Chowchilla native Ronald Moore among elite of sci-fi, fantasy

The Fresno BeeJanuary 4, 2014 

PASADENA — Nestled among a row of small locally owned businesses, just a block off the street where the annual Tournament of Roses parade winds, are the offices of Ronald D. Moore. It doesn't look like the kind of place where time travelers, killer viruses, Cylons and other out-of-this-world inhabitants would come to life, but the work that's coming out of Tall Ship Productions has put the 49-year-old Chowchilla native among the sci-fi and fantasy elite of Hollywood, putting him in the company of J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon.

He's got the credentials to prove it, having worked on high-profile franchises such as "Star Trek," "Star Wars" and "Battlestar Galactica."

With two new series launching in 2014, he's adding to his already-lengthy résumé at a faster pace than ever. He's the executive producer of the new Syfy series "Helix," which launches at 10 p.m. Jan. 11, and the Starz series "Outlander," which will debut in the spring.

"Helix" follows a team of scientists from the Centers for Disease Control who investigate a possible disease outbreak at a high-tech research facility in the Arctic. They find themselves pulled into a life-and-death struggle that may hold the key to mankind's salvation or total annihilation. Sci-fi veterans Billy Campbell and Jeri Ryan star.

Work on getting the series launched had been going on for a year before Moore was sent the script.

"I didn't want to read it. This wasn't my thing. Viruses," says Moore, who is seated on one of the large couches in his second-floor office where he often works on his laptop. "They told me I should check it out because it's pretty good."

Moore read the script and found it compelling, attracted by the tension and intrigue of the story. But the foundation of the series fits a recurring theme in Moore's work: people who are cut off and isolated.

In this case, the team is at a base in the frozen wasteland, miles from any immediate help or assistance.

"I do respond to isolating a group of characters in a particular situation and seeing how they react," Moore says. "There's something intriguing to me about taking people out of their normal world and then presenting them with a fantastical situation but not having the ability to call for help.

"In that situation, you can really examine character and take people apart in a different way. There's a natural tension that comes from that."

'Outlander'

Being a stranger in a strange land is also a theme of Moore's "Outlander," a series for which he's got a deep passion. It's based on the novels by Diana Gabaldon about a married combat nurse from 1945 who is mysteriously swept back in time to 1743. Now that "Helix" is up and running, Moore's putting the bulk of his energy into "Outlander," which includes repeatedly traveling to Scotland where it's being filmed and writing four of the initial 16 episodes.

"I have a much more hands-on approach to 'Outlander.' It's one of the biggest projects I've ever taken on. It's a period piece that we're shooting in Scotland. So the international aspect alone makes it a very big thing to get your arms around," Moore says.

Though he has some background doing a large period piece with HBO's "Carnivale," the scale of "Outlander" dwarfs that and even the production scale of "Galactica."

Moore tries to write every morning, but he has a lot of demands on his time with the two series. If he can complete 10 pages in a day, he considers that a good, solid day of work.

Creating a film or TV series from a book runs the risk of drawing the wrath of fans. Moore heard plenty of grousing from the fans when he worked on "Star Trek" and the relaunch of "Battlestar Galactica."

Moore found out about the "Outlander" books when his work on "Battlestar" was winding down. Both his wife, Terry, and producing partner, Maril Davis, brought the books to his attention. They had read the books independently and suggested Moore read them. It took years to get the project going because the rights owners were more interested in making the books into a feature film. When that never happened, Moore finally got to move ahead with his adaptation for TV.

He's not worried about much ire from fans since Gabaldon has already publicly said she loves the adaptation.

Keeping the fans happy — while bringing in those who never read the books — has created a big challenge for Moore.

"The reference material is not always there," Moore says. "We have found doing research on that project that there's a lot of paintings of aristocrats of the period but there are not a lot of paints of normal people. Even the tartans are not what we think they are. We think of them being those strong colors and every clan had their own tartan. But, that's not particularly true in this era."

The two new shows add to Moore's sci-fi pedigree. He's been either a writer or executive producer — and sometimes both — on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," "Star Trek: Voyager," "Roswell," "Battlestar Galactica" and "Caprica."

A few years ago, when George Lucas was thinking about producing a live-action TV show based on his "Star Wars" universe, Moore was one of the writers invited to the inner sanctum of Skywalker Ranch to write scripts for the potential series. Moore estimates 48 scripts were written, but before they could be turned into a TV series, Lucas sold his company — including the scripts — to Disney.

His work may never be produced, but working with Lucas gave him one huge sci-fi bragging right.

"There was a two-part episode, which was Darth Vader's only appearance in the series. I was really tickled that I had written dialogue for both Kirk and Darth Vader. I was the only one who could say it at that time," Moore says.

When Moore was growing up in Chowchilla, the walls of his room were covered with "Star Trek" posters, including one of Capt. James T. Kirk. He got to create dialogue for Kirk when he co-wrote the screenplay for the 1996 film "Star Trek: Generations," in which Kirk dies.

One of the trademarks of Moore's series are strong female characters, which continues in "Outlander" with Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe). Her strength was one of the big draws for Moore in the book.

Even with the demands of the two new series, Moore's already looking ahead. Odds are his next projects will be something in the sci-fi world, featuring isolation and strong female characters.


SHOW INFO

"Helix": 10 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 11, on Syfy.

TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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