Rating 3

Created by Ronald D Moore and Michael Taylor

Written by Michael Taylor, based on a story by Ronald D Moore and Michael Taylor

Directed by Peter Berg

Starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Frank Pike), Clea DuVall (Sue Parsons), Kerry Bishé (Billie Kashmiri), Sienna Guillory (Rika Goddard), James D’Arcy (Roger Fallon), Erik Jensen (Jules Braun), Ritchie Coster (Jimmy Johnson), Nelson Lee (Kenji Yamamoto), Joy Bryant (Alice Thibadeau), Omar Metwally (Adin Meyer), Gene Farbar (Val Orlovsky), José Pablo Cantillo (Manny Rodriguez), Jimmi Simpson (Virtual Man) and Kari Wahlgren (Jean – voice only)

The Phaeton is a scientific starship on a ten year journey to the Epsilon Eridani star system. It is approaching Neptune, the point of no return, where the crew can use the gravitational pull of the planet to either catapult the ship onwards towards its intended destination or back towards Earth. Since their departure from Earth six months earlier, scientists have calculated that the planet will continue to support human life for less than a century and the original mission is now altered to locate a new planet for human habitation.

The on-board psychologist Dr Roger Fallon has created a system of virtual reality modules, allowing crew members to assume different identities and engage in adventures in a variety of environments, designed to combat the psychological effects of being confined in the spaceship for such a long length of time. He is also the director of a reality TV programme, ‘Edge of Never: Life on the Phaeton’, which is broadcast by the Fox Broadcasting Company back on Earth and attracts billions of viewers. However, an unidentified glitch in the virtual reality modules allows a dangerous and malevolent figure existing outside of the constraints of the programming to invade the fantasy worlds of the various crew members.


‘Virtuality’ is the feature-length pilot for an intended Fox network television series that was not commissioned. The pilot was broadcast on the Fox network in June 2009. I came across it because of Clea DuVall, who I like very much. I was largely unfamiliar with the rest of the actors. I watched it without knowing anything about the premise, apart from seeing one promotional picture of the cast.

I have a love hate relationship with science fiction. I grew up watching ‘Doctor Who’ and reading Isaac Asimov. Before I reached my teenage years I had read the C S Lewis space trilogy and these had a huge impact on me. There was a time when the third and final part, ‘That Hideous Strength’, would have counted as my favourite book. I guess I started to grow out of love with sci-fi (or, at least, some of it) in the years following ‘Star Wars’. I detest that film and I don’t like a lot of the science fiction and related film and television that has come since. Generally speaking, I just seemed to lose my love of it as I got older. This is not to say that I have turned my back on the genre altogether. I still watch ‘Doctor Who’ and there have been plenty of sci-fi films post ‘Star Wars’ that I like – ‘The Thing’, ‘Starman’ and ‘Event Horizon’ are three examples that immediately come to mind.

I have become less interested in television sci-fi over the years. I watched ‘Star Trek: Next Generation’ for a while and occasionally ‘Deep Space Nine’, but not ‘Voyager’ and ‘Enterprise’. ‘Babylon 5’ never caught my imagination and I have ignored the likes of ‘Earth: Final Conflict’ and ‘Andromeda’. I did watch the whole of the short-lived ‘Firefly’, but came away from it decidedly underwhelmed and I remain equally mystified by the critical acclaim afforded to ‘Battlestar Galactica’. Although I long ago stopped taking seriously the conspiracy theorists who believe in Roswell and recovered alien technology, I do have a soft-spot for alien abduction fiction, be it ‘The X Files’ or television movies like ‘Visitors of the Night’. It is not the science I am interested in, it's the fiction.

The bottom line is probably simply that a lot of sci-fi seems to be based around liberarian concepts and I tend veer more towards a slightly unfocused and ambivalent socialist archetype, not that I am in any shape or form an expert on such matters.

I approached ‘Virtuality’ was a degree of trepidation, not really expecting to like it. I struggled for the first ten minutes or so, wondering if I was going to make it through the whole thing. ‘Alien’ seems to be the template that virtually all subsequent sci-fi adheres to and there is nothing here that is not already very familiar. My initial impression, one that stuck with me to some degree or other right up to the end, was that I was watching a hybrid of ‘Silent Running’, ‘Alien’, ‘Event Horizon’ and ‘Firefly’ – the latter compounded by the opening scenes in which a small Union army troop attacks a Confederate army camp – the virtual reality fantasy of the ship’s commender.

In spite of my doubts, I found myself becoming more intrigued as the reality television concept was introduced. A convincing aura of unease beneath the surface was introduced, a sense that something is not right and the boundaries between reality and fantasy are already becoming blurred. The story began to set up some interesting concepts, although obviously the virtual reality plot is taken directly from ‘Star Trek: Next Generation’, ‘Total Recall’ and probably lots of other sci-fi that I don’t know about or have forgotten about. The glitch in the programming is straight out of the regular holodeck malfunctions in ‘Next Generation’.

‘Virtuality’ simply sets the scene for the intended television series and ends at what is, effectively, a starting point. As such, it does not really work as a movie. However, the conclusion left me hooked and wanting more, the first time this has happened watching the pilot of an (intended) American television series in quite some time. It’s a shame it failed to launch, so to speak.

Ronald D Moore and Michael Taylor, the creators of ‘Virtuality’ and writers of this pilot, both have prior connections to ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Battlestar Galactica’.

Review posted 31 August 2009


No comments: