In an event entitled Ronald D Moore’s Sci-Fi Masterclass organised by the Edinburgh International Television Festival, the writer, producer and showrunner whose resume spans Star Trek The Next Generation, Star Trek Deep Space Nine, Roswell, Carnivàle, Battlestar Galactica, Helix and now Outlander spoke for an hour on his astonishing career.
Explaining that in the beginning “I got a great break,” his then-girlfriend who worked on the show arranged for him to join a tour of the Next Generation set, during which time he managed to pass the speculative script he had written to an assistant of Gene Roddenberry’s. Seven months later, as the show launched into the third season a new executive producer found it in the slush pile and bought The Bonding, the start of a ten year relationship with the franchise, Moore aware how fortunate enough he was to have written “the right script at the right time.”
Working on Star Trek was Moore’s first experience in a writers’ room, which he now describes as “the life blood of American television,” and while different shows work theirs in different ways he says that as a showrunner his is organised as he learned on Star Trek, but that he sees himself as “first among equals” in those who now work for him.
“Ultimately my job is to figure out who had the best idea and go in that direction.” Breaking down each season arc into episodes, then acts then scenes is a process which can take sometimes hours, sometimes days, for each individual episode but the result is that everyone is involved in every story, not just their own particular script.
Reflecting on his ten years across the two versions of Star Trek, Moore said that it was unusual to be work for such an extended period on any show but that “working your way up the ranks like that you learn a lot of different aspects of production… the more you understand the nuts and bolts of television,” and that the growing level of seniority involves increasing problem solving skills. “Your writing instinct is not to cut anything, your producer side is cut everything.”
Known as the one true fan on the writing staff, Moore had been approached by executive producer to produce internal memos on the Klingon and Romulan cultures, referring to himself as “the Margaret Mead of the Klingon Empire” as he prepared “the Klingon way according to me,” but overall he recognised that some things from the original series no longer worked twenty years later and had to be adapted. “To be a fan is to be passionate about something,” but that always has to be balanced against making the best show in the moment.
Having worked briefly on Star Trek Voyager following the end of Deep Space Nine, Moore ventured into the wider waters of Hollywood and was shocked to be told by his then agent that despite ten years of experience and over sixty credited scripts, not to mention many more stories to which he had contributed, he would not be taken seriously as a writer nor would anyone read his existing work, and it was suggested that he write a speculative script for a mainstream show such as Ally McBeal.
Of the hugely successful Battlestar Galactica remake, despite only having run for one season in the late seventies, he stated unambiguously that the fact that it remained in the memory was a crucial factor in the network’s support, as with many other remakes and sequels. “It helps the show get made. It gives you a huge leg up, not only on science fiction but across the board. If you’ve heard about it and you’re familiar with it it’s easier for me to get you to tune in than if it’s brand new.”
Following a clip from the first season episode Flesh and Bone where the Cylon infiltrator Leoben Conoy is interrogated by Kara Thrace, Moore stated “It was an important moment for the show.” Broadcast during the first years of “the war on terror,” the team felt “it was important on that show that we were talking in real time about what was happening in the real world,” but noted that the scene plays differently depending “whether you believe Leoben is a human or a Cylon, whether it’s a real response or a simulated response.”
Effectively presenting a lead character torturing a prisoner of war when waterboarding was in the headlines, Moore said there was a battle with the network over the scene and that as originally written it was much more violent and bloody. “If you put these things in a science fiction context you get a free pass not only from the network but from the audience. If you call them Cylons rather than Al Quaeda it pushes different buttons.”
Discussing the radically different tone of Battlestar Galactica from Star Trek, he explained “a lot of it was borne out of frustration… there were things you couldn’t do on it,” citing the Dominion War arc which spanned the final two seasons of Deep Space Nine but on which he never felt the show “couldn’t get into the darkness of it.”
That was also a factor when it came to adapting Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels, which he approached analytically from his first reading with an eye to the possibility of producing a show, enjoying “the freshness of a different challenge,” having never adapted a book series before, though he had previously made an attempt to bring Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern to the screen.
Using Game of Thrones as a benchmark, a show he enjoys just as a viewer having never read George R R Martin’s source novels, Moore understands that Outlander must always be understandable and available beyond those who love the books: “My job as the showrunner is how to serve the fan audience and bring in a new audience every week.”
With much of Galbaldon’s original dialogue present in the scripts and some scenes are carried directly it is a different medium, so while her voice is always present in the text in the one on one relationship of author and reader, the show is necessarily more of a collaborative process.
Speaking of star Caitriona Balfe, with the first novel Outlander (published as Cross Stitch in the UK) being told entirely from the point of view of Claire Randall, Moore “liked her intelligence and strength of character… it was a challenge to cast the actress because we’re going to be with her a long time.”
Of filming in Scotland, he said it was “very important from the beginning,” that “the best way to do the show was to shoot it here on location,” praising the local artisans and vendors who contribute and the “very specific light” and the landscapes which hadn’t generally been seen on American network television, though with the caveat that “it’s very dark here in the winter, and hard to shoot daytime scenes, and it rains a lot,” laughing that “you can tell the Americans on set, wrapped in layers of Goretex.”
With the forthcoming third season opening in Scotland before an extended voyage across the sea to Jamaica and the Caribbean, the new world, it will be as different from season two as the premiere year, making it “very exciting creatively but a very hard production” as unlike other long running shows Outlander “you’re doing a whole new series every year,” with “new sets, new locations, new costumes, new characters, new eras, and new problems to crack.”
Speaking of the forthcoming Electric Dreams anthology series based on the works of Philip K Dick, Moore said that the author had over a hundred short stories, most of which had never been realised, and that each episode would “not necessarily be a direct adaptation,” instead asking of writer and director, a different team each week, “what inspires you in theme or character?”
With Chicago Hope’s Michael Dinner and Godzilla’s Bryan Cranston also executive producers on the show (with Cranston “very involved in scripts and story meetings, his participation in front of the camera is another question”), Moore said an anthology show was “another new challenge” but that Dick “had a unique take on the world. He was crazy in a certain sense but we’re all crazy in this business.”
Asked if there were any specific episodes on Deep Space Nine he would have done differently if the studio had given him “carte blanche” despite the repercussions and whether he felt Bryan Fuller, producer of the forthcoming Star Trek Discovery, a producer from a modern background with a show to be streamed direct to viewers, would be making the show which Moore would have liked to have done, he responded that he and Fuller knew each other well and had been friends for many years since working on Star Trek together.
“He gets the opportunity to approach to that franchise in a very different world. All the other Star Trek shows were done in a different era of television in every way imaginable, technologically, stylistically, creatively, so he has a really fresh and exciting opportunity, and knowing Bryan he will seize that opportunity and strangle it to get every possible thing he can get out of it.
“For me, looking back, I don’t have any regrets about the show. It’s hard to say I would have done it differently because it would have had to have been a whole different world to do some of those things. The stories and the style of storytelling we did on Battlestar Galactica, to have grafted that onto Star Trek can be done but it would have required changing the entire format of the show, really a different taste of Star Trek, and I know we did the best work we could in the circumstance and pushed the envelope as far as we could possibly push without breaking through.”