June 26th, 2009
After watching the two-hour event that is the Virtuality pilot, I think I can understand why FOX was resistent to picking the show up to series.
It isn’t that FOX is allergic to science fiction: it goes into next season with the genre’s two biggest television properties, Fringe and Dollhouse, in its lineup. Rather, there’s a particular way that it likes its science fiction, a preference that both Dollhouse and Fringe fit into comfortable. Both shows, although expanding heavily on their serialized elements and genre transmorgifications later in their freshman seasons, started out as genrified takes on the procedural mystery model, combining a high concept with what is arguably a more accesible and thus lower form of weekly episodic television. For FOX executives worried about selling the show to advertisers and viewers alike, it was the ace up their sleeve, the caveat that allowed them to both give the appearance of openness to genre programming and satisfy their desire to eat away at CBS’ dominance in the field.
The reason Virtuality wasn’t ordered to series is because it is one giant, enormous middle finger to such ludicrous practices of watering down science fiction upon its arrival so as to pretend as if the people who don’t like science fiction are going to stick around once things get weird. What makes good science fiction is the balls out willingness to question reality, and to break away from any and all conventions, all qualities that both Fringe and Dollhouse are capable of and yet never got to reach until FOX was satisfied that the show was really just CSI with insane science or The Unit with personality implants. Virtuality, however, wastes no time in crafting a world where nothing where we question everything, and is thus a world that any science fiction fan in their right mind wants to explore further.
All but dead in the water despite the strange lead-up to this airing, Virtuality is a fascinating pilot, a god awful standalone television movie considering how it ends, and, should it truly find itself on the wrong end of FOX’s idiocy, another sign that high science fiction may be a thing of the past on network television.
But, for now, excuse me if I spend a bit of time talking about how awesome it was.
Virtuality is not about originality, per se. The setting aboard the Phaeton is reminiscent of films like Sunshine, the virtual technology is similar to the Holodeck on Star Trek in terms of its basic use, and the storyline of saving the world brings to mind everything from the aforementioned Sunshine (amongst more recent fare) to just about every cheesy disaster movie ever made. However, there is something about Virtuality that makes the entire experience feel new and revitalized, capturing both the timeless value of human interaction within enclosed spaces but heightening it with the ultimate in twenty-first century notions of privacy or the lack thereof.
To some degree, you could attack the show for being too “on-the-nose” for featuring a reality show within the ship’s journey, giving the show an excuse to feature interviews with the crew members, and to create further anxiety when things truly get out of control. However, what makes it work is that the reality show is not so much about what it does to the crew aboard the Phaeton, but rather what it does to us as an audience. When we watch reality television, we know we’re only getting part of the story, an edited version of reality that we can’t control in any way. The way the show within a show, Edge of Never, presents this scenario, the reality on board the Phaeton holds in its hands the reality on Earth, as global warming is apparently a timebomb that has threatened the ability for the planet to sustain life. The reality show isn’t presented to us simply as a clever excuse for drama, but a legitimate symptom of the mission’s potential corruption at the hands of those who are feeding off of the hysteria it creates rather than its actual success.
It seems like a simple concept, but it is this reality show that drives the entire series’ investigation into the notion of reality and in particular the virtual worlds that they are able to visit through the use of their headsets. The presence of all of the cameras on the mission means that there isn’t such a thing as alone time, and that anyone (in particular Roger, who produces the show along with his role as Psychologist) can see what you’re doing, who you’re doing it with, and how you’re spending your time in a metal tube. The headsets represent the potential to escape to a different world, to visit places you couldn’t otherwise visit and maintain one’s sanity. It’s a premise that isn’t too far removed from the virtual reality headsets in the pilot for Caprica, the Battlestar Galactica prequel series coming in 2010, but here in an enclosed space where it is less a subculture than it is a part of daily life as normal as dreaming.
