TV MOVIE REVIEW: “Virtuality” (2009)

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Ah, the summer doldrums, when young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love and TV networks burn off their unsold pilots in an attempt to amortize their development costs. It’s romantic, really. We get a chance to meet and bond with characters that we’ll never see again, never get to know; we get a glimpse down a road the network, in it’s wisdom, decided not to travel down. We get to test the waters of what the suits think us hayseeds will like. We get a window in to which failed shows from the last few seasons the other suits feel are worthy of ripping off. It’s all frustrating as hell, of course, but it actually tells us a lot about entertainment, and by extension, our society, at least as a viewing public. It’s interesting, in that regard.

Tonight the corpse on the autopsy table is “Virtuality,” a Ronal D. Moore pilot for the always frustrating Fox Network. Always as unpredictable as Richard Nixon, we never have any clue which way Fox is gonna’ break - first they loved the show, and suggested expanding it from a simple hour pilot to a two hour introductory TV movie, then they pulled the plug unexpectedly, and it was DOA long before it hit the air. So let’s take a far more critical look at the project than this poor lost soul of a TV show probably deserves, shall we? People put their heart and soul in to this - uselessly as it turns out - and if we don’t take the time to look at it closely, who will?

PLAY BY PLAY

Somewhere around the year 2050 or 2060, the Phaeton is an experimental spacecraft cruising closer and closer to the planet Neptune. It’s six months out from earth, and approaching the final go/turn back decision point. Tensions are high, the 12-person crew is a bit fractured and dysfunctional, and this is made worse by the fact that their every move is being edited together in to a reality show and broadcast back to earth (on the Fox Network) as a show called “The Edge of Never.” Their mission - assuming they decide to go on with it - is a ten-year-long voyage to the star Epsilon Eridani, and back again. Making matters worse still is a mysterious series of ecological disasters that broke out on earth shortly after they left. The crew has been told - before the show begins - that Earth only has a hundred years left before it becomes unlivable, and therefore not only is their mission an interstellar journey to meet aliens who are thought to live in the Eridani system, but it’s also potentially one upon which the survival of the human race hangs on. But, you know, no pressure or anything, just have fun with it, ok?

The crew cope with this by Virtual Reality. (Sigh.) They put on hokey little goggles and retreat in to various dream worlds. The Captain relives the civil war (He’s Union), the crippled first officer climbs mountains, the bitchy surfer chick surfs, the scientist visits a simulation of his dead son, the doctor paints landscapes to roam around in (This one’s actually pretty cool), the hot botanist has a beach house in Polynesia in which she has a steamy affair with the captain, the youngest member lives out fantasies of being a rock star/international spy, shades of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids” cartoon, the career scientist lady has a VR fantasy of being pregnant and going to the obstetrician. The shrink…well, I don’t thing we ever see what he does, but you get the idea. We also don’t get to see what the obligatory gay couple do in their VR time, but that’s probably a good thing, right?

While the captain is fighting the Civil War, a new character pops up, calls him by name, and kills him. Later on, the same character appears in the botanist’s love shack and shoots both of them dead. No one thinks to mention this, but when the character - we’ll call him “Glitch” - pops up in the rock star/spy fantasy and rapes a member of the crew, people start taking it seriously. I jump ahead a bit. We’ll come back to that.

In any event, the ship is coming up on Neptune and needs to make a decision over whether to go on to Eridani, or go home. The ship is already malfunctioning, independent of the psychotic Glitchy MacGlitchington, and if that isn’t enough the doctor has just diagnosed himself as being in the early stages of Parkinsons. There’s a lot of hand-wringing over this, but then the captain relives his death in the VR thingie, and has an out-of-body experience going through a tunnel of light which is also one of the ship’s hallways, culminating in a trip through the airlock. Somehow changed and slightly manic from this experience, he decides to go ahead with the mission. There’s a rather pointless “I can’t believe you decided for all of us” scene, and then they’re committed.

In the second half of the episode, things get much darker. The Psychiatrist appears to be having some kind of break with reality, and keeps saying that none of this is real. The captain gets increasingly manic and starts gibbering lyrics from Amazing Grace. The crew begin to actively speculate about whether or not the environmental crisis back on earth is real or simply a lie to keep them motivated and on-task. The Shrink talks to the captain about shutting down the VR system until it can be repaired, but the captain refuses, saying their mental wellbeing is dependent upon it, given their claustrophobic surroundings (Which really aren’t all that bad, truth be told), and he also waxes messianic about how ‘everything is about to change’ and ‘our eyes are about to be opened’ and ‘nothing will be the same any more.’

