Monday, May 13, 2013

A Review of "Virtuality"

This review originally appeared on Loaded Couch Potatoes in 2009.  For the record, I am still bitter that this series did not happen.




Fox, oh Fox, why do you taunt us so?
  
Seriously, guys … wasn’t it bad enough that you commissioned one of the best sci-fi shows in history, Firefly, only to pull the plug on it before the season had even ended?  Why did you then feel the need to, years later, when faced with another series that showed signs it could be as good or better (a series created by the main creative force behind the new Battlestar Galactica, a.k.a. big-time serious contender for the title of Best Sci-Fi Show Ever), cut it off at the knees by failing to even make a series at all?
  
I’ll give you guys a few points for sticking by Dollhouse, which, after all, is a Joss Whedon show; I know you figure the Whedonites will worship you for that.  Well, as much as I like that show, it looks to me like you guys bet on the wrong horse.  Again.
  
As you can probably tell, I kinda loved the pilot for Virtuality.  In fact, I kinda flipped out for it a little bit.  All that said, with due respect to Fox, I can understand why they might have taken a look at this and said, “Huh … well, now, there’s a Nielsen disaster waiting to happen.”  This is dense stuff, with a cast free of star power, an emphasis on talk in favor of action, and a concept that is not easily summarized so that it can be pitched at Bubba … or at the people who want to advertise to Bubba.
  


Thing is, anybody with sense knows that any quality sci-fi show is going to attract a devoted audience, even if it’s a small one, and that that audience tends to get awfully generous with their pocketbooks and wallets.  In short, you’d have to be a dullard to not figure out how to make at least a little money off of a quality sci-fi show.  Sure, it might not be as much money as you’d like to make; then again, look at all the bucks Fox made on that itty-bitty amount of Firefly they produced.
  
It’s obvious to me that Virtuality was going to be something special, and the fact that Fox failed to see the potential in that specialness is galling.  I’m no genius, so I don’t know exactly how I would have gone about turning this show into a moneymaker; but by gum, I’d have figured out something.
  
But enough anti-Fox sentiment for now.  Let’s talk about the pilot itself.
  
Here’s the story: Several decades in the future, the Phaeton (a long-range space exploration vessel commissioned by a private consortium) is six months out from Earth, heading toward Neptune.  Once there, the ship’s commander has to make a decision: does he use Neptune’s gravity to slingshot the ship back toward Earth, or to send it even further into space on a ten-year mission to explore the Epsilon Eridani system.  The stakes are high; since the Phaeton launched, they have received word that scientists have announced the Earth will be uninhabitable within a century, now making the mission one less of exploration than of salvation.  Two things spice up the mission a bit: (1) it is all being filmed and broadcast back to Earth as a reality show (produced by the ship’s psych officer!); and (2) to keep the crew amused, a set of virtual-reality modules has been installed, allowing the crew to have holodeck-esque experiences that will presumably allow them to escape the feelings of cabin-fever-like confinement they will begin to experience during their journey.  However, the virt-modules have begun to malfunction, as members of the crew are being visited in the virtual world by a mysterious man who apparently means them harm.
  
If you’re saying to yourself, “Self, that sounds like about four shows in one," well, you’re not wrong.  (If I might digress, doesn’t that mean that Fox had about four different ways they could market this as a series?  Make ads playing up the reality-show angle and pitch it at reality fans; make ads playing up the virtual environments and pitch it at the appropriate people; make ads playing up the ecological-emergency element and etc. etc., so forth and so on.  Hell, if all else fails, lie to audiences.  Jesus Christ, Fox, you do that all the time!  Why be shy about it now?)  There is a lot going on just in that concept, and the actual events of the show add several more layers.  I’ll get into that further on into the article.
  
This is the point at which I’m going to start getting into spoilery territory, so if you don’t want to know, now might be a good time to stop reading.
  
First of all, let’s talk about the cast of characters/actors.  Producers Ronald D. Moore and Michael Taylor and producer/director Peter Berg found a great cast and wrote a bunch of very interesting characters for this show, and I’d like to look at them individually.



