6 Characters Who Escaped Virtual Prisons... Or Did They?

It's the ultimate test for any hero: finding yourself trapped in a prison of the mind, where you can no longer tell the difference between reality and falsehood. Here are six science-fiction heroes who escaped from virtual reality...probably. Spoilers ahead!


1. Douglas Quaid, Total Recall

The Setup:

After visiting Rekall in the hopes of going on a virtual vacation of Mars, unassuming nobody Douglas Quaid learns he's actually Hauser, a mindwiped secret agent. He then proceeds to get his ass to Mars, whereupon he becomes embroiled in a tangled web involving evil government operatives, psychic mutants, ancient aliens, and triple-breasted prostitutes. It's all very tense and exciting until a man claiming to from Rekall shows up to point out this is all just the memory implant he ordered gone horribly wrong.

Quaid dismisses this possibility, but the question remains - did he ever actually make it out of Rekall?

6 Characters Who Escaped Virtual Prisons... Or Did They?

The Case For:

Director Paul Verhoeven has occasionally confirmed that the movie really happened, but that was mostly when it looked like the film was going to get a sequel. Perhaps the best evidence that the events seen actually happened is that Arnold Schwarzenegger played Quaid. In the end, is it really any more believable that a guy as impossibly ripped as Schwarzenegger was just a lowly construction worker than that he was a secret agent? And there is the fact that Quaid was dreaming about something similar to his supposedly recovered memories before he ever went to Rekall, but even the movie acknowledges how weak it is to use a dream to disprove virtual reality.

The Case Against:

The guy who claims to be implanted by Rekall to get Quaid out of his broken mind trip not only correctly points out everything that had happened was in line with the adventure Quaid chose, but he also accurately predicts the rest of the movie. (Quaid's logic in this scene also leaves something to be desired. People in virtual reality can't possibly sweat! Shoot him in the head!) For that matter, a Rekall technician at the beginning of the movie says the memory simulator has brought up the unprecedented element of blue skies on Mars for Quaid's trip. And guess what we see at the end of the movie right before the scene fades to white...

Chances That It Really Happened:

10%. Sorry, Quaid, I don't believe you'll be seeing Richter at the party after all.

6 Characters Who Escaped Virtual Prisons... Or Did They?

2. Sam Tyler, Life On Mars (US Version)

The Setup:

The final episode of the American version of Life on Mars offered a rather unexpected resolution to just what had been going on with Sam Tyler all this time. As it turned out, he was neither a cop from 1973 nor one from 2008. Instead, he was part of the first manned expedition to Mars in 2035 and the virtual reality simulation meant to keep his mind busy during the two year trip to the red planet had gone haywire, accidentally sending him from his chosen reality of 2008 to 1973. His friends in 1973 had really been his fellow crew members, and Gene Hunt was really his father, Major Tom Tyler. But was this real, or just another coma fantasy?

The Case For:

To be fair, the makers of Life on Mars had set up this possibility for much of the series, what with all the Mars Rover stuff. Say what you will about the ending, but it wasn't completely random, and the act that Sam immediately accepts this new reality suggests it's the one he expected to find all along, deep down.

The Case Against:

For a start, there's that shot of the loafer as they step out onto the Martian surface right at the very end. It doesn't prove anything, but it undermines the supposed reality of the situation. And then there's the fact that this vision of 2035 really, really seems like the kind of thing a dude in 2008 would come up with. I mean, President Obama? I've already dealt with the logical gymnastics you have to do to get Malia Obama into the White House for her to send off a space mission in 2033. It seems just as likely that 2008 Sam simply came up with one of the very few recognizable names who could be president in 2035.

Then there's the fact that not-Ray describes his virtual reality trip as a deserted island full of women who looked like Splash-era Daryl Hannah or Scarface-era Michelle Pfeiffer. You know, pretty as both of them were in those films, I'm not sure I buy an astronaut fifty years later singling out those specific women for his two year porn dream. (By the way, does his haircut really look like NASA regulation? You'd think he'd have something more like Sam's crewcut in 2035.) Oh, and do we really want to deal with the implications of Sam sleeping with the daughter of Gene Hunt, when Gene Hunt is really his father? I don't think we do.

