You'd be forgiven for believing any project from Battlestar Galactica bigwig Ronald D. Moore would have networks clamouring to get it greenlit, but Fox turned down the option to make Virtuality a fully-blown series. Instead, it now exists as a "television movie" curio, primarily because it was too expensive to let sit on a shelf unseen and unloved. It may as well plug a two-hour gap in the summer schedule, re-edited to work as a one-off event. So, how was it?
I have mixed feelings, which surprised me because I expected to adore Virtuality given its pedigree and high-concept. In the near-future, the twelve-man crew of the spaceship Phaeton are on a decade-long round-trip to Epsilon Eridani. It's a mission that could results in the salvation of Earth, as scientists have calculated the planet will become inhospitable in a century.
In this pilot, the Phaeton is approaching the "go/no-go" point of their journey; the last chance to abort the mission if necesssary. It's juicy drama, which is perhaps why the Phaeton's also the setting for a reality TV series, broadcast to five billion viewers back home. It's never made explicit, but the shadowy "Consortium" behind the show are likely to have funded the entire mission, which itself is a satirical look at the growing power of television. Maybe one day the International Space Station will be the setting for Big Brother? Or minor celebrities will spend three weeks on the moon doing zero-gravity challenges?
A key factor to Virtuality (and something that provides reasoning for its title) is that the crew have access to virtual reality "modules" to help break the monotony of space travel. Simply by wearing VR glasses, crewmen can participate in a digitized American Civil War, paint a mountain vista, go rock-climbing, have sex in a beach house, sing "The Munsters" theme tune in a foreign language to an adoring Japanese crowd (!), etc. However, various crewmembers begin to experience freakish goings-on in their VR fantasies, when a creepy man (Jimmi Simpson) pops up in various programs and proceeds to "kill" them. Is this green-eyed villain just a frightening computer glitch, or something much deeper? And after one of the crew is raped by this inscrutable "virtual man", should the crew take the VR system offline and risk cabin fever?
The characters of Virtuality are an interesting bunch, neatly drawn given the time constraints. There's handsome Commander Pike (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who's having an affair with sexy botanist Rika Goddard (Sienna Guillory) in secret VR trysts; ship's designer Julius "Jules" Braun (Erik Jensen); ship's pilot Sue Parsons (Clea DuVall); computer specialist and TV presenter Billie Kashmiri (Kerry Bishe); TV producer and psychologist Roger Fallon (James D'Arcy); Israeli Dr. Eyal Meyer (Omar Metwally), whose ill health threatens the mission; married couple Alice Thibadeau (Joy Bryant) and Kenji Yamamoto (Nelson Lee); a gay couple, geologist Valentin Orlovsky (Gene Farber) and mathematician Manny Rodriguez (Jose Pablo Cantillo); and crippled engineer/second-in-command Jimmy Johnson (Ritchie Coster).
There's a lot to like and appreciate about Virtuality, but there's also enough to make you understand why a network would have second thoughts about it. The characters are well-written and the ensemble felt believable and easy to watch, while this episode introduced lots of dilemmas and worries to turn the Phaeton into an intense pressure-cooker. There's the pervasive paranoia of being subjects on a reality show, concerns that their lives are being manipulated to provide interesting television, the possibility the ship's computer "JEAN" can't be trusted after a suspicious malfunction (shades of 2001's HAL), the ambiguity of the VR mystery man (software glitch, alien contact?); the fact the ship's only medical doctor is diagnosed with the early on-set of Parkinson's Disease; and the obvious problems when you put a group of people together in relatively small environment with the fate of the planet resting on their shoulders.
The issues for Fox may have been Virtuality's relaxed, leisurely pace and intellectual vibe. It's a fairly realistic near-future vision akin to Danny Boyle's Sunshine, with little scope for too much ship-based action. It would feel more at home on a cable subscription channel. You can't keep repairing the Phaeton every other week to provide exciting stories and CGI space-walks, and there's no scope for visiting alien planets or returning to Earth, so Virtuality would probably have leaned on the relationships of the people stuck together and the VR fantasies/mystery. Of course, the latter runs the risk of turning the show into an extended Star Trek-style "Holodeck episode".
One proposal behind the show would have been to weekly release of the fake reality show to online audiences, which is something I wouldn't be keen on. The reality show element is certainly a fresh vein for a space drama, but I have little interest in watching a fictional reality show online in tandem. I'm averse to internet content of any kind, really, particularly "webisodes".
With its POV angles from "lipstick cam" and cameras mounted around the Phaeton's hull and along its corridors, this voyeuristic element of the show felt like an excuse to riff on reality show tropes in a sci-fi context. Good fun, but not terribly involving. Maybe if the whole show had been directed and edited like a reality show, it would have justified itself in those terms. Of course, that would have thrown up problems elsewhere, because the VR simulations are private fantasies inaccessible to outsiders, yet a key ingredient of the drama and mystery.
It's strange, really; Virtuality was packed full of great ideas and decent characters, but all that didn't stop it feeling rather dull. If it went to series, I'm not sure how they'd have kept the story going (as they won't arrive at Eridani for five years and I doubt they'd explain the VR interloper for ages), which leaves us with the simple human drama of twelve people living together in a rotating spaceship getting increasingly suspicious and fearful. Is that enough to sustain a continuing television series, or would this have worked better as a mini-series to begin with?
Overall, despite being rescued from a 4 July "death slot" to a mildly preferable Friday night "graveyard slot" a week earlier, Virtuality only snared 1.8 million viewers. That appears to spell the end of all hope Fox might greenlight Virtuality as a mid-season replacement in the wake of stellar ratings and huge interest. I can't say I'm surprised, or even that upset we won't be seeing more, but Virtuality was definitely a show I'd have watched beyond its pilot episode -- if only to see how the writers planned to tackle its thorny issues, the storytelling problems its premise poses, and how they'd have developed their ballsy, surprising climax.
26 June 2009 Fox, 9/8c
written by: Ronald D. Moore & Michael Taylor directed by: Peter Berg starring: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Commander Frank Pike), Sienna Guillory (Rika Goddard), James D'Arcy (Dr. Roger Fallon), Ritchie Coster (Dr. Jimmy Johnson), Omar Metwally (Dr. Adin Meyer), Kerry Bishe (Billie Kashmiri), Joy Bryant (Alice Thibadeau), Nelson Lee (Kenji Yamamoto), Jose Pablo Cantillo (Manny Rodriguez), Gene Farber (Val Orlovsky), Clea DuVall (Sue Parsons), Jimmi Simpson (Virtual Man), Graeme Duffy (Rico the Roadie), Erik Jensen (Julius "Jules" Braun), Shawn Braun (Quinn Lord) & Sheldon Yamkovy (Lazerus)