Wednesday, July 1, 2009

/Virtuality /TV show - recommended

On the strength of regular commenter John Foberg's recommendation, I spent the two hours watching Virtuality, the pilot for an (apparently) failed TV show that Fox tv was going to do.

Virtuality is the story of twelve men and women on the world's first interstellar flight. They've signed on for ten years, and as the pilot begins, they're approaching their go/no-go decision - do they slingshot around Neptune and fire main drive - a system derived from Project Orion, and go on their ten year mission, or do they abort and go back to Earth? They are also the stars of /the/ most popular reality tv series on tv, with two billion viewers, so mission control may not always be on their side so much as on the side of what makes good tv.

I'm still digesting it, but I have to say there are some things that stand out in my mind. First, kudos to Fox for having the stones to, yanno, take the chance on something other than reality tv. Second, razzies to Fox for not having the stones to actually make the series.

First thing. /Virtuality/ was supposed to be a tv show pilot. So let's look at it the way it was meant to be seen, instead of as a tv movie.

I've read other reviews of the tv series calling it formulaic. There's some truth to that. As the title might suggest, the virtual reality system on board - used for maintaining skills, recreation, and occasionally as a user interface for complex ship systems - is a fundamental plot device to the story, and probably would have been throughout the series. The problem with this is that it's all been done before, albeit badly, by the holodeck-centric episodes of /Star Trek the Next Generation/ and its descendants.

Virtuality also leans heavily on the formula of the ship's AI who may not have your best interests at heart. This, too, has been done before. /2001: A Space Odyssey/ is the canonical AI-goes-bad story; /Star Trek/ covered it repeatedly; /Alien/ had a dose, /Terminator 1 - n+1/ thrived on it, and of course it was the very bedrock of /The Matrix./ (One might also point out certain elements of this trope in my work, I suppose. ;)

There's also a healthy dose of claustrophobia reminiscent of pretty much any submarine movie you can think of, and a slight dose of /A Nightmare on Elm Street III/ and you pretty much have the plotlines we're dealing with. Except of course, the reality show angle that distorts all of them and makes you wonder which part of the truth you're being told.

At what point do these formulas become tropes, and at what point do tropes become archetypes? I think all of these elements are actually good elements of the story. They're tropes because they /work/ and they can be rethought and re-imagined and repurposed again and again.

It would have taken some discipline for the writers - something it's doubtful Fox TV could have maintained - to keep the virtuality plot device from getting stupid, overused, and campy (did I mention Next Generation's holodeck problems?) and still keep it a vital part of the story.


The final question is, would I have watched the TV show, had it been made (and had Mr. Forberg brought it to my attention, instead of an orphaned pilot?) I think I would have.

I would, at least, have bought the series on iTunes and thrown it on my iPod as I did with /Farscape/, for watching next time I'm sick in bed. It's an interesting story, and the characters are interesting human beings. Flawed (arguably a bit too flawed - although the lack of professional unity of the crew can be explained away by the reality show sponsorship of the mission), believable, weird around the edges. People who it's interesting to see what goes on in their heads, but at the same time a little uncomfortable. I'd have liked to see the mystery presented unwound and exposed, although if it took more than a season I'd probably have given up. But I would like to know what was going on. So. A mixed review from me. Easily a mini-series worth of plotlines to unravel in /Virtuality/, maybe not a whole series worth. In any case it's free to watch, and it's well done, so check it out and enjoy what might have been.



John Foberg said...

James, Thanks for the honest and enlightening review/analysis.

I agree with the serious flaws of the plot using overdone cliches and mechanisms. Also you are spot on with the crew being a little too bit flawed--you'd think a 200 Billion dollar endeavor would have netted a more congruous and harmonious crew. But then again they did spend 10 months cooped aboard the ship already so it's entirely plausible they are getting on each others nerves.
I also think the show has incredible promise and does some new & interesting things. Let's hope Fox rethinks it's decision and goes for at least one season, there's real potential for the show it could rival popular sci-fi shows like Stargate & Firefly.

BTW I think the hostile presence isn't the result of AI but rather human tinkering.

John Foberg said...

Ack, also wanted to add/concur that the show make use of several similar plot devices used in the totally awesome Looking Glass.

Anonymous said...

Well just finished watching this. I agree the show has alot of promise. As for Johns comment about it being a result of human tinkering rather than AI i completely disagree. The reason the crew are flawed is that they were recruited to be so by a television company who has put them all in a virtual reality simulation, everything that goes on is not real! It purely television entertainment. The commander had to die because he realised that everything was a simulation!

Anonymous said...

The whole mission, is itself a virtuality where the crew are having their reality and conscious state interfered with. The virtual escapism they engage in, is a game within the game itself. They are still on earth rather then being on a mission and when they die they exit the game... much like the exist back into the collective 'virtual reality' when dying in their games...

JRS said...

I don't think they'd get the kind of ratings they're supposedly getting if it was a virtuality on Earth. And on Earth there'd be issues with holding these people against their will, IMHO. In space, where they're basically payload until they reach their destination, they can safely be messed with.


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