As many of you know, Virtuality aired recently in the United States to less-than-rapturous figures. As we couldn’t really justify sending any of the magazine’s staff reporters out to the USA just to watch it, we asked one of our freelancers from across the pond to write up his thoughts on Ronald D Moore’s post-Galactica return to science fiction. Just to forewarn you, however, this post contains spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it and don’t want to know what happens, please stop reading now.
Go or no-go? Nuclear pulse propulsion? The Civil War? It doesn’t make a great deal of sense at first glance, so it must be Ron Moore’s Virtuality. The notoriously troubled production has had its ups and lows, but when it was first announced it was one of the more anticipated television releases. Now, it’s been released with a whimper rather than a bang, but that doesn’t change the fact that roughly 199 million people missed out on an excellent, if fragmented and confused piece of science fiction last Friday.
The story is thus: Earth is in a mess. Environmental damage means that the planet will be uninhabitable within a century unless something is done, and the Phaeton is sent to the star Epsilon Eridani to do just that. It’s never quite explained why this will save humanity, considering that even if they got to the star and turned straight back around, it’s a 20 year trip there and back, but we digress. The Phaeton is made up of 12 crew members, each of which specialises in a specific area and fulfills a vital job role on the ship. We’d see this as poor planning, but the shadowy Consortium, who funded the project, apparently don’t.
The Phaeton is currently reaching the six-month mark of its voyage and is preparing to make the decision of go/no-go, the final point where they can turn around and head back to Earth before they catapult themselves into deep space. Problems arise when the doctor self-diagnoses himself with Parkinson’s, and the Virtual Reality system – something meant to keep the crew from going Lord Of The Flies on each other during the long voyage – develops a minor glitch where a character independent of the programming shows up and kills the crew in an increasingly vicious number of ways. The usual inter-crew tensions are there – the engineer is a man with a complex about his disability, the gay couple are portrayed as bickering queens rather than the loving pair they really are, the butch (yet undeniably attractive Clea DuVall) pilot has a bit of acrimony with the computer scientist, who is also the presenter of the ever-present reality show that funds the entire project. That’s right, the entire thing is being recorded, second by second, and funnelled back to Earth in the form of an ultra-voyeuristic Big Brother, produced by the ship’s psychiatrist. Whose wife is sleeping with the captain in virtual reality. There’s also another horny couple who leave their underwear in the botanical gardens that provide food (and, we assume, oxygen) and a dude who left his kids behind to go on the journey, on the ship he designed.
Confused yet? Trust us, it’s simpler to understand when you’re going along with it. The show sounds preeminently cheesy from the outside, a nightmare blend of cliché, political correctness, concept and execution that would never work, but oddly, director Peter Berg manages to weave it all together into a coherent narrative that’s as engaging as it is intellectually heavyweight, sewn with the threads of his distinctive directorial style. It’s also a particularly creepy show – the scenes with the computer glitch are harrowing and there’s a permanent sense of tension created every time one of the crew goes into their virtual reality worlds. This is only ratcheted up when the glitch, played by a slimy Jimmi Simpson, stops simply executing members of the crew and instead brutally rapes the crew’s computer scientist.
“Dark, twisted and deliciously honest”
This is where Virtuality really comes into its own. Previously hostile members of the crew show tender sides to their personality, fitting more character development more eloquently into five minutes of exposition than Moore and his writers managed for the entire fourth season of Galactica. It also raises uncomfortable and insightful questions. As the rape occurred in virtual reality, did it really occur at all? Are the marks of abuse purely physical, or are the mental aspects the most important? Is the threat of torture more effective than actual torture? Moore excels at these sorts of obliquely poised questions in his shows, and he employs them with a deft hand here, illustrating the confined nature of the ship and the necessity of coping with traumatic events subtly in this way, and more graphically later on.
Revenge is also a large theme in Virtuality. Simpson’s glitch character appears to be taking revenge on each of the crew for perceived slights – he guns down the shrink’s wife and the skipper when they’re canoodling, he frequently tells Pike that he’s not fooling anyone before he takes him out, the doctor is killed when he keeps his condition from the crew. It’s all very morbid, exceptionally so for network television, and it goes far more in-depth than many other pilots we’ve seen.
The real problem with Virtuality is that it just won’t appeal to people outside of the genre. It’s slow, it’s thought-provoking, it’s dark and twisted and deliciously honest in a refreshing way. It would not be popular. We’d like nothing more than for this to continue, even as a miniseries, to get answers to some of the questions that the show throws up and to see how it tackles some of the themes it’s presented us with and withdrawn from. But it’s likely that we’ll never get the chance.
Readers of this website could do far worse than to check out Virtuality. It’s a mixed bag, but ultimately, a rewarding experience that will leave your mind reeling long after the final credits. HBO, if you’re listening, this is one for you.
Virtuality is an intellectually demanding programme that isn’t flawless, but is exceptional in nearly all of its aspects. This isn’t just science-fiction television, it’s art in a way, and it’s a shame that it will likely never grace our screens again.