    
First up is Commander Frank Pike, played by Nikolaj (pronounced "Nikolai") Coster-Waldau...whose previous Fox series, New Amsterdam, at least got one season.  If  there is one role I would have recast, I think this is the one.  Now, don’t get me wrong; Coster-Waldau is perfectly good, but if the role had had a star, then I think the series might have stood a better chance at getting picked up.  [Bryant's note circa 2013: Coster-Waldau's star has risen considerably in the years since, given that he is one of the key components on the smash hit Game of Thrones.  On which he is awesome.]
  
Pike himself is an intriguing enough fellow, but it’s clear that his role on this show was not going to be a traditional Captain’s role on a sci-fi show.  I mean, he dies toward the end, only to persist in some sort of virtual existence.  That’s a twist Hitchcock would have been proud of; who kills off the show’s main character in its first episode?  That’s definitely not the traditional Kirk/Picard/Mal/Adama-type leadership role.
  
It’s right there in his name, too: Frank (the name of one of the astronauts HAL murders in 2001) Pike (the name of a former captain in the original Star Trek who goes to live in a make-believe world with a race of highly-advanced aliens).  Eeeeenteresting…
  
Pike’s virt-module time is taken up by a Civil War scenario, in which he plays a troop commander in charge of leading an assault on an enemy camp.



 
Pike has been having a virtual affair (or, as I like to call it, a vromance) with Rika Goddard, who is played by the stunning Sienna Guillory.  I admired Guillory in the woeful Eragon, and I admired her here, too.  Rika is the ship’s botanist, and was obviously going to carry a decent amount of the show after this episode, as she is, at the end of the pilot, the only crew member who knows Frank is “alive” inside the virtual world.



 
Rika is married to Roger Fallon (James D’Arcy), the Phaeton’s psychiatric officer who is also the producer of Edge of Forever: Life on the Phaeton, the Fox reality show being beamed back from the ship.  Roger is a bit of a cold fish, which is presumably why Rika has been virtually stepping out on him with the manlier Pike.
  
Roger is obviously being set up as one of the main suspects in terms of who it is we think is causing the “malfunctions” with the virt-modules and the ship at large.  D’Arcy (he was in Master & Commander, you might recall) is quite good in the role, although in some ways, it is a thankless one; you’re not supposed to like Roger very much, but he’s not villainous in any obvious way, and therefore has no scenes that would really attract audiences one way or another.  Instead, he’s called upon mainly to quietly seethe, and to project quiet disdain and distress; he does those things well.



 
Pike’s second-in-command is Jimmy Johnson.  No, not the football coach; the nuclear physicist, the closest thing the Phaeton has to a Scotty.  This Scotty, played by Ritchie Coster, is an antisocial wheelchair-bound grump who obviously aches to be taken seriously and stresses over his status as the guy who will be left holding the bag should anything hap’n to the cap’n … which, of course, it does.  In further episodes, presumably, Johnson would have had to actually assume command, and given how contentious his relationships with various other crew members is in the pilot, there would have been some good drama develop from that situation.
  
In the virtual world, Jimmy seems to spend his time climbing mountains … with the full use of both of his legs.



 
One of the crew Jimmy doesn’t get along with too well is Sue Parsons, the Phaeton’s pilot.  She’s played by the lovely Clea DuVall, who previously worked with Ron Moore on Carnivale.  
  
DuVall ain’t every dude’s cup of tea, and I get that, but can I take a moment to complain about Fox again?  Take a look at the above publicity photo of DuVall; it’s been airbrushed to remove all of DuVall’s freckles, which is an odd choice on somebody’s part.  Did somebody out there think there were people who, when confronted with the prospect of a freckled person on television, would say, “oh, fuck naw, I ain’t watchin’ that garbage!  Send me a freckle-free show or nothin’!”  Fuck that noise.  Is it any wonder so many women still have image issues?  When an incredibly wrong-headed decision like that can happen to somebody like Clea DuVall, it says a lot, little of it good.  By the way, for reference, here is a freckled DuVall:


 
  
Mm-hmm.

Sue is a bit of a grump, and is definitely antisocial, which is why she and Jimmy don’t get along; they each want to be the ship’s outcast, I guess, and resent the competition.  Sue strikes me as being something like this show’s version of new-BSG Starbuck; she’s a former Marine who, apparently, got raped by a couple of her rackmates, but figured out a way to keep on living.  You get the sense that she was willing to go on a ten-year mission to another star system as a means of getting away from people, and that if she could just get away from these last few, she’d be just fine.
  
