TV REVIEW: Virtuality

The cast of Virtuality.  Image © 20th Century Fox 2009.

The cast of Virtuality. Image © 20th Century Fox 2009.

From Battlestar Galactica creator Ronald D. Moore and writer Michael Taylor comes an exciting new science fiction thriller, the two-hour special TV movie event Virtuality. “Our goal was to tell a story outwardly very different from Battlestar Galactica,” Moore explains, “but similar in its intent to explore the human character in an extreme setting.” In this case, the extreme setting is the outer border of previously explored space aboard the modern, self-sustaining spacecraft Phaeton. Helmed by intrepid, determined Captain Frank Pike (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the original goal was a 5 year exploratory mission to look for intelligent life beyond Earth. Early into their mission, however, the 12-person crew learns that due to the catastrophic effects of environmental ravages and global warming, Earth will become completely uninhabitable in 100 years. They are humanity’s last hope to seek out another planet deep in the cosmos capable of supporting life. A perilous slingshot around Neptune will lengthen the mission to 10 years, and propel Phaeton towards the distant star Epsilon Eridani in search of a new home. But as the ship nears the point of no return, the crew must decide whether to retreat home to Earth or thrust deeper into outer space, and the unknown, to answer the ultimate question: go or no go?

Psychological impacts of long-term missions in constrained environments have been limited to two years or less. To assuage the crew emotionally during their extended mission, and to provide the only source of privacy aboard Phaeton, they are provided with virtual reality head modules, with which they may realize any fantasy or simulated environment. Some people become rock stars, climb the Himalayas, enact Civil War battles; others recreate the family they left behind on Earth. But the technology remains imperfect, unexplored, especially in relation to the human mind. Present throughout the virtual worlds is a malfeasant, mysterious green eyed man (Jimmi Simpson), whose existence and motivations remain unclear. Does the avatar represent a virus, the inner conflict of each individual’s sublimated psyche, or a sabotage of the mission by a larger force? No one is certain. The presence of this escapist alternative universe, and the turmoil experienced therein by the crew of 12, raises important psychological and technological quandaries. What is real? A virtual “affair” between Captain Pike and a married crew botanist (Sienna Guillory)? A virtual rape? Virtual mental torture, whether self-imposed or at the hands of the green-eyed man? Says Moore, “It’s in this nexus of reality and “virtuality” where our characters’ shared and private worlds collide that we intended to find the drama of the show.”

Indeed, Virtuality bears several trademark Ronald D. Moore stamps: great science, terrific characters, and humanity-driven conflict and desperation. While Battlestar Galactica’s primary science angle focused on Cylon artificial intelligence, in Virtuality, astrophysics, geology and astrobiology take center stage. Especially pertinent amidst NASA’s recent exploratory missions, the Phaeton module employs top of the line physics to propel itself to far reaches of outer space, while self-contained greenhouses and laboratories analyze evolutionary life origins and biological compositions of space. Colorful characters abound on the Phaeton crew, including lead navigator/designer with a painful past Jules Braun (Erik Jensen), aggressive, self-destructive pilot Sue Parsons (Clea DuVall), paraplegic, self-doubting co-pilot Jimmy Johnson (Richie Coster), gay couple Val Orlovsky (Gene Farber) and Manny Rodriguez (Jose Pablo Cantillo) providing an infusion of hope and optimism, and married astrobiologists Kenji Yamamoto (Nelson Lee) and Alice Thibadeau (Joy Bryant) debating the pros and cons of raising a child aboard the confined ship. Compounding the stress and importance of Phaeton’s mission are your basic everyday problems: the ship’s only doctor (Omar Metwally) has Parkinson’s Disease, there aren’t enough medical supplies to sustain a ten-year mission, an escalating conflict of personalities and strategies between Captain Pike and his co-pilot, and the rampant obliteration of Earth by natural disasters. As he did in Battlestar, Moore does an exemplary job of using the scientific questions of our time as a platform to probe deeper into the meaning of life, humanity, and the ethical limits of an imminent fight for survival.

The most attractive aspect of Virtuality is how hip, modern and current it feels. With sleek, bright sets, fast-paced camera action from director Pete Berg, and gorgeous computer generated imaging of outer space and the virtual reality scenes, the show departs visually from the austerity that is often a sci-fi staple. It is also a shrewd, tongue-in-cheek satire about our obsession with “celebrity” against the backdrop of an all too plausible environmental reality here on Earth. The action aboard the Phaeton is being broadcast back on Earth as the most popular reality show of all time, “The Edge of Never,” being seen by billions every week. Orchestrated by Dr. Roger Fallon (James D’Arcy), whose simultaneous roles as reality show producer and on-board psychologist come into conflict, the show combines the drama of Earth’s impending doom and the search for other habitable planets with our modern televised voyeurism. Hosted by the well-meaning but invasive Billie Kashmiri (Kerry Bishé), the show meticulously follows every facet of the crew’s quotidian existence, complete with ubiquitous cameras throughout the ship, Big Brother-style confessional rooms, and manufactured conflict to entertain the masses. Combining Star Trek and The Hills, Virtuality adds yet another layer to the confounding question of what is real, what is virtual, and where the twain shall meet. All of this action and philosophy culminates in a shocking surprise twist that you will never see coming. It will test the sense of trust and camaraderie aboard the vessel, raise questions about the boundaries of escapism in a virtual world, and put in danger the crew’s psychological capacity for their ten-year mission in outer space.

As wonderful and suspenseful of a setup as the Virtuality pilotTV movie is, it does not necessarily augur well for its prospects of a series pick-up. It was not announced as a part of Fox’s upcoming fall schedule (a schedule brimming with scientific content such as Fringe, Dollhouse, Bones, House and Lie to Me), but Ronald D. Moore has not ruled out the possibility, saying that “Fox executives have never said “It’s over”” and that the two-hour movie had always been designed as a pilot. Nevertheless, despite their long history of fascination with science fiction, FOX has also managed to prematurely cancel some of its brightest gems in the genre, including Space Above and Beyond, Wonderfalls, and Firefly. So if you are passionate about Ronald D. Moore’s shows, and the presence of sophisticated, complex sci-fi that explores important existential questions, watch Virtuality on Friday night, and then get vociferious and get involved. Never underestimate the power of bloggers and fans to effect change. At last year’s Comic-Con, I personally witnessed the inception of pre-emptive petitions to rescue Dollhouse, which had not even aired a single episode. The result? It’s been renewed for a second season. If you like the show, write to FOX. Who knows? You could help turn Virtuality into a reality.

The Virtuality 2-hour movie premieres this Friday night, June 26th, at 8 PM ET/PT on FOX.

Incidentally, coming in July, we will be interviewing Dr. Kevin Grazier, the brilliant physicist who has acted as science advisor on Virtuality, Battlestar Galactica, and Eureka as a part of our celebration of the release of the BSG series box set and Comic-Con 2009. Stay tuned!


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  1. AnAn0maly
    2:28 am on June 28th, 2009

    I saw the pilot - at least that’s what it was called. I actually really quite liked it. It was pretty interesting and kept me interested. It would be good to see where it could go, I suppose.

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