Michael Taylor — BSG executive-producer, Virtuality scribe, gentleman and scholar — took the time this past week to talk to The Good Ship about the upcoming show, his thoughts about science fiction and his approach to writing.
Jimmy Bing: You and Ron Moore came up with Virtuality together.
Michael Taylor: Right.
JB: I was interested to see how the idea for the series came about.
MT: Well, it’s interesting. We worked with a pair of producers, Lloyd Braun and Gail Berman, and both of these people were former studio execs. Lloyd had an idea, he had a fascination, a long-held fascination with an idea of a shuttle pilot on a deep space mission of some sort and all he knew was that he wanted there to be a powerful rocket, forcing him to go somewhere. And I happened to have a story that I had already worked out about a Mars colony and it really just took off from that point. Ron, meanwhile, had the idea of incorporating virtual reality, so that it figured prominently in the show. So they said, why don’t you guys get together and combine these ideas, and see where that takes you. That was really the genesis of the show. And, of course, virtual reality is the key to the show and it’s typical that Ron would bring that wrinkle. It changed the whole adventure and gave the show its specificity and its color. And that’s how it came about. We worked on developing the story together, the situations, and once we had that nailed down we went off and wrote an outline.
JB: With Battlestar, one of the themes you explored was man’s relationship/dependence with technology. With the virtual reality modules and that aspect of the show, I was wondering what themes you were hoping to explore in Virtuality.
MT: I think Battlestar had a very contemporary political reference. I think probably if you watched the show you saw that, in the end, there could be no peace without collaboration, without a sense of coming to terms and remaining together. That has a lot of relevance all over the world these days. Virtuality, which I think is very much more rooted in issues of technology. We’re asking questions about the world we live in and how we’re saturated by media and reality shows, and how all of it’s pretty much mediated by the internet–by sites like yours, by dating sites, by email–we’re already living in a “virtuality.” So much of our lives, we spend on Facebook communicating with our friends, keeping up with their lives. And I think that’s the crust of what Virtuality is trying to tap into, in that sort of metaphoric way that science fiction can. So, rather than a political commentary, it’s a commentary on exploration, on where we may be headed and why, increasingly, reality is now something we share between our lives in the real world and the lives we pursue in the virtual world of the internet. So I think it’s a really different show exploring a different arena, but both of them can be contemporary in their own way.
JB: Something else I found interesting is the fact that the ship they’re on is such an enclosed space, unlike others shows where you have main characters who come and go, and larger supporting casts. With Virtuality there’s a very set number of characters.
JB: My question is, how did you and Ron go about creating the characters? Did you have things like race, and age, and sexuality in mind, or any specific things you wanted to see?
MT: I think the way we started, well, I guess there are different character types that you want to see represented. You have to remember, this is a reality show as well and that serves as a backdrop for our characters. So you can have a pair of gay astronauts who are wondering if they’re being used to entertain the masses–you have a young computer scientist who’s wondering if she’s less qualified than they are to be on this mission and is there to appeal to a certain demographic. But in a way, this was just a way of giving us license to create a real cross section of characters. We wanted some single characters, we wanted some married characters. I think some types certainly appeal to you and to me. We have a character played by a wonderful actress, Clea DuVall. The character’s name is Sue Parsons and she’s the pilot on the show. She’s a bit of a hardcase in a way, and, naturally, I couldn’t escape the influence of Kara Thrace — Katee Sackhoff — in Battlestar, Starbuck. And then you think, ‘Where do you go from here? How is this character different? What are her secrets? What’s driving her?’ So you come at it from all sorts of different directions, you sort of let this stuff swim around. I didn’t try to create these characters in a formulaic way or in a way of hitting this base or hitting that base. You’re trying to find characters that appeal to you as a writer in different ways. So, I guess I’m having a hard time trying to break down the creative process, because it really is a creative process and there are just odd ideas that will appeal to you in the moment and shape the character. Ron had the idea to create a character who’s virtual environment was all about, well, he was a landscape painter who actually creates the landscapes he paints. And then you start thinking about, well, ‘What kind of character is that? Does he have a solitary nature?’ And you think of who this character is and we came up with the backstory for the ship’s doctor, Dr. Myer, played by another wonderful actor — well, all of our actors are wonderful — Omar Metwally, who people might remember from Rendition. But that’s really the process we went through.
