I have, for some time, wanted to set forth my thoughts on the most exciting TV show I’ve seen since the early days of Battlestar. That’s no coincidence, because, as you’ve undoubtedly heard, Virtuality and Battlestar are authored by the same creative team. The difference that on show will go down in history as a work of art that changed how we experience a sci-fi series, while the other will just fade away into nothingness, lucky to even become a footnote.
That is certainly unfair, because of the overall quality of the writing, production and performances. Don’t believe me? Check it out while you still can. Just in case you didn’t just get back from watching the ‘pilot’ episode on hulu or somewhere else, let me say the following:
SPOILER ALERT!! Proceed at your own risk!!
In the end, all I care about is whether or not it’s good TV. Is it compelling? Does it move me? Is it exciting? Do I care about the characters and story? With sci-fi, I’m not so worried about how ‘realistic’ something is. A show can be completely fanciful and even absurd in it’s premise and still be a completely kick-ass piece of drama.
From the very beginning, the viewer has constant reminders of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I think that’s an extremely dangerous trick. It’s one thing to be Quentin Tarentino drawing references to obscure movies from the 70′s, but Virtuality presents not one, but many references to 2001, an iconic movie that everyone has seen. If you want people to think about that film and your film in the same moment, then you’d better have one-hell of a product. Otherwise, you’re just going to look like a stupid jerk.
There is an all-powerful computer (Jean (gene?) instead of HAL) that may or may not be responsible for numerous problems on the ship. The problems start with the virtual reality rig that gives crew members a chance to blow off steam and get out of the loneliness and isolation of a ten-year space mission. That sense of isolation is played pitch-perfect in 2001 and that’s the reference standard. Does Virtuality measure up? All I can say is, after watching it twice, it’s pretty good. There is a strong sense, especially by the end of the ‘pilot’, that this crew is completely cut-off from anything or anyone they used to know, love or care about. That’s a pretty cool trick.
I think the Battlestar guys overplayed their hand, and that’s why we’re not getting any more of this show from Fox, or SciFi (or SyFy) or anyone else. They’re taking a major shot at the absurdity of reality TV while asking the viewer to question if what’s going on in the crew’s virtual reality modules is actually real and the disaster of their mission is not real. Got it?
Then you’ve got a multitude of stories involving: (1) a character who is confined to a wheelchair, (2) a young gay couple, (3) a young het couple where the woman is pregnant and hasn’t told her partner, (4) a husband and wife where the wife is having an affair, but only in the virtual reality modules, with another crew member, (5) a doctor who has Alzheimer’s, (6) a reality TV program which is being filmed while the mission is going on and being produced in real-time by a crew member who also serves as the ship’s shrink, (7) a psychotic killer who only lives in the virtual reality program, (8) an engineer who is writing letters to his deceased young son, (9) and a computer that’s supposed to run the ship, but has no answers about why everything sucks so bad for these folks. And, oh, by the way, the mission will take ten years and the fate of every human on earth depends on their success, unless that’s not real either.
Ron Moore said he had a plan at the beginning of Battlestar. I don’t believe that he did. As good as Battlestar was, it meandered from time to time. I think that’s the nature of even the best series television. There are so many variables and so little time between episode to make evrything hang together. And the job, as I’ve said before, is not to write a beginning, middle and end. The job in TV is to keep the thing going: keep the ratings up, keep the sponsors happy, keep the viewers coming back, keep feeding the fire.
With the number of variables that are set in motion in Virtuality, it’s impossible to imagine that anything more than the roughest outline really exists at the outset. Do they fail or succeed? What’s real and what’s virtual? Viewers want these questions answered if the series is to have any vitality. The show runner wants to give us just enough to keep us coming back, but never close the deal until the show is done. Battlestar presented a world of great variety and infinite possibility. Virtuality is just twelve people and their enormous problems. I see TV exec’s thinking that, at best this is a copy of Lost and, at worst, it’s extremely tedious and melodramatic.
So, in light of all that, it may be for the best that the series is a dead letter. I am sad that it, like the crew of the doomed starship, will slip over the ‘edge of never’, but what we are left with is a precious and ephemeral container of possibilities, unrealized, but REAL all the same. Watch Ritchie Coster‘s turn as nuclear physicist Jimmy Johnson, and tell me that performance isn’t REALly powerful. Listen to the soundtrack by Wendy & Lisa. Watch the filmmakers make reference to the finest sci-fi in the galaxy and still produce something exciting, frightening, compelling and powerful.
Maybe somehow, some way, the show will find life. That could be wonderful or it could be a mess. But the two hours with which we are left, at least for the moment, holds up as some of the best TV I have seen. Please watch.