The post-9/11 remake of Battlestar Galactica startled viewers who remembered the show from the fuzzy robot dog and the lunchboxes. Radically re-imagining the original '70s space opera, the new series was dark, controversial, and richly character-driven—largely thanks to Ronald D. Moore, the veteran television writer-producer who came to the show with a résumé including three Star Trek series, UPN's Roswell, and HBO's Carnivàle. His Battlestar Galactica regularly challenges and confuses its own cult audience, especially with the latest season finale, wherein [spoiler warning; the interview also has several spoilers. —ed.] four long-time characters were revealed to (probably) be robots in human form—but only after they all started singing "All Along the Watchtower"—and a lead character, Katee Sackhoff's Starbuck, abruptly came back from the dead. Moore recently spoke with The A.V. Club about the show's ambitious plotting, its political relevance, and how much he misses Star Trek.
The A.V. Club: How did you choose "All Along the Watchtower" as the song that triggered the new Cylons?
Ronald D. Moore: That's actually a song I've been interested in doing something about for a long time. It's one of Bob Dylan's really interesting pieces, and I've always been fascinated by the lyric and the imagery. When I was working at Roswell, there was a point where I was going to do an entire episode about it. And then as we got into Galactica in the first year, I was starting to think ahead about ways of saying that, you know, things that happened on Galactica were tied into our reality here on Earth in some way, in the past or the future, or some other connection. And one of the ways that I thought of making that connection explicit was at some point, to have a song we recognize playing in the background on one of their jukeboxes. It's another way of saying, "Well, why do they wear suits and ties? Why do they use many of the expressions we use in contemporary culture?"
AVC: The show has always taken place far off in an alien culture. Did you think this would be jarring for the audience?
RM: Sure, I knew it was definitely going to be a hard left turn. And that's one of the things that appealed to me about it the most—the fact that it would upset the idea of what Galactica was, and the things you thought you were comfortable knowing. Which is really what I like about the show, that it continues to push the envelope and that it never lets the audience settle into a comfortable routine.
AVC: The show has often been called "topical," and obviously from the beginning, it started in the wake of 9/11. At the same time, you've said you've avoided turning it into a specific allegory or a polemic.
AVC: At the same time, a lot of really specific references creep in—like when a character is saved by the equivalent of stem cells, or Dean Stockwell's character almost quotes Dick Cheney.
RM: Oh sure. It's a very subjective line. And we play around with that line a lot. There's definitely times when we're tempted to make a very specific connection to today's events, and sometimes we shy away from it, and sometimes we seize on it. There's no real hard-and-fast rule for when we do it and when we don't. It's a gut thing, and I just kind of feel my way through it and decide almost arbitrarily what I think works and when we've gone too far.
AVC: You've said that President Roslin is partly inspired by George W. Bush, which makes perfect sense in terms of her situation, but it's hard to see in her character.
RM: Well, you know, the role of a president in the aftermath of this apocalyptic attack seemed like it was set up in a way that it would be hard not to draw the parallel on some level. And on some level, I wanted to extend sympathy for the person in that position. To realize that even someone like Laura Roslin, when they are thrust into the presidency in these circumstances, and literally have the fate of the human race hanging on their shoulders, there's going to be a transition, there's going to be a change. They're going to look at the world through different eyes.
And certainly George W. Bush went through a similar transition. The 9/11 attack was the seminal moment in the man's life, it was the seminal moment in his presidency, and he changed. And I think you can argue about the reasons for that, and was it a good change, was it a bad change, but on a human level, the change happened. And I wanted to dramatize that with Laura Roslin too, and say that anybody in that position's going to have certain reactions to that event, and they're going to take the responsibility much more seriously than they did before the event.
AVC: When viewers call the show "topical," do you think they have a consistent interpretation of exactly what they're seeing? A show like 24 has such a clear message: "This patriotic superman is going to save America." But with Battlestar Galactica, it's a lot trickier.
