Battlestar Galactica’s Ronald D. Moore answers veterans’ questions and explores his own deep ties to the military

Originally posted 

Years after its 2009 finale, the 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galactica maintains its hold on military hearts and minds in a way few television shows have. Topics and posts on the show continue to pop up in military forums, and Colonel Tigh’s mug remains a popular avatar. The show has even crept into the larger national security conversation with Naval analyst Chris Weuve’s recent “Aircraft Carriers in Space” article in Foreign Policy.

With this in mind, I approached creator, writer, and executive producer Ronald D. Moore to ask him if he would be interested in taking questions from veterans and currently serving military. He agreed, and I reached out to select military forums and the Military subreddit. The questions reveal the depth that vets connected with the show—and for good reason. Moore’s answers likewise reveal a serious student of history whose deep respect for the military underpins an exceptionally well-told story. Thank you to both Mr. Moore and the veterans who participated.

Erich Simmers: I received one comment from a husband and wife who were inspired to join the military from watching your work in TNG, DS9, and BSG. He wrote, “These series, and specifically many of the episodes you wrote, introduced a military that wasn’t about trigger pulling and juvenile violent fantasy, but rather a military that was about service, commitment, duty, and above all, a surprising (to me at the time) amount of compassion and intellect. So, first off, thank you.” He goes on to write that he turns to episodes such as “Tapestry,” “The First Duty,” “33,” and “Precipice”—and these are his exact words, “like some people turn to the Bible.” How do you respond to something like that?

Ronald D. Moore: Well, you know, that’s deeply gratifying and I’m tremendously honored and I’m very humbled by that. That’s extraordinarily high praise for what we did on those episodes. I was inspired to write them by a lot of different things: my own love of history and study of the military [throughout] my whole life, my father was a veteran, I was briefly in the Navy ROTC, I had spent time aboard various Naval ships over the years. The military and the armed forces have always been a particular interest of mind, and I have tremendous respect for the people who do that kind of work. I’m fascinated by and have respect for the institutions themselves and the professionalism of the United States Navy in particular and all the armed forces. It’s an amazing thing to hear that kind of response from the people who are actually doing the work.

ES: You mentioned your study of history and your time in the Navy ROTC. Many of the questions I got were focused on your eye for military culture—specifically the people, not just the technology or battles and dates, but that very specific culture that the U. S. military has. They asked, “How did you get it so right?” Can you elaborate more on your experiences and your study of history that enabled you to tap into that culture?

RM: My personal experiences were fairly limited, but I had an ear for picking up on dialogue and culture and tradition in the environments I was in. My first midshipman’s cruise was aboard the USS W. S. Sims out of Mayport, Florida freshman year. I spent about a month aboard the frigate. There were just a lot of things about living aboard a Navy ship for a month that I picked up on—the way people talked to one another, the style, the cultures going around me.  When I was writing the episodes, I tapped into a lot of that. Colonel Tigh on Battlestar—the XO on the Sims was sort of a hardass, and the crew knew he was a hardass. It was part of his job to protect the image of the captain as the kindly old man. The XO’s job was to be a tougher man than him and take all the flack, and I always remember that. It was an interesting, deliberate choice that the man had made to run the ship that way. Then there were little things like the announcements going over the PA. In the Battlestar miniseries, there’s an announcement that I wrote in in the background where you hear somebody say, “Attention aboard the Galactica, EVA in progress. Do not rotate or irradiate any electronic equipment while men are working outside the ship.” I remember those announcements going through the Sims everyday: “do not rotate or irradiate any electronic equipment while men are working aloft.” Little things like that stuck in my head, and I would reach back and put into the show periodically. Then, I just loved military history and read a lot of books through the years on World War II—in particular, carrier operations and the way the fat carriers worked in the pacific, how the squadrons were organized, the culture of the ready room and the pilots, the ways they talked to one another, and how they planned operations. I was always fascinated with that world, so I brought my knowledge of that over.

ES: Did any part of you ever wonder what would have happened if you would have followed a Naval career rather than the path you took?

