Daniel Solove: Greetings, this is Professor Daniel Solove of the blog Concurring Opinions with professors David Hoffman and Deven Desai.
We're delighted to have the opportunity to speak with Ron Moore and David Eick, the creators of the terrific television show, Battlestar Galactica, on the SciFi network. Battlestar Galactica chronicles a small group of humans that survived the mass destruction of their society by a group of machines they created. The machines are known as the Cylons.
As "Battlestar" enters its fourth and final season, it enjoys tremendous stature. The show has been one of the most critically acclaimed TV shows. It raises many fascinating legal, political, economic and social issues. And we're here right now with Ron Moore and David Eick, the two writers, co-creators, producers of the show, to talk about some of the issues with them.
Ron and David, thanks so much for being here with us today.
Ron Moore: Well, thank you for having us. It's a pleasure to be here.
David Eick: Absolutely.
Deven Desai: Fantastic! So this is Deven Desai, and I wanted to kick off with a somewhat general framing question. At a very simple level--but from the mental level -- I’m trying to get at exactly what role the law plays in the show. And I think the real question there is: Is it fair to say that Battlestar examines what happens to a social and legal system under extreme stress, and maybe even questions whether there is law at all in those circumstances?
Moore: This is Ron. Yeah, I think that is a fair way to put it. I think from the very beginning, one of the things we wanted to examine in the show is what would happen in a circumstance where civilization as we know it was literally wiped out, and you and a bunch of other survivors would gather together. What elements of the existing society would you choose to continue? What are the things that you would leave behind? What are the things you would try to retain?
It's called Battlestar Galactica, so it has a very strong military component to it, but I felt very strongly from the get-go that, OK, there are other remnants of the civilization here, and [we needed to know] how they organize themselves, what kind of government they have. What the role of law was in that circumstance [post-apocalypse] was one of the key ideas we wanted to start talking about right from the mini-series.
In fact, in the mini-series you'll see that one of the first questions that comes up is the line of succession for the presidency -- what role the president has in that circumstance versus the military. By the end of the pilot, they settled into a bit of compromise between Laura [Roslin] and [Commander William] Adama.
Eick: Right. It is also important to point out that [the military vs. government issue was] one of the things, I thought, Ron's script for the pilot (the mini-series) [addressed] so well. In fact, [it] really intuitively circumvented some of the things that befall a lot of so-called genre sci-fi pieces when they try to examine or postulate legal precedents or refer to laws.
There was a show called Century City on a while ago which was a law show about the future. And I was friendly with some of the executives who made it. Not to pick on 'Century City, but I remember saying at the time: “You know, guys, the joy of a law show -- I know a lot of people who watch law shows (I don't) -- and not that Battlestar is -- but the joy of these [shows] is to match your wits against the characters in the piece.” [The joy of law shows is] to be able to go to yourself, "No, no! Brown vs. Board of Education you idiot, or whatever... [It is] to be able to have a common frame of reference. And the thing that I thought Ron's script did so well was to essentially say their world is our world. And we're not literal about that necessarily, but what I think we try to do is avoid the trappings of contrivance and deus ex machina to justify a story point when it hits against the reality of: "No, in our culture that wouldn't be allowed, we have a law about those kinds of things." We have things like freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and there are certain basics of the show that are essentially just transplants [from our society] that allow us to play fair with the storytelling and with the audience whenever a story point comes up that involves the law or the issue of morality or ethics.
Desai: Right. And I think, if I hear you right, that explains why there are remnants of the older legal system, but there are still -- because of the stress -- the military tribunals, there are criminal trials and civil actions. And it seems like lawyers lurk behind some of this. If I remember correctly, Adama's father [Joe Adama] is a defense attorney, and then you later have Romo Lampkin. And I'm wondering, how do the lawyers and these ideals play out with those characters? And are you exploring what pieces of the legal culture and system you keep or don't keep in developing a society that's perhaps reinventing itself?
Moore: Well, for Adama, we gave him the backstory that his father was a defense attorney who specialized in civil liberties, primarily because I wanted to say that about the character of Adama. Typically the military commander in a fictional world comes from a long line of military commanders, going back to the [American] Revolution or something, and I wanted to set him apart from that tradition. This is a man that believes in a lot of the ideals that the uniform stands for, and [he] approaches it from a slightly different point of view [than Laura Roslin], and I wanted to set him up in a different way than Laura. Laura came to this position through a different process, and her ideas of the law and how she would wield authority would come from a very different place as a character.
