So I mentioned my desire to see it, and waited for a while for it to find it’s way onto Hulu, and when it did, I finally got around to watching Virtuality, the backdoor pilot/TV movie from Ronald D. Moore, of Battlestar Galactica fame, and Michael Taylor.
Actually, let me put it this way: In the week since it’s made it’s way onto Hulu, I’ve now watched it three times. Well, three and a half (it’s on in the background as I type this). The first time was because I was a curious sci fi dork. The second time because I wanted to write this very review for you lovely people. And the third time, because I was a fan.
The plot, as short and succinct as I can: Set roughly 30 or so years in the future, we find 12 astronauts are 6 months into a ten year mission (five years there, five years back) aboard the space vessel Phaeton to the nearest star to Earth, Epsilon Eridani, in the hopes of finding intelligent life or the possibly of planets that can sustain human life there.
But space travel is not cheap, and to help alleviate the costs, the astronauts are filmed every single moment and the footage is packaged as a reality show entitled “Edge Of Never” back home for viewers to follow the drama of confinement in space for years on end. There’s even confessionals, true reality show style. On top of that, there’s different corporate sponsors, which dictates which logo the crew wears on different days. Big Brother in space! Only, you can’t be voted off (seemingly).And on top of that, and adding a little extra flair to the title, the ship is equipped with virtual reality modules, meant originally as a means to keep well trained, but the system is so advanced that the astronauts can basically enter any environment they want and play out any scenario. Think: the holodeck of the mind.
But there’s some problems. For starters, the crew is coming up on the Go/No Go decision, where they’ll have to decide to continue on with their mission towards Epsilon Eridani (of which there’ll be no turning back) or to slingshot their way back to Earth. It’s complicated because since they left it’s been discovered that the environmental problems the Earth is facing have gotten even more serious and scientists have determined that the planet will be uninhabitable within 100 years. This mission could very well mean the survival of the human race. Talk about an inconvenient truth.
One nice touch: The make up of the crew. If you think about it, a reality show about actual astronauts in space would be cool, and of course it’d be marketed to ratchet up the petty drama. There’s a few couples within the crew, including a gay couple and an interracial couple, which makes a lot of sense both in an international space mission and a reality show.
Another nice touch: One of the characters is having an affair with another person within the virtual reality modules. The man doesn’t consider it an affair since it’s not “real,” that it’s just a “fantasy,” but the woman playfully suggests, “Then you wouldn’t mind telling my husband, would you?”
Ah, but I did say holodeck, right? As with every holodeck story, there’s something wrong with the virtual reality system. There appears to be a man in the VR world, omnipotent and malicious, who’s job it seems to be is to terrify the crew trying to relax in their virtual fantasies. He breaks into a few of their simulations and “kills” them (if you die in the VR world, you don’t die in real life, but it’s not a pleasurable experience to wake up from), but to one character he commits a violent sexual assault.
The assault leads to a fascinating scene as the crew discusses whether or not to shut down the VR modules to get to the bottom of the glitch. The drama in the scene comes from the fundamental misunderstanding of rape (and of a selfishness and non-desire to lose their fantasy escape): if it happened in the world of virtual reality, it’s not real, right? But isn’t all rape really rape of the mind?
Here’s the most shocking thing I can say about the pilot: It was directed by Peter Berg and it’s actually really good. Granted, it’s pretty much all script and strong performances from the cast, but still, Berg does a surprisingly competent job (but we still hate him here at Counterforce). The VR scenes were apparently all shot in blue screen to add to the slightly off feel of them and apparently portions of the pilot were improvised (I’m assuming the stuff with the characters in their various confessional moments).
The purpose of any good pilot is to get you excited about further adventures within a show, to suggest various plotlines, and leave you hungry for more. This two hour episode certainly did that for me. I’d watch the hell out of this show. God forbid the hoi polloi is allowed to chance to watch smart television that can provoke thought and passionate interest within it. It’s not too shocking to reveal that of course the characters decide to “go” on Go/No Go, but after they’ve gone past the point of turning back (and I forgot to mention that one of the characters also is diagnosed with a deadly serious disease), someone is killed. Added to all the other excellent elements this show is balancing: a murder mystery. But, of course, not everything is as it seems…
As of right now, FOX hasn’t picked up the show for series production, which isn’t all that shocking knowing FOX’s almost date rape-esque history with science fiction programming. The fact that it not only aired a full season (well, mostly) of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, let alone picked it up for a second season, is still mind blowing. Of course, Dollhouse has to be radically cheaper than this show would be, and will apparently be coming back with an even lower budget for it’s second season.
Remember Danny Boyle’s Sunshine? Remember how good you wanted it to be? Then remember how bad it actually was in comparison? Yeah, I do. But man, it had some lovely visuals. But this show has lovely everything else, but in an interesting sci fi curio kind of way just brimming with hyperreality. And it doesn’t get tripped up where other previous ventures into virtual reality like Virtuosity or VR-5 got lost.
Even Clea DuVall, whom I can never stand, is good at what she does here. And the actress who plays the computer expert/reality show host looks just like she could be Leighton Meester’s big sister. And her fantasy of being a Japanese rock star/Alias-type super spy is just excellent.
Also, it’s nice to see the lovely Sienna Guillory get a nice role to play, and to see her freed from Paul W.S. Anderson type bullshit. Come on, people, she was Helen of Troy after all!
Anyway, from the face that launched a thousand ships to sinking ships… in space, I give this show my full endorsement. I hope it sticks around on Hulu for a while. I hope it gets picked up for a series. I hope that they at least have to sense to eventually release it on DVD at some point before mankind leaves this solar system behind.