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Virtuous Reality: Talking with "Virtuality" Co-Creator Ronald D. Moore

Following up on my recent exclusive (and candid) interview with Michael Taylor, co-writer/executive producer of FOX's Virtuality, which will air its two-hour pilot on Friday night, I participated in a recent press call with Taylor's co-creator on the project, Battlestar Galactica's Ronald D. Moore, to get his take on the project, its viability, and the series' virtual worlds.

So is Virtuality doomed to be a one-off movie or is there still hope that FOX could pick this up to series after airing the two-hour pilot, directed by Peter Berg?

"I think you never say never," said Moore. "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."

"It certainly does not resolve itself in two hours," he explained. "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."

Moore explained the, er, rather complicated development process that Virtuality underwent between its inception and the airing on Friday of the pilot episode.

"It actually started [with] an unusual situation in that [executive producers] 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," said Moore. "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."

However, it wasn't exactly smooth sailing from there.

"This is very complex material," explained Moore. "I think the initial reaction when they saw the two-hour version was '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 [Reilly] 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."

One element that adds to its innate complexity is the series' blend of sci-fi thriller with reality television.

"When we first started talking about the concept is was about a long-range space mission, which I was intrigued with," Moore explained. "I was interested in the idea of what do you do with twelve 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."

Given the multiple layers of reality that Moore and co-creator Michael Taylor were playing with, it definitely did get confusing at times to keep track of but offered a unique challenge for the writers.

"It was a tough thing to juggle," admitted Moore. "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."

Still, Moore wasn't exactly a fan of reality television when the genre burst onto the television landscape in a major way. Still, he's come to accept that it fulfills a voyeuristic impulse within its viewers.

"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," remembered Moore. "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 included it in the show was it just felt like it’s become such a staple of pop culture at this point in time," he continued. "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."

Part of that reality includes a racially diverse cast, like you might see on a contemporary reality television series.

"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," said Moore. "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."

Still, viewers can expect a drastically less dire tone than Moore's last series, Battlestar Galactica.

"It’s a much less serious situation than Battlestar was dealing with," said Moore of Virtuality. "Battlestar 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," he continued. "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. 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."

As for the virtual modules themselves, Moore said that they're vastly different than Star Trek's holodeck.

"Well, it’s a different concept," explained Moore. "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."

But, said Moore, you don't die if you're killed inside Virtuality's virtual modules.

"You don’t, no," he said. "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," he continued. "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?"

And, yes, Moore is aware of the similarities between Virtuality's virtual modules and the holo-bands used by characters on Moore's other creation Caprica, the Battlestar Galactica prequel spin-off which launches next year on Syfy.

"I was sort of aware of the similarities between the two," he admitted. "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."

Still, look for a wide array of virtual worlds just in Virtuality's two-hour pilot alone.

"You’ll see kind of a range of virtual worlds," said Moore. "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."

Given FOX's decision to program Virtuality as a two-hour movie on a Friday night during the summer, what is Moore's take on the general climate the networks right now in an era where FOX cancelled Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles due to low ratings (despite a rabid fanbase) and nearly did the same with Joss Whedon's Dollhouse?

"I think it’s a difficult time for the networks in general," mused Moore. "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," continued Moore. "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."

If FOX opts not to go ahead with Virtuality after Friday's broadcast of the two-hour pilot, Moore says that he and Taylor and studio Universal Media Studios are exploring a number of options not limited to comic books, other telepics, etc.

"I think all of those are possibilities," Moore said. "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 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... 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."

Virtuality's two-hour pilot airs Friday night at 8 pm ET/PT on FOX.


Jo Allen said…
Sounds like an interesting idea but I think it would be really tough to keep up a series with twelve people in a space shuttle (even if there are other characters in the "virtual" world).

Yes, Battlestar only had about that many people as main cast members but they could bring tons of other characters in and out of the story and there was always the sense that there was a huge community that was being affected by the decisions of those main characters which gave the series more weight.
The scheduling seems against the show but maybe enough folks got the message and will tune in. I hope it will also be available later on

The concept for this show seems to me could be very good. The ability to have the reality show as a followup on a web site is also very good to keep an interest going for the series. Who knows web based games or the virtual modules similar to the shows cast could somehow be incorporated in to the complete experience of TV show, reality show and then virtual module.

It will be a big loss if only a movie/PILOT is the only part of this idea to be explored..

Maybe this is the TV show concept that is where the future actually is?

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