EVirtuality | TV (FOX) review

Virtuality is a new original program that Fox premiered last night.  It was unclear to me whether it was a TV movie or the pilot for a new series that may or may not actually advance into further episodes.  The brief description I saw that made me tune it was that it is about a group of astronauts in space whose virtual reality program is either hacked or malfunctions or becomes sentient and unstable in its clumsy birth into a confusing world, because one way or another they start getting terrorized by the program.

Sure sounded cool.

Wish it had lived up to its potential.

Here was the recipe they used to fill in everything after the basic premise:  mix one half Sunshine, one eighth each Solaris and 2001, and one quarter reality TV; subtract all the subtleties of mood and the great filming of the three movies; cast it with stock characters from our culture and other SF movies (the asshole psychologist, the fatalistic doctor, the bitchy female marine, the token young pretty innocent girl to exploit, the embittered and possibly drunken XO…), and put it together with a smaller special effects budget than that of Heroes.

This formula does not equal winner.

I don’t know that there was that much wrong with the show so much as it was that so many elements of it have been done before, and better, and at least in this opening gambit this show didn’t create something better than the sum of its parts to keep me hooked.

For a quick rundown of the plot, we join the crew right before they reach the Go/No Go point, the place in their mission when they decide whether to commit to the 10-year journey or turn back for Earth.  The commander is having doubts, and the doctor has just diagnosed himself with Parkinson’s, and they are all being fed dire warnings of seismic conditions worsening so much, so rapidly, that experts are projecting that Earth won’t be habitable in a century.  All of a sudden their exploration mission is a search for a new home.

The mission is also being recorded for a reality TV show, so the crew members do little confessionals and squabble over the use of cameras at sensitive moments and stuff.

We see several of the crew members in a virtual reality experience that is ruined by one recurring, unprogrammed character who the controlling computer AI doesn’t even register as being there.  Most of them are killed by the man, but one of the women is raped, and all of them come out of their programs feeling shaken and terrified, not rested and relaxed.

The captain then has a strange and mind-altering vision coming out of one virtual program, and decides to push the mission on when before he had been seemingly considering turning back.

There is a minor repair that needs to be done; as a prank one of the crew working with the commander locks him in the outer airlock.  But then the airlock door starts to open, and oh no the pressure is too much and starts sucking him out into the black!  (Can you hear me rolling my eyes?  Apparently that pressure difference in space myth is just that-a myth.  Can someone besides Battlestar get that right?  Ronald Moore is a producer on this, he should know better!)

They manage to get into their headgear and manually open the second hatch to save him from being sucked into space, but he’s already died from the exposure and/or lack of oxygen.

So now the mission is out one captain, and their sole source of privacy and escape has been threatened and oh no what’s going to happen?

I don’t mean to be so flippant, but this show just didn’t grab me.  Like not at all.

Their mission seemed similar in scope and style to that of Sunshine, but less desperate because these disasters wracking Earth had started after they left on a research mission, as opposed to being the impetus for their mission, and so no one on the ship is actually sure they aren’t being lied to by mission control.

The use of virtual reality for R&R and to help the crew maintain their sanity and mental well-being on a long voyage was identical to how the crew of the Icarus II (again, Sunshine) relaxed, these were just private Jordi Laforge viewers instead of a holodeck they had to take turns using.

I think the main issue with the whole “problem” of their virtual reality program going haywire was simply that I did not see the necessity of their using it.  It wasn’t quite like Hal, who had control of the whole ship and could basically run the show and play any kind of game he wanted to with Dave.  Now, there was a Hal-like moment with that airlock opening, but they did find some kind of blown fuse so maybe it was just an accident.  But over all, the threat didn’t seem that threatening.  Why can’t the crew use their imaginations instead of the virtual reality?  A century from now are we so dependent on toys that we can’t even manage a masturbation fantasy on our own?  So for this to be the crux of their lives being threatened was just sort of weak.