Sue’s virtual time is spent in a variety of physical exercises, including surfing and biking.



 
Speaking of rape, there’s Billie Kashmiri (played by Kerry Bishé), the computer specialist who has recently been pressed by Roger into service as the host of Edge of Never.  Bishé is cute as a button, and has a nice, natural on-screen presence.  Billie’s virtual fantasy involves her playing guitar and singing in a rock band (Nikki and The Hellraisers seems to be their name, and they play Tokyo a couple of times, performing the Munsters theme song in Japanese!).  Nikki also appears to be some sort of international crimefighter or spy, and there is an amusing scene in which Sue/Nikki has to cut a gig short in order to chase down a villain by the name of Lazarus; he’s fond of plastic surgery and comes after her backstage wearing his new face and guns-a-blazin’ (”You shot Rico!” she shouts, hilariously).
  
This scene is pretty great.  It plays like a parody of bad television (think of how the Nikki-and-Paolo episode of Lost began), and seems to offer an idea of what the virt-module concept could lead to week after week.  But just as soon as that idea takes root, it is shattered by this man:



 
Referred to as either the Green-Eyed Man or the Virtual Man, depending on where you look, this fellow seems to exist only in the virtual world, and he is perpetrating various acts of violence against crewmembers.  In the beginning of the episode, he shoots Frank in the stomach during his Civil War scene; later, he tosses the doctor off of a virtual mountain, shoots Frank and Rika while they’re in virtual bed, and (off-screen) causes Sue to have a virtual surfing accident.  He saves the worst for poor Billie, however, beating her up and then trussing her and raping her.  By the episode’s end, Billie has bonded with Sue, and has taken Jimmy’s advice and headed back into the virtual world, where she and Sue plan to hunt down her assailant and punish him, whatever he is.
 
Clearly, the Virtual Man is one of the show’s most intriguing characters.  He’s played (quite well) by Jimmi Simpson, whom I mainly remember from the Stephen King miniseries Rose Red; he’s been popping up in things like House and My Name Is Earl and 24, and seems to have graduated from the Callum Keith Rennie school of being an on-screen creep.





Played by Joy Bryant and Nelson Lee, Alice and Kenji are another couple.  Their main traits seem to be indiscriminate randiness and, on Alice’s part, both moodiness and an intense mother-instinct.  Seemingly cut off from the prospect of having a child anytime soon — possibly ever (it’s a ten-year mission to Epsilon Eridani, and another ten back to Earth, so Alice might be past her child-birthing years once the Phaeton has returned home) — Alice is indulging herself in a virtual pregnancy.  This is an odd fantasy, and it’s even odder when you find out that her doctor is the Green-Eyed Man (!), and that she seems to have some sort of knowledge of who and what he is (”We need to talk,” she tells him, meaningfully, toward the end after Frank’s death).




  
The ship’s other couple is Manny and Val, the astrophysicist and geologist who also serve as ship’s cooks.  Manny (Jose Pablo Cantillo) is upset with Roger for portraying them on Edge of Never as queens who fight all the time; Val is a bit more laid-back.  I like Val (Gene Farber), who puts Jimmy in his place and has an obvious soft spot for Sue.  We don’t get much of a look at the interior lives of either character, and it’s possible to see them as merely being The Gay Characters (or as the Homonauts, which is how I kinda like to think of them, in a loving-and-seriously-not-at-all-prejudiced way), but I suspect Moore and Taylor would have developed them if the series went on, and if Fox allowed it.




  
  
Erik Jensen plays Jules Braun, the navigator who also designed the Phaeton.  Jules is grieving over the (unexplained) death of his son, who he visits inside his virt-module.  If this reminds you a bit of the relationship between Daniel and Zoe Greystone in Ron Moore’s Caprica, well, it reminded me of it, too.
  
More interestingly, Jules is a former Mission Control man who thinks it’s possible — and this is a theory we first hear from Frank — that the ecological crisis on Earth is a sham perpetrated by the company in charge of the mission’s pursestrings; he thinks, in other words, that they’ve created the illusion of a crisis to motivate the crew to continue their mission.  This is an intriguing idea; I’d love to know how it would have played out in the series.



