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.
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.