JB: As a writer, do you have any sort of routine or process you go through when you approach a new project?
MT: Yes, I kind of do. I’m developing a new pilot idea right now and when I have an idea, something that I think is different, it’s interesting to figure out the reality of it. You know, I think there’s nothing more stimulating and more surprising than finding out what’s real. I think that’s one of the cultural reasons that explains our fascination with reality television. What real people do, real jobs people do, all this can really be fascinating. And as a creative writer it all gives you new ideas–you think, ‘Where can I go with that that’s brand new, that’s new territory?” So these are all sort of factors in that planning process.
JB: Now that you’ve done stuff for cable and network television, do you find any differences in writing for the two–do you approach the writing in different ways?
MT: Here’s the thing, I haven’t really done any writing for network television. Virtuality’s the first thing I’ve done for network television, and again, the odds of it going forward are probably, you know, slim. It didn’t really turn out like a typical network show. I would say it’s definitely a learning process–trying to come up with network-friendly ideas. Right now I think they’re a little bit more aware of what the kind of nexwork issues are and challenges are, of making a show that can be marketable. The challenges are making it the kind of show that can be smart and still have the kind of mass appeal that they want. I think the FOX execs, what they thought about Virtuality, I think the word Kevin Reilly used at one point, was that it was kind of dense. And not that it’s stupid, but that there’s a lot going on. And that’s not mentally something that really carries them on. It scares them. They think that viewers don’t want all these layers that they can’t handle. And I think we’ve seen, in plenty of cases, that that’s not true. People really can be turned on by a show like The West Wing, that has tons of things going on. But science fiction is a tough sell, it always has been on the network level, so it’s been a learning process. I think Virtuality turned out really well and could be a great show, you know, I’ll leave the audience to judge. What we’re putting out is not perfect, there are things we would have loved to have reshot, redone, reconsidered, having now finished this two-hour version. But we were limited in our time and in the resources that we were allotted. But we still think it’s really cool and that there’s a lot of potential for, you know, where the show could go, if it has a chance to go forward. So, it’s a learning process. Frankly, I think the networks realize that you have cable stations that put out really challenging fare. But they think that for the economic model to work for the network, it has to be dumber. So, hitting that sweet spot for a network is very hard. But when you do, and you create a show that’s very smart, but also has a large appeal, you know, you can fool them into thinking that it’s not too smart, then everyone seems really happy and you can have a really entertaining show, whether it be Lost or whatever it might be. But I think all of these shows had to really struggle to get on the air, and break out of the network box. It’s never been an easy ride. And there’s a lot of doubt and trepidation, until people come in and say, you know, I really dig this. It’s never been easy, because it’s not in the nature of networks to push that kind of stuff.
JB: Tying into that, critically, Battlestar was a huge success. So far this year, the new Star Trek movie is the highest-grossing movie of the year, and with the success of shows like Lost and this new show ABC is doing next year, Flashforward, it seems to me at least, that science fiction is being embraced by more mainstream audiences. Is there something specific that you would attribute that to?
