Friday, June 26, 2009

Watch Virtuality Tonight -- So Say We All: An Interview with Michael Taylor



"Virtuality" a two-hour backdoor pilot from Battlestar Galactica writers Ronald D. Moore and Michael Taylor airs on FOX from 8 to 10 p.m. tonight.

Writer and co-creator of Virtuality, Michael Taylor was kind enough to sit down for a brief phone interview with me:

Galactica Sitrep: What was your starting point for the idea/concept? What interested you the most about a long term space mission?

Michael Taylor: It started with producers Lloyd Braun and Gail Berman. Lloyd had this idea for a space show about a long space mission, where the ship would whip around the sun and go off on a long voyage. In my back pocket I had an idea for a Mars Colony story. Lloyd then suggested Ron and I get together to work on it. Ron came in and was fascinated with the idea of what astronauts would experience on a long term mission and how they would keep the crew sane for that duration. So, he keyed on the idea of virtual reality. In the show we use the VR for Mission critical skills and training, so that they are able to rehearse and prepare for their mission to Epsilon Eridani all while traveling there. We also show them using VR to control the ship. That became the nub for what the show was about. We see today, contemporary astronauts sending messages home to their families, and doing broadcasts from space for school kids.

Then we keyed on the idea of a reality show. That became the third element. We have the Space mission, virtual reality modules and then the idea of a layer of this reality show they were forced to do, since the reality show is a corporate sponsor of the mission. That crystalized the whole story. It allows us to explore what is real, what is not real? Do things that happen in our mind have as much weight as what happens in real life?

Through VR, we can focus on the inner lives of the characters. The most satisfying thing was writing about people in-depth. Just as in BSG, the most essential part was the lives of the characters. Here we have 12 characters stuck in a test tube, and we get to explore their fantasies and fears.


GS: What was the process like working with Ron Moore to create it?

MT: Working with Ron is like working with a guy who's got a genie in a bottle. He guided the show every step of the way. He guided the script. We had a real partnership. We really wanted to work on new territory together. Ron worked closely with director Peter Berg. We were very lucky to have Peter Berg. We both loved Friday Night Lights, and The Kingdom. He has a great visual style, with a lot of hand held camera and close-ups. Pete is very improvisational. We actually shot ten webisodes while filming the pilot. Only two are online. Those stories were outlined, but not scripted. Pete and the actors got to improvise their webisodes. A lot of the confessional material used in the pilot for the reality show segments, was drawn from the webisode filming, all purely improvised, with Pete Berg prodding them and provoking them to explore inside their characters heads, and inner lives. It gave a vitality to the project, getting us off the page, almost like a theatrical experience. Pete brought a wonderful energy and vitality to the whole project.

GS: What were some of the genre films and TV show touch stones for you and Ron as you developed it?

MT: Ron is even less about influences than I am. Certainly I have been inspired by films like 2001, and Solaris, the original Russian film, as well as the Steven Soderbergh remake, films that explore inner space as much as outer space. With Ron its about leaving those influences behind and moving into new and original territory to move the genre forward. That was the goal.

GS: Have you heard of Prof. Nick Bostrom's simulation theory? Is the idea of “what is reality” something you want to explore?

MT: Actually I read about String theory. The idea that the whole universe and everything in it is a projection or vibration of these strings. So, the universe is a kind of virtual reality. The idea that everything in the universe itself could be a kind of simulation was intriguing to me. If we get deeper into the show we will be exploring what is real, and does it even matter?

GS: You've said you consulted with folks at NASA, what were some of those contributions?

MT: I talked to one NASA person, a wonderful psychologist named Nick Kanas, from tracking him down online. He was helpful in understanding of the reality of long term space flight and the human interactions of the crew. He told me any mission like this would definitely have a medical doctor and a psychologist to monitor the crew's mental health. NASA is exploring these ideas to test isolation effects on astronauts for long term missions.

GS: What was Fox's reaction to the inclusion of a gay couple in Virtuality?

MT: We had no resistance from Fox at all. It just made sense on a whole lot of levels. We wanted to explore all kinds of relationships in a realistic way. Fox was really excited about all aspects of the show really. And the character relationships are the focus of the drama.

We really hope they roll the dice. The climate today in network TV is very knee jerk and reflexive and fear based. The TV business is changing under our feet. But, we're getting great reviews. People are really into it and are gravitating toward it. ABC took a chance on LOST, and it's proved successful. We think there's an audience out there for this kind of show, but people need to vote with their eyeballs on Friday night.

Originally Fox was going to air it on July 4th, which would have given it no chance. But, they've moved it up and Fox Publicity is pushing it like hell and we're getting media attention. And the options on all the actors haven't expired yet. So, I've told the cast not let your heart get broken again. But the material is getting out there. We just need viewers to vote with their eyeballs on Friday night.