RM: Oh yeah, all the time. It’s one of those things in my past that I look back on with regret and relief at the same time, because I made the realization that while I was fascinated with it I wasn’t really part of it. I didn’t fit well into the military. It wasn’t natural to me; I was a much better observer and journalist of it, as it were, to talk about it, study it, and fictionalize it. I didn’t function that well in it. I didn’t particularly like taking orders; I didn’t particularly like getting up early in the morning.  I hated learning to write the reports—even the most basic stuff we did in ROTC of filling out reports and typing in those forms and readiness reports. Just mindless paperwork and the bureaucratic nature of the military drove me kinda batshit. [laughs] I was like, “Really?” So there were aspects of it that just didn’t mesh completely well with. I was always somewhat apart from the rest of my unit, and I never really felt part of it. But there was a part of me wanted to, that really wanted to be a naval officer, that really wanted to do that. I’ll never forget, many years later, when I was on Star Trek I was invited to go aboard the USS Constellation for a long weekend, so I flew out with a bunch of people going for a weekend cruise. We flew out off the coast of San Diego and went up to the flag bridge to watch air operations that night. When we went up to the flag bridge and looked down onto the deck, there were F/A-18s coming in and landing in this amber glow of the lights on the deck and there was just utter blackness out beyond. The planes would come out of nowhere and land on the deck and others were being catapulted off, and I had this enormous wave of emotion and feeling. There was a part of me that just so desperately wished that I was part of this—that I was doing this and I was down on that deck or I was in that aircraft or this was my job. It was the first time that it really grabbed me since I left ROTC that there was this part of me that really wanted to belong to this.

ES: One of the biggest contrasts I noticed from watching BSG to looking back at TNG is the prominence of the enlisted and NCOs. Why was it important to you to represent enlisted personnel as you did in BSG?

RM: It seemed more true to how those organizations really run, and it seemed to me the typical approach in fiction was to pick one or the other—either doing a show that was completely about enlisted people and it was all about the concept of how the officers were all idiots and we’re the only people that know better or it was all about the officers, the command decisions, and the grunts were the faceless guys who died over there someplace. I wanted to show more of the reality. This is kinda how the organization works; it’s a larger thing than just one or the other. Partially, it was the quasi-military status of Starfleet where pretty much everyone was an officer where [there were] the occasional chiefs and the occasional technicians, but it was all skewed to the officer class. In Battlestar, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to play a broader spectrum of reality.

ES: And there is definitely a class element in the depiction. I remember one episode where there’s one enlisted person who aspires to be an officer but she’s trapped in this caste and there’s this question of whether or not all the pilots were born on Caprica and there’s some predestined classist view that creates officers.

RM: Some of that came out the knowledge of history—the way the officer and enlisted ranks used to be, particularly in the US Navy. Back in the day, the officers were definitely, absolutely a different class than the enlisted. The gulf between the two was quite enormous; that changed over time, but it still kinda had that general overview of the culture.

ES: I want to return to Colonel Tigh for a minute. When I initially watched—at least the first couple episodes of the miniseries—Tigh didn’t strike me as particularly sympathetic. There’s the question of whether he’s making the right call throughout his struggles with his wife and with alcohol, but overwhelming all the veterans I talked to identified most—and it didn’t matter whether they were officers or enlisted—they identify with Tigh. One wrote, “[Colonel] Tigh reminded me of one of my old flight chiefs…a tough Bronx Jew who retired a Senior Master Sergeant, as well as a couple other senior NCOs I knew. (Not coincidentally, most of them were functioning or recovering alcoholics). He might not have been PC, and he didn’t handle delicate situations well but when everything went to shit, he knew how to do his job and [do it] well.” Another veteran recalled “33”: “‘Yes, the Cylons keep coming after us time after time after time. And yes, we are still expected to do our jobs!’ That quote really resonated with me—it’s definitely the type of mentality you need to have to be an Army Ranger.” You see these diverse service members connecting with Tigh. Is he a military everyman?

