“Virtuality” is the kind of science fiction that successfully does so many things right that it’s nearly impossible to find anything wrong; it’s got a bold, realistic, and fresh perspective that shows what science fiction is – or could be – if only given the right effort; its characters are complex, developed individuals that draw the audience into the world so naturally and completely that they may never wish to leave; its setting is stylish and imaginative; and its mysteries and questions intriguing.
The basic concept involves the members of a deep space exploration mission struggling with the pressures and stresses of daily life inside a tin can millions of miles from Earth as they struggle with a fateful choice … a choice about their mission, their lives, and future of the human race. It involves the question of whether to proceed with their mission or back out, and about whether to proceed deeper into the unknown or return quietly back to the nest. To complicate this choice is a collection of factors both within the ship’s crew and external to the people. If they say yes, they cannot back out. If they say no, mankind may face its own extinction within a century.
But the concept also possesses an even deeper avenue of storytelling and this is the series namesake mash up of two words: virtual reality. In this world virtual reality simulation technology isn’t just an idea, it’s, well … a reality. The technology is capable of allowing the crew to live outside the ship, in worlds of their own imagination. They can explore mountains, surf waves, play in rock bands, fight in old battles or raise children, take a vacation wherever and whenever they choose. To, in nearly every possible way, escape the struggles and stresses of their lives for better and more interesting ones.
Yet within this virtuality there are mysteries, questions and a possible setup for more sinister or benevolent forces at play. Appearing for unforeseen and unknown reasons in the various virtualities of the crew is a man of unknown origins – he’s not part of the crew and he’s not registered as part of any program. Within each of the virtualities he operates by his own apparent rules independent of any know system. He’s effectively a literal ghost in the machine, a Virtuality Man. His existence contradicts everything the crew knows, is he a programmed A.I., an alien entity, angel or something else entirely un-thought of by the human mind?
All of these wonderful mixed staples of science fiction coalesce beautifully into a captivating story. Something reminiscent of “2001,” “Star Trek,” and a dramatized “Big Brother” all merged seamlessly into a new vibrant reality. A story that captivates the viewer with genuinely clever and intelligent style and substance, that is both timeless and futuristic.
Yet, despite all of these wonderful attributes, I have doubts that the concept would work as a series for Fox. The two hour movie, which may function as a series pilot, works because it offers a quick and compelling look into another world. But offering a 2 hour fully realized glimpse of a world is much different than fleshing out 18 to 22 hours of time in this world per season. The setting severely limits the ability to tell new stories or offer new locales. The virtualites of the crew potentially allows the writers to expand the stories in new and interesting ways, but as the virtual realities are styled to clearly not look entirely real they don’t offer a the writers a truly viable way of escaping the ship. So the end result is the potential for overly dramatic soap opera-ish writing wherein the crew acts more as teenagers on “90219” or “Gossip Girl,” squabbling in personality clashes over mundane events (though admittedly that may be the goal of the concept).
And therein lies another possible concern: the crew is composed of 12 individuals so far from Earth that adding new characters to a series is severely limited. While the crews virtualities may allow them the ability to meet new characters, the visual style of the virtualities make the use of characters, in my opinion, lack substance. They can only exist inside the virtualities, inside a clearly fake reality. They can possibly act out of character as the Virtuality Man I mentioned earlier. But using that concept too much can downplay the effectiveness of the mystery built around the character. His presence in affect would be pointless, no longer special but yet another character among many others.
Finally as a series the concept could suffer from ‘holodeck syndrome,’ wherein the writers run out of ideas and are forced to rely on the same technology run-a-muck story used repeatedly in some of the less than popular episodes of ‘Star Trek’. Where the virtualities or become a crutch that the writers lean on. In such an event the series would quick lose traction, failing into a trap of its own making.
But whatever the end result, as a start, there is much promise here. The movie shows us that star ship series aren’t dead and that truly compelling characters can offer truly solid and enjoyable experiences.
The realistic nature of space travel in the series: this ship does not possess a faster than light form of travel. The crew cannot simply jaunt of course and visit a planet. The crew cannot communicate in real time with people on Earth. The ship’s course is set and that is that, the crew it’s literal prisoners.
The writing/actor delivery dynamic: the writing is extremely natural, fluid, and realistic but coupled with the delivery of the cast everything takes on a much more believable nature. The audience feels as if these are real people. They feel as if this mission could happen to people living today.
What Didn’t Work
For a series set at least a hundred years into the future, the sets and some props feel a little too contemporary at times. Are we, as an audience, honestly to expect that the future will look almost exactly as it does today? Yes there are some technologies that looks futuristic, but no more futuristic that something that could be released next year. For example in one scene a member of the crew is watching a video from her sister using a device that looks like a slightly larger than normal iPod. Yet at the same time the series posses virtual reality, wouldn’t it make more sense to watch a virtual reality projection of the sister taken from her home back on Earth? Or how about a holographic display flowing in mid air?
The score was at times far too heavy handed. During tragic moment it felt like a slightly upgraded form of muzak, ultimately detracting from some of the most dramatic moments (of course in other scenes it fit perfectly).
Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due
“Virtuality” was written by Ronald D. Moore and Michael Taylor, and was directed by Peter Berg.