RM: I don't think ours has a direct message like that, and I think people come away from the show with different things depending on what their viewpoint was going into it. For some people, the show confirms what they already believe. For others, it challenges their beliefs. I think it pisses some people off.
One of the things that surprises me the most, and that I'm really gratified about the most, is that The National Review continues to be one of our biggest fans, and continues to support the show, and has said it's one of the best shows on TV. And their political agenda is certainly not mine. But I'm really happy that they like the show, that they see things within it that appeal to them.
AVC: Were you surprised when some of the things you've done lately—say, when the heroes condoned suicide bombings—didn't provoke more backlash?
RM: We saw a fair amount of heat for it. If the show was on a broadcast network and had a much bigger audience, we probably would have taken a much bigger hit. The fact that we're on cable and we have a smaller audience, I think, went a long way toward shielding us from a major media backlash.
And also just the fact that it's science fiction. We get a pass on a lot of things because it's science fiction. The religious stuff on the show, the political stuff on the show—a lot of people just don't want to take it seriously, because it's people in spaceships and robots running around. So a lot of the mainstream media just isn't going to really take anything in the show seriously. Which gives us a lot of freedom to do what we want.
AVC: It would be hard for Rush Limbaugh to start ranting about a show with killer robots.
RM: It would be pretty funny to hear. I sort of would like to hear that broadcast some morning.
AVC: With this show, like some of the shows on HBO, you have the space to create a social-science lab and experiment with these ideas, and you have week after week to see how it turns out.
RM: Well, especially, I think, in science fiction, because you're creating the universe from ground zero, and the social and political aspects of it are what you say they are. A lot of the politics of the 12 colonies are obviously based on American politics, but also with things from other societies and cultures thrown into the mix. "Well, if the government works slightly differently in this way, or what if the tradition in the country was more like this"—all those things combine to give you this great flexibility to play around with the game of "what if." It provides a much richer and more interesting context for the character drama.
AVC: But at the end of the day, you're still more interested in the character drama?
RM: Oh, yeah, yeah. There's a part of me that's wonkish enough to really be fascinated with how the 12 colonies developed as a federal government, and what the articles of colonization were about, and what are the differences between the colonies, and what are the legal differences, etc. etc. But it's all just background. It's really about Adama, and Laura, and Starbuck, and these people, and what they do in their lives.
AVC: Lee Adama's speech in the season finale seemed to encapsulate one message about the show—this idea that we're watching a group of people who are screw-ups and who are fallible, but at the same time something in their nature still pushes them to do the right thing and stick to their values.
RM: I think that's very accurate. I look at them as people. And I think people are screw-ups, and even our greatest heroes are deeply flawed human beings. I'm interested in exposing the flaws and playing with the flaws. People make bad decisions for all the wrong reasons, and then somehow they'll do the right thing, and then somehow they'll save somebody, or they'll be compassionate. Horrible people can do wonderful things, and wonderful people can do horrible things. It's the spectrum of human emotion and reaction that interests me on the show.
AVC: Going into the next season, has the network given you any general requests to alter course? Like, "We need more laughs next time"?
RM: There's been an ongoing conversation with the network since the very beginning about the tone of the show—is there enough humor on the show, is the show too dark, is it too depressing, are we giving people enough reasons to tune in the next week. That's always been a difficult conversation, I think. They've always been concerned that the show is too dark and just too depressing. And we're always saying, "No, that's what the show is. It's the circumstance, it's real, but there's still heroism within it, there's still people to root for, but they're just not your standard TV heroes." By and large we win that argument, and they let us do the show that we want.
AVC: We've seen the Cylons go from an unknown and mysterious enemy to a more concrete, well-explored society. But there's still a third force on the show, the mystic side. And that's still very abstract and mysterious. Are you going to flesh that out more? Do you have a game plan around that?
RM: We do, and the plan is as we go into the next season or so, to start bringing more of that to the fore and tying it into everything else that's been going on in the show.
