Sources:Concurring Opinions Interview with Ron Moore and David Eick/Part 1-B

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Preceded by:
Part 1-A: Legal Systems
Concurring Opinions
Interview with Ron Moore and David Eick
Succeeded by:
Part 2: Politics and Economy

This part of the interview touches upon torture, moral principles in the face of possible extinction as a race, and the role of military and civilian governments in the show.

Interview

Solove: I'd like to explore some of the issues involving the show's depiction of torture, which occurred at several points during the show. It's obviously a huge area up for debate after 9/11. How did the United States experience of torture affect the way that you chose to depict it in the show?

Ron Moore: It's interesting [because of] the fact that there was actually a question suddenly, which in the first time of my experience in this country was actually a subject of discussion. There was a notion that [torture] was permissible under some circumstances but not others, or at least we should have a public debate about it. And that alone just felt like . . . well, ok then, just by having it in our show we would touch into what's going on in America today. I think that given the circumstances of where they are, it was completely believable that people in different circumstances would choose to use aggressive, physical coercion on their enemies.

[This is] especially [true] in the circumstance [in the show] where we have the distinction [between humans and Cylons.] [In the show,] Kara [Thrace] and the rest of the Colonial officers did not view the Cylons as legitimate people. They were not accepted as [humans] -- they were not human, and they did not have the rights of humans, and they would not be accepted as anything other than machines. So when we approached the first episode that really dealt with this, "Flesh and Bone", one of the key concepts was: ”Well, it's a machine.” Is there anything morally wrong about beating a machine? And torturing machines? And making a machine go through all kinds gyrations? It's a thing, and if this thing in front of you screams and cries and bleeds, can you ignore that? Can you as a human being distance yourself from the visual, from the empathetic impulse, and say, "Oh, I have to keep reminding myself this thing is not real. It's just a really good simulacrum. It's a really good software program. It's designed to fool me into believing it's human"? And we wanted to play with that [issue] in the show, and that no matter how much Kara told herself that, how much she told that to Leoben [Conoy], she couldn't help but have a human connection. She couldn't help but be affected by what she was doing within the show. I think when we approached that episode we were a little bit more interested in the dynamic between interrogator and subject -- how does the emotional response reverberate back and forth? -- than we were really invested at that point in legal questions. We took as a given that Kara could walk into that room and do whatever she felt she had to do. She could have probably chopped his arms off if she felt like she wanted to, because [Commander] Adama essentially told her at the top of the show, "It's a machine, don't forget that. Don't get involved." But we were interested in this more character-oriented idea.

David Eick: That episode remains somewhat notorious in that it probably represented the most extreme period of tension and disagreement between ourselves and the network. I know those stories are legion, and show people like to talk about how they weathered the storms, and put up a good fight, and saved the show from the cretins who've gotten their fingers. That has not been the case with this show at all. We've actually enjoyed a great deal of support and a lot of courageous spiritedness and boldness from this network.

However, in that particular case, there were drafts of the script that were pretty extreme in terms of what Kara was going to do to Leoben, and they were emblematic of what was going on at Guantanomo and places like that, and the connection to our own culture was probably a bit more literal and precise and less metaphorical than it had been [in other episodes of the show]. But as a microcosm, in and of itself, it serves as an example of what Ron was just talking about -- which is that we would find ourselves saying things like, "But it’s not a person, why are you telling us to cut the scene where she gouges his eyeballs out?!"

No, there wasn't that scene, but why are you giving us grief about this?” In a way, it became our argument because we were trying to take something real and force the audience to have the same trouble with it that the network was having. Anyway, it was just an interesting microcosm of everything you were saying.

Solove: I heard that the show's ethos is encapsulated by the line "It's not enough to survive, one must be worthy of survival." As you both talk about the depiction of torture and how extreme it is, there are views such as, "Look it's just robots." But there are also times when [humans such as] Gaius Baltar get tortured [in Season 3's "Taking a Break From All Your Worries"]. To what extent did you want to portray [torture] in a way that got so extreme that in fact it earned the audience's sympathy, or got the audience to say, "Wait a second. This isn't effective," or "It is effective"? To what extent did you depict [torture] to try to illustrate certain points about torture, and its effectiveness or non-effectiveness, or the justifications for it, or the arguments against it?