Chances That He Really Escaped:

30%. The whole thing just seems too contrived to be real, even if I'm pretty sure the creators intended it to be the actual solution.

6 Characters Who Escaped Virtual Prisons... Or Did They?

3. Neo, The Matrix

The Setup:

I don't really need to recap The Matrix, do I? The main thing we're concerned with here is whether ever really got out of the Matrix once he took the red pill, which was briefly a matter of some fan debate back when the film first came out. So, how about it - did he really wake up?

The Case For:

This should be open and shut, really. Even if Neo's adventures are all illusory, the Matrix itself seems to be real. After all, the first scene of the movie features Trinity and the Agents doing impossible things, not Neo. That's fairly objective proof that the Matrix exists. There's also the fact that there were two sequels and an entire anthology of animated spin-offs made after the original Matrix, which would seem to remove any doubt the original actually happened. Why are we even discussing this?

The Case Against:

Well, there are a couple of loose ends worth considering. How, exactly, did Neo shut down all those sentinels at the end of The Matrix Reloaded using only his mind when he was in the supposed real world? I suppose it could have been some sort of residual link, but it certainly raises the question as to whether that world is any more real than that of the Matrix. Then there's what the Architect explains to Neo in Reloaded. He explains that 99% of humanity accepts the Matrix because they can't face the alternative, and the remaining humans wake themselves up and go to Zion.

But what if Zion itself is just another aspect of the Matrix, one that this tiny sliver of humanity is prepared to accept because it's suitably bleak? It certainly wouldn't be the most ridiculously convoluted plan the Architect came up with. As for the argument that the existence of the sequels proves the originally happened as it appeared to, I can't get away from the fact that, in the end, this is the Wachowskis we're talking about. I long ago stopped expecting them to play by the rules of fairness and logic.

Chances That He Really Escaped:

80%. A lot of weird stuff happens in the sequels that doesn't make a lot of sense, but that probably has more to do with them being terrible movies.

6 Characters Who Escaped Virtual Prisons... Or Did They?

4. Buffy Summers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

The Setup:

The episode "Normal Again", the Trio unleashes a demon on Buffy that causes her to suffer severe hallucinatory episodes. She suddenly imagines herself in a mental institution, where she is told she has spent much of the last six years in a catatonia. Her doctor and her parents, who are still alive in this world, take advantage of this rare lucid moment to advise her how she can escape forever. The way to do this, however, is to allow all her friends to die, which is ultimately not something she can do. Returning to Sunnydale and taking an antidote to the demon's attack, Buffy commits to her vampire-slaying life as the real one. But did she choose correctly?

The Case For:

Well, that demon who attacked her did have hallucinatory powers. It's also questionable whether she could plausibly develop such a strong connection to the people she knew in her supposed fantasy world, and you'd kind of think the reality of the mental institution would have intruded just a little bit in the preceding six years.

The Case Against:
But all of those supposed arguments are countered and dealt with in the episode itself. And if she did just hallucinate the whole thing, then who exactly is issuing into existence the last scene of the episode, where the doctor sadly informs her parents that Buffy is gone forever? That happens after she took the antidote, so her mind should no longer be creating anything in that reality.

Chances That She Really Escaped:

50%. Because, in the end, it doesn't really matter which world is real and which is an illusion. What really matters is that Buffy chose the world she wanted to be real, and so the answer can remain safely ambiguous.

6 Characters Who Escaped Virtual Prisons... Or Did They?

5. Batman, Batman: The Animated Series

The Setup:

In the 1992 episode "Perchance to Dream", Batman wakes up to find out he isn't really Batman at all. His parents are still alive, he's engaged to Selina Kyle, and someone else is playing the role of Gotham's Dark Knight. After initially rejecting the possibility that this could actually be real and the life he thought he knew nothing more than an intense dream, Bruce realizes he finally has a chance to be happy and have everything he always wanted.

