Ronald Moore

The Battlestar Galactica creator talks about his new two-hour TV movie

While sci-fi fans across the globe may still be mourning the loss of their beloved Battlestar Galactica, they can get a new dose of sci-fi action from the show's creator. Battlestar Galactica creator Ronald Moore has a new sci-fi venture in the two-hour TV movie, Virtuality, which premieres on Friday, June 26 at 8 PM ET on Fox. I was in on a conference call with Moore to discuss the new show... and the possibility of turning it into a series, and here's what he had to say.

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Ron, one of the biggest questions people keep asking me about is how is it different from on Star Trek when you would have holodeck episodes and people would get lost in the holodeck. How is this different from that sort of scenario?

Ronald Moore: Well, it's a different concept. The holodeck is a physical space that you would go into and three dimensional forms were actually physically created in front of you that you could feel and touch and interact with, etc. The computer would generate them as long as you were in them. This is truly a virtual space, which is much more akin to putting on contemporary, sort of virtual headsets, but sort of taking it to the next level where you do have an experiential sort of ability to touch and sense and taste and smell things in your mind, so it's different sort of on the mechanical level. In terms of the story level, we're not playing the idea that if you die in the virtual space you die in the real space. It's not ... from that sense. It doesn't have the safety programs like it did in the holodeck where the safety is off and if you get killed in here you get killed. It's a very different thing.

So in Virtuality if you die inside the virtual headset you don't die in reality or you do?

Ronald Moore: You don't. No. It's more like how gaming is now. You go on-line. You play a game and you get killed and you're kicked out of the program because you're dead, but you're not dead in real life. We're using these much more psychologically as well. It doesn't sound like you've seen the pilot, but essentially the experience is that the astronauts aboard the Phaeton have, in virtual space, are sort of things that just sort of are psychologically motivated. They go in there and they do things for entertainment and to sort of pass the time of day while they're on this very, very long-range mission, but you're learning things about them personally and about where did they want to spend their time and when things go wrong in that space how does it then influence them in the real world. That was the thing I was most interested in. The concept was how the virtual space impacted the real story that was going on aboard the spacecraft and vice-versa. What's the sort of interaction between the two?

The nature of Battlestar Galactica, you had to be very serious dealing with the space ship and everything. Does Virtuality allow you to have a little bit more fun with the concept of people in space?

Ronald Moore: Oh, yes. It's a much less serious situation than Battlestar was dealing with. Battlestar Galactica was literally a post-apocalyptic show where the future of humanity rode on their every decision and death was stalking them continuously. So it's not set up in the same way. The crew aboard Phaeton signed up for what just seemed like a very straight-ahead mission of exploration and they were chosen with that in mind. They were also chosen to participate in this sort of reality show that's being broadcast back to Earth. So there was a conscious attempt on the part of the people who put the crew together to sort of have an interesting mix of people. There are debates within the crew themselves who was chosen just for sort of their demographic content and who was legitimately supposed to be there. Now you've got a groups of 12 people stuck in a metal tube going in a straight line for a decade or so and that's going to just sort of produce a lot of tensions and frictions and manipulations and sort of cross problems between the characters. It has a stronger element of fun and suspense and sort of interesting plot terms in terms of what characters will do with one another than did Battlestar. Battlestar was very driven by the internal pressures of the huge weight that was on all of their shoulders from the beginning of the miniseries.

So a little more opportunity for humor maybe?

Ronald Moore: Oh, yes. There's definitely more humor. There's more humor probably in the first ten minutes of Virtuality than there was in the run of Battlestar, let's put it that way.

Ron, when did you come up with the idea of blending a sci-fi thriller with a reality show element to it?

Ronald Moore: It was sort of in stages. When we first started talking about the concept is was about a long-range space mission, which I was intrigued with. Like I said before, I was interested in the idea of what do you do with 12 people in a metal tube for that long. I thought there were interesting dramatic possibilities right there and, okay, what would they realistically need to do. What would NASA or the space confederation do at that point to keep them from going crazy? They'd probably have a really advanced virtual reality program to help them while away the hours and there's interaction between those two worlds. Somewhere in those discussions we started talking about when they would be broadcasting pieces back to earth, obviously, like astronauts do today, and hey, what if they made a reality show out of that? Then it all kind of started to come together. You had these three layers of storytelling going on in the show where you had what was happening in the real world on the ship, what was happening in the virtual space and then what was the reality show that was seen back on earth. Were the needs of the reality show starting to impact what was happening on the spacecraft? Were people being manipulated in order to make better drama for the reality show? The astronauts themselves would start to wonder about are they telling us the truth about what's happening back on earth or is that something to just get us to be upset for the cameras. It did sort of become this really interesting sort of psychological crucible that they would all be put in.

