Ronald D. Moore on Outlander, the Battlestar Ending, and Sexposition

Photo: Neil Davidson/Sony Picures Television

One of the stealth hits at this past weekend’s New York Comic-Con was the panel for the forthcoming Starz epic Outlander — a historical fiction, romance, and sci-fi genre-bender in which a WWII-era woman goes back in time to eighteenth-century Scotland and gets caught up in romantic and political conflicts. Since the show (which started shooting outside of Glasgow last week) is being developed by longtime Star Trek franchise scribe and Battlestar Galactica showrunner Ronald D. Moore, you might expect the sci-fi quotient to take center stage, but he assured the largely female audience in attendance that, with a few exceptions, he’s staying very true to Diana Gabaldon’s books. At a separate event for Outlander fans afterwards, Moore chatted with Vulture about pleasing a new fan base (which includes his wife), anticipating criticism, and how he loves to hear that you hated the ending of Battlestar.

You’re wearing a kilt. Nice legs!
[Laughs.] This is a rental. I asked my wife [Terry Dresbach, who is the co-costume designer on Outlander], “Can you make me a kilt?” [She said] “Make you a kilt? Do you know how hard it is to make a kilt?” [I said] “Is it? Isn’t it just like a glorified skirt?” So she went into this whole thing about the pleating and everything [and said], “It’s like buying a suit!” [Laughs.] But I get the feeling that this will be an ongoing thing, so I should probably invest in a kilt.

Your wife is a huge Outlander fan. How much trouble would you be in if you got something with this series wrong?
A lot! And I would know about it pretty quickly. She’s already said, “I don’t think you should have done this that way.” And I get it, but there’s a reason why we’re doing it. She’ll never let me quite forget: “That’s not the way it should have been!” Ever.

The fan base for this series is a little different than what you might be used to with Battlestar or Star Trek. For one thing, there are more women.
A few. [Chuckles.] But the questions and the passions are very similar. They care about the same things. They care about the characters. They care about the backstories. They care about the integrity of the universe, what happens outside the frame. They want to believe that there is this world that exists beyond just what you watch in the camera. And that’s the same passion that the Trek and the Battlestar people had. It doesn’t feel like a radically different thing to deal with. Yes, it’s women, a lot of women of a certain age. These are not young kids. But as fans? It doesn’t feel any different.

Was part of the appeal of adapting this that you didn’t have to create your own mythology?
I don’t know if that’s a plus or a minus. I just read it with an eye towards adapting it, and it didn’t feel like, “Oh, I have to figure out how to fix this, or change this.” I can see it in my head, and it all makes sense to me. I know where the story is going, I know where the characters are going, and that makes it easier to produce. I can make long-range plans. That said, you are taking a piece of literature and transforming it, so you’re looking to solve different kinds of puzzles. A lot of times in the book, it’s digressive, with the characters talking about their pasts. And we’ll do some of that, we’ll have some flashbacks of [protagonist] Claire’s marriage to Frank, but in the show, you don’t want to go off like that. You have to figure out, How much of that do I need to know?

Do you watch Continuum? It involves time travel as well. A woman goes back into the past, only in this case, her past is our present. She’s from the year 2077, and that’s where her husband and son are, in the future. Is it cheating if your spouse hasn’t been born yet?
Is it cheating? [Laughs.] Yeah. I think it is. In her heart, she’s still married to him, and that is the central dilemma.

As well as the question of whether you can change the future and other theories of time travel that usually go into these types of shows.
One of the things I did like about this is that Diana doesn’t go anywhere near that. She doesn’t raise the paradoxes of it. Have I affected history? Will this change the future? She just doesn’t do it. It doesn’t interest her, and I’m happy to not have it as part of the show, because once you start that conversation, it does become a science-fiction show and the dominoes of history. You’d want to cut to Frank and see if history had changed. So it’s nice, actually, that it’s not on the table. Claire just goes [back in time] and she just lives her life.

