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Josh Reviews Virtuality, the “lost” 2009 pilot from Battlestar Galactica mastermind Ronald D. Moore!

June 7th, 2010

During the production of the final season of Battlestar Galactica, word broke that show-runner Ronald D. Moore was developing a two-hour pilot to a new sci-fi TV series for Fox called Virtuality.  This was exciting news.  Mr. Moore is an extraordinary writer, and I’ve been a fan of his ever since noticing that I always liked the episodes he wrote for Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine better than any of the others.  Then came Battlestar Galactica, a series which — despite the problems I have with its final season — stands definitively as one of the best dramas of recent memory (and certainly one of the finest sci-fi series ever made).  With BSG winding down, I was very pleased to hear that Mr. Moore was developing a new series (in addition to the Battlestar prequel Caprica, which was in the works at around the same time.)

But then, sadly, Virtuality went nowhere.  The pilot was produced, but Fox decided not to go forward with a series.  The pilot was aired once last summer, and that was that.

Recently, a DVD of that pilot episode was released, and having seen it I now have one more reason to hate the Fox network.  Seriously, Fox has created and then cancelled so many great shows that it’s crazy (Arrested Development, Firefly, The Tick, Futurama, Andy Richter Controls the Universe, Undeclared, I could go on and on…).

Virtuality introduces the story of the twelve men and women who crew the experimental space-ship Phaeton.  It’s the near future, and the Phaeton has been launched on a ten-year journey to explore a nearby star-system, Eridani.  Shortly after launch, the mission turns from one of exploration into something much more critical, as environmental catastrophes begin wracking Earth.  The mission to Eridani now represents the best hope for the survival of the human race.  Complicating matters somewhat is that the conglomerate funding the mission is paying for the massive undertaking by recording all of the footage of the mission — and the going-on of the Phaeton‘s crew — and presenting that footage as a reality show to viewers back on Earth.  The pressure of having cameras constantly monitoring their every move adds, as you can imagine, to the tension level of the crew.

To combat that, the Phaeton comes equipped with extraordinarily sophisticated virtual reality systems for the crew.  On their off-duty time, crew-members can put on a VR visor and enter a completely three-dimensional and life-like computer-created environment.  (Star Trek fans recognize the familiar concept of the Holodeck.)  However, even this recreational device soon becomes problematic for the Phaeton crew, as one by one the crew-members discover that a mysterious man has infiltrated each of their VR programs.

I quite enjoyed the Virtuality pilot.  It’s nowhere near as gripping as the opening miniseries of Battlestar Galactica — but I enjoyed it far more than the dull pilot episode of Caprica (a series that, interestingly enough, deals with virtual-reality stories of a type similar to what one imagines Virtuality would have grappled with had the show continued).  If the pilot has a sin, it’s that perhaps the first hour is too leisurely paced.  Things really pick up in the last thirty minutes, when a series of Really Bad Things happen very quickly to the crew of the Phaeton.  It’s those intense last thirty minutes — and the many intriguing story-possibilities raised by the events depicted — that really make me regret that there will not be any TV series to tell those stories and to answer the questions raised.

Introducing twelve major characters is a daunting task, but I was impressed at how well we’re able to get to know all of the characters over the course of this hour-and-a-half long pilot.  It’s an interesting array of personalities.  None are quite as flawed as the many broken characters we came to know and love on-board the Battlestar Galactica, but these people are all far more complex than the super-heroic characters found on the many Star Trek series.

The makers of Virtuality took an interesting tack in keeping all of the storytelling and visual effects grounded in the world of the almost-possible.  Yes, the show takes place in the future, when humanity has been able to create a ship capable of travel outside of our solar system.  But the show is filled with extrapolated science, rather than complete make-believe.  We get fascinating hints as to the scientific realities behind the Phaeton — just enough to ground the story-telling in the plausible.  (There are no magic transporters or warp-drives to be found here.)  On the visual effects end, there are absolutely zero “god’s eye” views of the ship (in which the camera pulls back so we can see the starship gracefully swoop by).  No, all of the exterior effects shots are presented as being footage from one of the many cameras attached to the ship’s outer hull.  This gives the show a sort-of “cinema verite” feel that is pretty unique.  (Though I must admit it did dilute, somewhat, the tension of the main space-ship-adventure scene, when the Phaeton makes its treacherous sling-shot maneuver around Neptune.  Keeping things almost-real also results in a number of the sets looking pretty dull.  We don’t get many fancy sci-fi gizmos and gadgets — just a lot of white and grey.  This is probably what a space-ship capable of traveling outside our solar system would look like.  It’s just pretty plain-jane, visually.)

Virtuality isn’t a radical reinvention of sci-fi television.  The pilot episode doesn’t strike me as the type of show that immediately presents itself as something unique and special (like Firefly or BSG).   But it was a solid effort, and it’s a shame that this story ends here.

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