Doomed Summer Pilots: Virtuality

Virtuality, Ron Moore’s post-BSG baby, made its premiere Friday night. Since I am pretty much the only one who watched, chances for this pilot movie to pan out are practically nil. And that’s too bad, because despite its borrowing every trope you can imagine, it’s pretty awesome. Not many shows actually dare to kill off a major character in the pilot (looking at you, Lost).

Virtuality follows the crew of the Phaeton, the world’s first warp-capable ship, which has been orbiting earth during a six-month test for a proposed ten-year mission in search of a habitable planet (we broke this one). Commander Pike (Pike? Really?) has been able to keep his crew together despite the filming of a real-time reality TV show about the mission, but after they pass the Go/No Go point and launch, it all goes to hell.

Virtuality opens like all good science fiction: with a holodeck episode. In this case, someone’s Civil War reenactment goes sour, thanks to a spy who shoots the crap out of our hero. Luckily, it’s not The Matrix (yet), and Commander Pike just pulls off the fancy sunglasses, notes the anomaly to the HAL-9000 ringer Jean and heads off for Exposition Rounds, sprinkled with confessionals from “Phaeton: Life on the Edge.”

There’s biologist Rika; married biomumbles Alice and Kenji; Manny and Val, who we know are a gay couple because they fight about cooking; Billie the computer scientist and TV host, who looks like she got a day off eighth grade to be on this mission; Meyer, ship doctor; Roger, reality-show producer and psychologist who got hired despite being a little fuzzy on conflict of interest; Jimmy, grumbling second-in-command; Jules, paranoid engineer; and prickly pilot Starbuck Sue.

The introductions are crammed, but since it frees up the rest of the pilot for their characters to unfold, I’ll allow it (your mileage may vary). At first, the major stressors are the upcoming Go/No Go decision and Roger’s preoccupation with producing the show; Manny and Val complain about being portrayed as “bitchy queens” based on one fight, to which Roger claims he’s going to give viewers the conflict they want. He’s going to regret that one.

Pretty soon, their problems begin to stack up. Dr. Meyer gets Parkinson’s, which ship supplies can’t treat for extended periods; the Commander and Rika are doing the dirty under her husband’s nose, virtually; Earth’s climate situation is getting more dire; and that creepy blond guy won’t stop busting into people’s virtual modules and killing them.

The Commander, on the other hand, has a mysterious out-of-module experience that makes him too Zen to worry; he declares they are Go. Despite shows of reluctance, the vote’s unanimous. Everyone’s thrilled to be making the trip they’ve worked for.

Until Billie gets trapped in her module, locked out of computer assistance, and violently assaulted by the virtual creep.

When Roger calls a meeting to declare a moratorium on virtual modules for the duration of the voyage, the crew erupts and polarizes. They shout one another down about needing specifics, about whether the assault was as bad as she claimed, about how the assault is less worrying than its implications of haywire programming, about whether a virtual experience even counts as real, about what they’re going to do for ten years without escape. It’s chaotic, ugly, loud, tense, with no useful resolution and a lot of lingering animosity. (Nice job, show.) The Commander sure has a lot on his plate after that one!

However, since he’s blown out an airlock two minutes later while suiting up for a fix-it mission outside the ship, he doesn’t have to worry about it long.

I’ll admit it; I didn’t believe he was dead until they sealed his body in a Ziploc and shoved it in the morgue drawer for later. Then I cheered, because with that move, the show did what so few shows dare to do—serve the story. Now the universally-disliked second-in-command gets punched to the top of the ladder, everyone doubts their safety (especially Jules, who knows someone had to have opened the airlock on purpose), Billie finds proof their virtual creep has crossed over, and in the camera control room, Roger watches footage of the Commander telling Roger’s wife “I love you” through the blast door.

Nice job, show.

Despite the eerily familiar neon-iris ship’s computer, the eerily-familiar virtual killer, and the eerily-familiar [your trope here], there’s more than enough plot here to keep the show going strong for a full season, and with twelve disparate personalities, there’s plenty of opportunity for conflict. And that’s good TV. Just ask Roger!

We probably won’t be seeing any more of this series (she said, shaking her fists at the sky), but the pilot-turned-feature-film is available on Hulu, if anyone wants to see what might have been.

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