RM: In a way. He was emblematic of a lot of different men I met when I was in ROTC in the cruise and other cruises and different environments that I was in over those years and some other experiences with my father being military-based now and again, and I just recognized that. There was something about those men that were deeply flawed, were really gruff, and were people that you didn’t want to mess with and you were kinda afraid of and didn’t know what they were capable of. They didn’t seem like they’d be recruiting poster types, but you knew that you wanted them with you in a fight and you sensed everyone else needed them too. I remember there being some gunnery sergeants I met in the Marine Corps that were—I don’t know if they became alcoholics; frankly, I wasn’t around them in their off-hours but they certainly gave off that vibe—were screwed up individuals, but everyone from the colonel down to the privates in that unit would definitely look to them as somebody who knew what the score was and who were the backbone of the unit. I was always stuck by that—that the guys who really pull it together may not be very pretty and might be people that, you know, weren’t very PC and no one would hold up and say this is the model soldier, Marine, or officer, but you know that doesn’t mean that they’re not good.

ES: There’s a particular quote that I’ve seen as signatures in military forums or quoted, and for some reason military members identify it. That’s Tigh’s New Caprica silioquoy: “Which side are we on? We’re on the side of the demons, chief. We’re evil men in the gardens of paradise, sent by the forces of death to spread devastation and destruction wherever we go. I’m surprised you didn’t know that.”  Why do you think that quote resonates with veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq in particular?

RM: Well, I’m guessing, but my feeling was—from all I know about it as an observer, as someone who’s never been there—is that the people who have been there have done some really terrible things and have seen really terrible things. The moral choices are easy to dissect from afar, but that people in those situations in a warzone—if your life is on the line or your friend’s life is on the line and there’s people in that building that you’re trying to protect or destroy—do a lot of things that you didn’t think you ever would and part of the job is to be as ruthless as possible and to just do terrible, terrible things in the name of something greater and hope at the end of the day you can look at yourself in the mirror and hope that it all turns out for the better but there’s no guarantee. It really is a moral grey zone in the truest sense of the word. Things happen in those combat areas that are almost impossible to understand or empathize with to those of us that are not in those areas, so I wanted Tigh to really vocalize that this is what we’re doing here and that’s what this job is.

ES: The Cylons are very much the holy warriors. Do you think there is an element of confronting jihad or confronting a host nation’s population that sees not only Americans but the notion of America as this existential threat…in identifying with this particular quote?

RM: You mean when Tigh says that is he commenting on the fact that they’re fighting against jihadist people?

ES: Exactly, yeah.

RM: Yeah, I think it is. There’s a realization and an acknowledgment of the enemy that they’re against is fighting a no-holds-barred conflict, and the feeling is that we have to, too.

ES: One of the episodes veterans mentioned time and time again was “Scar.”  One [veteran] in particular told me, “I rarely drink. I had one after that episode–hit a little too close to home.” Of course, depicting the burden of command—and, more importantly, the burden of loosing people—is not an easy thing.  Why does “Scar” ring so true for people who have experienced that in real life?

RM: I think “Scar” is about loosing a lot of people and what it does to you when you’re responsible. You’re going out again and again, and they just keep not coming back, and you’re coming back and the enemy is still out there. David [Weddle] and Bradley [Thompson], who wrote that episode, knew a lot of pilots, a lot of veterans, a lot of people who have flown currently and in the past, and they were also students of history like I was. We talked about a lot of different examples. We talked a lot about the RAF pilots who had been in the Battle of Britain and continued on through the war and how those squadrons were decimated over time. So many of them saw a lot of pilots come and go. There’s a burden and weight on returning back to the base when a lot of guys didn’t come back and to go back to that same ready room again and again and again and the chairs keep getting filled by new people or being empty and what that was like. There’s things that they had to try to do to hold themselves together over time. It’s a fascinating bit of the culture that I hadn’t really seen done very much in film or television, and it felt like a very rich environment to tell a story.

