Jun 29 2009 3:02pm

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.

Sean Fagan
1. sef
I liked it. It wasn't great, but it did keep me interested. It was disturbing when it needed to be, and the ending was enigmatic enough to make me want to watch more.

Of course, I knew before I watched it that it was pre-cancelled. Ah well.
Fred Coppersmith
2. FCoppersmith
I agree. Good, and a lot better than I expected, but not exactly great. I doubt there was a compelling enough series in this, much less a multi-season one. Had it been a mini-series -- admittedly of the sort that only a handful of cable channels do anymore -- I think it would have been more promising. I'm sorry its plot threads won't be wrapper up, since Fox is really being disingenuous calling this a "movie," but I'm not really heartbroken about it.
j p
3. sps49
Was someone at Fox annoyed about the BSG ending?
Meagan Brorman
4. nutmeag
@ sps49: Hahaha, perhaps.

There's a lot of possibility to this show. Even if it doesn't get an entire series pick-up, I'd love to see the story finished properly, in a mini-series or 13 ep season. I'd just like to see where they could take it.
Jonathan Wood
5. JWood
Well that's my evening sorted. Awesome.
Black -
6. Black -
Never heard of it, which is probably a big part of the problem. Of course, I have to admit, had I known about it in time and also learned that it was "pre-canceled", I probably wouldn't have bothered either. It would have to be pretty bloody spectacular for me to want to commit any time to watching a cliffhanging pilot for a show that will probably never get made. I mean, this is Fox we are talking about, does anyone really believe that enough people could have watched it that Fox would reverse their decision?
Black -
7. FoxHater
Fox - The Killer of all good Scifi
1. First they get me hooked on Space: Above and Beyond. Then just when it started to get good, they cancel it.

2. They had me at go with Firefly, only to pull the rug out from underneath me again.

3. Just when Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles was finally going somewhere, it was canned.

Now they bring out a Ron Moore piece, don't advertise it, and show it on a Friday in the middle of summer. At least this time, they appear to be killing it preemptively.

I hate Fox.
Shane Fatzinger
8. Ashenkhar
I would have watched it, but for some ridiculous reason it wasn't put up on Hulu, or anywhere other legal sources for that matter. I dropped cable a long time ago, and I've found that 95% of what I care about I can get online without having to resort to bit torrent.

However, the irony of a new science fiction show NOT being aired on the Internet is somewhat amusing.
- -
9. heresiarch
I'm having trouble with the idea that you can kill off a "major" character in the pilot. To me, the definition of a "major character" isn't "someone who is important in the universe of the show," but "someone who is important to the show itself." To be important to the show itself, you have to show up in a lot of episodes, be involved in a lot of plot points, etc. If you die in the pilot, then you didn't do much. Therefore, you aren't a major character.

Second, everyone and their mom kills off a "major" character in the pilot. CSI did it, Torchwood did it, Fringe did it, and god knows who else. So kudos to them if they did it well, but I think you're going to have to file that with all the other eerily familiar tropes.
rick gregory
10. rickg
saw this on Hulu and was intrigued so I read above... lost me at "...has been able to keep his crew together despite the filming of a real-time reality TV show about the mission..."

A TV show about reality TV... in space? I'd shoot my TV.

@8 - it's not under TV shows on Hulu, but movies. The show was killed before the pilot aired apparently, so they made the pilot into a movie.
Amir Yoeli
11. Betterthenyouknew
Watched on HULU last night, and kind of enjoyed it.
The CGI wasn't spectacular though... even Sanctuary's is better, and they're privately funded, not network funded... or so I heard.

A shame they killed off the Captain. I liked him in New Amsterdam, it was a fun show too, for a bit.

To be honest though, the only characters in the show I connected with, was Jimmy (Second-in-command), the pilot, and the Gay couple plot seemed nice. The rest were kind of bleh to me. Not developed enough in the movie, and not interesting enough to follow later on.

In short, I liked the plot and the idea, and the science behind the engines, but the show wasn't going to hold me for long with the characters they had on board.
C.D. Thomas
12. cdthomas
So, OK, if Virtuality must stay dead, then I'm glad -- because with all the assholes and crappy relationships replicating the stressors of BSG, I'm getting a hint of Moore's angel-in-the-machine tendencies -- and for once, Sweet Baby Jesus, I'd love Moore to depict a future where is God himself isn't a snarky asshole, punching and mind-raping His way through humanity's flawed exemplars.

That's me wanting a fair fight; silly me...
C.D. Thomas
13. cdthomas
So, okay, thinking about it, I think why Fox wouldn't touch Virtuality with a ten-thousand mile space elevator is that a) it muscles in on its most profitable reality turf; and b) it doesn't have the guts (or cast numbers) to support a weekly kill-off, as with Harper's Island.