I applaud Fox for trying another space show, but for me, at least, this one didn’t hit quite the right note.  It felt too much like something produced to play off the popularity of space operas in the wake of Battlestar Galactica but with enough familiar elements to appeal to the general audience…and generally, with SF, when you try to appeal to the masses you end up losing your appeal to the SF fans.

At the very least, they lost me.


  1. I took away quite a different take. The characters, while maybe played out, were certainly sincere. I really liked Sunshine, and I think the pilot (or movie, whatever) did a good job of expanding on the idea of the problems that could be faced in a near-future deep space mission.

    Incorporating the dream-reality bit, and AI bad guy, was an interesting way to show how the line between virtual reality and reality itself could be blurred if not handled properly.

    The plot itself was certainly enough to grip anyone. You have a show trying to establish ratings, characters who have problems with themselves, and others, as well an an under-the-nose affair that certainly casts motive on a character when a murder happens.

  2. I’m sure I’m being very hard on it, and I don’t think it was a bad idea, just…for me it didn’t work. Sincere or not, not a single character was interesting to me. I was barely curious when the captain died, and certainly didn’t care. I really don’t know what, exactly, they did wrong, but for me this was just not engaging. But I could well be in the minority here! If it’s one that more people seem to like than not, then I’ll be glad–I think we need more SF on network television, and not just because I happen to like it. We need to indoctrinate the next generation with ideas of space exploration.

    Thanks for the contrary thoughts, I do love to know how other people took things!

  3. I agree. It was too made-up. Very formulaic. And I am tired of shows ripping off Matrix and that includes Battlestar (re-imagining) as well. Time to write original stuff.

  4. hey, the first sign of a weak review is when you have to compare it to something, and then in turn use it as a knock against it. You can’t criticize a television series for being too similar to a film, and then go on to hate it when it does things differently than said films. I mean you can if you want to, but where’s the journalistic standard? There’s no real point to why the show wasn’t good in your opinion, other than it comes off too much like other science fiction features. I’m sure you’ve got a point, I just don’t think you’ve done a good job expressing it.

  5. I have a few problems with your review:

    1) You made it sound way more interesting than it actually was.

    2) I got the impression the mission was launched after they knew the whole 100 year thing was happening (I could easily be wrong about that one though).

    3) The captain being locked in the airlock was done in the same way the outer airlock opened – that is to say, no-one did it, it just happened (that seemed like a big flaw to me, that they didn’t talk about how he got locked in without a helmet to start).

    My problems with the show:

    1) Way too many plot points meant to lead into a series, no good sense of closure – just confusion and a feeling like the end was rushed.

    2) If you’re really in such desperate need of a new home, you still have a go/no go choice at all? Don’t think so, you are all going and you are going to make it work.

    I agree that the fundamental premise is utterly lame, that these people can’t last ten years talking to each other without the VR things attached to them. When it starts killing people you shut it down. When it starts raping people, you shut it down again and hack out all computer links to all system in the ship (except I guess the engine, which it seems you can’t actually control without VR even though a simple robot to just select a thing and pull it out would suffice).

    I also really didn’t like many of the characters much, and I can’t imagine watching any of a series should one come along. I was really annoyed I wasted time watching it, and I generally am willing to tolerate a pretty weak plot and silly basis in a science fiction show.

  6. Observer, Kendall, thanks for adding some other points to those I made.

    Jay, sorry!

    Chris, In the first place this is a column; it is an opinion piece. In the second, I believe that calling something derivative is a valid criticism, especially when it doesn’t take the parts it lifted from a different series/movie and then re-use them in a new and compelling way. But that’s just, like, my opinion, man….

  7. It was boring, but I think the captain locked in the airlock was just a practical joke at first, but then the outside door malfunction which turned the practical joke deadly… haha i sound like a television writer now.

  8. For what its worth, an opinion from the mainstream 18-34 demo who has never seen an episode of “battlestar” and doesn’t even know what “sunshine” is.