ES: Another question I got—and this came from a former Assistant NCOIC in 193rd Special Operations Squadron—he used your show…as a lesson in leadership.  He wrote, “We started to work thru different scenarios. Could they still conduct an effective counter attack and escort civilians at the same time? Should they abandon the civilian fleet and strictly fight the Cylons? We also discussed what we could have done different when it came to the non­-FTL ships that had to be left behind and destroyed.” One of the interesting things that came out of their discussions was potentially using a non-FTL ship as “giant IED.”  What does it mean to you when your show is used to explore these types of life and death scenarios in actual practice?

RM: I’m tremendously surprised and gratified by that, because one of the things I wanted from the show overall was to make people think, make people who were watching the series walk away from it with questions and thoughts and want to continue to debate the choices that the characters made. The idea that we thought through a lot of the scenarios that far that it could be gamed for actual warriors who are actually dealing with questions like this…it’s great! I’m very surprised. It’s good to hear.

ES: There were some critiques, too.  One of the more interesting came from a Marine who asked, “Did he feel or does he now feel that there was a lack of perspective the survivors had in dealing with the biological Cylons and their extermination of BILLIONS of humans?”  Was there too much forgiving and forgetting in terms of the human survivors?

RM: That’s a fair point. That’s one of the trickier aspects of the show. How much sympathy and compassion could you extend towards an enemy that had done something as horrific as this—that had literally wiped out billions of people and committed genocide on a massive scale? Could you ever reach out to that enemy in any circumstance?  That’s a very legitimate question. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that. The show opts to say somehow—in some sense—compassion is part of what it is to be human. It’s a defining characteristic of [what it means] to be human. Without our compassion, are we different than a mechanical or an artificial life? The question “were Cylons people or could they ever be accepted as people” was always part of that. Could you hate them if they weren’t people? If you hate them, does that make them people? If they’re people, is there some point where you understand what happens on the other side of that line? It’s really hard to ever do that—to reach across a divide as profound as that one. That’s the challenge of the series.

ES: Another critique I heard was that either the pilots did too much—for example, Starbuck was a sniper on one episode—and that sometimes the Marines seemed like throwaway characters. Was there a debate on how to fairly represent the pilots and marines in terms of the roles they play on the ships?

RM: Yeah, there was. That’s really just the result of the constraints of television and budget. We had so many characters. The series is about the regular characters to a large extent. We created a lot of other characters all the time, and I tried to use the Marines as they would be as a security detachment aboard an aircraft carrier and we used them in that way. Ultimately, I am telling stories about Starbuck and Adama and Apollo. If there’s a central point in the narrative where I need a sniper and someone leading the team, television requires those roles to Apollo and Starbuck as opposed to two guest stars we’ve never seen before and will never see again. 

ES: Probably 60% of the questions I got were asking “Can I have Tricia Helfer’s phone number?” Of course, Ms. Helfer is very hot, but 6 on the other hand–especially early on–this really menacing femme fatale.  What is it about the male mind that makes us overlook…well, abuse, torture, and genocide in the name of hotness?

RM: [laughs] Yeah, they found that bridge [that is, overcoming genocide to reconcile with Cylons]. That is a deeper philosophical question than I am capable of answering.

ES: [laughs] Okay, here’s an easy one. One of the things that struck me about all the questions I got about “the hot characters” was that they were all focused on the Cylon characters and none were directed at Starbuck. Now, granted she’s pretty hard on her boyfriends and husband but ultimately she’s good for civilization. Why do you think there wasn’t more love—at least among the vets who asked me questions—toward Starbuck?

RM: There was not a lot of love toward Starbuck? [He was genuinely incredulous about this one; so was I.]

ES: No, there were no expressions of Starbuck’s “hotness.”

RM: I don’t know. That’s an interesting point of view. I’ve never heard that or thought about that, so I have no idea why they would go in that direction. She’s a pretty tough character, so I don’t know if she’s not feminine enough for some people or what their perception of that is. I don’t know—there was certainly a lot of letters from her male fans, that’s for sure.

