EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW Michael Taylor on Virtuality

When Battlestar Galactica executive producers Michael Taylor and Ron Moore first announced Virtuality, everybody wondered if it would just turn out to be an extended "holodeck goes wrong" episode from Star Trek. After all, that's what the concept for this back door pilot sounded like: the crew of a ship on a mission to a far off star passed their time indulging in a virtual reality system that goes wrong. And both Moore and Taylor do have Trek on their CVs.

But now with the premiere of the two-hour pilot imminent (it airs on the US Fox network this Friday), and both Taylor and Moore promoting the Hell out it, it’s clear that there’s a lot more to Virtuality than that. The major new twist is a "reality TV" element; the crew of the ship are being watched by a massive TV audience back home. The irony is, the very elements that make the show sound more interesting, may have scuppered its chances of becoming a series, with claims that Fox bigwigs thought that the concept was too cerebral (a concept bound to get SF fans more – rather than less – interested).

Here, Michael Taylor talks exclusively to SFX about the TV movie, and its chances of becoming an ongoing series.

SFX: It sounds like there are a lot of issues about "What is reality?" in the show. Is there a bit of a Philip K Dick vibe?

Michael Taylor: "Oh yeah. It’s hard not to tackle issues of reality in SF and not be aware of Dick. He is a great writer, one of my favourites. I wouldn't mind if people thought we were riffing off him a bit."

Many people immediately thought of the Star Trek holodeck episodes when the basic idea behind Virtuality was revealed. In what ways is it more than just an expanded "holodeck goes wrong" scenario?

“Well, both Ron and I come from a Trek background, and I don't think there's anything wrong with creating something Trek-like. The strength of Trek was taking issue and dramatising them in a science fiction way, and that's basically what we're doing here. But of course, Virtuality has a lot to offer that's new and different.

"The things is, we did our research, and it turns out that NASA thinks if space crews were on massive long missions like this, they would need something like this VR idea to keep them sane, for reasons that are valid on a voyage of any great length where you've got people cooped up in a tin can with each other without any privacy. A VR environment like this could ultimately become not just entertainment but a kind of a lifeline to sanity: a sense of creating an environment where you can be alone.

“So if something goes wrong with that, something threatens it, starts to seem dangerous to the people who are using the system - that could be a really big issue on a trip like this. Imagine if someone took away all your reading material or put you in solitary, in a way. It starts of very innocuously but soon takes on pretty serious proportions.”

Do the crew share the same VR experience, or does each crewmember have their own?

“They each have their own virtual reality module. They own part of the system that is theirs. They can do anything they want with; they can craft any kind of personal environment that they want. They can share these environments if they wish to, but the idea is these are their private places. So initially at least, these are places that they go on their own, too enjoy on their own.”

How is the reality TV angle incorporated?

"I think we just had the idea about what if this mission was privately funded? And what if the consortium – as we call it – wants to make its money back? Want to see this as a profit-making venture? What would they naturally do?

“Already today NASA astronauts will communicate from the international space station, from the shuttle; they'll do publicity; they'll speak to school kids; they'll do various specials. And we were expanding that to the something very contemporary: the ultimate reality show. 12 people on a mission to another star, where they hope to find life on another world - what could be a more exciting hook than that? It adds another layer, a sort of Big Brother-ish vibe to the whole thing. Our crew are astronauts but they're also forced to sing for their supper. Some of them really chafe at it; others don't care, almost showing off for the camera. It just seemed like another cool layer for the show that also tied in with some of the themes that we are exploring: what is real? What is not real? How participating in a show about ourselves affects our lives”

Is there any audience voting involved?

“Audience voting? Well, that's interesting. Down the road, if there's a road to go down, there certainly could be something like that. The problem is that if we vote someone off the ship they don't really have anywhere to go. Maybe ‘The Universe’s Got Talent’ is an episode down the road.”

So, will there be a series?

“There isn't any definitive word on a series yet. To be honest, this looks like it could well be a one shot deal. Fox is airing it on a night that is not one of the great television nights of the year. I think it is challenging material. It's not a typical network show. It's not typical of an atypical network show. It’s got a lot of characters. It plays, I feel, a little bit more like an indie movie. We think it's fabulous. We think it could have been better. There's more work that would have loved to have done on it. But given the budget, given the constraints we were under, this is the show that we came up with and we think it’s really cool. But, uh, I cannot hold out a lot of hope that it's going to continue. I mean, if by a miracle, a lot of people decide they want to watch it, on this particular Friday night on a week before 4 July, who knows what might happen?”

Presumably there'll be a DVD? Sometimes massive DVD sales can make a difference?

"You know, I would assume so, but I haven’t heard a definitive word about that yet. I’m sure the studio behind it would love to put it out on DVD just to recoup some more money out of it, but I haven't heard anything for sure yet.”

What’s the tone of the show? Grim and dour seem to be trend at that moment, partly thanks to Battlestar.

"It’s interesting. There are some dark things that happen. And it’s a heightened situation – people under a lot of stress facing a real stressful voyage. And there are some really dire things happening on Earth – or things that will happen. But they are not facing an immediate nuclear apocalypse or being chased by killer robots. So there is a real fun – I wouldn't say frivolous – but a real fun side to the show too. I mean, these virtual reality modules, will permit people to do all sorts of weird and interesting things. We’ve got one character who sort of envisages herself as a Buckeroo Bansai Rock and Roll superspy, and her environment is kind of Joan Jett meets James Bond. Another guy has a civil war fantasy. And these people competed to be on this mission. They are doing something that's important to them. So I would say it's not a dour show. There are certainly dark, threatening things that happen in it, but it's that's not really what it's about.”

Any in-jokes we should be looking out for? After all the Commander is called Pike?

“People have asked about the commander being named Pike. But I am also a big fan of The Wild Bunch, and the William Holden character in that was certainly on my mind, as well as the Trek character. There are also some 2001 references and maybe – if it doesn't get cut – you'll see something familiar from a recent big SF film floating by in the background.”

SFX’s money is on WALL-E… well, if the show's not dour , then you never know…