Will that help you avoid some of the debates that came up with Battlestar?
There will be a fair amount of debate, because people know these books intimately. And we make choices — what we do, what we don’t do, what we add, what we subtract. Like, we’ll have more Black Jack [an ancestor of Claire’s husband] in the series. People will debate those choices. You could hear it in the crowd — people were not happy about casting Sam [Heughan] as Jamie [Claire’s love interest in the eighteenth century]. And that will continue; that is part and parcel of having a fan base. I always said, some of the most dedicated fans were the ones that hated it the most. The fans who write the blog that says, “I saw this episode four times, and every time it gets worse than the time before” — these are really dedicated fans! And this is just how they express their love for the show, in this conflict, wanting to argue about it, wanting to tell you how it’s wrong. That will be part of this experience. Hopefully, it’s a small fraction of the fan base, but it will always be there.

Even the people who thought the Battlestar ending was the worst ever for a sci-fi TV show? Do you like hearing that?
I do! Yeah, I wish they loved it, but I think it comes from a place of passion for the show. Why get that upset about it if you don’t care about it? If you weren’t engaged, you could not be that angry because you thought we screwed it up.

Some fans felt that you didn’t explain things enough, that you left things too ambiguous, especially with Starbuck. Did you ever second-guess that decision?
I thought about it. We talked about it at length in the writers’ room, and I didn’t hear something that I liked. I liked the idea, conceptually, that her fate was ambiguous because, conceptually, we were tying her to whatever the power was that didn’t like to be called God and was involved from the inception. From the miniseries on, there’s definitely something else going on in this story, and it’s unknowable. I kind of felt like it should be unknowable. It felt wrong to give it a neat answer on something that was so profound and existential about these people and this situation. They were dealing with something that they had trouble defining, whether it was gods plural, or God singular, or something else out there. Starbuck was in some way representational of that power, or had some connection to it, having been brought back from the dead — literally. I just didn’t feel like I wanted to give it a “Oh, that’s what this means.” It just felt right that that, too, should be mysterious and unknowable. That’s the way I wanted to go. If I called her an angel, does that make everybody happy? That just seemed really unsatisfying. I don’t know what that means. That’s just putting a label on who she is and it doesn’t tell me anything more, really.

You once put together a manifesto about the things you would do and not do in sci-fi, but then you broke those rules. Do you have a manifesto for Outlander?
[Laughs.] Yeah, you kind of have to. You have to know what the rules are, in order to break them. There were probably some we bent, rather than broke, depending on how you look at it. But, yeah. We tried to hew to that general manifesto from the very beginning. But now, no. The book is our bible, and we try to just stick with it. Our job is to realize this material. I’ve never seen [it being] my job to make my version of Outlander. Galactica was. That was like, “This is flawed, but I think there’s a great idea in the center of it there. I’m going to keep everything that works and throw away everything that doesn’t. We’ll just make it our own.” That’s not my job here. This is how best can I realize what already works. And these people love this. I want them to love the show as well.

The Outlander books have some pretty graphic sex scenes. Will the show try to rival Game of Thrones in that department? And is sexposition a technique you would ever use?

Sexposition — pairing up sex scenes with necessary exposition.
While sex is going on in the background? Oh, that’s funny. I thought you were saying “sex position.” We’ll have those, too. [Laughs.] I’m not sure what I would use sexposition for. We’ll have a lot of sex scenes, but they’ll all seem to have a purpose. And there’s no pressure from on high to sex up Outlander. It’s pretty graphic stuff as it is! We’ve come up with an interesting structure for the wedding night, to tell the story, because it’s one long night. And you’ll get all the stuff that’s in that wedding night. I think people will be happy.

Okay, because the female fans are really looking forward to the part where Jamie is no longer a virgin. He’s, like, their ideal guy.
We call him the king of men in the writers’ room. Because he’s the king of men. [Laughs.]

Ronald D. Moore on Outlander and Sexposition