AVC: It seems like a big challenge.
RM: Oh sure. It's a huge challenge. But the tease only works to a certain point. Ultimately, if you take the story all the way to the end, you do need to give the audience some answers to some of these things. Maybe not everything. There's probably some elements that we will leave mysterious even after the show is over. But I think you have to at least ground the audience in some reality for some of these things that have happened. Even if the explanation is a supernatural one, you want to give them some explanation and feel a payoff for the time and effort they've put into the show up to that point.
AVC: You were one of the first television shows to start a podcast commentary alongside the show. Do you find it strange that you've got fans who spend as much time listening to you talk on the podcast as they do watching the show on TV?
RM: I find it very odd. [Laughs.] I'm always surprised when people tell me that they listen to the podcast, because I don't really listen to podcasts. It's not really part of my consumption of media. And the idea that people are listening to it weekly as part of their viewing experience, and it enhances their viewing experience—I understand it intellectually, but emotionally and personally, it always kind of surprises me that anybody listens to the podcast.
AVC: At the same time, now you almost have to lie on the podcast, like with "Maelstrom"—at the end, after we see Starbuck die, you talk about how sad the cast and crew were to lose the actress. And then three weeks later, she came back.
RM: Well, all that was very true. I was very careful on that podcast not to directly lie about any of it. The crew had no idea that we were bringing her back when we killed her. And the cast at first was very, very upset. I actually had to calm the waters up in Vancouver at some point and call the cast and say, "Okay, here's the plan," because we hadn't told any of them. We had told Katee [Sackhoff] what the plan was, and Katee, we all agreed that we were going to keep this to ourselves, and that we were going to shoot her final scene in the finale on a separate day after principal photography had wrapped up. It was all trying to be very secret, hush-hush. We had alternate endings, fake script pages, all this kind of stuff, to preserve the secret of Starbuck coming back and the revelation of the final four Cylons.
AVC: You've said that the one-off episodes and self-contained stories are the ones you're least satisfied with. Why is that?
RM: Well, part of it is just that they don't have the richness of the other episodes. It's just not the show that we all like to do as much, and it probably shows in the final product. The more serialized episodes really continue to embroider on the characters and give you a sense of continuity of what happened to them last week and the week before and the week before that, and you're watching the characters grow and change over time. There's just a richness to that kind of storytelling that I think we all find much more satisfying.
AVC: Will you try to do fewer of those next season, or is it a requirement from the network?
RM: The network too has come to the conclusion that as much as they don't want the show to be serialized, the show is what it is at this point. I'm not getting a lot more pressure to do that any more.
AVC: You've talked about Starbuck and Ellen Tigh as female characters who are strong and "tomcat around" on their men, and the men understand that. Where did that come from?
RM: Nobody in particular, actually. [Laughs.] There's no woman I know that's really like either of those women. I think I was attracted to it because I didn't see that sort of archetype in person or in fiction very often. The attributes that men get away with as characters, you don't often see given to women.
AVC: A lot of science-fiction franchises are expanding their story via other media, like The Matrix with The Animatrix, or Buffy continuing from a movie to a TV show to a comic book. What do you think of that?
RM: I think it's great. I think that's a tremendous outlet for being able to tell stories in that universe. I'm always tempted in the back of my mind to continue to write things in the Star Trek universe, in the novels or the comics, just because I don't get to play in that universe and I don't get to hang out with those characters any more. You spend hours upon hours of your life, day after day sitting in writers' rooms, talking about these people and these situations, and it becomes very real to you. They're friends of yours, in a lot of ways. I can go see Michael Dorn or I can run into Patrick Stewart or whatever every once in a while, but I don't get to hang out with Captain Picard or Worf any more. So the idea that maybe you could capture that again a little bit, and write more and create more stories in whatever form, I think is a great thing, and certainly for Joss, it must be a tremendous boon. He must really enjoy that.