ES: [laughs] Alright, maybe it was just my limited sample. In terms of love in a war zone, I remember an article that came up on one particular military forum discussing married couples living in war zones. Someone quipped, “Oh it worked on Battlestar Galactica.” He was joking; he was being sarcastic. Of course, it doesn’t always ‘work’ on the show—particularly among the military fleet there’s many dysfunctional relationships. Why was it important to you to depict that element—the relationships under fire and dysfunctional?

RM: It just felt like that was part of the reality. It felt to me like, okay, here is this direction that the military is now going and now it is really strongly moving towards women in all roles—combat roles—and it is becoming part of the fabric and professional view of this.  Relationships are going to inevitably become part of that. Now, if you move ahead into a military where they’ve been doing that for a very long time. It’s not even questioned. There’s not an institutional memory in the colonial fleet of a time when women were not in these ranks. There’s not an institutional memory of an all-male force. I just posited it was just like this as long as they could recall. Now, they’re in a situation where they’ve just kinda embraced male-female, coed units and institutions. Therefore, there must be relationships; therefore some of the people must be getting married; therefore, some of these people must be having inappropriate relationships—and it just happens all the time and let’s play with that. I kinda feel like where we are now it’s still a relatively new idea in the history of the US. It’s all still in one generation with this big changeover in relationships among men and women in the armed forces. The Defense Department is still figuring it all out. They’re still trying to get women on submarines. We’re still in a big transitional period, and I don’t think they’ve figure out how all this works with married couples, when you can get married, how you can be stationed together, when you transfer and when you don’t—that kind of stuff.

ES: One recurring issue on show was torture. Lately, there’s been a lot of discussion of Zero Dark Thirty’s representation of torture as being too positive. Looking back, do you feel comfortable with your representation of torture on the show?

RM: I do. I just wanted to believe that this is what they would do in this circumstance, and I believed those are the measure they would have taken in that circumstance. Different commanders would have different answers for it. Admiral Cain aboard the Pegasus clearly had a different idea than Adama did—or Starbuck had her own idea how to treat prisoners with important information in those circumstances. I was interested more in asking questions about “well, how do you feel about this?”—and I wanted the audience to have to watch it, and I wanted the audience to have to be in the room as much as possible as I could get away with on television and then make them watch and then make them think about it. It’s one thing to say in the abstract that out there some place in a room you’re never going to see people are doing these terrible things to other people in the name of saving lives—how do you feel about that? It’s another to look into the window and watch that and then [ask] how do you feel about?

ES: Is there any danger to contrasting the—and I use scare quotes—the “real” torture that we see on the Pegasus versus more “torture light,” “enhanced interrogation” we see on Galactica. Is there a contrast that makes one seem better or one worse?

RM: I think there is a danger. It was something we debated internally a lot. What are we saying and where are we going? Again, I tried to make it less about “here’s a philosophical statement about where I think the line should be drawn and these are the good guys and these are the bad” and more a case of “okay, what would this character do,” “how far would Starbuck go,” “how far would Adama go and how far would Cain go”—and try to run it like that. These are the characters we’ve established. Where will they go in this drama and what will they do? And try to be true to that and let the audience draw their own conclusions.

ES: One scene of torture that really stuck with me was when Baltar is tortured on the Basestar. In the DVD commentary, you mention fighting with the network censors over the what could be shown, what couldn’t be shown—particularly whether or not 6 would enjoy herself during the dissociative moment that Baltar had. The nature of the torture struck me. What was shown on television ended up being pretty tame. Short of blood, it’s just the instrument in the ear—it seems like a menacing audiology exam.  Did you initially conceive a more sexualized violence towards Baltar?

RM: I don’t recall what the initial thoughts were. I think we kind of knew that we were going to run into problems with the network, so right from the get-go we were thinking of creative ways of what we could get away with. I think we latched upon the Marathon Man example early where there’s not a lot of blood in that scene but boy watching Laurence Olivier come at your mouth with a dental instrument was one of the most disturbing moments I’ve ever seen and we want terrifying—so we said let’s go in that direction because it will freak people out and be disturbing, but we won’t have the network on our asses. If it’s not graphic, what can you really say?  We’re not showing that much, but the implication is pretty awful.

