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Battlestar Galactica and Outlander's Ron Moore tells us why his shows all feature politics

Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan play Claire and Jamie, lovers brought together through time travel, in Starz's genre-bending Outlander.
Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan play Claire and Jamie, lovers brought together through time travel, in Starz's genre-bending Outlander.
Starz

Nearly every show writer Ronald D. Moore has worked on could be classified as science fiction or fantasy, but all of them could also be situated in some other genre entirely. The Star Trek shows he worked on were, of course, shows about spacefaring, but they were also ensemble workplace dramas about exploring the universe. Roswell was a show about aliens, but it was also a heartfelt teen soap, while Carnivàle existed as both a dark fantasy and a Great Depression period piece.

Moore's reputation was primarily built on the back of Battlestar Galactica, one of the best series of the past decade. It seemed to be another show about spaceships cruising the galaxy, but underneath, it was a deeply political show about post-9/11 America and the lengths society will go to in order to stop horrible things from happening. It was also, by turns, a screwed-up relationship melodrama, an ass-kicking adventure show, and a religious drama filled with Bob Dylan songs.

Moore's latest success is Starz's Outlander, an adaptation of the hit book of the same name by Diana Gabaldon. In it, a woman in post–World War II Great Britain is sucked back in time to the 1700s, when the Jacobite Rebellion is in full swing, and finds herself unable to return home. Though steeped in everything from period detail to time travel stories, Outlander is also a beautiful, often brilliant love story about a woman torn between two men in two different time periods. The show returns Saturday, April 4, at 9 pm Eastern.

Moore talked to Vox at January's Television Critics Association winter press tour. He discussed the many influences behind the show, the modern state of US politics, and the best writing advice he ever got.

Todd VanDerWerff: What were some things you looked at when you were researching this period?

Ronald D. Moore: The writers brought in a lot of source material that we had in the office, and we would comb through it periodically. There was a lot of online surfing around. Primarily, I was looking at other movies and TV shows that were period pieces or associated with this period, just to see what had been done.

Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers was a touchstone for me. I always went back to that. I loved the style of shooting, and the sense of authenticity to the period was really important.

And then there were things I was looking at to avoid. The Patriot is one of my pet hate movies: "The redcoats are not going to be that color, and everybody's too clean, and we're not going to be glossy like that."

TV: What are things you learned that you were surprised by or that you found interesting?

Outlander

Ronald D. Moore attends the midseason premiere of Outlander. (Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

RM: I was interested in how little is known visually about the period. The Highland culture had been wiped out after the Battle of Culloden [which ended the Jacobite Rising depicted in the show]. The British basically clamped down on the clans and destroyed a lot of their culture and history. There weren't even examples of the clothing. My wife is the [show's] costume designer, and she was amazed there weren't any examples of kilts from the period left. They were, like, pieces of fabric that had been pulled out of bogs and stuff like that.

The paintings and drawings we're familiar with are from the 19th century. There was a romantic revival looking back. So when we think of Scottish kilts and tartans, they're all those bright blues and reds, and it turns out none of that is really true to the period. All of that was part of the revival of the late 19th century.

The actual colors at the time, as close as we can find, were more earth tones. They were more organic. Red was an expensive color and dye to get. In this period, the clans themselves didn't even have specific tartans. It was more like a tartan from an area.

It was fascinating going through and realizing how much I thought I knew from pop culture turned out not to be true and that this is a richer, more interesting universe than I thought at the outset.

TV: You frequently include political maneuvering in your shows. What are some things you've read or seen that have influenced your understanding of how politics works?

RM: I've always been fascinated by politics. It was my major in college. For a time, I thought I was going to be a lawyer, until I realized that law students worked way too hard. I really wanted to be Perry Mason and pound on tables and make dramatic speeches, and that wasn't really being a lawyer.

As a kid, I was fascinated with those movies. All the President's Men was an amazing piece of work that was just people talking. I thought The West Wing was a great example of how to do a political show. I remember watching The Missiles of October as a young boy on TV. I thought that was riveting, the Cold War politics and how that crisis was defused.

TV: What do we get wrong in how we think about politics in the world?

RM: Every day, it's a horse race. It's who's up, who's down, who's going to win. From my understanding, politics, especially in this country, was much more behind the scenes. There was a lot of horse-trading. What you did behind closed doors was different from how you presented and sold it to the public. Now we've gotten to this place where the cable networks and social media and everyone has gone behind those closed doors, and everyone's leaking all the time. Now there's too much information, and politics has become tribal. You cannot vary from your base. You cannot agree with the other side. All that matters is who wins the next election.

