Synopsis: From the minds that brought us the reimagining of Battlestar Galactica (Ron Moore and Michael Taylor), comes a two-hour science-fiction thriller movie (that is also a pilot for a possible series) called Virtuality.
It’s the future and things have turned ugly for the Earth. You know all those predictions of environmental doom and gloom? They turn out to be true and happening faster than expected. Earth will be uninhabitable in 100 years. Luckily humanity has a chance for survival.
The crew of the Phaeton is approaching the go/no-go point of their 10-year journey through outer space towards a planet that may be able to sustain life. Combine the pressures of having the fate of Earth rest on your shoulders and having it all taped for a reality TV show, you can imagine that things are extremely stressful for this crew of 12. To help with the stress, enforced confinement and lack of privacy the crew has been equipped with an advanced virtual reality program. But even that safe haven is threatened when a ‘glitch’ causes the virtual reality program to attack the crew.
The Good: As a fan of Ron Moore, I’ve been waiting to see what he would do next on TV. While his other project Caprica appears to be doing well with the SciFi Channel, his project with Fox, Virtuality, has been struggling.
This “movie” is actually the two-hour pilot. Fox decided to air it and, depending on the reaction, decide to take a chance on ordering more episodes.
The story is well crafted and has a unique cinematic style. The reality TV cameras (hull cams, interior cameras, the confessional room camera and the infamous lipstick camera), the green screen backgrounds for the VR ‘worlds,’ and the hand held-style filming for everything else combines to form a distinctive cinematic style. Normally this could be confusing, but they did a great job showing us visually what “reality” we were in.
The cast is large and those that had a chance to stand out did a great job acting. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (New Amsterdam) and Clea Duvall (Carnivale) are the most memorable, but all of the actors did well and brought that A-class acting that people are accustomed to from Battlestar Galactica.
The music was well placed in scenes, including the very memorable scene where they boost the ship’s speed with nukes. Trust me, you’ll understand what I’m talking about when you see it.
Moore brings his signature to this pilot with a scifi program that is filled with flawed complicated characters. He has a knack of bringing darkness to a story, but yet giving us a sliver of hope.
This series doesn’t play it safe either. We have an interracial couple and a gay couple, two things rarely seen on serious dramas and even rarer in science fiction TV. I have to give kudos to the creative team on taking chances and not only doing well but also not making it feel forced or fake. All too often scifi shows do not do relationships well (no matter the race or sexual orientation), so it is nice to see a scifi show make the relationships seem real.
The Bad: I only have two problems with this pilot.
One small issue was the voyeur elements with the reality TV show aspect. On one hand it is an exceptional and rarely seen choice, but it also threatens to distance the viewer too much emotionally from what is happening. That is something the writers will need to balance carefully if there are more episodes.
Second, and this is the big one, who are these people and why should I care? Any TV series with a dozen characters is going to be a challenge in highlighting each character. The pilot did a descent job, but I still feel like I never got to know any of these characters well. I wanted to know some of them better. Pike had the most airtime, but his character was chaotic in his mood swings so I never felt like I really got to know who he is.
It is like the question Pike asks a virtual soldier in the first few minutes of the pilot. He asks what he did before the war. Of course that is beyond the character’s programming, so he doesn’t remember. I feel like most of these characters fall in the same boat. Except for a few exceptions, I just don’t feel like these characters could answer that same question based on what I saw. I think two major exceptions, both due to acting and writing, are Sue Parsons (Clea DuVall) and Roger Fallon (James D’Arcy).
The Final Verdict: Besides the points I brought up earlier, I did enjoy this pilot. It feels like a sophisticated and bold show that would normally be found on HBO or Showtime. I wonder if it would have actually had a better chance there than with Fox.
If you like the style of writing used in Battlestar Galactica (forgetting about any ‘reboot’ bias), then you’ll probably enjoy Virtuality.
I enjoy the philosophical themes in the pilot, including the exploration of what reality is. We have three realities: real life on the ship, life as portrayed on the reality TV show and life in virtual reality. The creators are making a commentary on our own increasingly media-obsessed and Internet social lives, while exploring other deeper questions about reality, as we perceive it.
It also brings up interesting questions like, if something bad happens to you in virtual reality, is it any more real than a dream?
In many ways this potential series that would normally be an exploration of outer space is actually the exploration of inner space. I find the possibilities for storytelling fascinating and would like to see where such a series could take us.
I want to see what Moore and Taylor have planned next and hopefully we will.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter what I think. The final verdict will be decided by how viewers react. Will the ratings be high enough for Fox to take a chance on this potential series or will we say goodbye to the crew of Phaeton forever left wondering what stories could have been told?
I give it an 8.5 out of 10.
Fade To Black And Roll Those Credits: Virtuality will air June 26th on FOX at 8 pm EST. The pilot is directed by Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) and written by Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica) & Michael Taylor (The Dead Zone). It stars Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (New Amsterdam), Sienna Guillory (Love Actually) Clea Duvall (Carnivale), James D’Arcy (Exorcist: The Beginning), Nelson Lee (Blade: The Series) and others.
Marx H. Pyle is an American writer and filmmaker. You can find him on Twitter as MrMarx.