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Go/No-Go: Televisionary Talks to "Virtuality" Co-Creator Michael Taylor

One of the most eagerly anticipated series from last season was the sci-fi suspense series Virtuality, created by Battlestar Galactica's Ronald D. Moore and Michael Taylor and directed by Friday Night Lights' Peter Berg, which will finally air its two-hour pilot later this month on FOX.

I caught up with co-creator/executive producer Michael Taylor this morning for a one-on-one interview, in which he discusses the likelihood of FOX picking up Virtuality to series, what his and Ron's ideas were for the first season's storylines, Sci Fi's interest in the series, that jaw-dropping slingshot sequence, and, oh, a punk-rock Japanese version of the theme song from The Munsters.

Televisionary: Can you describe for people who might not be familiar with the series, the overall concept of Virtuality?

Michael Taylor: It's set in a near future, 20-30 years out against a backdrop of an Earth that's experiencing a severe global warming, something that we could well be experiencing by then, though it's really quite dire at this point. And that's the backdrop and the show is about the crew of a space ship, Earth's first interstellar space ship and their first mission to another star in another solar system where scientists have hoped that we can find life. And possibly find something that might help us solve our ecological problems back home. However, because it's a voyage we're not expecting them to be chasing after asteroids or whatever else; it's a straight-line shot, which would be the way a voyage like this would work. So it makes it pretty dull for the crew for most of the time.

And partly to alleviate boredom, to alleviate tension that might start simmering with twelve people cooped up in this tin can all the way over there, they've been equipped with a virtual reality program with allows them to simulate any environment they wish, something they can enjoy in complete privacy or share if they so desire. And the idea is that everything is going swimmingly except at a certain point, just as we join the voyage and they are about to leave our solar system and commit to this long-term five-year trip--ten-year round trip--mission to this star system, something starts to go wrong in these virtual reality environments and it seems innocuous at first but it gets more serious. Meanwhile, serious things start happening in the real world of the ship, serious problems that could jeopardize the mission, the safety of the crew.

Televisionary: Last time we spoke, Peter had cut down the pilot into a one-hour version and then FOX has since committed to airing the two-hour version on June 26th. What is the current status of the project now? Is it still possible that it could be picked up to series? And have there been discussions between you and Ron and Universal Media Studio about following through on this elsewhere potentially?

Taylor: Certainly there have been those sort of discussions about following through... [With FOX publicity,] we've discussed how to approach this. The network has not made a formal announcement about the fate of the show. Peter Berg wasn't asked but he volunteered to make a shorter cut. One of the compromises that is made in getting this show on the air--and it's a way sometimes that networks and sometimes studios hedge their bets it's, all right, maybe it's not a series, let's make it a two-hour back-door pilot and we do it as a movie and we can make some money back, sell it overseas, whatever their marketing thinking is. But at the same time, I feel FOX may have thought, well, maybe it could work better as an hour or more clearly as a pilot and they wanted it shot to recut it that way. However, once you take a show and expand it to two hours, it's very hard to put that genie back in his mullah's bottle and I think Pete [Berg's] cut is very, very cool but it was a somewhat different show. And I think FOX thought six of one, half a dozen of another, and they decided, let's just air the original two-hour version to let people see what the entire project was that they essentially scripted it to be.

All that being said, if I'm being honest here, it does not look good for the show to be picked up by FOX as a series. That's why it's honestly being put on on a night like this and we have had discussions with other discussions, in particular Sci Fi Channel, which I think loves the show. But then there's a financial issue of them affording a show like this and being able to put it on. Honestly, this is probably it. One shot airing of this pilot. The good thing is a lot of pilots that don't make it to series--most of them--never make it onto television. So at least people have a chance to say, okay, this is what these guys did and this is what this great cast we assembled and a talented, amazing director like Pete Berg were able to create. Odds are that will be as far as it goes. And it would take a miracle of enough people watching on a night like this to change that.

Televisionary: Can you speak a little bit about the changes that were made to Virtuality's final act? I don't want to spoil anything but what is going to air is slightly different than what you and Ron originally worked out in the script.

Taylor: Exactly. We took it to two-hours. Ron has a philosophy, you've got something really good, we've got something in mind, an idea that we already envisioned, we could play it now, why hold off? I mean, let's lay all of our cards on the table and show just how weird and twisty this can get in those first two hours and create other, tremendous surprises along the way. In other words, you don't have to hoard your ideas, let's just go for it. I think that was the idea.

And I read one review, I guess, by the guy who does Futon Critic [Brian Ford Sullivan] who was wild about the script and the original script and really liked the two-hour version that he saw--and I don't even know how he saw it or it may have been an earlier cut--but was surprised by the changes as well. To me, it just takes us down the rabbit hole a little earlier, I guess you could say, and sets up a really intriguing situation by the end of the show. Is it as outwardly dire as the picture the pilot seems to paint? Uh, that I can't say. Maybe not, maybe yes. But it certainly opens an even greater mystery by the end of the show and that's what we wanted to do.

Televisionary: On a lighter note, what's with Billie (Kerry Bishé) singing The Munsters' theme?