I think that the lawyers in the show, [such as] Romo Lampkin [that] we've used, and the lawyers, laws, and things [we allude to], are in service of the idea: “Ok, this society is destroyed, [and] it's very important for society to have a rule of law, to have a system that governs people lives -- even in this circumstance -- that they can rely on.” There are ideas of justice and fairness within the society, but there's still picking and choosing which laws they're going to adhere to. We had a line in an episode that actually got cut: there was a press conference early on in season one [episode "Litmus"] where Laura's assistant, Billy [Keikeya], was fielding various questions from the press about all kinds of things, and someone actually asked about income taxes and whether they were going to be filing returns.
We played it as a joke -- you know, we'll get to that later, but it was an interesting notion because it was symbolic of the [idea] that if we're hanging on to this form of Republican government, and we're not trying to hang on to all the things we used to have, how far does that go? How far is the point where it becomes absurd, given the circumstances that they were in? But the notion was that we're going to try to hold on to as much of this democratic society as we can, that this was one of the founding beliefs of this culture. [It was] really, really important to them -- to hold on to this form of government and hold on to as many of the forms and rituals (and symbols of it) as possible because it defined them as a people. It defined them in terms of how they chose to view themselves.
Desai: So as a follow up then, when you talk about how they choose to view themselves, it seems like there's a real contrast in terms of evolution of society. In [the episode] "Litmus", you have these early almost Crucible-like interrogation boards or inquiry boards, and later on you get to [Gaius] Baltar's trial and the acquittal, which reminded some of us of South Africa's truth and reconciliation commission where you examine something without prosecuting it. Obviously, as you develop stories, sometimes things take on their own life, but was there an evolving plan for these sorts of crucial moments of the story? Were the characters getting to these, "How are we really going to do it when we're up against the wall here?" [moments]?
Moore: Yeah, this is Ron. There was a certain evolution in our thinking of the culture within the show, and I think it just grows out of the fact that, in season one, soon after the apocalypse and the destruction of their world, it's sort of like everything is up for grabs at that point. Everything is possible. Tribunals can go far astray. Laura can pretty much rule by dictate.
A lot of it has to do with observing of our society in the post-9/11 aftermath, and how everyone was willing to do a lot of things that the government asked them to do in those early days without real question. So we wanted to reflect that into the show, but as time went on you start to settle in and say "Ok we're not going to do that anymore" and "Wait a minute, maybe this was too far" and "Let's really re-gather and decide what the rules of the society are." And that happened in the writer's room, as well as on the show. [When] we're [no longer] a few months after the attack [and] a few years have gone by, and here's a former president of the Colonies [Baltar] up on treasonable charges, [we] feel that this has to be examined in a different context than the earlier sort of tribunal-type formats would have permitted.
Eick: It's funny you know, and this sounds to be more political than it is, but [in] the episode "Pegasus" in season two, a long lost ship [found the] small fleet and [was] helmed by an admiral [Helena Cain] who outranked Adama and who, as the story wove on, was a war criminal, basically, and was someone [to whom] human rights were utterly meaningless in the face of war and [who just] did what [she thought] needed to be done. And I felt like that epitomized a lot of what was going on with the culture. There was a certain, "Whatcha gonna do about it?" that seemed to be in the culture. It isn't so much to say, “Well gee, look at what our real life administration did” as much as it was to say, "What could it do? Where would the line be drawn? Would one be drawn?” There was this feeling of recklessness in the air [post 9-11], and I do think that it served [to some degree as a starting point]. [But] we said on a number of occasions that we don't rip headlines to serve as starting points for storytelling. We're not Law & Order. We're not looking to do literal metaphors necessarily, and yet it was impossible to dodge the sense of what was creeping into our culture.
So [let’s] get back to your question, “Where did you decide to adhere to the strictures of our modern, contemporary legal system? Where did you decide to deviate?” It was more about: What would you buy? What feels real? What feels like: "Gosh, that kind of feels contemporary, that kind of feels resonant with what's happening today"? And I like a show where you're making it up as you go, and you’re able to pull solutions out of your hat whenever you want because you made the rules up anyway.
This, I think, maintained enough of a sense of reality and a connection to our culture that we didn't feel allowed to do that. That there were repercussions, even in a situation like the tribunal, where the nature of the discussion was: "Well, hold on a second. You can't do that." And a part of you goes, "Well, why not? We've already done this!" And that seemed to reflect what was going on in the culture anyway. So in that way it felt real.