  

Dr. Adin Meyer is played by Omar Metwally, whom I remember from an excellent small role in Munich.  Early in the pilot, Meyer finds out that he has developed Parkinson’s, and his disease and the future complications from it pose a substantial reason to consider going back to Earth instead of to Epsilon Eridani.  Meyer is a sympathetic fellow, and his virtual fantasy involves painting landscapes of a mountain range.  The Green-Eyed Man pushes him off a mountain ledge, and Meyer later reports that the experience made him feel alive; he, in fact, is the only other character who truly seems to share Frank’s weird enthusiasm for this new development in the virt-modules.



  
The final crew member is Jean, the computer; Jean is voiced by Kari Wahlgren, a seemingly-in-high-demand voiceover actress who does solid work here.  Jean is portrayed as a sort of eye, and obviously is reminiscent of HAL-9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey.  To make that connection even more concrete, toward the end of the pilot, there is an accident in which an airlock is opened, killing Pike by exposure to space.  Did Jean cause this?  Did another crewmember?  Did the Virtual Man?  Was it something else entirely?  We’ll never know, I guess.

*****
  
There’s a lot to talk about with this pilot, not the least of which is to speculate upon where the show might have ended up going.  I’m not going to do that, because it’s just too annoying, but I suspect there will be many such a conversation had at sci-fi conventions.
  
Other points of interest:

*  The virt-modules are obviously reminiscent of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s holodeck.  Moore worked with that conceit for years on both that show and Deep Space Nine, and I’d love to see what he made out of it on this show, cut free of Trek’s traditions.  Not to be, it seems.  (Although Moore’s v-club over on Caprica is a very similar idea, so maybe that show will fare better.  [Bryant's note from 2013: yeah, how'd that work out for ya...?])  One thing I particularly like is how the look of the virtual worlds is conveyed.  During the scenes involving complex virtual-scape creations, such as an ocean or a battlefield, there is a copious amount of CGI, and it gives those worlds a sort of unreal sheen; it makes the virtual environment feel blatantly unreal, but somehow very appropriate.
  
*  Roger claims to Billie at one point that the most recent episode of Edge of Never got the best ratings it’s had in quite a while: 5 billion viewers.  Now, that’s a big Nielsen number.  I enjoyed the conceit of the reality show more than I expected.  The candid-interview segments, in fact, are full of promise as a means of delivering both exposition and character development within a fictional format.
   
*  I got a kick out of the microwave meal Jimmy makes himself: a Tweety Burger, which, thanks to the magic of DVR pause, I now know is a “MEAL READY-TO-EAT INDIVIDUAL” consisting of a “BEEF HAMBURGER WITH FRENCH FRIED POTATOES.”  I’m a sucker for fake brand-name products like that.  [Bryant's note from 2013: I'm not sure those are actually fake; Google seems to indicate otherwise.]  Put it on a t-shirt, and gimme one, size 3XL, plz.  [Bryant's note from 2013: better make that a size 4XL now.  Sigh...]  And make it snappy; I still haven’t received my Breaking Bad Schraederbrau shirt yet.
  
*  This pilot was exceptionally well-edited.  There is a decent amount of footage representing security-cam and hull-cam feeds, which is all good, but the show in general is just very nicely cut together.  It’s also beautifully lit by Stephen McNutt, the cinematographer who shot most of Battlestar Galactica.
  
*  The production design is also quite nice.  The Phaeton, inside and out, doesn’t quite look like any other ship from a sci-fi show, which is always an achievement.




*  Frank’s “death” at the beginning of the show foreshadows his actual death toward the end, but I suspect there is much more going on here than meets the eye.  At one point, Frank has Jean replay the experience for him, and this time we see what he saw: first, he is underwater, then flying through a beautiful sky; we also see the corridors of the ship, and an airlock, and then we exit into space.  Frank “wakes up,” and says something about “it” being true.  After this, he is a different person, energized, convinced that everything the crew knows is about to change.  I wonder if it’s possible that Frank knows he’s going to die from this point forward, and simply isn’t sweating it.  I also wonder if it’s possible that he isn’t actually dead; inside the Civil War scenario, he tells Rika: “It’s okay, Rika; none of it’s real.”  What does “Frank” mean by this?  Clearly, something hinky is going on, and with a show like this one, there’s just no telling what it could be … because it could be anything.  Grrr!
  