It sounds like there's a lot going on, because you have the mission to save earth. You have the virtual reality module. You have the virus. Then you have the streaming reality show. When you were writing it were there any major hurdles or blind alleys? Did it get confusing?

Ronald Moore: Yes. I mean it was a tough thing to juggle. It's a very ambitious piece and I think that was the reaction on the part of Fox when they saw it. It's a very challenging, very complicated piece of work and there are a lot of moving parts. We knew that sort of going in and writing the script wasn't easy. There was a lot of sort of trying to decide how much time you spend in any one of these three categories and at what point do you shift from the audience's point of view from one to the other. What's the language for that? Where are we going to introduce certain characters? How often do you go to the first person confessionals and the reality show, etc., etc.? So there were a lot of just complicated questions. Then those same questions were there in the editing process. When do you go to which piece of material? I think it was a really interesting challenge.

Is it going to be like avatar style. Is it all like that or is there a reality ... too? Is all of the VR avatar style characters or is it real looking people?

Ronald Moore: The actors play themselves in the virtual space. What we did in production was all of the virtual reality scenes are shot in green screen and all of the sets are green-scene sets, so for instance, the piece opens with an extended sort of piece in a virtual space of the Civil War for the lead character. None of that was shot on location. None of it was a set that we built. It was all done in the computer on a green screen stage. We kept that language for all of the virtual pieces to sort of give all of the virtual reality a sense of continuity so that you always sort of intuitively felt that you were in a virtual space even if the background looked photo reeled, so all of that is done against green.

I was at Comic-Con last year for TV Guide and I understood that this was originally supposed to be a pilot for a series, right?

Ronald Moore: It is a pilot. It's a pilot for a series and Fox is going to broadcast it as a two-hour movie. It was a two-hour pilot, so they're broadcasting it as a two-hour movie, but in my mind it's a pilot. It's always been a pilot.

So it still can become a series?

Ronald Moore: I think you never say never. They haven't picked it up to date. Their attitude, I think, is kind of wait and see. I think they want to see what the reaction is going to be. What are the critics going to say? Is it going to get word of mouth? Are fans going to gravitate to it or is the science fiction community really going to turn up for it? Is there going to be a certain buzz and excitement? I think right now it doesn't look like it's going to series, but I think if enough people watched and enough people got excited about it anything is possible.

Do you think this is a story that can be told in two hours?

Ronald Moore: Well, you'll see. It certainly does not resolve itself in two hours. I mean it sets up for a show, so it's got some pretty heavy things that go down in it and kind of leaves you going, "Whoa! Where is that going?" by the end of it.

Just going back to the whole reality TV, which you use as a story point in this film, why do you think people have become so obsessed with reality TV? What's the attraction to it? What made you want to include it in this particular story?

Ronald Moore: The first are two kind of complicated questions and I'm not sure what the answers are. At first I think I was certainly one of the skeptics that reality TV was going to be with us for any great period of time. Certainly, that's been proven wrong. There seems to be a fundamental interest of people watching other real people or at least what they perceive as real people as opposed to watching fictional programming. There's certainly something. There's a powerful draw there of us wanting to look in on other people's lives and seeing them pretty much as they actually exist. Why we include it in the show was it just felt like it's become such a staple of pop culture at this point in time. It seemed interesting to then incorporate it into a science fiction setting, which was something that we had never seen before or heard of and thought that's an interesting sort of spin on it. We've all seen video that's been broadcast back by the astronauts from the Apollo missions to the Space Shuttle, but we've never seen it done in a format where it's trying to be a reality show at the same time. I thought that's an interesting challenge. It's kind of a different hook for the audience and it might be kind of a cool angle for the show.

I absolutely love the Caprica pilot, so I was wondering if you could talk about this virtual world. Is this at all kind of similar to the holobands that was introduced on the Caprica pilot?