However, like any piece of technology in the hands of starkly human characters, how it is used is going to vary significantly. While the show does use its reality show shortcut to introduce some of its characters, it is more profound when it takes the nature of their virtual worlds themselves. We all know that reality shows ultimately don’t create truth: they may not be lying in their various interviews, and it certainly captures their external actions, but their true feelings and emotions aren’t captured by cameras of any kind. However, by offering us a window into their most private of moments, the show is doing what a reality show can’t do, and giving us a sense of what they’re thinking. Frank, particularly guarded during his interviews for Edge of Never, appears first as a Civil War captain, leading his troops into what seems like an easy enough battle only to find a trap, impossible based on technology and undermined by a strange individual outside of the programmed experience. When we realize that he is our Commander, and that he is facing a tough decision that could bear potential traps and pitfalls, you see why he finds the module, asit was designed, to be comforting: he marches in, he wins the day, and he’s able to maintain his composure outside of the virtual world.
And yet, there’s that underlying sense that there is something unhealthy about these visions, even though they were allowed (the modules refitted for recreational as opposed to technical work, which we see later during the slingshot sequence) in order to allow for a healthier experience. Some of them represent the subconscious experience of conscious desires: Alice, unable to have a baby since it would have meant not going on the mission with her boyfriend (husband?) Kenji, is eight weeks pregnant in her module, visiting an OB GYN for regular checkups. Jimmy, the wheelchair bound second-in-command, is climbing Mount Everest, something he certainly couldn’t achieve in his current state. And Rika, of course, is having a virtual affair with Frank, meeting by her relaxing beach house and commiting adultery with her husband sitting just a few feet away. As an outlet of the subconscious, allowing things that are forced into the subconscious to come to life, the show raises the question of how healthy that release is when it isn’t truly real: Jimmy will never climb Everest, Alice is a decade away from being able to raise a child outside of Phaeton, and Reka and Frank can never actually be together.
This all really comes to a head with Billie, who experiences what Roger can only term as a subconscious rape fantasy in one of the pilot’s most gripping sequences. Her module, normally, is Sydney Bristow: the Chinese Rock Star Years, as she fights crime and sings really bad rock songs to an adoring crowd of fans. There’s something very innocent and indulgent about it all, so for it to turn into a rape fantasy (perpetrated by the same man who interrupted Frank’s dream, as well as Frank and Rika’s tryst) is problematic in two ways. The first is that it doesn’t seem as if Billie realistically would have that fantasy, raising the question of whether or not the program is glitching or creating scenarios that aren’t present. The other possibility, though, is even more dangerous: if she really did have that subconscious desire, how was the module able to detect it? And if the man who recurs in everyone’s module is in some way a manifestation of the subconscious, then what impact does that have on people’s conscious thought processes?
Frankly, I love this kind of thing to death in general, but the show handled it extremely well regardless of my predeliction to enjoy it. What worked is that both Frank and Dr. Meyer had experiences with this man that felt entirely the opposite to them, as they seemed to wake up from some sort of stupor and discover a new perspective on the world around them. Dr. Meyer, with a rather unique module where his landscape painting comes to life in front of him, has his safety invaded just as he faces a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, and facing his death makes him less afraid to do so by continuing on with the mission. Frank, meanwhile, sees his leadership fall apart, but replaying it back listens to what the invader says and then stays in the world as he dies, traveling through water and air and eventually out the airlock into space, finding there something transcending his physical experience. The show establishes the modules as a powerful tool for affecting these crew members, but presents so many complicated ways this can happen that it becomes a highly individualized and fascinating point of investigation for a television series.
It’s also something that seems extremely suspicious, and raises some serious questions about whether someone planned all of this. There’s a point where Sue accuses Billie, the computer scientist on board, of altering her module. as something heightened the intensity of the waves in her surfing module and gets her cut off, making her more irritable and perhaps more likely to explode for the sake of the cameras. If we view the mystery man, who we presume cut her off although that particular scene was left on the cutting room floor, as her subconscious, perhaps she gets off on the adrenaline of it all, evidenced by her later experience heightening the reality of a stationary bike with a virtual mountain on which to ride. However, if it is possible that it is more than a glitch, that it is a legitimate piece of sabotage, it raises the question of whether someone actually could have adjusted them and placed this man into the system, operating with some sort of an agenda.