*  I don’t how if the science is at all realistic (it very well might be), but I love the way the Phaeton is put into near-lightspeed travel by the exploding of hundreds of nuclear bombs.  The effects-work in these scenes is great, although I could have used a bit more footage of the actual slingshotting off of Neptune.
  
*  I was highly intrigued by this dialogue between Frank and Roger, after Billie’s rape.
Frank:  "What do you think?  Was it real?"
Roger:  "What are you asking me, Frank?"
Frank:  "I'm asking you if you know fantasy from reality, Roger."
Roger:  "I think I do.  Do you know what's real, Frank?"
Frank:  "I'll tell you what I think.  I think this mission has changed.  I think our eyes are about to be opened, and that we are on the verge of a profound awakening that you and I cannot even imagine.  And I think the virt-modules are crucial to that awakening.  I won't shut them down."
That’s a good scene.  The tension between Frank and Roger plays out as the tension between two men who are in a relationship with the same woman, but there’s no particular evidence — other than Roger’s attitude — to suggest that Roger knows about Frank’s vromance with Rika at that point; it may simply be that Roger the psych officer is a little freaked out over how weird his captain has gotten.  I mentioned 2001 a couple of times, but Frank’s belief in something extraordinary being soon to occur also puts me in mind of 2010 … as do a few other things in this pilot, such as the slingshot maneuver.  Nice to see that movie get some referrences (assuming they’re intentional); I always kinda liked it.
  
*  The scene in which Sue comforts Billie after Jimmy’s blatant disrespect for the trauma of the v-rape (”I don’t see what the big deal is,” he says) is a highlight.  Sue says, “They don’t get that even when something like this happens in the real world, your mind is where it happens.”  This is a blatant case being made for the relative reality of virtual experiences; to some degree, I’d imagine that the entire show would be about this concept, one way or another.

*****

It’s a great pilot, one of the better I’ve seen in recent memory, and it’s a shame that Fox killed the series before making it.  It might have gone differently.  If Fox had created buzz for the show by screening the pilot at sci-fi conventions, instead of burying it on a Friday night in June (against the first Friday of Transformers 2, which was Fox’s fault, and also against coverage of the previous day’s death of Michael Jackson, which was not), then I can see Virtuality having become the next big cult-fave sci-fi show.
  
Instead, now they’ve got a mere curiosity on their hands.
  
Ah, well, better luck next time.

*****

2013 Bryant here again.  I feel obliged to point out something that, amazingly, I failed to point out in my initial review: that the pilot was directed by Peter Berg.  And fine work he did, too.

I remain annoyed by this show's failure to sprout wings and fly.  I get why Fox opted not to pick it up; I really do.  What I DO NOT get, and never will, is why Fox would have even bothered to film it.  Because based on the screenplay and the pitches and the meetings they undoubtedly had, they had to have know what sort of cerebral, trippy stuff Moore was aiming to make.  And frankly, the end product is about as good as it could possibly have been.  I mean, sure, I guess if a few of the actors had been bigger presences, it might have been moderately better.  But as is, everyone is good; some are even great, and they would all undoubtedly have gotten even better as the series progressed, for that, my sons and daughters, is the way of Television Series.

So, like...why even allow this concept to be filmed?  If you weren't apt to buy a show like this, why even bother?

Also, what a shame that no other network opted in.  These days, there is literally not one single decent sci-fi show on the air.  How, with all of the cable networks doing such great work, is that even possible?  A few upcoming shows are in the works; maybe one of them will pan out and give us sci-fi fans what we want and need: a sci-fi series that lives up to the standard being set currently by Game of Thrones and Mad Men and Breaking Bad.  We had one a few years back in Battlestar Galactica; it's high past time for another.
  
It'll happen eventually.  But I can't help feeling that Virtuality would, and should, have been it.

2 comments:

  1. I've always regretted not seeing this one. Sounds very intriguing. I thought of Caprica more than a few times, reading this.

    On an unrelated (and totally supportive) level, The Homonauts needs to be a show.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, "The Homonauts" still makes me chuckle, four years later.

      Does it boggle the mind a bit that Moore's post-BSG career has nosedived a bit? It boggles MY mind a bit, if nobody else's. I know he's got a new series on the way, though; maybe it'll turn the beat around.

      Delete