Ronald Moore: I was sort of aware of the similarities between the two. They do have different purposes and different sorts of constructs to them. They both involve putting a set of goggles on your face, so they're similar in sort of that perspective. In Caprica it's really much more akin to the Internet where you go out and the virtual spaces are practically infinite and they intersect with one another. On Caprica you can go from the V-Club where we establish in the pilot is sort of a hacked world and then, presumably, there are worlds of war craft type of worlds, etc., etc. It's all sort of interconnected into their version of the Internet. In Virtuality we're looking at something much more discrete, much smaller, much more of a gaming type of environment where an astronaut has a specific virtual reality module that they go into and play whatever game or have whatever experience they want, but there is no expectation that you can cross from one module to another.

Ron, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about writing for these new characters and then perhaps a little bit about maybe the casting process for them as well.

Ronald Moore: Well, we set out to create sort of a diverse group of astronauts and we sort of then embraced the idea that given our premise that these astronauts were put together not just for the scientific mission, but also for its own demographic purposes, we kind of embraced the idea that they would be a very diverse group and then that would be part of the story, the show. Was this group assembled for its TVQ sort of attractability, as it were, or were they really all of the best in their selective fields and to use that as sort of tension between them. We just wanted sort of characters that would be interesting to sort of collide against one another, characters that would have problems with one another, all of the sort of standard things that you look for in a dramatic series. What's the second part of your question?

Just maybe a little bit about the casting then of those characters.

Ronald Moore: It was a lot of long sessions of casting. Peter Berg was very instrumental in reading the actors and working with them during the reading process. Fox has got a great history in terms of their ability to go out and find interesting new actors. Some of the actors have been on Fox series before, some have not. It was a pretty sort of wide ranging process that ultimately ended up with the core cast that we have.

Ron, I wondered if you could sort of take us through some of the twists and turns this has gone through with its development at the TCA event in January where they described it as the show is a little dense. I'm also curious if you re-cut the two hour at all to make it more of ...

Ronald Moore: With this material, like I said before, this is a very complex material. I think the initial reaction when they saw the two-hour version was ... said, "Wow! If this was just a movie I would say ship it right now. It's fantastic. But it's a pilot and it's a pilot for Fox. I'm not sure. Let's talk about different ways to go at this." So we went back in and we worked with Kevin and the network. Any of these sorts of processes when you're dealing with pilots, it's a conversation between you and the network to try to figure out how to maintain and sort of show the piece of material that you've worked on, that you believe in. You're also trying to get something that will fit onto their air schedule. It becomes a question of how can each of us accommodate each other into this process. As part of that process, Kevin asked us at one point, "Can you do a one-hour version of it? Can you cut the existing two-hour to a one-hour version? How would that be?" So we went back in and we took a crack at carving a one-hour. Peter Berg really led that charge and tried a whole different kind of style and structure to do what a one-hour piece would have looked like. Ultimately, I don't think any of us really felt that that was the best version of the show. We didn't feel that way and neither did the network, so ultimately that didn't really go anywhere. I think they then judged the show on its own merits as the two-hour version and just decided they weren't willing to pick it up right then, but they weren't going to foreclose the possibility if it sparked interest later and that's kind of where we are.

Ron, I was interested in finding out were you the person who initiated the concept or did one of the studios, either Fox or NBC or Universal, come to you and say, "We're interested in getting a show from you and this is what it would be like?"

Ronald Moore: It actually started; it was an unusual situation in that Gail Berman and Lloyd Braun had wanted to have a sit down, a general meeting with me and then separately they wanted to have a sit down meeting with Michael Taylor, who was one of the writers on Battlestar. So I sat down with Lloyd and Gail and in that conversation Lloyd had this idea of I would like to do a show about the first long-range mission to Mars. We kind of talked about that a little bit in just a get-to-know-you meeting and kind of expanded on the idea of what a long-range mission would be. They had a similar meeting with Mike Taylor. The same kind of topic came up. He sparked to it from sort of a different angle and then Michael and I started talking about it separately. Then the three of us started talking and it all kind of became this sort of here's a show. Then we just took it to Fox. We went into Fox and pitched it to Kevin Reilly and his team and they really liked it and it kind of went from there.

