Since 1989, Ron Moore has crafted a vibrant career writing and producing an expansive array of sci-fi and fantasy television series—among them the syndicated Star Trek (The Next Generation, Voyager, and Deep Space Nine), USA’s Good vs. Evil, WB’s Roswell, HBO’s Carnivale, and Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica, Caprica, and, currently, Helix, which resumes next year.
Along the way, he’s picked up Emmy and Hugo awards and watched his genre grow from marginalization to mainstream. Here, on the eve of his latest epic—Outlander, a time traveling historical romantic fantasy premiering August 9 on Starz—Moore talks about how cultural attitudes, viewing habits, and technology have informed changes in sci-fi storytelling structure and themes. Hint: It’s still about the characters.
Fast Company: How have science fiction themes, stories, and structure changed since you began writing for television?
Ron Moore: The biggest change is that sci-fi is just more accepted. When we were doing Next Generation, we were the only game in town. And we were syndicated. There was really nothing on broadcast network TV remotely considered genre. We kept talking about ourselves as being in the ghetto—it was hard for people on Star Trek to get real jobs in the rest of the television industry, so we really felt it very strongly.
The structure has also changed. It had to be episodic (where story arcs start and end in the same episode), because executives thought audiences would be lost if they missed a week, and didn’t want to worry about continuity issues in reruns.
There was great resistance on every level to make it more serialized (where stories extend across episodes), especially in science fiction. They didn’t even like two-part episodes. The network eventually came to embrace it on Battlestar [about intergalactic war refugees trying to make their way back to Earth]. Star Trek never embraced serialization, except the last couple of years on Deep Space Nine, because the syndicator stopped caring. They said, 'The inmates have taken over, let them do what they want.’ But shows like Lost and Buffy the Vampire Slayer showed producers and networks that people had an appetite for this kind of programming. So now you can pitch this type of material, whereas before they wouldn’t even take the meeting.
How much did the advent of the DVR and on-demand viewing affect this change?
DVR penetration had a lot to do with the changing philosophy, because it enabled the audience to catch up on episodes. But since DVRs skyrocketed at the same time that more serialized shows like Lost were airing, it’s hard to say how much it contributed and whether the change would have happened without the technology.
Audiences have become more tech-savvy. Has that added more pressure to ensure scientific accuracy or does it enable a kind of shorthand, where you don’t have to explain every device?
I don’t think there’s that much difference. At Star Trek, we always took the science seriously—we had full-time science consultants vetting the scripts to make them scientifically plausible, so that’s how I’m used to approaching things.
Often, specialists would worry about the actual tech terms to make it consistent so people who cared about that aspect of the show wouldn’t feel betrayed. But it didn’t matter if it was warp drive or flux capacitor or deflector shields, because it was the rhythm of the scene and the drama that held viewers.
Do you need to stay in touch with the latest trends in gadgets and technology to better extrapolate futuristic versions of them—or simply invent things that further the story?
You’re always trying to give the audience a touchstone of familiarity and what they think might happen. In Next Generation, we had characters walking around with these flat computer screens, called Pads, which was way before the iPad came out. It just seemed like a logical way of operating in a super-advanced society. But at the same time, they didn’t talk to each other much through video on the Enterprise, despite big viewer screens, or have a lot of social media. Their forms of communication were limited to what we were familiar with in the '80s and '90s. It’s always difficult to project ahead, because you’re constrained by where you and the audience are, and what seems plausible. Today, the social media sphere requires that you include an aspect of it in futuristic writing, but what is social media of the future? I couldn’t begin to tell you. A lot of where technology seems to be going is internal, like Google Glass, which is hard to visualize.
It’s a pain in the ass that people can communicate so well today. There’s a lot of great drama created by characters not being able to pick up the cell phone and call each other. At Star Trek, we were always running into that—people had communicators and we were always trying to contrive a way for the Enterprise not to be in communication with someone.
How do you make sure that plausible future technology doesn’t interfere with good storytelling?
Each piece has its own integrity that sets up a world with rules that you’re asking the audience to buy into. Once you’ve established that, then you try to stay within that framework. In a more classic piece, like Star Trek, where it’s a more hardware-oriented future, flying around in spaceships, the sky’s the limit in what you can invent. The challenge is to find the humanity within, ethical dilemmas, and morality plays.
With Carnivale [a fantastical traveling carnival in the Dust Bowl era], we took a known historical time period and asked, 'What happens if there were mystical things that happen within it?’ But you’re still coming back to the characters, their difficulties, and conflicts. Although, the characters in that show were beholden to their own mystical journeys and forces greater than they were, so it was less morality play, and more supernatural darkness in the hearts of men.
Helix’s parameters are an isolated base with [an unknown contagion] spiraling out of control. There’s a full-time researcher who vets scripts for scientific validity, but it always comes back to, 'Who are these characters, and what kind of baggage are they bringing to this environment?’
Outlander has time travel and mystical elements that propel the central character, Claire, into the past, so it’s more of a fantasy series. But it’s mostly about historical time periods and the people she encounters, with the time travel as the catalyst into the story.
The common thread is: who are the characters? In television, you don’t tune into a series every week because you love the stories. You tune in, because you love the people and want to see what happens to them each week. That’s why it’s crucial to spend all your time and resources making the characters feel like real people.
Do fantasy and science fiction make different demands on story or creative structure?
Both fantasy and sci-fi involve the same three-act structure, and character desires and conflicts.
Carnivale was ridiculously ambitious and difficult, because we never internally answered what the show was and where it was going. We reinvented it several times, which can be fun to improvise in the writers’ room, but never really got our arms around it.
At Battlestar, I’d say, 'We need to start here and end up here. Now let’s figure out how to get there.’ There was freedom in the writers' room to invent things, change things up, and surprise each other.
Outlander is a different experience, because it’s based on a book—we have a story, we know who the characters are, where we’re going, and what the tone is. The challenges for this show are more logistical—shooting in Scotland in winter, constrained daylight hours, weather issues, time zones, cultural differences, creating two different time periods: the 1940s and 18th century.
I think there’s the temptation sometimes, when you’re doing a period piece, to put everything in a big pretty frame, distance yourself from the drama and characters, and just watch.
The 18th century is a little more hand-held and visceral. Claire is our audience point-of-view, so we wanted viewers to be in it with her as opposed to sitting back and watching it. I went with candle and fire light, and not worry where the shadows fell. The '40s are lit with electrical light and have a different color saturation, so when you’re cutting back and forth, you feel a disconnect between these two periods.
Check out the Outlander teaser here:
And the Helix season one overview here: