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June 28, 2009

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TV Review – Virtuality (2009)

by Master Pillow

Originally meant to be Ronald D. Moore and Michael Taylor’s follow-up television science fiction series to the just concluded reimagined Battlestar Galactica, Virtuality instead ended up not being picked up by the Fox network that decided to shelve the idea of turning it into a series therefore leaving this two hour pilot suspended in limbo making fans wonder just exactly what went wrong.  Instead, Fox has decided to just televise the two hour pilot as a TV movie with minimal advertising on the wasteland that is known as the Friday night prime time period. You don’t really need more information to discern that Fox had lost all appetite for the show and had basically dumped it out there for all to see without any fanfare.

The year is 2050 and the Earth is in dire straits and will become unlivable within one hundred years thus a planned research mission to the nearby star system, Epsilon Eridani, is changed into a rescue operation of sorts in hopes of finding a suitable new planet to colonize. The mission falls to the spaceship Phaeton with a crew of twelve talented individuals made up of scientists, civilians and military personnel. The show begins six months into the planned ten year mission as the Phaeton nears the go-no-go boundary near the planet Neptune. Commander Frank Pike (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has to make the final decision to either begin to burn his fuel for interstellar flight or to turn back to Earth. This command crisis arises due to certain factors the most prescient being that his chief doctor Adin Meyer (Omar Metwally) has just diagnosed himself with the early stages of Parkinson’s disease.

In addition to the doctor’s revelation there appears to be a serious bug within the ship’s virtual reality entertainment system that might entail shutting the whole thing down for an extended period of time much to the crew’s consternation. Due to the nature and length of the mission this VR system (think Star Trek’s holodeck) is the only real way in which the crew can relax by entering a dreamlike world where anything is possible. The fact that it might go down for good has many members antsy and frustrated weary of the prospect of a ten year journey without an avenue in which to reduce stress. However, this apparent bug seems to be quite serious as fantasies are intruded upon in violent fashion leading to recriminations and conflict amongst the crew as they think one of them has purposely tampered with it.

On the surface Virtuality appears to be yet another in a long line of space operas featuring a contained crew on a multi-year mission but the show throws in an added wrinkle of having a show within a show as a few members of the crew are only there to create and televise what is going on onboard the Phaeton back to Earth in the form of a reality TV show. Think Survivor in space if you will. This obviously plays into the non-reality show crew members thinking that the bug in the VR system could possibly be just a massive ruse to get them into conflict with one another to boost ratings.

So is Virtuality any good and more importantly can we discern why Fox decided not to turn this pilot into a regular television series? The Fox network has been vilified by science fiction fans as being run by a bunch of inebriated chimpanzees as evinced by their supposed lack of insight into previous shows such as Firefly, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and even the current Dollhouse. I’m not here to go over their past track record for those shows but in their defense I will say that they at least let those shows go into a full season run of episodes which is clearly not the case for Virtuality.

Let’s be up front and frank here Virtuality is intelligent science fiction that has the potential for some serious insight into issues that humanity will no doubt eventually have to confront. These problems are not as inconsequential as going to fix a clogged toilet bowl but ones of moral ambiguity that arise through the use of new technology. Commander Frank Pike is having a virtual affair with fellow married crewmember Rika Goddard raising the question if it should be construed as real or merely some sort of elaborate playacting.

Another crewmember uses the virtual reality system to pretend to be some sort of hip female James Bond who also sings Japanese pop songs yet something goes awry in the program and she ends up getting raped. This sets up a huge discussion amongst the crew about how to treat this incident that unfortunately seems to split along gender lines where the men flippantly say that it’s no big deal whereas the women decry this as a true assault. Ethical and moral questions like these make Virtuality intriguing and force viewers to at least think of all the possibilities. The physical rape is not there but the mental anguish most certainly is and that alone makes the incident very real and chilling.

Yet it is precisely this intelligence that is also Virtuality’s Achilles heel as the show is not at all dynamic and settles in to highlight dramatic tension that seems altogether manipulated and forced much like the reality shows of today. While the concept of the show might sound fine on paper watching every crew member being interviewed in a sort of intergalactic confessional booth is not insightful in the least and does nothing but drag the pace straight into the abyss. This concept might have worked well if we were to believe more in the reality show aspect of the series but it just feels tacked on and altogether implausible.

While we can sit and debate the merits of bringing big ratings to network television the very fact that you would have a reality show beaming almost live from the Earth’s only hope for survival spaceship is beyond ludicrous. One only need to look at the International Space Station and realize that though the crew may occasionally get bored with their work that there is indeed a lot to do and I doubt any of them would want a paparazzi style reporter following their every move or recording their occasional violent outbursts of frustration. Yet we are to believe that sometime in the future that such a reporter will become a key member of an intergalactic rescue mission? Wouldn’t you want the people back on Earth to think rosy thoughts that the mission was going well and not to burden them more with endless lipstick cam footage of people aggressively arguing over how to cook food in the kitchen? Not to mention that it effectively destroys any semblance of personal space and privacy as one has to remain guarded so as to not want offensive events be broadcast back to Earth.

Bringing up all these questions and ambiguities certainly makes for a worthwhile discussion but this is something anyone can do by grabbing a bunch of friends and debating with one another over a round of coffee. In fact that’s much more gratifying than watching a bunch of actors do the same thing except with added melodrama where people weep in the background as the steadycam whips around a room.

This makes Virtuality have a totally discombobulated atmosphere as it has to balance its science fiction setting along with being shot like a reality show with character drama that seems ripped from an afternoon soap opera. The show also never seems to take sides in any argument and while this is initially smart as it leaves it up to the audience to interpret events it does nothing but drive wedges between the characters. Undoubtedly, having 12 people stuck in a flying tin can in space is going to be an extremely stressful situation and perhaps this is only a two hour pilot but it seems everyone here has split off into 6 or 7 cliques of people that don’t particularly like one another.

It also doesn’t help matters when the show is filmed by Peter Berg (The Kingdom) as a cross between Solaris and Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and though those films have their merits this deadens both the atmosphere and pace as people drone on and on many times talking about inconsequential matters. Now, it’s certainly true that some of what they say may have eventually mattered and be expanded upon in a long running series but as a standalone movie it comes off as inherently banal.

Ronald D. Moore, a veteran from his Star Trek days working on The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and the feature films takes some of the lessons learned from those shows and applies them here to varying results. The most obvious homage is the virtual reality system which more or less functions like the holodeck with all the safeties apparently turned off. I can’t say the idea is remotely original yet in Moore’s defense it is not as if Star Trek invented the concept anyways. However, times certainly have changed since The Next Generation’s glossy political correctness and Virtuality feels much more in line with Quark’s holosuites from Deep Space Nine where you could go to pursue more carnal pleasures. In that sense Virtuality’s concept feels much closer to reality where you could concoct dreams based on more animalistic instincts rather than sit around and argue with Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis Moriarty. I have no doubt if ever a VR system was made one of the primary applications would certainly be sexual and Moore is a smart enough man to realize this.

Then again he’s decided on exaggerating one of Trek’s best known assets of having a multinational crew to ridiculous lengths here so not only do we get the black woman and Asian man but we’re given an openly gay couple and a handicapped wheelchair bound second in command. I’m all for having a colourful cast from many areas of the globe but it feels as if Moore is doing nothing but ticking items off his checklist.

In the end Virtuality is certainly intriguing but it feels like a film school project with a massive budget. We’ll never know how the series would have played out or any of the twists and turns that Ronald D. Moore and Michael Taylor had in mind as we’re left with a two hour pilot that does nothing but lay the groundwork for a future series. With that in mind though as a movie it fails completely because it lacks any sort of narrative closure which would obviously cause potential viewers to pause and wonder if they should even bother watching it. Science fiction fans or those who are curious might get a kick out of it but casual viewers will probably be turned off as the film merely ends on a cliffhanger.

Since it would be pointless to guess what might have occurred as only Ronald D. Moore and Michael Taylor would know we can only review what is in front of us. In that sense Virtuality is just merely a passing fancy that feels like a weird amalgamation of various genres wrapped in an intelligent yet exceedingly dull package. The characters themselves aren’t particularly likeable and the constant clashing between cliques makes scenes look as if they’ve been ripped from bad episodes of Survivor and The Bachelor rather than Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica. I’m all for conflict and butting heads but surely it can come from something much more life threatening than a lovers’ spat in the kitchen.

** out of ****

2009, USA, 87 Minutes, Universal Media Studios (UMS)
Directed by Peter Berg
Teleplay by Michael Taylor
Story by Ronald D. Moore, Michael Taylor
Produced by Steve Oster
Executive Producer Ronald D. Moore, Michael Taylor, Dawn Velazquez, Lloyd Braun, Gail Berman, Peter Berg, Sarah Aubrey
Original Music by Lisa Coleman, Wendy Melvoin
Cinematography by Stephen McNutt

Commander Frank Pike: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
Billie Kashmiri: Kerry Bishé
Alice Thibadeau: Joy Bryant
Manny Rodriguez: José Pablo Cantillo
Dr. Jimmy Johnson: Ritchie Coster
Dr. Jules Braun: Erik Jensen
Dr. Roger Fallon: James D’Arcy
Sue Parsons: Clea DuVall
Val Orlovsky: Gene Farber
Rika Goddard: Sienna Guillory
Kenji Yamamoto: Nelson Lee
Dr. Adin Meyer: Omar Metwally
Virtual Man: Jimmi Simpson

© 2009 The Galactic Pillow

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