MT: Well, first I would draw a distinction between Battlestar and the new Star Trek movie. Battlestar was very successful critically. It had a very fervent fanbase, but to be honest, it was never a huge ratings hit. It was able to exist on Sci-Fi because of the huge prestige it brought to the network, and of course because of the enthusiasm the network executives had for the show. But it would not have survived on a network with anything approaching those ratings numbers. The new Star Trek movie is a very different beast. It was designed from the ground up to be a much more audience-friendly vehicle. I’ve seen it. I enjoyed it a lot. I think the main thing is it nails these characters and these characters have become beloved over the years. And it has some wonderful actors and the writers did a great job of showing these characters at an earlier point in their lives, and people can really relate to that. It’s a big, grand adventure. But I don’t think it tries to be as thoughtful or to go to the kind of places that Battlestar went. It’s a different kind of show. And Flashforward, which was written, by the way, by a friend of mine, Brannon Braga, one of my first bosses when I worked for him on Star Trek: Voyager. You know, this could also be a really great show if it does as well as I hope it does on ABC. But science fiction, yes, people will embrace it, networks will embrace it periodically because they see that it has great potential, but they’re still weary of it. Science fiction is a thoughtful genre, it’s a reflective genre. It’s a genre that pushes ideas as much as characters, and Star Trek, what you see is characters, and not so much the ideas. I don’t think it’s groundbreaking, in those terms. I mean in fact, the storyline seemed inspired by old Star Trek episodes. On Voyager we even did a story about a timeship, a captain who comes back from the future to try to save his family by setting time right. You know, there were stories that were effective by playing off the characters, but a show like Battlestar, where you can create characters on Sci-Fi that are very real and you can really feel a connection to because they’re so distinctly human. And yet put them in a situation that’s really punishing and really provokes thought because it’s challenging your preconceptions, that’s what made that show so groundbreaking. And that thought of repeating that is always challenging. I’m working now on Caprica and we’re hoping to do something very different, yet also equally boundary-pushing on that show. But it’s always a hard job, especially on a network. So I would not paint a rosy picture of sci-fi being embraced by network television. Certainly that hasn’t been our experience with Virtuality. I think it’s always going to be tough if you want to do real science fiction on television, because you’re asking your audience not just to follow all of your characters, but to take a ride, and that’s tough. I think when it’s done well, it’s a tremendously entertaining and thought-provoking genre and it ultimately can be the kind of television, that’s really the ultimate kind of entertainment. It takes you on a great ride and makes you use your brain. It makes you want to use your brain. So, I would say, yeah, audiences should embrace it. I’m just not sure I agree with the idea that they really are.
JB: As far as challenging the audience goes and forcing them to think a little deeper about things, I’ve always been impressed with authors like Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds, who employ a lot of hard science in the science fiction they write, and this is something I see in Virtuality. Do you feel like science fiction that’s grounded in science fact can better facilitate the storytelling?
MT: I’m not sure I’d classify Virtuality as hard science fiction, but there was certainly an effort to ground it in an aspect of realism. The design of the ship, for example, is based on an actual proposal for a ship that has a type of explosive propulsion system that could possibly help us reach anything approaching lightspeed.
JB: Project Orion?
MT: Project Orion, exactly–and the use of virtual reality, stuff that NASA is experimenting with, stuff they’re considering using to keep astronauts’ skills sharp. Training like athletes, in the course of a long voyage, where you don’t want certain skills to get rusty. How to help astronauts deal with the isolation of a long voyage. These are all real things. The environmental things that the show is dealing with 2o or 30 years in the future are already being seen today. All these things you try to do, not just to help the audience connect with the material — they won’t get connected with the material if you tell stories that aren’t grounded in your own reality, that carry on that reality or are an inspiration of that reality. For me, that’s what the best science fiction always did. It may look to the future, but it’s really talking about the present. The same way Battlestar was, from a political point of view. Here, we’re sort of doing that in terms of technology and the environment, and I think that’s what helps make that an aspect of hard science, not the kind of science that people have to go to the internet to understand, or an encyclopedia, or Scientific American. But it’s grounded in that science where we can say, alright, it’s grounded in technology we already know the rudiments of, that we understand. It’s grounded in the reality of our present-day lives, where we can see how it takes off from that launching pad. That, I think can be helpful to sci-fi, that’s what distinguishes sci-fi from fantasy. But, without that, it’s about where we may be going and how that may change and affect our lives.
JB: I think it’s safe to say that we all have a slight obsession with television, but of course, books are good too. Have you read anything good lately?
MT: I just finished a book called Altered Carbon and I’m forgetting the author’s name right now. I listened to it, it was an audiobook. It’s a great sci-fi detective story set in the future where people basically can live as long as they want, if they can afford it, if they can afford the cost. I recommend that book; it was a really fun read and provocative. Very much a Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett-type detective story set in a future where technology has changed what is available to people but hasn’t changed people, in a way. It’s a story I’d recommend.
Again, a big thank you to Michael for taking the time to talk to us. It was great getting his unique insights into the show, and of course, we’re waiting for the 26th with baited breath. Leave a comment and let us know your thoughts about what Michael had to say.