GS: You and Ron sketched out some broad strokes of where the show would go in the first season... If the show were to somehow be picked up somewhere would you continue along those lines?

MT: Yeah, we'll be off at a gallop. We really want to do a show full of suspense, action, and drama. It's also a murder mystery. An Existential murder mystery. The pilot episode raises questions. Great SF is always about asking questions. Tune in and we hope to get to provide the answers.

GS: Why will BSG fans like this show? One major source of BSG's strength was its willingness to tackle tough topical issues. What problems and issues, if any, does Virtuality explore?

MT: What I think BSG fans really love is exploring the characters. Through this new show, we're taking SF into a whole new contemporary area. Virtuality does the same thing as BSG in that sense. Here again we are trying to do something new, and take the genre in yet another step further. It's a fresh flavor. We literally have a a new vehicle, the Phaeton, and it takes us into new territory. Ron and I have a lot of new ideas we want to explore. BSG was more political and of its time. It really crystallized during the New Caprica plot line in early season three. BSG examined our political situation over the last eight years. But, Virtuality is a different beast. It's less political and more technological. It's more contemporary in dealing with how technology is effecting us. How we are changing with the internet, spending our time looking at screens, deluged by TV, reality shows, and news media. We are already living in a virtuality, and we have relationships with people online. Like much of SF it is really a mediation of the present, through a futuristic prism. This show resonates culturally, where we live right now, right here, in this moment.

GS: With Earth in peril how is Virtuality's take on the concept fresh?

MT: It raises the stakes of their mission. It's what they are told, and our characters will always wonder what the truth is. What is reality is a central question to the whole story. Certainly 30 years from now, if we don't change our ways, our ecology is in danger. Global warming is changing our lives right now on this planet. In the context of the show, one of our characters says, "We've got bigger problems back home." But, it's certainly a question if they are being told the truth. What is real, what is not.

GS: The Clea Duvall character Sue Parsons seems very reminiscent of Starbuck. How are they similar? How are they different?

MT: Certainly Starbuck was a staring point. Sue Parsons is a pilot, a flyer. She's tough. But, that's just a starting point. You think you are getting a character you've seen before, but you will realize she's very different than Starbuck. Starbuck was a bit of an inspiration a bit of a touch stone, but she's more self-aware and more aware of her baggage from the start, whereas it took Starbuck years to get to that point of understanding.

GS: Can we expect some conflict with the ship's omniscient computer system, as in 2001 or Alien?

MT: Our AI is named Jean, a female, AI. Later on in the show, the crew begins to wonder if something has gone wrong with the AI. But, AI is implicated in a much broader sense. Just as in video games, your actions in the environment effect the game and affect the game's AI. It's something we want to explore.

GS: If a series happens would there be any further overlap of BSG talent - writers, producers, actors?

MT: We'd love to have staff from BSG. Everyone is kinda scattered. Jane Espenson and I are working on Caprica. Michael Angeli is writing pilots. David Weddle and Bradley Thompson are on CSI. But, it would be lovely to bring the team back together again someday.

We begin shooting Caprica in a few weeks. It's a very exciting time for all of us. Ron is going up to Canada and is directing one of the first ones. We have a bunch of scripts were all working on and we're getting our ducks in a row. It's going to be great.


GS: Final thoughts on Virtuality?

MT: Watch it! If you care about good SF and you read great speculative fiction by writers like Philip K. Dick and Frank Herbert, here's your chance to lay your eyes on something new. People need to watch. It's a fun two hours, and it's worth you time. Vote with your eyeballs. Do you have anything better to do on a Friday night?


Trailer for "Edge of Never" Virtuality's reality show, within the show.











Cast interviews collected by nobodysleepsanymore.


Also, Michael Taylor talked to Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune about Virtuality and Caprica. (Read Mo's review of the pilot of Virtuality here.)

Taylor was interviewed as well by AMC's Sci-Fi Scanner Blog and by Televisionary.

And check out his great recent talk with Hitfix.

Alan Sepinwall reviewed Virtuality "Go No Go" for NJ.com. Heather Havrilesky writes a review for Salon.

James Poniewozik for Time Magazine reviews "Virtuality's bold lonely mission."

And Brian Ford Sullivan previewed the pilot film for The Futon Critic. Sullivan also interviewed the cast and crew, here.