Taylor (laughs): Oh! Originally in the script, I wanted to use a punk-rock Japanese version of The Mary Tyler Moore theme and I thought this character Billie Kashmiri, who has a virtual alter ego, a sort of Buckaroo Bonzai rock-and-roll superspy, a song like that would be very empowering. And imagine it like Joan Jett doing it. And then I later found out that Joan Jett actually does do a punk-rock version of that song. Mary Tyler Moore would not actually let us use it and didn't idea of it being in Japanese, whatever it was, it made her kind of... she wasn't into it. And beyond that, it was very expensive and this is a show that, as expensive as it is, we had to be really tight with our budget to make it work.

And The Munsters theme just happened to be in the Universal library and [when] I first heard of this, I said, you've got to be kidding. The Munsters? But I checked it out and there actually was a Munsters Christmas special where they wrote lyrics for an expanded version of The Munsters theme and it was super dorky. So by the end, I wrote new lyrics to The Munsters theme, sort of punk rock lyrics, then we translated those into Japanese and I thought it sounded great and I think it's hysterical. Ron and I were watching the taping of this, the filming of it, and thinking, wow, we should have just broken this out as a whole music video. That was fun... it's something worth posting, the new lyrics to The Munsters theme in English.

Televisionary: I was just going to say, will the English translation be available somewhere?

Taylor: Huh, I hadn't even thought of it until now but we certainly can make it available online.

Televisionary: If Virtuality would have (or were) to continue, can you give us a taste as to what the first season's storylines would have been about?

Taylor: I think it would be a very tense mystery, in some ways not unlike Damages, a series that might flash-forward to a point somewhere in the future and then show us how we got there. But we had all sorts of ideas worked out and it would a very tense thriller, kind of suspense piece yet at the same time would be building into some really interesting areas. I think the biggest question we would be asking would be, what is reality? How do you define it? It would be a very trippy, very cool, very suspenseful space adventure.

Televisionary: Obviously, you and Ron were coming off of Battlestar, which has a huge, sprawling cast and Virtuality has twelve physical actors aboard the Phaeton. Was it a challenge to move away from that large-scale cast to a limited one?

Taylor: I was writing a script for these twelve new characters. (Laughs.) Not to limited to me. In fact, mostly what I heard is that it was an ensemble show very much in the mold of Battlestar, so Battlestar was certainly very good training for writing something like this and I didn't see it as a limited show, with a hero and his sidekick and a couple of chums. It really was a pretty large cast and I tried to give every character a real chance to shine. I wanted us to care about all of these people, so I didn't really see if in those sort of terms of a smaller or scaled-down kind of thing. We didn't have a hundred ships or a rag-tag fleet but in the end, in Battlestar even, there's probably about a dozen key characters, right? It's probably not that dissimilar; they're just mixed in with a much bigger crowd but there are still only really about the same number of [main] people.

Televisionary: Could you speak briefly about the pilot's slingshot sequence, which was just absolutely amazing?

Taylor: Hats off to Pete Berg there, who chose the music and created the vibe. I mean one thing we didn't want to go for was a false danger, false threat from this maneuver which gets us out of the solar system but Pete crafted this gorgeous sequence. It's a wonderful musical number--I'm actually spacing on what the tune in the scene is--it is a really fun sequence and that's Pete's doing.

Televisionary: What do you hope that viewers take away from this two-hour?

Taylor: I hope they dig it. It's not perfect. There's stuff we would have loved to have had a chance to adjust, change, even reshoot a little bit. We didn't have that opportunity. I'd like them to think, wow, this is a really cool show and I really wish to hell that I knew what was going to happen next. But I am glad that we got to see this and I do feel a little wistful. Ron and I both think that this would be a great series and I wish the network really shared that enthusiasm and we're very proud of what we accomplished. And not just that but the entire team--our fellow producers, our remarkable director, our amazing cast, so I hope people enjoy the ride... and I hope they wish it was longer!

Televisionary: I'm keeping my fingers crossed that something can happen now that we're at the go/no-go point and hoping there's a way maybe we can keep going.

Taylor: People sent pencils or something to FOX regarding Dollhouse? Or there was an NBC show that they kept on the air. Maybe we can send sunglasses to Peter Rice or something. (Laughs.) Or camp outside Mark Stern's house or send some letters. But it would be fabulous if there was a chance to continue the story of this show because it's a great show.

Virtuality's two-hour pilot airs Friday, June 26th at 8 pm ET/PT on FOX.


Heatherette said…
This sounds like it would be perfect for Sci Fi. I love the concept and am looking forward to watching it. Too bad the outlook is poor for it continuing as a show!
J.P. said…
A punk rock version of The Munsters theme in Japanese? Totally awesome.
Eric said…
Glad Taylor is setting the record straight. Wish Fox would do the same. Hope Sci Fi will pick it up as it's an NBC Universal show after all.
Anonymous said…
D'oh. No one sent pencils to FOX re: Dollhouse. There wasn't a "send to FOX" campaign around Dollhouse at all. (Well, someone tried to start one, but really those things are not as "all that" as people make them out to be.)

People sent pencils to studios during the writers strike. You'd think anyone who knows Ron would know that, since Ron was there for it. Heh.
MyTBoosh said…
Sounds like this has really been through development hell. I wish that Sci-Fi would swoop in and save it but it seems pretty unlikely. I'm glad we at least get to see the full 2-hour pilot.
Mazza said…
I thought this was dead forever ago so I am glad to see that there's still a slight chance it could make it on the air somewhere. Tho probably not. Sad. Not sure why creators like RDM or Joss ever do anything with Fox.
Anonymous said…
This sounds exactly like the premise for Philip K. Dick's Maze of Death!

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