Friday, June 26, 2009

Awake and dreaming

Virtuality (2009)

From Battlestar Galactica guru Ronald D. Moore and director Peter Berg comes this two-hour pilot for a series that will likely never be (unless ratings go THROUGH THE ROOF, but hey, I was wrong about Dollhouse getting a second season).

On the surface, it’s about the 12 person crew of a spaceship, the Phaeton, on a ten year round trip interstellar journey. Yup, this ain’t the U.S.S. Enterprise or the Galactica; the Phaeton gets around the old-fashioned way with multiple nuclear explosions to propel her. (In one of the many nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the ship’s habitat ring also spins to provide gravity.) Just before they begin their journey the crew finds out the real truth: Earth has only a few decades left before it goes completely in the toilet and becomes uninhabitable. So this journey of exploration now becomes a search to find a new home for whoever will be left on the big blue marble.

Because traveling in a tin can for a decade can make you go nuts, the ship has a virtual reality program. The crew engages in various scenarios including speaking with dead relatives, climbing mountains, concerts, painting, James Bond-style adventures, and of course cheating on spouses with other crew members. There’s also the all too of-the-moment aspect that the entire voyage is being taped and beamed back to Earth as a reality show, complete with closet confessionals. It’s the Real World: Epsilon Iridani. (I just wish they had the ubiquitous reality show hot tub threesome scene.)

I thought the first hour was pretty dull, verging on boring. Twelve people in the main cast is a lot to keep track of. And what’s with this crew? N.A.S.A. astronauts seem to be a fairly level-leaded bunch, with the exception of the occasional crazy, Depends-wearing, long haul driving, astro-chick. Too many of the Phaeton’s crew were constantly on each other’s ass, griping and grousing (especially the wheelchair bound second in command. What an a-hole.). Maybe it’s because of the reality show aspect, but I think it’s because Moore and co-writer Michael Taylor thought that would make the characters more interesting. The show starts after the crew has only been in space a few months, but at this rate of arguing with one another they would kill each other off in a few short years!

Any show featuring virtual reality has to have the “glitch” or ghost in the machine (see every Star Trek episode with the holodeck). The first one to experience it is Commander Frank Pike (New Amsterdam’s Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), when he is shot dead in a Civil War program by someone who was not part of the expected scenario. Not only is there a “glitch” in the program, but the master computer, JEAN (another 2001 nod with her ever present eye), would NOT respond to Pike’s commands when this person appeared. This same scenario plays out two more times, where this same person (played by Jimmi Simpson) appears in a VR simulation and kills, or in one case rapes, the person experiencing the program. Of course no one tells anyone else about these experiences. This is where the show lost me. You’re stuck in a spaceship that won’t return to Earth for at least 10 years and when the MASTER COMPUTER which controls not only the virtual reality program BUT THE ENTIRE SHIP AS WELL starts malfunctioning and you don’t tell someone? Is it me, or is that kind of a big deal?

Aside from the glitch, any story featuring a virtual reality scenario begs the question, what is real? Was any part of the last two hours which was ostensibly set in the real world, itself a virtual reality simulation? It’s the old dream within a dream. Are you really awake or did you just dream you woke up? (And Ron Moore's a smart enough guy to find a new twist on this old VR nugget.) Things pick up in the second hour, and just when it starts to get interesting, the show's over.

Or is it...?

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