Moore: I think our goal was to stay away from that, actually. We were sort of at pains in the story discussion room and at the script phase to not send [any particular] message [about torture]. We were trying not to say, "Hey, guess what, torture's bad!" or to go through the rationalizations of why it should be employed in certain circumstances. We really just wanted to put the audience in the room and make them really uncomfortable. We really wanted them to struggle (we like to do this a lot in the show) -- we wanted them to struggle with [the questions]: "Who am I supposed to be rooting for in this circumstance? Whose side am I on? I thought I was on her [Kara’s] side because [Leoben has] said he's got a nuke somewhere in the Fleet, and that's a pretty scary thing, and Kara, you better do what you’ve got to do to get the information out of him. . . . Ok, now I'm sitting here, and now I have to watch him be smacked around, blood flowing from his mouth, and watch him be, in essence, water boarded. And I'm starting to really feel uncomfortable with that. And I'm starting to feel like she's going too far and . . . wait a minute . . . whose side am I on?"

We just wanted to ask the questions. We really just wanted the audience to have to get in that room and really search their own souls for how they felt about this, and what's right and what's wrong. [We wanted] to just let it live in the ambiguity of the circumstance. That's something that television generally shies away from. Ambiguity is not something networks like. They like an answer. Give the audience an answer. Tell them who's the good guy, who's the bad guy. Let them root for justice and boo at evil.

Our show, I think, is at its best when you're just not sure, [when] you're just uncomfortable because you can't decide -- should Gaius Baltar get off the hook or not? -- when you’re struggling with these moral dilemmas. I don't think we [as writers] need to have the ego that says, "Hey, guess what, I've got the answer to torture in 44 minutes or less, and here it is." It was just like, "Okay, this happens, this is a real world circumstance. Here's the classic ticking-bomb scenario, and here's the guy [Leoben] who says he knows where it is. What are you going to do?" And here it happens, and he starts talking, and he [Leoben] gets into her [Kara’s] head. It just becomes this very complicated wash of emotions.

Solove: It's interesting too in that you, to some extent, avoided the issues that have plagued the show 24. There was a New York Times story about the politics of depicting torture in 24 and criticizing the show for the way it depicted torture. To what extent do you feel that you managed to survive that kind of criticism? Also, more broadly, to what extent do you feel pressure at all from the Left, the Right, or others in terms of how you depict certain hot topics such as torture?

Eick: You know, I'll just say briefly, that's the great thing about science fiction. Exactly that point. I don't watch 24, I don't know what their issues were, what kind of trouble they got into, but I would reckon that we'd probably be able to get away with exactly what they tried to do, and got in trouble for, in a different way because of the nature of sci-fi, and the fact that it tends to not, frankly, be taken as seriously. People can look down their nose at it, or say, "That's just a fantasy" or "That's just an escapist piece" -- with the exception, of course, of the people who actually watch shows like Battlestar and they realize that's not the intent. But I do think the genre has always served as an excuse or justification or a metaphorical way to talk about the issues of the day and what's happening in the culture without necessarily having to be subjected to the same kind of scrutiny [that is directed at] something that's doing it in a literal way.

Moore: One of the hallmarks of our success is that we get glowing reviews from The National Review [and also] from Salon. I think that just says a lot. We're not trying to play everything down the middle, where it's just neutral. There are ideas and messages and themes strewn throughout the show, but I think we always try to make it really ambiguous, and let the audience take away from it what they will. Some people will see exactly what they want to see in the given circumstances, and I'm sure there are people on the Right who watched the torture scenes and felt like, "Well, absolutely! [Kara]'s justified in doing whatever she's got to do to get that information out of that guy [Leoben]." And there are probably people who on the Left felt like it was appalling and sympathized completely with him, and there were probably people on both sides who had their views challenged and felt vaguely uncomfortable about holding the position that they started with.

Solove: It's a great testament to the show it does have fans both on the Left and the Right, especially when it tackles issues that have been hot button issues on both sides where there's so little agreement. So I think that's quite a testament to the show.

I'd like to shift a little bit to a related issue, which is the issue of necessity and morality. Throughout the show there seems to be a tension between instrumental necessity and moral principle, and we see characters doing things that they often find contrary to their own morality and principles. Examples would be [Laura] Roslin trying to rig an election [in Season 2's "Lay Down Your Burdens, Part II"], people turning into terrorists to fight the Cylons [on New Caprica], the destruction of a ship [the Olympic Carrier] in "33" with over a thousand people on it. To what extent do you think these decisions have effects on the people that make them and on the human society? And how have you've chosen to depict those effects?

