After the new Battlestar Galactica shuttered its doors earlier this year, it left a palpable hole on television where a serious, thoughtful science fiction series should be. Dollhouse is too uneven to fit the bill. LOST is too twisty, zany and soapy to match it, either. Fringe, as much as I enjoyed Season 1, is too mainstream and procedural. Where’s that hard-nosed space travel show I, and so many others, desperately need?!
Well, it seemed Ronald D. Moore’s fellow BSG and DS9 and alum, Michael Taylor, who was responsible for a DS9 episode “The Visitor,” one of the only episodes of television to ever make me cry, had his own ideas for a new series; one that would take the Star Trek staple of virtual reality and give it an edgy twist. And his take on things interested Ron Moore enough to attach his name to the project, practically assuring that someone at the major networks would also catch interest in it. After all, Moore spearheaded a universally critically-acclaimed series that, while never quite breaking out into a huge mainstream success, garnered a sizable cult following and a permanent place in geek culture. His next project could be the one to explode into the mainstream consciousness! Or it could be Virtuality.
Virtuality eschews high concept for a premise that could make a network executive’s head explode like that guy from Scanners, so bear with me, okay? It’s the year 2050 and the spaceship Phaeton, which was originally sent on a 10 year mission to explore the possibility of extraterrestrial life in the nearby (astronomically-speaking) star system Epsilon Eridani, is feeling pressure from its financiers back on Earth. Apparently our eco-unfriendly ways have led to the inevitable: climate change so severe that the water level of oceans worldwide is on the verge of engulfing the land, making the planet rapidly uninhabitable. The Phaeton’s mission has changed to trying to find a habitable planet to move the human race to, but 6 months in the crew is facing a sticky go/no go situation. They’re nearing the point where they have to slingshot around Neptune in order to launch themselves out of the solar system, but potentially critical problems, such as the ship doctor’s discovery of his own early stages of Parkinson’s, seem to question the wisdom of doing so.
I said earlier that there was a twist on Star Trek‘s holodeck technology, and that’s where the Phaeton’s virtual reality modules come in. As compact and portable as a pair of bulky sunglasses (reminiscent of Caprica‘s virtual reality technology, hmm), the modules allow the user to experience whatever audio/visual fantasy they want, complete with full-body movement and tactile feedback. An early example of its use has the commander of the Phaeton staging a Civil War-era attack and the ship’s computer scientist pretend to be a J-pop star/secret super-agent. The Phaeton’s resident psychologist recommended the inclusion of the technology in order to take the edge off of being cooped up on a spaceship with the same 12 people for the next 10 years.
Speaking of the psychologist, he’s also the unlikely producer of the reality show The Edge of Never, which chronicles everyday life aboard the Phaeton for the viewers back home. Thew crew is required to submit to emotionally uncomfortable confessionals and the constant surveillance by the ship’s cameras of their every word and action. The show’s host, a fellow crewmate, shoves her “lipstick cam” into their faces to record their reactions. They have virtually zero privacy except when they’re inside their virtual reality modules… or so they think. A “glitch” in the program has started to appear, taking the appearance of a mysterious young man who gives cryptic messages before killing the user inside the program.
As you can see, Virtuality is not without depth… an almost dizzying amount of thematic elements and questions that they inspire. What’s the difference between what happens in a virtual world and a real one? Wouldn’t powerful emotional experiences in a virtual world start to effect you in reality? Where’s the limit on our culture’s voyeuristic streak? How can you tell what’s real and what’s fake, not only due to virtual reality, but to the nature of “reality” TV itself? Personally, I love the fact that the ship’s psychologist has the dual role of being the one responsible for keeping the show interesting to watch. It’s completely ethically revolting and results in interesting conflicts of interest such as when Manny and Val, the ship’s gay couple–you can tell it’s the future because no one mentions this–come in to complain about how the show always depicts them bickering and they’re tired of it. The psychologist, being paid by the company producing the show, bribes them to keep it interesting on-camera by offering to move Manny’s family off the coast of Florida, where they’re sure to be swallowed up by the ocean shortly, free of charge.
Of course, the most high-falutin’ ideas can turn to crap with no interesting characters, so the burden of holding up all this ponderous plot falls to the crew of the Phaeton. The ship’s commander, Frank Pike, is a man in the spiral of a depression. Crisis after crisis keeps popping up and it’s making the decision on whether or not to continue with the mission a difficult one. With the potential fate of the human race on his shoulders, he buries himself in virtual fantasies in order to find some relief, but even there he’s getting rudely interrupted by a virtual stalker continually murdering his avatar. His second in command, engineer Jimmy Johnson, is a bitter, cynical grump in a wheelchair who can’t seem to say anything supportive or optimistic about their chances of success. Billie, the resident computer ingenue, is naive as all hell, which is probably why shifty Roger Fallon, the ship’s psychologist, promotes her to being The Edge of Never’s new host. Of course, Roger’s so busy with his machinations that he doesn’t notice his wife Rika, a botanist, carrying on a virtual affair with the commander. Kenji and Alice are the resident multicultural married couple who honestly aren’t very interesting because their biggest worry is if they want to get pregnant and raise a child on the ship. Val and Manny, astrophysicist and geologist respectively, are also not given much in the way of drama because being gay is dramatic enough for television, right? Jules is the resident sad sack navigator who is still struggling to come to terms with the death of his young son. Then there’s Starbuck Sue, a tomboy pilot with anger issues. Finally, there’s Adin, the medical officer whom I previously mentioned is going the way of Michael J. Fox.