ES: Returning to Admiral Cain and the Pegasus, she was really one of the [lesser] characters that stuck with me. In Razor, we learn more about her personal experience of the attack and its aftermath. It turns out 6 was her lover and Cain orders her former lover’s rape and torture. Is there a danger in representing a gay character in this way—particularly when it comes to sexualized violence?

RM: There certainly was. We talked about that, and I talked about that with the actresses as well. My feeling was that the story was really about betrayal and personal betrayal that she felt. They had a relationship, she let her get close, and when the truth came out, the profound rage and betrayal and hugely violent emotion is what spurred the treatment of that 6 after. I wanted it to feel like it was a personal thing, not just an ‘okay, she’s a Cylon now, what I do to her?’ [thing]. I wanted to understand the rage and the determination to degrade here, and it was driven by something very specific.

ES: Why is the machine always the villain in American culture opposed to other cultures such as the Japanese where the machine is often the hero opposing “natural” forces?

RM: One answer for me would be the post-war fears during the Cold War. It all became about science, and science was literally going to blow us all up. Science had gotten out of control and was now the specter of the destruction of the planet. In truth, it might go farther back than that. It might go back to Frankenstein and that story and how that resonated with American culture with the scientist—the doctor—literally creating a monster that turns on everybody. There’s a long fascination with American pop culture about the robot and creating the instrument of our own demise.

ES: One question I was intrigued by was about Bear McCleary’s music.  One of the vets asked, “When did they decide to bring Bear McCleary’s music into an active portion of the plot?  Was that the plan all along or did audience’s response to such a spectacular score drive the story into using the music as a plot device?”

RM: That was kinda separate. I was fascinated with the song “All Along the Watchtower” completely separately from the show. I used to work on a series called Roswell, which was a science fiction show about aliens living among us as teenagers, and there was a show that I really wanted to do at one point that had two of the characters becoming obsessed with “All Along the Watchtower” and discovering there was some kind of hidden message in it. There was something mathematical in the notes like a code. I didn’t get very far with the story idea, but it always stuck with me in the back of my head as a cool concept for an episode. As we got into the latter stages of Galactica, we started talking about ways to reveal four out of the Final Five Cylons and I was pitching this scene where we cut to four of our characters around the ship and something happens and they all start finishing each other’s sentences or they’re all singing part of something and they all start moving towards one area where we’re going to reveal them all as Cylons. What could bring them all together? Either I or someone else said “music,” because it could be a musical phrase or a song and I immediately said, “‘All Along the Watch Tower! We’re going to use that!”

ES: I detected a certain hunger among the vets who sent me questions for—if not another BSG show—some other series where you would be at the helm. What’s next for you?

RM: I got a bunch of things in development right now. I have pilots at ABC that I’m waiting to hear if they’re going to pick it up for at least the pilot that’s an adaption of A Knight’s Tale, the Heith Ledger film that came out a few years ago with contemporary music. It was kinda fun and would be a fun, loose-limbed fantasy show. I’m also doing an adaption of a series of books called Outlanders by Diana Gabaldon that I’m doing for Starz, and that’s basically a period piece. A British Army nurse at the end of World War II is in Scotland with her husband and finds a circle of standing stones and ends up going back in time to 1743 in Scotland and falling in love and getting swept up in the Scottish Uprising with the British in this big, sweeping adventure and romance set in the 18th century, which I think is great. They’re hugely successful books.

ES: When I’ve read or watched previous interviews, you’ve always seemed obsessed with the notion of characters over plot.  Is the notion of a period piece—or even getting away from sci-fi in general—a move to embrace character more per se?

RM: Not per se. It’s just my interest going in that direction. I love history, so I’m drawn to doing period pieces. Science fiction is really a period piece that just happens to be in the future, so it’s all kinda the same. I like telling stories about people in those settings, so I always gravitate towards characters—flawed characters, unexpected characters—but putting them in these exotic settings that are not contemporary reality. It can be 18th century Scotland or it can be the 24th century; it’s about putting interesting people into a fantastical situation that’s bigger and more complicated than where you and I live.