It’s really as much of a mystery as who, precisely, ends up murdering Frank Pike, a moment that was both dramatic as well as complicating when it comes to the show’s central questions of reality. Frank’s death, as we discover, is not final: some part of him lives on in his headset, as if his death out the same airlock he traveled out of inside of his module was about him crossing over to another plane of reality. That in itself is a really intriguing piece of science fiction, and one that takes a murder mystery and turns it into a mystery of whether this was all part of some plan, that the modules were used to influence and control Frank’s mind to the point of his subconscious desire to test the bounds of reality emerging not within the module but within reality, causing that door to open and for his role in the physical world aboard Phaeton to end.
But there is also another question of reality created in terms of the role of Mission Control, and whether the entire series is just one giant experiment, one enormous test subject for this technology. Frank’s transcendence to the virtual realm perhaps makes this more likely, but note how Frank legitimately questions whether the images they are receiving from Earth are in fact true, and whether they are being sold that story to pressure them to keep going. The reasons for this could be numerous, ranging from the simple greed of the show’s ratings back at home (where the destruction of Earth is a fictional storyline and the show’s reality is sold as itself a fictional narrative) to some sort of ulterior motive designed to investigate human reactions or something similarly sinister. This didn’t start, let’s remember, as a mission to save the world, and the shift in narrative seems too sudden and too complicated by these strange actions and reactions for it to be beyond suspicion.
Yes, it’s depressing that chances are we won’t be able to see any of this unfold further, as the chances of the show continuing are beyond slim. But the potential on the table here resulted in a damn fine two hours of television that captured some fascinating ideas, introduced us to some interesting characters, and continued to show that Ronald D. Moore and fellow Battlestar Galactica alumnus Michael Taylor understand how to take the most science fictional of settings and make it something that alters but does not compromise the basics of human drama. Whether this is all a dream, or a nightmare, or an illusion, or some sort of perverse virtual reality, the impact it has on the show’s characters makes them the center of attention. Seen through the lens of numerous cameras, there was never a point where the spectacle felt it was overwhelming the individuals; instead, the show seemed to insinuate that the spectacle was the result of these characters, their innermost desires, and their actions both inside and outside of the virtual worlds that they have created for them.
Julius, who designed the Phaeton (an act that inspires his Jules moniker (after Verne, one presumes), is a character that doesn’t quite get enough time in the show’s pilot, but he has the unique combination of both a highly emotional module (where he visits with an approximation of his son, who died before the mission began) and an intense knowledge of the system that he was partially responsible for building. When he informs Jean that she should go into every bit of psychological data on record in his own past to try to create the son that he would have, the result is an angry child frustrated that his father spends more time at home after his death than before. He sees in that moment a mirror into his own soul, the module serving less as a peaceful place and more as a location for an investigation into his very soul. That he was able to adjust the program to take that step demonstrates that the potential exists, and that the show has numerous possibilities as it faces the possibility that the modules are more fallible than they realized, or perhaps more capable than they had intended.
Already you could see people moving to take control of their modules with more force, such as Sue and Billie stepping into her rape scenario to wait for the man involved with some guns in order to gain some revenge. You also, of course, have Roger, who tries to get them banned following Billie’s rape as the psychological effects become too much to handle. Note, however, that we never see Roger using one of the headsets, and note how he is conveniently missing from his editing bay when Frank meets his end. While meant on some level to raise suspicion of Roger in Frank’s murder, I think Roger’s greater role is in the psychologicist who will eventually need to find his own solace of sorts – he thinks that having his wife onboard is what will keep him sane, but we left the pilot with him realizing that Frank was in love with his wife, and that his own reality may not be shared by his wife. That’s a fascinating piece of character development for a wonderfully complicated character, brought to life in fine form by James D’arcy, who is perhaps the standout performer in the film.
