Tuned In

Virtuality's Bold, Lonely Mission

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Fox’s two-hour space drama Virtuality, airing tonight, is a show about a seemingly doomed mission: an ambitious journey intended to last several years that is in serious danger of being cut disastrously short not long after it launched. 

 

It’s also a TV show about an interstellar space mission. But more about that in a minute. 

Virtuality is the two-hour pilot for a sci-fi series from Battlestar Galactica’s Ronald D. Moore. A crew of a dozen astronauts, somewhere in the intermediate future, is on a mission to explore a solar system about five light-years away. To keep from going insane on the ten-year round trip, they’ve been equipped with a virtual-reality entertainment system in which they can re-enact anything from Civil War battles to conversations with loved ones on Earth.

But there’s more: after the mission launched, scientists discovered that Earth will become environmentally uninhabitable in a century, making the journey of the Phaeton mankind’s last hope for survival. And more: the trip is being funded by a reality show, shot on board, beamed home and aired, of course, on Fox. Yet more: The ship is approaching the “go-no-go” point—the point of no return where it approaches light-speed—a problem threatens its ability to continue, and Cmdr. Frank Pike (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) must decide whether to quit or risk his crew.

Oh, still more: someone or something is trying to kill the astronauts in their virtual experiences. Also in real life. 

The two-hour pilot Moore delivered is sweepingly ambitious, thought-provoking and visually well-imagined, like a more photogenic version of BSG’s claustrophobic interiors. While it’s hard to tell from one pilot, it certainly looks like a potentially worthy successor to BSG. It’s also complicated, thick with levels and interlocking narratives and, frankly, tough to follow until you get acclimated. This apparently scared Fox off, and the network that made Joss Whedon dumb down Dollhouse (until it reconsidered, at which point it got good), decided not to order a series. 

This would usually mean a pilot, unless freed and picked up by another network, would disappear without ever being seen. Fox, however, is for some reason not only airing the pilot but has been giving it a fair amount of publicity for a show it seems to have every intention of killing. It’s moved the airdate from a July 4th weekend deathslot to tonight (a Friday, yes, but a traditional Fox sci-fi timeslot) and made actors and producers available for interviews. It’s treating the airing almost as a debut even though, in all likelihood, it is not. 

Is it some internal struggle over the series at Fox? A noble gesture of completism toward Moore and the fans? A tantalizing long-shot attempt to leave the door open in case, just in case, more people than expected tune in and show Fox this pilot has potential to make it as a series? 

I still have to doubt the latter. But if you’re willing to get your heart broken, I suggest you give it a shot and watch anyway.

The pilot is not perfect. It can verge on pretentious, it feels a touch bloated (the pilot was padded to fit two hours) and arguably it could do without the reality-TV subplot (which often seems like a familiar cautionary tale about The Dangers of Media). 

But it’s also well acted and extremely well-directed (by Friday Night Lights’ Peter Berg). Its vision of space is much of a piece with BSG’s unglamorized close quarters, but it has a look all its own; there’s a particularly beautiful sequence in which the ship uses the gravitational field of Neptune as a slingshot and unfolds its booster mechanism like complex jewelry against the planetary backdrop.

Like BSG, it’s shot under with dread, because of the story of mankind racing annihilation, but it has an easier humor than BSG did, and quickly finds its own voice. The confessional interviews with the cast members—a big plus of the reality-TV plot—both establish character quickly and weave together the different story themes. And like BSG, it’s suffused with big ideas, particularly about the nature of consciousness and about whether a “virtual” experience—or assault—is any less legitimate than a “real” one. 

Moore will probably end up exploring those big ideas instead in his BSG sequel Caprica, debuting next year on SyFy, which also has a premise involving virtual reality. However good Virtuality looks, and however strangely charitably Fox is treating its burnoff, I still see no indications the network plans to keep it around. 

But it’s not impossible. You can still watch it. And it’s better than any network drama pilot I’ve seen so far for next fall. The Phaeton’s mission is probably doomed, but is that any reason not for you to go along? That’s what space travel is about, after all: risk, and the journey.