But this moment of contentment is fleeting, as his sudden inability to read tips him off that this is a dream after all. In the final showdown with this world's Batman, he learns the Mad Hatter has him trapped in a dream machine from which there is no possible escape. Which he then escapes from...because he's Batman. But did he really?

The Case For:

It's pretty simple, really. Like I said, this is Batman we're talking about. Mind like a steel trap doesn't even begin to describe Bruce Wayne's intellect and inner resolve, so is it really likely a two-bit villain like the Mad Hatter could trap him for all eternity in a VR machine? When the comic book version of Batman faced a similar situation during Final Crisis, he managed to reassert control and destroy Darkseid's machine before he even woke up. There's just no way you can win in a battle with Batman's mind.

The Case Against:

Well, let's think about this for a second. When "Perchance to Dream" came out, Batman: The Animated Series was still a relatively grounded show. There had certainly been elements of science fiction before that, such as Man-Bat, Mr. Freeze, Clayface, and an invisibility cloak, but by and large the show had remained true to its film noir roots. It's only after this that Batman starts tangling with completely impossible characters like the immortals Ra's Al Ghul and Jason Blood, and it's not long before actually superpowered heroes like Superman start showing up everywhere.

In less than five years, Batman goes from barely defeating a guy who hides in the sewers with a bunch of alligators to confidently leading a Justice League of literally unlimited membership in wars with Brainiac and Darkseid. Maybe Batman's mind could never accept a world where he was completely happy. But what about a world where he could share his burdens with other heroes, a world where anything could happen and it frequently did, a world where he could stand toe to toe with evil gods...and win? That might be exactly the kind of world Batman wanted, and it's just possible the Mad Hatter gave it to him.

Chances That He Really Escaped:

98%. It's a nice theory and all, but come on...Batman doesn't lose.

6 Characters Who Escaped Virtual Prisons... Or Did They?

6. Number Six, The Prisoner

The Setup:

In the series's penultimate episode, the unspeakably brilliant "Once Upon A Time", Number Two made the big push to crack Number Six by subjecting him to a lot of drugs and insane recreations of his life story. This backfires, as Number Six gains the upper hand and instead manages to break Number Two. The final episode, "Fallout", finds Number Six before a bizarre masked court, and then a bunch of crazy (but kind of awesome) stuff happens.

Finally, things take a turn for the incomprehensible as Number Six, the rebellious Number 48, the recovered Number Two, and the Village butler gun down the entire court as the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" plays. They then destroy the Village with a big rocket and find themselves on a motorway back to London, signaling that they've all finally broken free. But did any of that actually happen, or did Number Two really manage to break Number Six back in "Once Upon A Time"?

The Case For:

It's somewhat paradoxical to criticize anything that happened on The Prisoner for being impossible or nonsensical. The entire series is littered with little moments that make absolutely no sense whatsoever and go completely unexplained, even compared to the vaguely understandable main plots. This episode just happens to be nothing but absurdity, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's any less tethered to The Prisoner's fractured take on reality.

The Case Against:

"Fallout" is insane, even by the standards of The Prisoner. (The revelation of Number One's identity is just the bonkers icing on an already demented cake.) And it's not as though the Village hadn't successfully trapped Number Six in illusory worlds before, as seen in "A, B, and C" (which used virtual reality) and "Living in Harmony" (which used a lot of drugs).

For what it's worth, the followup Prisoner comic miniseries, Shattered Visage, ran with the premise that the events of "Fallout" were indeed the Village's last, successful attempt to break the mind of Number Six. Considering Patrick McGoohan read Shattered Visage and said that he didn't hate it - which, by McGoohan's standards, qualified as a rave review - there might actually be something to its version of events.

Chances That He Really Escaped:

Pick a number. Any number. Now divide it by zero. Whatever that number is, that's the probability that Number Six escaped.

Check back this weekend as we examine a few more characters who may well still be trapped in virtual reality, even if they don't know it any more.