannon had the really mind-trippy ideas, and I'd be like, 'What if (the android character) Data had a baby?' I used to get lots of letters saying, 'Star Trek needs more female writers like you.' "
After leaving Star Trek, he worked on Dark Angel, CBS's Now and Again and Medium; he co-created the USA series The 4400, worked on ABC's hit myit mystery series Castle, then helped develop Teen Wolf for MTV. He even developed a script for a TV version of Cameron's Arnold Schwarzenegger movie True Lies, but ABC decided to remake Charlie's Angels instead.
Now, as the Los Angeles-based showrunner for a series filming in Australia — "It's earlier there, so you feel like you're in a time machine already," he joked — Echevarria seems to be using every bit of his experience and showbiz past in his new role.
And it doesn't hurt that Terra Nova echoes the themes of Trek in a way that makes him feel as if he has come full circle.
"There's no escaping the Star Trek of it all; it's probably the biggest influence on this show," he said. "It has that aspirational hopefulness about humanity sort of rising from the ashes. I think it's a show (Roddenberry) would have dug and developed himself. It feels very much like a coming home."
Eric Deggans can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8521. Blog: tampabay.com/blogs/media. Twitter: @Deggans.