Ron, just still following up, if it only lives as a two-hour movie and doesn't get picked up is there any thought of maybe trying to push to do another two-hour movie where you could tie up some of the thoughts that you wanted to or, as a lot of creators are doing now, maybe taking it into a different media, like a comic book so you could continue to expand on the theme?

Ronald Moore: I think all of those are possibilities. We've talked about all of those possibilities. It's just kind of one step at a time. I think it's really hard to say. It depends on where we go after the broadcast and, A, after the ratings, after they start looking at demographics, after they start looking at word of mouth. Sometimes these things have a bigger life that sort of blossoms a few weeks after the broadcast. There's a buzz going. People talk and then they start wondering when it's on DVD ... and decisions about where we would go with the underlying properties is just really hard to say where we are right now.

Are you ready in your mind on where exactly you'd want to go if it either stays in the same medium or if it jumps somewhere else?

Ronald Moore: Yes. I mean either way I think Mike and I pretty much have an idea of the direction that we would take the show or the book or whatever it would be. We have an idea of where we would take the story after this, yes.

I really love the idea of the virtual world and I was wondering what type of virtual worlds could we see in the movie and maybe in the series if that progresses.

Ronald Moore: You'll see kind of a range of virtual worlds. Like I said earlier, it opens in the Civil War in an action sort of piece and then there are more pastoral settings. There is a home. There are actually doctor's offices. There are rock concerts. There is quite a range of areas that we went into, which was a deliberate choice. We wanted to sort of show that we were going to use these worlds in sort of disparate ways and that they would all be sort of tailored to specific characters and what they were interested in going to do, so you'll see quite a range of virtual worlds when you get in there.

I also want to ask you about The Plan. I saw your panel with Edward James Olmos last week. Olmos directed it. Jane Espenson wrote it. What sort of stamp did you have on the last Battlestar movie, The Plan?

Ronald Moore: I supervised and I give suggestions and follow-ups and I try to keep the story and the concepts within the Battlestar world, but I really let Jane run with it. I mean it's really her piece and Eddie's piece. I was very happy to sort of let them take the reins on this one.

He said it will be everything we expect, but does that mean there won't be any surprises?

Ronald Moore: Well, I'm not sure that's what Eddie meant. I think there are definitely surprises. It's really a piece for people who love the show. If you love the show you're probably going to be really intrigued by The Plan, because it's going to have all of these little bread crumbs and throw away lines and indicators and suggestions from other episodes. You've seen the show. You've watched the finale. You know how the story ends. Okay, here's like an additional slant on some things that you didn't know about.

I was reading somewhere that you don't really reveal the year or what the actual emergency to the earth is. Was that done intentionally?

Ronald Moore: Actually, that changed over time. Initially we didn't really specify those things. We wanted to keep it looser and kind of vague because I just thought it was more interesting than nailing down the specifics on all of that, but as we went through the process we started to nail those things down. We just started to feel like we had to answer certain questions. I think we did; I know you're going to ask me what year it is and I'm not going to know off the top of my head, so don't ask; but I think we do refer to the year and we definitely talked more about the nature of the emergency.

There was something written, a piece of dialogue, where it said, "Dry land is really expensive now," so I ...

Ronald Moore: Yes. We expanded on that idea a little bit more.

So there are just like hints?

Ronald Moore: It's kind of explicit. I mean there is a commercial for the reality show within the show. Within that commercial it kind of lays out some of the broader parameters of the mission, about what's happening on earth and why the mission has taken on a new urgency. The mission started out as just one of exploration and then something going terribly wrong back home in terms of climate change, in terms of the environment, or so the astronauts are told. That's kind of where we are.

I just wondered, you've got so much going on, are you having any trouble juggling everything, especially since it seems like you're adding acting to your career with that CSI performance?

Ronald Moore: I'm not really putting myself up for pilot season, let's put it that way. It's a lot to juggle, but that's sort of what's good about the way I came up through the business is I started in television and in television on an ongoing series you're constantly juggling multiple episodes simultaneously, so it's not too much of a stretch to now juggle separate projects as well.

Is everything being based in Canada making it easier?

Ronald Moore: Yes. Yes, that does make it a lot easier. The Virtuality sets were literally across the street from Caprica and Battlestar Galactica, so all I had to do was just drive across the street when I was there.