The bitchy chick and the rape victim bond over the fact that they were both sexually assaulted. I’m not making light of that, it’s a fairly intense scene that plays well - the older victim trying to help the younger one through it - but it almost feels like it comes from a different show entirely.

There’s a malfunction straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. An antenna outside the ship is malfunctioning, and they have to go outside to fix it. An accident ensues in the very stupidly designed airlock, and the captain dies in a scene that’s pretty good, but is obviously intended to be way more harrowing than it actually is. The crew break up over this. The fault is ultimately traced to a short circuit, but he engineer knows differently: someone had to have planned it. The captain was murdered. But by who and why? The Shrink, playing the captain’s death over and over on the video feed, figures out that his last words were ‘I love you’ to his - the Shrink’s - wife, so he knows about the affair. The bitchy girl and the young victim re-enter the rock star fantasy to get revenge on the one who raped the girl. The career scientist with baby fantasies goes to her VR obstetrician - played by Glitch, of course - and says “We’ve got to talk.”

The botanist finds the captain’s VR goggles in her room, but the ships’ AI has no idea how it got there. She goes to his quarters and puts on his goggles, finding herself in the Civil War simulation. The captain - a simulation thereof in a union army uniform - rides up, calls her by name, and tells her to go “Through the mirror and down the rabbit hole, because none of this is real and the only way any of us are getting out of here is by going ahead.”

THE END

OBSERVATIONS

First and foremost, this movie felt like an hour-long episode padded out to feature length, which of course it is. It’s running time and mediocre production values can’t hide the fact that really very little happens: Doctor gets sick, VR glitches, Captain dies, ghost of the captain sets us up for the next episode, the end. In 90 minutes we get about the narrative equivalent of perhaps a third of an episode of Lost. It’s also a bit hard to follow in some of the early parts. This isn’t because of the writing or difficult concepts or anything, it’s just that we’ve got a big cast - 12 people, Glitch, and the ship’s AI - and a lot of the guys look kind of a lot alike. Add to this that the gay couple and several of the other characters really aren’t important to the plot, but they still get a lot of screen time, and it quickly becomes a case of “Wait, who is that again? Is that the dude with the thing, or the other dude?”

This problem begins to resolve itself about 30 minutes in, or it might be that I just started identifying the characters by their clichés rather than their appearances. There certainly are a lot of those - we’ve got the crotchety crippled “I can do anything” guy - that’s John Locke from Lost, only with some weird kind of Mental Illness. There’s the bitchy surfer girl who’s an ex-marine and the pilot of the Phaeton - she’s Starbuck. There’s the psychiatrist - he’s a spin on Gaius Baltar. The captain’s ghost? That’s Christain Shepherd from Lost. The cute insecure girl with technical brilliance and rock star dreams? She’s Kaylee from Firefly. There’s the dying-yet-brave doctor - he’s president Roslin. The list goes on and on, and there’s a bunch of less specific, broader stereotypes as well - we’ve got two scientists who relate better to their machines than other people, one of whom has pretty-girl rock star dreams that are, frankly, embarrassing. (And her apparent hit song is The Munsters theme sung in Japanese. Really. Which confuses me, since The Munsters theme is an instrumental, unless she’s singing the them to “The Munsters Today,” the rightfully forgotten mid-80s spinoff. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXzJPZMFVNE But no right-thinking person in the history of the world would ever do that, so what the hell is she singing. Anyone?) The gay couple is entirely useless to the plot, and portrayed as a vague stereotype - they’re bitchy, the American one is slightly effeminate, they’re the chefs for the mission. Presumably they would have been developed more had the show gone to series, but here they feel entirely tacked on as part of a political agenda on the part of the producers.

Logically, much of the crew doesn’t make a lot of sense. Any kind of psych profile would have picked up on the marital problems the botanist and her husband were having, and they’d be off. They’re sending a 24 year old computer programmer on a ten-year mission? Is she really the best person they could find? There were no signs of Parkinsons six months before, but now they’ve shown up? Is that likely? A psych profile didn’t pick up the scientist lady’s weird baby-cravins’? They sent a crippled, surly, possibly mentally ill guy along? As first officer and chief engineer? Really? I would have liked to see the mission planning reports for that decision. I mean, hell, they wouldn’t let Alan Shepherd go on a second mission until a very minor inner ear problem was cleared surgically, they sidelined Deke Slayton for sixteen years over a very minor case of defibrillation. Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but no one would send this guy along. You *need* to have a cripple on the crew? Fine - have him get crippled in flight when it’s too late to turn back, but do *not* pull a Geordi LaForge and just assume we’ll accept it in these circumstances.

