Ron Moore Talks Virtuality

Ron Moore and Michael Taylor – who had a little something to do with a certain humans-versus-cylons space opera of recent past – are also responsible for the pending June 26 launch of another spaceship into the sci fi landscape. The travails of this particular craft (known as the Phaeton) will be followed in Virtuality – a two-hour… Pilot? Piece of filmed entertainment of indeterminate purpose?

Virtuality follows the adventures of twelve astronauts on a long-term space mission. The intrepid explorers turn to virtual reality to pass the time. Of which there is plenty. This cabin- spacecraft-fever-ripe environment is meanwhile rigged with reality TV cameras. And, well, how can a plot fail to thicken under such circumstances?

Moore fielded a hefty number of questions in a recent interview about whether Virtuality IS a pilot, or a movie; and how this pilot, or movie, (or whatever) differs from your average slice of holodeck hijinks of Star Trek. Plus, with Virtuality’s storyline relying heavily upon the reality TV phenomenon, there came an opportunity for Moore to spell out what he really thinks of (allegedly) non-scripted television.

How is Virtuality different from Star Trek, when there would be holodeck episodes?

Ron: It’s a different concept. The holodeck is a physical space that you would go into, and three dimensional forms were actually created in front of you that you could feel and touch and interact with. This is truly a virtual space, which is much more akin to putting on contemporary virtual headsets – but taking it to next 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 like The Matrix in that sense.

And we’re using this much more psychologically as well. Essentially the experiences that the astronauts have in the virtual space are things that are sort of psychologically motivated. They go in there and they do things for entertainment and to pass the time of day while they’re on this very, very long range mission, but you’re learning things about them personally. And when things go wrong in that space, how does that influence them in the real world? That was the thing I was most interested in – how the virtual space impacted the real story that was going on aboard the space craft, and vice versa.

Watch full episodes of Battlestar Galactica here

By the nature of Battlestar, you had to be very serious……does Virtuality have a little more fun with the concept of people in space?

Oh, yeah. It’s a much less serious situation than Battlestar was dealing with. Battlestar was literally a post-apocalyptic show where the future of humanity rode on their every decision. Death was stalking them continuously. It’s not set up in the same way. The crew aboard Phaeton signed up for what just seemed like a straight ahead mission of exploration, and they were chosen with that in mind. They were also chosen to participate in this reality show that’s being broadcast back to earth. There was a conscious attempt on the part of the people who put the show together to sort of have an interesting mix of people. There are debates amongst the crew as to who was chosen for their demographic, and who was legitimately supposed to be there. Now you’ve got a group of twelve people stuck inside a metal tube, going in a straight line for a decade or so. That’s going to produce a lot of tensions and frictions and manipulations and problems among the characters, and it has a stronger element of fun and suspense and interesting plot turns 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.

So more opportunities for 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.

When did you come up with the idea of combining a sci fi thriller with a reality show element to it?

It was in stages. When we first started talking about the concept, it was a long range space mission, which I was intrigued with. What do you do with twelve people in a metal tube for that long? I thought, there’s interesting dramatic possibilities right there. And 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 real advanced virtual reality program to help them while away the hours. So there’s the interaction between those two worlds. And then somewhere in those discussions we started talking about, they’d be broadcasting pieces back to earth, obviously, like the astronauts did today, and then it was, ‘Hey! What if they made a reality show out of that?’ And then it all kind of started to come together. You had these three layers of storytelling going on in the show. You had the drama of what was going on in the real world on the ship, and what was the reality show that was seen back on earth, and were the needs of the reality show starting to impact what was happening on the space craft? Were people being manipulated in order to make better drama for the reality show? The astronauts themselves start to wonder, 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 became this kind of interesting psychological crucible.

When you were writing it, did it get confusing?

It was a tough thing to juggle. It’s a very ambitious piece. 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’s a lot of moving parts. We knew that going in. And then writing the script wasn’t easy. There’s a lot 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? What’s the language for that? Where are we going to introduce certain characters? How often do you go to the first person confessionals in the reality show? There were a lot of complicated questions.

Those same questions were there in the editing process. It was a really interesting challenge.

This was originally supposed to be a pilot for a series, right?

It is a pilot. It’s a pilot for a series. Fox is going to broadcast it as a two hour movie. But in my mind, it’s a pilot. It’s always been a pilot.

So it can still become a series?

I think you never say never. They haven’t picked it up to date. Their attitude I think is 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 toward it? 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?

Well, you’ll see. It certainly doesn’t resolve itself in two hours. It sets up for a show….and has you going, “Whoa. Where is that going?”

Going back to the whole reality TV, which you use as a story point – why do you think people have become so obsessive about it? And what made you want to include it in this particular story?

First, those are two kind of complicated questions, and I’m not sure what the answers are. I was one of the skeptics that reality TV was going to be with us for any length of time. Certainly that’s been proven wrong. And there seems to be a fundamental interest of people watching other real people, or at least what they perceive to be other real people, as opposed to watching fictional programming. There’s a powerful draw there of us wanting to look in on other people’s lives. Why we included it in the show is 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 we’d never seen before. We’ve all seen video that has been broadcast back from astronauts in the space shuttle, 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, and I thought, well, that’s an interesting challenge, and it’s a different hook for the audience, and it might be a cool angle for the show.

What do you think about the current network climate right now – especially in light of Terminator being cancelled, and Dollhouse being on the cusp? It seems like anything complex aimed at a younger audience is having a really hard time staying on.

I think it’s a difficult time for the networks in general. The scheduling kind of reflects that. Everybody in the business has a sense that television is changing right under their feet….and while we all say that, and we all say, “Yeah, we’re going to be ahead of the curve…”, we all know that television is changing, but…..nobody has an idea of what it’s changing to. That sort of anxiety and that sort of lack of knowledge about where you’re going contributes to an atmosphere of panic, and of fear, and of saying, “Oh my god, it didn’t work – yank it!” Or “We can’t afford the time to stick with this show – we gave it four episodes, and that’s it.” And I think that’s unfortunate. There are many, many shows – some of the greatest shows on TV, and some of the most successful shows on TV had rocky starts – and they really required networks that believed in them, and were willing to stick by them. Famously: Seinfeld – it turned out to not only be a critical hit and one of the great comedies of all time, but also incredibly lucrative. There’s certainly a strong argument for having patience and faith, and really trusting your audience and trusting your instincts. Unfortunately everyone is afraid and really worried and 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.

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

I started off as a skeptic/hater of it. Now there are definitely reality programs that I like. 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 exec producer. Finally this last season my wife and I decided to give it a try. And I was taken with it. I really got into it and was impressed with the quality of the production, it’s really a documentary every week. From there, I like Project Runway, I like Top Chef. I’ve been suckered in, as it were.

But you’re not watching The Hills?

I’m not watching The Hills, I’m holding certain lines…….there are certain places I just can’t go!

Virtuality premieres on Friday, June 26th on Fox. Let’s ALL tune in to support the genre so dear to our hearts – because as Moore says, you can never really say never when it comes to potential serieshood.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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