It’s generally a good cast, there was no one I could pick out as being unfit to be on screen. The problem is that with such a huge cast, and with a two hour runtime, some characters get the spotlight more than others. I’ve always been a fan of Clea Duvall, especially with her work on Moore’s previous series, the excellent but sluggish Carnivàle. Although the character in this hews a little too closely to BSG‘s Starbuck at first blush, there’s hints that there’s a vulnerability and sympathy for others bubbling closer to the surface in Sue than there was in Starbuck, and Duvall does a great job. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays the commander, also does a good job balancing the qualities of a leading man with the erratic behavior of a man starting to lose his mind. Haven’t seen it done this well (or really, at all) since Ben Browder on Farscape. Sienna Guillory, aka Jill Valentine from Resident Evil: Apocalypse, is also pretty good as Rika, who swings between her growing passion for the commander and her commitment to her husband, and tries to have the best of both worlds by committing her relationship with Pike to the make-believe realm of virtual reality. And frankly, I’m surprised none of it stunk seeing as it was directed by Peter Berg, the man responsible for the dumpster that was Hancock.
It starts to get hard reviewing the material at this point because although FOX aired the pilot as a “two-hour movie event,” it still clearly is setting up a potential television series. Apparently, FOX was really excited to develop Virtuality, up until it received the first cut of the pilot which promptly wiped the grin off of the executives’ faces. According to the people who created it, FOX pretty much saw Virtuality after that as a show that had no hope of securing a sizable audience and withdrew virtually (ha!) all proactive support for the endeavor, although it still decided to air the pilot as a TV movie, perhaps to recoup the expense it went through producing it through advertising. As always, it held the carrot out in front of hardcore fans saying that if there was enough of a response from the airing, there might be impetus to follow through and order more episodes.
As a movie, frankly, it’s incomplete from a narrative standpoint. There’s not enough time for some characters to become more than just a face that pops up in the background of scenes from time to time. Alice has a virtual pregnancy subplot that dead-ends in the last few minutes with a weird twist that’s difficult to make sense of. The main plot issues of the nature of the virtual reality disturbances and whether or not anyone on board might be responsible for them remains unresolved. And there’s an incredibly ballsy plot twist at the end that throws a giant WTF at the audience that just isn’t very appropriate for a movie intending to stand on its own.
As a TV pilot, however, it’s almost exactly what you’d want. It sets in place all of the figures and situations that would have undoubtedly driven the series proper and leaves plenty of hooks in the viewer to have them wanting more. It’s not as amazingly thrilling as, say, the reimagined Battlestar Galactica‘s miniseries, but it’s a far cry more ambitious from any others I’ve seen. And it does something so amazingly gutsy near the end that floored me. I shan’t ruin it here for anyone still hoping to check it out, but suffice to say that it reconfirmed that I was watching a work from the same guy that did BSG, which pulled off some of the most daring plot stunts on TV this side of LOST. If Virtuality ever continues on, I’ll be extremely interested in seeing where they intend to go with this development.
But, unfortunately, just as FOX predicted (some would argue in a self-fulfilling prophecy), no one watched Virtuality. It could’ve been because it aired on a Friday, when the show’s target audience would most likely be out and about. It could’ve been because it’s the summer, a time of year where people traditionally just don’t watch TV with the same verve they do the rest of the year. Maybe it was the show’s fault for being a 16 oz science fiction steak when current trends show that the American movie-watching audience prefers the rotten, piss-stained popcorn of Transformers 2. I mean, traditionally, Americans haven’t been very kind to hard sci-fi like this or 2001: A Space Odyssey. I think my dad and I were some of the only people in the theater when Soderbergh’s Solaris remake was released. Ron Moore was quoted not too long before the broadcast as being extremely pessimistic about Virtuality‘s chances, maybe that made some of the fans think the time investment wouldn’t be worth it for a show that wasn’t likely to continue.
And honestly, I disagree. Regardless of Virtuality‘s ultimate fate, it’s an extremely worthy attempt at another space travel show, it’s an example of an almost rarer breed: the serial television show. There was a period of time in the mid-’00s where it seemed like genre was on the uptick on television due to LOST‘s breakout success. But just a few years later, LOST was the only one still left standing (and barely, at that) and nowadays in order to have a show with genre elements, you have to sneak it into another formula that viewers are already familiar with, such as a procedural crime drama. There’s already shows like Supernatural and Fringe, where there’s heavy genre trappings, but married to the case-of-the-week formula. Then there’s even milder stuff like Medium or The Ghost Whisperer. This past year saw the genre-in-disguise series Life on Mars, where a police officer finds himself sent back in time to the 1970s to catch criminals. In short, it seems people don’t want to know what they’re watching is science fiction; it better not actually be in outer space and if it is, it damn well better have explosions, and every week things get set back to the way they were at the start! Virtuality promised to be none of these things. It was set in outer space, was revving up for a complicated ongoing plot and people mainly walked through the corridors of the Phaeton, discussing things.
And so its intellectual aspirations proved to be the cause of its apparent demise. The network that expected a rousing space opera instead found itself burdened with a philosophical medicine ball that was like the offspring of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and 90’s cult sci-fi movie The Thirteenth Floor. The vote of no confidence left it DOA in the eyes of the network and the audience. And it’s a shame.Virtuality had spunk. But I guess people watching television hate spunk. If you’re still interested in Virtuality after reading all this, you can currently find it here on Hulu.