I hate the holodeck*. Never been a huge fan of TV characters confessing directly to the camera. So why the hell do I love Virtuality, airing Friday at 8 pm on Fox?
Because it’s terrifically smart and engaging sci-fi, which is no surprise given the creative team behind the project. Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica) developed this near-future space adventure with one of BSG’s best writers, Michael Taylor. It's a two-hour back-door pilot for a series that may or may not happen -- but once you see how imaginative and eerily it plays, you'll want to let the network know that you'd like to see more.
Simply stated: Moore, Taylor and their assembled team have knocked this one out of the park.
Virtuality is the story of the Phaeton, the first interstellar spaceship to
leave our solar system. 100 years from now, we’re sending a mission to the
Episilon Eridani system to look for a new Earth because the current one is becoming
The 12-member crew of the Phaeton lives beneath an omnipresent camera system recording their every move. Their daily lives and conflicts. edited into slick segments by the ship's psychologist (James D'Arcy in a nicely manipulative role), are beamed back to the dying Earth as a reality show. Witty ads from a futuristic Fox explain the show’s ad revenue helps underwrite the mission's hefty price tag.
The holodeck stuff comes courtesy of an onboard virtual reality simulator where the crew can relax and retreat from the rigors of their mission. The captain, a stalwart but vulnerable Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, re-enacts Civil War battles. The ship's computer specialist becomes a crime-fighting pop singer in Japan. One childless woman, uncertain if space is the place to further the human race, creates a quietly touching fantasy where she’s pregnant and merely waiting her turn in a doctor's office.
The cast is strong, suitably multi-ethnic and I think they cover just about every sexual orientation. It makes sense they'd be skewed a bit young because it's a loooong journey. The story focuses on last-minute
obstacles threatening the mission and a malevolent figure (Jimmi Simpson, easily the creepiest TV character this side of Lost's Michael Emerson) who appears unexpectedly
in the virtuality modules.
Virtuality features the most realistic depiction of space travel I've seen in a TV show. The spindly spaceship (which -- thank you! -- rotates to provide gravity) gathers energy to depart our solar system by slingshotting around Neptune and throwing nuclear bombs out the back for propulsion. That's not some magic warp drive -- it's solid science, according to physicists like Michio Kaku, something we could in theory do right now.
The biggest threat to the ship comes not from unlikely cosmic disasters or strings of dense techno-babble, but from a cheap 20-cent fuse that malfunctions. In one terrifying scene, a crew member faces the harsh environment of deep vacuum ... and it ain't pretty.
Virtuality is ably directed by Peter Berg, who deftly handles the multi-format camerawork of this show within a show (and its several virtual worlds). The moody, sometimes unnerving score is by Wendy & Lisa (of Prince fame).
It's important to note that Virtuality, for all its virtues, is not a stand-alone movie. This two-hour pilot sets up
many plot/character threads and resolves just a few of them. But the stage is
nicely prepped for more adventures to come.
Despite that, Fox hasn't committed to a full series yet. Strong ratings tonight may help convince network brass to give Virtuality a shot. Then again, it's a bad time in cash-stricken TV land and the networks are running scared and blind. It would be a damned shame for Fox to walk away from one of the best pilots they ever produced.
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* The holodeck concept – be it on Star Trek or Harsh Realm or, briefly and most unfortunately, Babylon 5 -- always struck me as an easy escape route for lazy storytelling. “We’re bored -- hey, let’s go back to the 1930s and have an adventure!” Yawn.
On a surface level, I never bought the technology because it was never sold to me in a convincing fashion. Here's an example: how can you run a straight mile in a VR simulation when your meat-space is a room only fifty or a hundred feet long? How can you hold or throw or shoot or make love to something that doesn’t exist in real space? There’s got to be at least some lip service paid to deep neural stimulation of the senses -- think of that nice scene in The Matrix where Joe Pantoliano relishes each bite of a steak he knows does not exist.
Yes, that's the sort of damned picky geek I am. I can buy unlikely technologies like artificial gravity or transporters or even silly aliens with turtle shells for foreheads. But I need my VR to feel like it comes from Sears, damn it. I fully acknowledge that's my block, folks, and not necessarily yours.
Virtuality, to its credit, acknowledges some unsettling consequences of this technology. One of the characters is brutally assaulted in her simulation, while two others use the virtual space to conduct an extra-marital affair. In one touching sequence, the paraplegic engineer (played with brooding bravado by Richie Coster) has the use of his legs restored so he can climb mountains.
Later, another crewmember (the hard-edged Clea DuVall) races her bicycle through a surreal, brightly-lit landscape. We cut back to her private quarters to see that she’s donned the VR goggles and is pumping away at a stationery bike. Which is very cool, in my opinion. Virtuality doesn't spend time explaining all the particulars of this technology, but these nice moments promise a realistic exploration of its benefits and pitfalls. That is, if the show gets picked up.