What do you think about the network climate right now, especially in light of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles being cancelled and Dollhouse being on the cusp? It seems like anything complex aimed at a younger audience has a really hard time staying on.

Ronald Moore: Well, I think it's a difficult time for the networks in general. I think that the scheduling kind of reflects that. I think everybody in the business has a sense that television is changing right underneath our feet. While we all say that and we all say, "Yes, we're going to be ahead of the curve and we know that TV is changing," nobody has an idea of what it's changing to. I think that that sort of anxiety and that sort of lack of knowledge about where you're going contributes to an atmosphere of panic and fear of saying, "Oh, my God. It didn't work. Yank. We can't afford the time to stick with this show. We gave it four episodes and that's it." I think that's unfortunate, because I think there are many, many shows, many of the greatest shows on TV, many of the most successful shows on TV had rocky starts and they really required networks that believed in the process and were willing to stick by them; famously, Seinfeld. They really had to believe in Seinfeld and it turned out to be not only a critical hit and one of the great comedies of all time, but incredibly lucrative, so there is certainly a strong argument for having patience and faith and really trusting your audience and trusting your instincts and going with programming. Unfortunately, we're in an atmosphere where everyone is just afraid and everyone is really worried about what's going to happen next week and, "Oh, my God. This show didn't perform well this week. Let's yank it." It's really tough. I would not want to be in charge of one of these networks because it would be really hard to know where the hell I'm supposed to go, how I'm supposed to program this thing.

What is your relationship with reality TV? Are you a fan?

Ronald Moore: I started off as a skeptic/hater of it. Now, actually, there are definitely reality programs that I like. I think probably at the top of that list, I'm a very late convert to Deadliest Catch, which I had heard about for a few years. I was even on a panel once with the executive producer and never really watched it. Then this last season finally my wife and I decided to give it a try and I was really taken with it, really drawn into it and impressed with the quality of the production and the seriousness with which they do this reality show that's really a documentary every week. From there I like Project Runway. I like Top Chef. I've been suckered in, as it were.

You're not watching The Hills?

Ronald Moore: I am not watching The Hills. I'm holding certain lines. There are certain places I just can't go.

Do you have any closing remarks, Ron?

Ronald Moore: Well, I do actually. There is a series of Webisodes that were created for Virtuality. Webisodes are not just your traditional here's an extra piece of story that you didn't see on the show and here's another little segment to tease you. The Webisodes for Virtuality are actually segments of the reality show within the show itself, so when you would log onto the Web site what you would see when you tagged on the Webisodes is you would see pieces of the reality show as it was broadcast back to earth, which was in the pitch when we sold it to the network originally. We said, "Everyone is always looking for this sort of interaction between the broadcast show and driving people to the Web site." It's always been sort of an uncomfortable marriage and they never seem to quite marry up in an interesting way for the audience. Ours has this really sort of organic way to do that where you could go to the Web site and experience Edge of Never is the name of the show, so you could go see Edge of Never on the Web site. The concept and the plan would have been if the show went to series that every week you could log in on the Web site and see pieces of the reality show and buried within those pieces of the reality show would be actual information and clues that would not be accessible to the people watching the broadcast of the show. There was going to be a deliberate effort to sort of say, "Really, if you want to get all of the idea of what's going on and to even crack some of the underlying mysteries to what the series is about, you would have to go and watch these pieces of Edge of Never," because the idea within the show was that the astronauts may not be aware of how the show itself is being viewed back on earth. They may not understand certain things, but the audience back on earth might understand certain things.

There was this interesting relationship between the Webisodes and the series. My understanding is that right now Fox is going to put them up. There is a Facebook page for Edge of Never and I think in the next few days, if not early next week, certainly by early next week, you can go to the Facebook page and you can start downloading or streaming or however they're going to make it available to you, these Webisodes, which would sort of build interest in the show and show you chunks of Edge of Never only on Fox. It would have the logos and it would have the astronauts behind the scenes of their reality show, sort of content for viewers to check out. I would encourage people to go and take a look at it, because I think it's a unique bit of Virtuality.

Ronald Moore's latest sci-fi creation, the two-hour TV movie Virtuality, will air on Friday, June 26 at 8 PM ET on Fox.