Moore: I always think it's interesting when people run up against practical circumstances [and are forced] to try to go against things they've believed in their whole lives, and they find themselves doing that which they abhor, or that which they've sworn that they would never have done. I think it affects them in profound ways, and on some level it just brings in simple guilt and brings in a lot of self-loathing about certain actions, but it also makes them strive to over-compensate in some ways and to be more heroic next time.

I think the show is always interested in these barriers that people set up. "These are the bounds I will not step over. This is what defines me as a human being, and I'm going to hold that banner up high, no matter what, and I’m never stepping over this line . . . until I've got to step over this line." That's just human. To me, it's always what people perceive as human failings. In a lot of ways, our defeats and our failures tell us more about ourselves as human beings than our victories do.

Solove: One thing that the show often does is present us with these situations where the military leaders have to act and make some very tough and sometimes very ugly decisions. I think the show is about these hard choices that people have to make. On the one hand, the show demonstrates the importance of deference to the military leaders. But on the other hand, there's also the depiction of instances where there are objections to [the military leaders’] decisions. Lee Adama often engages in acts of civil disobedience, and we also have Colonel [Saul] Tigh's rather unwise military decisions (as compared to [Commander] Adama's mostly wise decisions). What do you think the appropriate level of deference to afford military judgments is? How do you depict the tension between the respect and understanding that should be given to their judgments versus the questioning that should be [given] to their judgments?

Eick: Were you asking about whether we feel a responsibility to depict it in a particular way?

Solove: Mainly just what your aims are, rather than your responsibility. Is this a question you thought of? Is this an issue that you think of as you present these choices?

Moore: Well, I think David and I are both students of history. In particular, I'm a student of military history, and I have always been fascinated by the fact that the military attracts a lot of different kinds of people in different eras and in different circumstances, but they're all people. It always seems like there's this tendency in popular culture or popular media when you’re doing a piece about the military. It splits into two broad categories. There's this “put them all on a pedestal” [depiction] -- that [military people are] just wonderful, amazing, heroic people. Even when they do terrible things they're still doing it for the noblest of causes, with everyone's best interests in mind. Or, [in the alternative depiction,] they're committing the My Lai Massacre, and they're degenerates, and they're bloodthirsty, and they're the cavalry guys in Dances with Wolves that can't wait to kill those Indians. And it just seemed like the cliché -- the truth is somewhere in between. There's a lot of conflicting currents and cross-currents that happen in military service. In a time of war, a lot of actions are taken in very specific circumstances by very specific people. You have to have a lot of broad play there to try to understand what they're doing and why, and it's always permissible to question that. It's always permissible to say, "Is this the right thing? Is this what we really want to do? Even though this is the smartest tactical move, is that the step that we as a people are willing to take?"

It seems to me the show wants to continually ask that question. I didn't want the show to be a military piece about military people who just make all the decisions, and they're unquestioned throughout. Typically, in TV if you were doing something like this, the military would. . . .

Well, they did this in the original [Battlestar Galactica] actually. In the original show, the military was in charge, and there was a titular civilian government, but whenever they spoke up they were essentially just straw men. They stood up and said, "Hey, we don't think that you should do that Adama!" And they were invariably wrong. They were always wrong. They were always out of line, and they were always portrayed as just fools or naive, or something really stupid. The military was always the wiser, more paternalistic organization. I felt like that's not really my society, I don't want that to be my society. There's a balance between trying to win and trying to win in a way that is worthy of winning. There are competing interests here. The military is an arm of politics, like the old saying goes, and it's all about [this]: If you try to achieve a certain end, what means are you willing to go to do that? Just because destroying the village might be the smartest way to get from A to B, is it really worth it to get to B?

Eick: Ron was just talking about the human story beneath whatever the military issue might be. For sure, I think we're about to see when the political season really gets going, a story about one of the candidates is going to be all about personal perseverance despite an abject military fuckup. That's something we relate to, that's something [like John McCain's story]: it's not [about] John McCain the solider, it's about John McCain the policy maker. It's not John McCain the field general, it's John McCain the survivor who, in spite of what was perpetrated on him, in spite of the illegitimacy of the war he was in the middle of, [or] in spite of the failings of his commanding officer, was able to eke out a survival and return home a hero. That's just a story we as a people relate to.

Solove: Thank you so much. These have been fascinating answers. We're going to conclude this first part of the interview and shift in the second part to looking at some issues about politics and commerce in the Colonies.


Preceded by:
Part 1-A: Legal Systems
Concurring Opinions
Interview with Ron Moore and David Eick
Succeeded by:
Part 2: Politics and Economy