He’s the not the only one, though, and that’s what is perhaps most frustrating about this whole thing. As two hours of television, it was well-scripted by Taylor, with superb direction from Peter Berg, and strong performance from pretty much the entire cast. I’d single out Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who I found really compelling as Frank and who I would have hoped had stuck around full time if the show had been picked up even after his death, and Clea DuVall, who I recognized from a few things and who impressed me in terms of making Sue out to be both a badass and someone empathetic (plus, as mentioned, I think D’arcy really brings the best performance to the table here), but everyone’s strong. Combine with some great music choices, as well as the strong special effects work from Gary Hutzel and his team, and you have an exemplary piece of filmmaking for the small screen.
And, unfortunately, the chances of it seeing the light of day as a series are non-existent, only because things are too complicated. Perhaps if the show had started back when they first left Earth, and the reality show was the only tension present, then FOX might have been on board. Maybe then, with the genre elements delayed in order for viewers to be tricked into thinking it was a different type of show entirely, they might have been willing to step out on a limb. However, why should this show have to do that? Fringe became infinitely better once it embraced a broader storyline (I won’t spoil it, but the ramifications of its season finale were by far the most interesting thing to happen on the show), and Dollhouse struggled for six episodes before it seemed like it actually started clicking just as its more generic elements were downplayed. FOX must realize by now that its insistence on watered down pilots and slow burn introductions is actually hurting the quality of their shows, so to turn down Virtuality because it’s too interesting too quickly (I’m guessing, but I think it’s a realistic hypothesis) is hypocritical and detrimental to the notion of quality television.
So, I will simply say this: Virtuality, if it had aired back in the fall, would probably have been the strongest pilot that went to air, and were it to emerge sometime at midseason next year I would without question go out of my way to watch it. Whether FOX decides that it can take a risk on the show, or if DirecTV (which sponsored the airing, which already airs a canceled show by Peter Berg and which has the unique timesharing deal with Friday Night Lights) wants to step up to the table to keep the show manageable, I want this show to survive to live up to its philosophical, psychological and entertainment potential.
Go or No Go, Fox – we need an answer. Don’t drop the frakkin’ bag.
- Will have to admit that the show really does share a lot with Fringe (which is a coincidence, since they were developed concurrently), especially when you compare the fates of Mark Valley and Coster-Waldau in their respective pilots.
- Maybe it’s just me, but as I noted on Twitter and above I much preferred this to the two-hour pilot for Caprica. That show seemed, by comparison, lifeless, and is certainly presenting itself as a less genrefied premise at the end of the day. While I’ll watch the show, and think it has potential in its own right, I found Virtuality to be far closer to Battlestar in terms of tapping into the cultural consciousness and capturing something that really stands out despite being on the surface derivative of a number of science fiction trappings.
- The budget for the show is certainly quite high, but with little to no action and a fairly simple Phaeton model the special effects work here was minimalist in a good way. I enjoyed how Berg showed much of the slingshot, which was an amazing sequence set to “Alive Alone” by the Chemical Brothers, on the screens being taped for the reality show, which meant that the special effects weren’t being seen at close range and could be more stylistic than flashy. The special effects were quite good when they needed to be, like in the virtual hand sequence of Jimmy handling the nuclear material, but I liked that they took a bit of a backseat unless they really needed to come to the forefront.
- Interesting how the show handles the two relationships present in the series – the male/female relationship is pretty front and center, but the show remains coy on the exact relationship between Val and Manny. Apparently they were married in an earlier version of the pilot, and it’s interesting here the way that Roger (while threatening them with their family being left out to dry in relocation efforts) blackmails them as if they have something about their personal lives to hide. And yes, again, we’re not going to find out what all of that means, most likely.
- Frank’s final lines, of course, come directly from Lewis Carroll, but I also love the notion that this is all a game: the show throws out dreams, a Truman Show-esque reality, a giant video game, as well as a legitimate fantasy world amongst its possibilities, and I bought almost all of them. There’s a point where Frank says that his affair with Rika is “just a harmless fantasy,” and I just love how far the pilot goes at proving that small statement so very wrong, and that it’s Frank ultimately who goes through the rabbithole and discovers the true power of the fantasy.
- While I raise the point of DirecTV involvement above, just want to clarify that Virtuality is a far more expensive show to produce than Berg’s own Friday Night Lights, which would make it a less likely option for the show. Still, boy can dream.