Cause, c'mon, with the obnoxious characters they've served up as reality show cast analogues, the impulse Fox and other nets have trained us to indulge is guess whether someone's voted off the island next.

If the reveal at the end would be one crazee serial killer, then there would have to be a body count, and guess RDM wasn't planning ahead on that one, unless he has MOON tech up Phaeton's sleeve....

If the reveal would have been big corporate conspiracy theory-land, then Pike's "nothing is real" means that the ship is merely entertainment -- something to keep the lumpen proles in line as the elite boot up their own vessels to escape the dying Earth. What better way to keep hope alive, yet make the majority of humans afraid to step on a lightspeed vessel, than an evil ghost in the machine?

(Just a note -- Was there footage of one Consortium representative in this pilot? No? What does that tell you -- that there already is a corporate spy and he or she's doing her job fine, thankyouverymuch...)

If RDM's goal was a recap of BSG's end, with a space angel path to enlightenment, then the cast would ultimately be reprogrammed to suit the space angel's needs (as with po' Commander Pike going all-New Age). That means this is Armageddon, slow-motion style; the Earth gone, the Ark on its way, and a few seasons for the crew to Get Right with God, before their appointment in 'Heaven'.

Any way you slice it, the parts of Virtuality with Pike going spiritual were the parts that gave me the most dread... because of all the paths RDM likes to take, the Conceptions of Divinity one is the one he likes best in order to make a finale *special*. That trip I can afford to miss, again, so no tears, here. That, and skipping the 'grumbly acne-scarred captain who doesn't want the job' meme. Been there, done that, skipped buying the Cylon Toaster t-shirt.
Bruce Bromberek
14. wombatpm
It's Ron Moore people.

There was no plan or larger story to tell. He'd just makes it up as he went along. Not to say that there wouldn't be some great episodes. But in the end he would have found a way to suck the marrow from its bones like a desperate vampire. Glad it got canceled.

Ron Moore, you are STILL dead to me.
Black -
15. gml421
This review claims that the crew uses "warp," to power the ship, but if my eyes and ears don't deceive me, they are in fact, very specifically using a reaction mass drive via nuclear pulse technology, first conceived decades ago in the real life Orion spaceship project. One of the characters even mentions this in the scene with his fake kid in the virtual world.

Also, I'm a bit confused about how the application of about a billion common tropes, can possibly add up to something that itself isn't hackneyed. The reviewer here is upfront about the all the tired ideas, but that gnawing feeling that something isn't quite right is called cognitive dissonance. Let's be honest. Out of the box characters and plots can't add up to anything that isn't a cliche, and this pilot doesn't cause me to disagree.

And for my next trick... reality tv, environmental catastrophe, holo decks gone wrong, and tension among a captive space crew, all in one! Wow! I could write something better than this while I'm going to the bathroom, but instead I'll do at a keyboard in my spare time and save the universe from this kind of dreck.
Black -
16. gml421
Oh, and can we all at least agree to pan the launch scene, especially the part where the second in command uses virtual reality to place nuclear warheads in the drive unit? I know he's a nuclear scientist and all, but can someone possibly explain why this process wasn't automated or fully machine controlled? Or is it that computers are good enough to run the entire ship, except for it when it comes to placing nuclear devices in the main engine? Because humans are way better at this...
Allyn Edgar Hughes
17. allynh
The pilot is now available on DVD.

BTW, the Captain isn't dead. And for those who watched the show, but were too snarky to actually see the story on the screen, there are two possibilities of where the story was going.

1) The guy who kept popping up in the simulations was a 13th crew member--look at the beginning when they mention the oxygen and co2 numbers were off--hidden from the rest for reasons to be revealed.

2) Look at the first simulation where the Captain asks a character if he remembers events before the war, and he can't. Then look at the ending where the Captain appears in the final simulations as a character that interacts with the woman. This indicates that the whole thing is a simulation.

I suspect that both are true. The first would be a plot point nested within the second. The second is the frame, and indicates the true context. The title, Virtuality, points that way.

Get the DVD, it is still chilling to watch and made me pull out Frank Herbert's _Destination: Void_, and his follow up series with Bill Ransom starting with _The Jesus Incident_.
Black -
18. Perry Rhodan
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).

Thread necromancy, but just caught it on Netflix.

1, There's no "warp" anything.
2. Phaeton hasn't been orbiting Earth for six months; it's been en route to Neptune.
3. They don't find out Earth's completely screwed until a few days before reaching Neptune; the mission is one of exploration.

If you're going to review it, shouldn't you pay at least some attention? Seriously, if you make this many mistakes in the first paragraph, is it even worth reading the rest of the review? (Answer: No.)

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