What Is It? Virtuality was a two hour TV movie written and produced by Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar: Galactica) which aired in the Summer of 2009 on FOX and was originally intended as a pilot for a series, though it never received a pickup. It follows the crew of a deep space mission headed to the Epsilon Eridani star system on a journey that will take ten years. Their day to day activities on the ship are recorded and transmitted back to Earth where viewers watch them on television, reality series-style (this helps with the funding of the mission). In addition, each crew member has a virtual reality module that they can use as an escape from the rigors of deep space travel (which is very long and dull). However, a glitch in the programming has led to several bad experiences in the virtual world, and the crew considers switching off the system for the duration of the mission. This glitch seems to extend beyond that, though, and ultimately leads to the death of one of the crew members which points toward a potentially subversive plot unfolding on the ship.
Why It Stands Out: While at first glance Virtuality seems to give us and odd mish-mash of elements—hard science fiction meets reality television meets the Star Trek holodecks meets murder mystery meets a conspiracy story arc—it ends up delivering a superior sci fi tale that had potential if it had go on to an ongoing series.
The Skinny: This TV movie is filmed very much like a realty series, with the jerky, hand-held camera flitting about trying to catch the quibbles among each of the crew members along with separate “confessional” pieces directed at the camera (the short-lived TV series Defying Gravity, which aired later the same Summer, would also take a similar approach to this, more on that at this link). But it never descends into the petty bickering and melodrama expected of a reality show and instead brings a hint of authenticity to the way that the characters on the show interact with one another.
Adding the virtual reality system to the mix of course draws immediate comparisons to the holodecks of the Star Trek franchise (right down to its tendency to malfunction). However, Virtuality takes a very different approach with this gimmick. Each person wears a virtual reality visor that lets them see and experience this cyber-world, though it is not physically “real” like Trek’s holodecks. And to what extent this virtual reality engages all five senses is not made completely clear in the pilot. The participants seem to fully experience the situations in their mind, including sexual encounters, but we don’t know just how real it feels to them. Still, having such a system on a long, daunting voyage does make a lot of sense.
Add to this a scientifically accurate approach toward space travel (including no sound in space!) along with an excellent cast (headed up by a pre-Game of Thrones Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and you have a production that delivers an interesting and challenging science fiction concept. Unfortunately, even though this may have sounded good in a pitch season (“reality show in space”), it almost certainly left the FOX network execs befuddled after watching the pilot. They decided to bury it on the Summer schedule, giving it no chance to find an audience and carry on as a series. It has since been released on DVD, though, and is definitely worth checking out as a sci fi gem that never received the support it deserved from its network.
Notable Stars: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Kerry Bishé, Clea DuVall, James D’Arcy
Did You Know? According to Wikipedia, Virtuality has several references/homages to 2001: A Space Odyssey including the faulty computer, the similarity of the Phaeton to the Discovery and the captain’s first name Frank (from Frank Poole). His last name, Pike, is almost certainly a reference to Captain Christopher Pike from Star Trek as well.
Virtuality was directed by Peter Berg, known to genre fans for his feature films Hancock and Battleship (and the upcoming Hancock 2).
Sci Fi Genre Gems: Forgotten magic and hidden treasures from the worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror
Sure, everybody knows Star Trek and Star Wars and Harry Potter and the other “big name” sci fi / fantasy franchises, but there’s so much more to the genre than just those juggernauts. Anybody remember Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski’s other TV series, the post-apocalyptic Jeremiah? What about the Kick-Ass-like Defendor which starred Woody Harrelson and actually beat Kick-Ass to the punch (so to speak)? Ever read the Pelman the Powershaper fantasy book series that pitted an actor/wizard/prophet against a two-headed dragon and a sentient castle (two, actually)? What about that PBS television adaptation of Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven? Anybody want to play the Nuclear War card game?
Never heard about of those properties mentioned above? Then Sci Fi Genre Gems is here to enlighten you as it takes a look at the nuggets, the upstarts, the dark horses, the gems of science fiction and fantasy.
Delivering a journey through the obscure, the forgotten, and the over-looked, Sci Fi Genre Gems seeks out those hidden treasures to reveal to the wider sci fi fanbase what they have been missing. So prepare to discover some lost nuggets of the genre that may have been previously unknown or that you may have just heard about in passing references. Also get ready to revisit some buried classics (or semi-classics) as this book goes beyond the big names and uncovers some of the less-renown entries of the genre while offering up a fun read that will expand your sci fi horizons.