    Full disclosure, I DVR’d this because I mistook it for Virtuosity (1995 – Denzel Washington). I had never heard of this project, but watched it nonetheless. I agree that the show lacked focus, and the unremitting desire for additional plot lines compares to that guy in your office that tries to act smarter than everyone else to feel better about himself; but at the end of the 2 hours, I was interested. I think that given a full season to work with, character development and plot lines could work themselves into something pretty cool.

    Dont worry, from what I read elsewhere, this is the end of the show and there will be nothing further; but it really seems like this was doomed from the beginning (see my line about having never heard of this show). Perhaps some semblance of selective marketing and a reasonable time slot could have given this a chance. Oh well, back to reality.

  9. I must say, the idea of a ship’s computer causing problems for a crew of varied and conflicting characters is very new for a scifi show. I don’t think I’ve every heard of a minor repair on a space ship going horribly wrong either in one of these stories. With original ideas like these, this show is surely a winner.

  10. I DVR’d this and just finished watching it. Was disappointed when I got to the end and realized this was probably a pilot movie for a series. I did like it even though it had as those previously before have said aspects of certain scifi movies and series, like the airlock scene. But the fact that the characters were not perfect and had their flaws makes for interesting drama, no?
    What got to me though was at the end when Rika enters Pike’s virtuality and he says its not real… Makes you wonder if the whole thing is a linked virtual reality mission. Alas we’ll never know, if what I’ve read is true and its a NO-GO on this series. Maybe the scifi channel will pick it up?

  11. I keep seeing people compare this to Sunshine, which was an entertaining movie in and of itself but it was a ripoff of a number of science fiction movies before it such as Event Horizon, Red Planet and Supernova with some serious visual nods to Alien and 2001.

    The “virtual” thing is played out. The Matrix owned it and the fact that writers rely on it is a cop-out in my humble opinion. Why it’s so difficult to come up with a unique vision for a science fiction story is beyond me. Let’s get back to basics. Hard science fiction. Not mind-game “Lost” like story lines that keep doors open for writers.

    Foundation, Ender’s Game or better yet, Dan Simmon’s Hyperion would be great places to start.

  12. D, glad I’m not the only one who thought that’s what was going on with the airlock at first.

    T, you might have been the target audience on this one…someone who’s more of a “mainstream” viewer than a SF geek. The show seemed like it was trying to open itself to non-genre audience, which is not necessarily a knock–it just means it wasn’t going to be the right fit for someone like me (a geek).

    E, my sentiments exactly.

    I, agreed that it was disappointing the show didn’t bring the action to much of a resolution, since it looks like now we’ll never know. The dark underbelly of experimental (for the channel and its usual audience) tv shows–sometimes you get sucked into something that never sees the light of day….

    C, this probably keeps getting compared to sunshine because it is very similar. in my opinion, similar is not necessarily bad as long as it transcends its nods to other films/directors. Sunshine did so. this did not. therein lies the problem. Agreed that new and original SF stories are rare in film, and that there are plenty of great stories that should have been made into films but for some reason have not…yet….

  13. They should give Ender’s game the ol’ CW treatment, bunch of highschool drama in space.

  14. Someone wrote that

    “2) If you’re really in such desperate need of a new home, you still have a go/no go choice at all? Don’t think so, you are all going and you are going to make it work.”

    You should have one – and for a very good reason: if the crew has signed up for a month-long mission with the option to extend it to a year-long mission, and they say “no” because it turns out this isn’t for them, they may decide it’s better for their (mental) health to turn back.

    Now _force_ them to stay on this ship for a few years more, instead of a few months for the flight back home (another crew could still do this mission) and that mission is doomed for sure.

    Another thing is the neccessity of VR for the crew to stay sane – I’d say that _imagination_ (like someone else wrote) is NOT sufficient to make up for the lack of variety in stimuli for the human brain, which is used to _way_ more than one big tube in ten years.. 😉

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