That said, the acting is fine, though the captain is clearly supposed to be American, but is frequently having trouble suppressing his Danish accent. The mission is theoretically international, but we’ve only got one Russian? And he’s gay?! And no Chinese? And three Brits? The British don’t even *have* a space program of their own, they gave it up in 1977.

Whether they meant it to or not, the Civil War opening and the twangy acoustic guitar played with a slide felt very derivative of Firefly.

The show’s science is a mixed bag of nearly-plausible and ‘what the hell…?’ The ship rotates to simulate gravity - they get points for that. The ship reconfigures itself when the main engine turns on to compensate for new acceleration vectors and the way that’d affect internal gravity - great big points and mad props for that. The ship’s main engine is a nuclear pulse rocket ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_pulse_propulsion ) - big old props for that. Their life support system is based around - and linked to - their hydroponics section. Again, clever and sensible. That’s all to the good. On the more confounding side, though, we’re told that they’ll be traveling at near-light-speed velocities. Sublight, but close to C. We’re also told that their destination is Eridani. Presumably, this is Epsilon Eridani, the only star anywhere near by with a name even remotely similar to the one they keep saying, and it’s pretty obvious that’s what they mean. Yet, Epsilon Eridani is 10.5 Light years from earth, which means they’ll be traveling FTL. Ok, I admit that’s a quibble - I’ll gladly forgive ‘em the extra half light year as a typo simply because they actually *tried* to use a real star (And one that is known to have planets). But we’re repeatedly told this is a round-trip mission, which means they’d have to be traveling at least twice the speed of light.

As thrilled as I was that they’re using a real concept for the engine, and as pretty as the engine unfolding scene was, the system shown would *not* work, and there’s no way a single nuke could push them up to 1/78th the speed of light unless it was a planet buster. We’re also told that when they get to the other side, they intend to slow down by aero braking. What…..? The slingshot off of Neptune makes little sense, either. Neptune is 2,793,100,000 from the sun, and the earth is about 93,000,000, and both are moving, meaning that Neptune is never closer than 2,700,100,000 miles away, and never further than 2,886,100,00. Assuming they did that in a straight line (Which they wouldn’t) and at the shortest possible distance, that means they’re traveling at 616,461 miles an hour. At that speed, trust me, you don’t need to muck about with gravitational slingshots. Particularly if your main engine immediately pumps you up to 1/78th the speed of light.

But, again, they’re trying, and I give them high marks for that.

The Virtual Reality itself makes less sense - they’re just goggles, there’s no kind of sensory suit or VR-body hookup. I think we’re supposed to believe the goggles tie directly in to their neural pathways, but it still seems rather unimaginative and hokey to me. Basically the VR plot is the kind of thing that would have seemed really super cool and cutting edge 15 or 18 years ago - back in the days of “Wild Palms” - but now it seems kind of quaint and dated.

Direction is flat, but I must say I really do like the way the show is put together. It’s an interesting pastiche of the traditional one-camera NYPD blue style and a reality show, and having two of the characters actively involved in *making* a reality show about the mission was a stroke of genius. I also really like that we never get and ‘glamour shots’ of the ship from the outside - whenever we see it, it’s shot on external cameras mounted to the ship itself. Another nice move, though rather derivative of Galactica and Firefly.

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

Who or what is Glitch?

How is the scientist lady connected to him?

Why is he killing the crew?

Is the Ecological Collapse real or just a motivational stunt?

Is the Shrink having a break with reality?

Will rock still be popular sixty years from now? Really? Much as I like it, the Munsters Theme?

Why do they think there’s sentient life at Epsilon Eridani? I know Babylon 5 was located there, so clearly it’s a better shot than a Star Trek convention, but…

Clearly, the VR devices can act as a soul catcher in some circumstances, and the Captain was downloaded, but how did this happen, really? And has it happened to the other members of the crew who died? (Probably.)

FINAL THOUGHTS

To be honest, the premise is good, and they tried real hard, but it didn’t wow me. The whole thing was rather flat, refreshingly well lit (After 6 years of Galactica), and clever, yet it steadfastly refused to push my buttons, and the final half of the generally slow story was an uninteresting downer that was probably really too heavy to introduce in the first episode.
I totally didn’t see the captain dying, however, so they totally fooled me on that one, and points to ‘em for it.

If this show wasn’t already dead, if it went to series, I probably *would* give it three or four episodes to prove itself to me, but unless it found its footing rather quickly I don’t think it’d hold my interest. Nice try, but no cigar.

Rating: Take it or leave it.

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