Naren Shankar Looks to the Future with ‘Almost Human’

“Almost Human” executive producers Naren Shankar (r) and J.H. Wyman (l) joined cast member Minka Kelley to sign limited edition “Almost Human” posters at Comic-Con July 19 in San Diego, Calif. The show debuts Nov. 4 on FOX. (Alan Hess/FOX photo)

FOX is the latest television network to utilize the formidable talents of Naren Shankar, an Indian American writer and producer best known to fans for his work on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “Star Trek: Voyager” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” as well as “Farscape,” the recently cancelled ABC series “Zero Hour” and “The Outer Limits.” 

He also spent eight years as an executive producer and consulting producer on an impressive 182 episodes of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” where he was nominated for two Emmy Awards. In 2011, the prolific Shankar also signed on as an executive producer on Universal Television’s Emmy-nominated fantasy series “Grimm.” 

Now, Shankar is executive-producing an intriguing new Fall series for FOX titled “Almost Human,” set to debut Nov. 4. “Almost Human” is also executive-produced by Emmy Award winner J.J. Abrams (“Lost,” “Star Trek: Into Darkness”), J.H. Wyman and Bryan Burk. 

Together with Wyman, Shankar serves as co-showrunner. “Showrunners are the lead writers, and the creative directors responsible for setting up the direction of the show, from soup to nuts,” he explained. 

Set 35 years in the future, “Almost Human” stars Karl Urban and Michael Ealy as a crimefighting duo of a cop who is part-machine and a robot who is part-human.

In a phone interview with Shankar Aug. 20, India-West asked if the writer-producer could reveal a few plot lines. “We are very cagey about leaking storylines,” he said. “But the show takes place in L.A., and it’s a buddy cop procedural, with a lot of action and humor.”

Shankar says viewers will recognize a lot of what they see on screen — with some important differences.

“We are extrapolating the things we see today into the near future,” he explained. For example, the show will comment on the pervasiveness of location software, he said. “There will also be issues of technology such as medical ethics, or privacy; or how technology enables the rich but not the poor, who can’t afford it.”

Speaking at Comic-Con July 20, Shankar told media there, “Joel [J.H. Wyman] was looking for a collaboration with someone who had come from the crime world, and I had worked on ‘CSI’ for eight years.

“This is like coming back to my first love, since for many years I had done science fiction. It’s a great opportunity to get away from dismembered corpses and autopsy scenes.”

There’s plenty of drama — in the new series, the year is 2048, and police officer John Kennex (Karl Urban, “Dr. Bones” from the new “Star Trek” films) is trying to bounce back from one of the most catastrophic attacks ever made against the police department. Kennex wakes up from a 17-month coma and can’t remember much, except that his partner was killed; his girlfriend left him and one of his legs has been amputated and is now outfitted with a high-tech synthetic appendage. According to police department policy, every cop must partner with a robot, so Kennex is paired with Dorian (Ealy), an android with an unusual glitch that makes it have human emotions. 

According to a press release, “Almost Human” will follow the week-to-week missions of John and Dorian as they fight crime across this futuristic landscape, while the mysteries surrounding his attack and the larger mythology of this new world unfold. 

“We are attempting something kind of tricky, a show about futurism, a show with interesting mysteries that are self-contained,” Shankar said at Comic-Con.

Shankar took an unusual path into television. He started college at age 16 and attended Cornell University, where he earned a B. Sc., an M.S. and a Ph.D. in engineering physics and electrical engineering, and was a member of the elite Kappa Alpha Society, he decided he didn’t want to work as a scientist and moved to Los Angeles to try to become a writer.

India-West asked Shankar whether his family supported him — or thought he was crazy.

“Yes and yes,” he laughed. “They were supportive. And they thought I was nuts …

“To first generation immigrant parents, education is the most important thing. Doctor, lawyer — anything else is considered odd, or a failure.”

But his father, a doctor from a village in Karnataka; and his mother, who cultivated Naren’s love of movies and the arts early on, indulged his wishes. “I put a couple of suitcases in the car and went to L.A., where I had a couple of friends starting out in the business. My parents felt, ‘Okay, we’ll support you; we’ll wait a couple of years until you get it out of your system.’”

But as Shankar put it, “I got very lucky, very quickly.”

The fledgling writer — who had been a “Star Trek” fan, or Trekkie, since the 1970s — got his start when he sent a spec script (a non-commissioned, unsolicited screenplay) to one of the producers of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” who declined to buy it but was so impressed by his talent that he hired Shankar as a writer and science consultant on the show.

Shankar is eager to move in a new direction with “Almost Human,” which he says comes at the right time. “People are so technologically sophisticated now that maybe the audience is ready for a show like this,” he told India-West. 

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