I think I'm watching politics come to a halt. I'm not feeling like this is a fertile time. It doesn't feel like we're coming up with new ideas. It's ossifying. It's going to become locked into a very strange moment. Our political system wasn't built for this. It's not a parliamentary system. In a parliamentary system it would work, because then you're in power and you get to do everything and the opposition opposes everything, but it functions.

Our separated-powers style of government isn't built for that kind of structure. We're moving toward that. We're just stuck with this other constitutional structure of separation of powers, and I worry about where this goes in the next 10 years. In the last 20 years, beginning with the Clinton administration and on through, everything's become so much more vicious and so much less about accommodation and less about accomplishing anything and much more about who's winning and who's not. And my god, can we get on to the next election any faster than we do now?

It's theater of the absurd now. I don't know where this goes or how this ever gets back to a place where we're able to govern ourselves.

Outlander

Claire (Caitriona Balfe) finds herself stranded two centuries in the past in Outlander. (Starz)

TV: A major element of Outlander is time travel. What were some other time travel stories you found inspiring here?

RM: The Star Trek stories were great. [The Star Trek episode] "City on the Edge of Forever" is a classic of the genre — the dilemma of letting the woman die to save the world. That's really great. [The movie] Time After Time I really liked, too.

We did so much of it at Star Trek that I felt like we kept trying to reinvent it and having to do a new version of time travel. Not getting caught up in all of the different timelines and science fiction books was one of the tricks of doing this show — to make the time travel just a MacGuffin and then let it go and not get too caught up in doing fish-out-of-water every week, where every week she's looking for the telephone, every week she's mentioning a movie. That runs cold after a while. You get sick of it. It's too obvious and too easy.

For this project, I wanted to just set it up and then walk away from it, knowing that she's trying to get back to her own time, that it's an important character thing for her. But I didn't want to spend a lot of time with time paradoxes and "What if she changed history by just moving the flowers?"

TV: Are those the biggest issues with trying to tell a time travel story?

RM: I think the audience now has seen so many of them, they know these conventions. Usually the tale is you go back to Lincoln's assassination, like in the Twilight Zone episode, and you try to prevent that, oh, but history's going to run its course, and you can't. The audience knows how that story ends and to avoid that trap is difficult. You want to have the possibility of changing history, and you want to think maybe it's going to work. But if you do it, then you really have to commit to the parallel universe story. Now, you're in a completely different genre! It's really tricky.

TV: This is a dual historical fiction story. Part of it is also set immediately after World War II. How much did you look into that period?

RM: I really liked the idea that we could keep revisiting World War II. In the book, she kind of leaves [her husband] behind and just stays in the 18th century, but I liked the idea that we could keep popping into and out of it.

I liked the immediate postwar world of Britain and Scotland. It was an exhausted time. They were still on rationing in the period we're talking about. They had just come through an amazing apocalypse and barely survived it. This was a culture and a people and a land that had given everything they could. And I thought, "That's a great place to do some stories."

TV: So much of this show is about the roles of women in these two different societies. What did you learn about women's place in these worlds, and how did you apply that to this character, who's so singular?

RM: The women in postwar Britain and in America had served in a lot of different capacities. Some were nurses in the military, like Claire was, and others worked in factories. But then when the war ended, suddenly guys came home, and everyone tried to revert back to the old gender roles. It's interesting that Claire goes into the past before all that happens. She had been empowered, and she had found a skill set, and she was competent, and she was a nurse. And if she had stayed, suddenly she was going to be expected to be a homemaker and to revert to this other life that was really prewar.

It's an interesting moment, because she goes back in time, and she's able to be more who she is in the past because she can take on this other role. She's a healer, and she's trying to do something. If she had stayed in the [postwar] period, she would have been forced to this other place and would have struggled with it. She would have had a hard time trying to become this other woman because she had changed, like so many other women had changed. I was fascinated by that aspect.

TV: Over the course of your career, what has been the single best piece of advice you've received about writing?

RM: It was from Harlan Ellison, the classic science fiction writer. We were doing a panel once at, I think, the Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills. It was me and Harlan and several other writers. At the end of the panel, they asked us all, "What's your advice to aspiring young writers?" Each of us gave our answer. I had my stock answer.

Harlan took that mic, and he said, "Don't be a whore! They'll try to buy you. They'll try to buy your soul. And all you have is your ability, and all you have is your writing, and once you sell that, you're dead. Don't be a whore!"

And I was like, that's actually really fucking good advice. That means a lot. Don't be a whore. Write what you believe in. It doesn't mean you can't compromise. It doesn't mean you're not going to make changes. But there's a point we all have. We all have that line someplace in our hearts, and we know where it is. Just don't cross it.

Outlander airs Saturdays on Starz at 9 pm Eastern. You can catch up with prior episodes on DVD.