And ScriptPhD reviews the show and writes:

Indeed, Virtuality bears several trademark Ronald D. Moore stamps: great science, terrific characters, and humanity-driven conflict and desperation. While Battlestar Galactica’s primary science angle focused on Cylon artificial intelligence, in Virtuality, astrophysics, geology and astrobiology take center stage. Especially pertinent amidst NASA’s recent exploratory missions, the Phaeton module employs top of the line physics to propel itself to far reaches of outer space, while self-contained greenhouses and laboratories analyze evolutionary life origins and biological compositions of space. Colorful characters abound on the Phaeton crew, including lead navigator/designer with a painful past Jules Braun (Erik Jensen), aggressive, self-destructive pilot Sue Parsons (Clea DuVall), paraplegic, self-doubting co-pilot Jimmy Johnson (Richie Coster), gay couple Val Orlovsky (Gene Farber) and Manny Rodriguez (Jose Pablo Cantillo) providing an infusion of hope and optimism, and married astrobiologists Kenji Yamamoto (Nelson Lee) and Alice Thibadeau (Joy Bryant) debating the pros and cons of raising a child aboard the confined ship. Compounding the stress and importance of Phaeton’s mission are your basic everyday problems: the ship’s only doctor (Omar Metwally) has Parkinson’s Disease, there aren’t enough medical supplies to sustain a ten-year mission, an escalating conflict of personalities and strategies between Captain Pike and his co-pilot, and the rampant obliteration of Earth by natural disasters. As he did in Battlestar, Moore does an exemplary job of using the scientific questions of our time as a platform to probe deeper into the meaning of life, humanity, and the ethical limits of an imminent fight for survival.

The most attractive aspect of Virtuality is how hip, modern and current it feels. With sleek, bright sets, fast-paced camera action from director Pete Berg, and gorgeous computer generated imaging of outer space and the virtual reality scenes, the show departs visually from the austerity that is often a sci-fi staple. It is also a shrewd, tongue-in-cheek satire about our obsession with “celebrity” against the backdrop of an all too plausible environmental reality here on Earth. The action aboard the Phaeton is being broadcast back on Earth as the most popular reality show of all time, “The Edge of Never,” being seen by billions every week. Orchestrated by Dr. Roger Fallon (James D’Arcy), whose simultaneous roles as reality show producer and on-board psychologist come into conflict, the show combines the drama of Earth’s impending doom and the search for other habitable planets with our modern televised voyeurism. Hosted by the well-meaning but invasive Billie Kashmiri (Kerry Bishé), the show meticulously follows every facet of the crew’s quotidian existence, complete with ubiquitous cameras throughout the ship, Big Brother-style confessional rooms, and manufactured conflict to entertain the masses. Combining Star Trek and The Hills, Virtuality adds yet another layer to the confounding question of what is real, what is virtual, and where the twain shall meet. All of this action and philosophy culminates in a shocking surprise twist that you will never see coming. It will test the sense of trust and camaraderie aboard the vessel, raise questions about the boundaries of escapism in a virtual world, and put in danger the crew’s psychological capacity for their ten-year mission in outer space.



Michael Hinman at Alpha Airlock examines the FX unitized in the pilot.

Actor Jose Pablo Cantillo who plays Manny on Virtuality is interviewed Michael Jensen, editor of After Elton.

Good Ship Phaeton has extensive coverage of the show including Michael Taylor's Top Ten Reasons to Check out Virtuality:
10. Free “Friend of Ron Moore” ball cap (normally only available on “Ron Moore Day” at Dodgers stadium).
9. Get reserved seats at the hottest panel at Comicon next year!
8. Receive your very own easy-to-assemble Starship Phaeton, no pilot’s license needed to operate provided you stay within the solar system and always wear a helmet.
7. What else are you gonna do on a Friday night? Um, okay, so maybe that’s a crappy reason but hey, that’s why it’s up here at number 7.
6. Yes, I know, by asking you to forward this message I’m essentially involving you in a pop culture pyramid scheme. But look at it this way: You’re getting in on the ground floor! So after this letter has propagated for 10 generations, you’ll be able to tell, um, 100 billion people “I told you so” when they write back to say they liked the show!
5. It’ll give my Mom something to brag about.
4. By staying in and watching the show, you’ll save gas and help save the environment! It’s socially responsible!
3. After watching the show, you too will be able to use the word “virtuality” in a sentence!
2. Because if enough people watch the show this Friday, there’s a decent chance it’ll actually get to become a full-blown TV series. And the number one reason to check out “Virtuality” on Friday and encourage your friends to do the same:
1. ’Cause it’s a frakkin’ cool show!

Don’t forget, Virtuality is airing this Friday at 8/7c!


Last week Ronald D. Moore, co-creator of Virtuality with Michael Taylor, did an extensive conference call with members of the media to discuss the show and it's potential future. Angel Cohn of televisionwithoutpity provides a complete transcript. Other reports on the conference call from: Wired, IF, Miss Geeky, TV Week, IESB, MovieWeb, The Deadbolt, Daemon's TV and TV Guide.

Images and clips from Virtuality.

And check out Trek Movie Report's full briefing on Virtuality.

Tune in to FOX tonight at 8:00 P.M. to see Virtuality.

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