"Virtuality" Promises Cynical Media Melodrama - In SpaceS

Virtuality is a reality-TV space opera and the newest television idea from Ron Moore, co-creator of the recent Battlestar Galactica reboot. But the show may never make it past the pilot that airs tonight. Is that really a loss?

The setup for the show is immediately intriguing. The Phaeton is a spaceship on a ten-year voyage to the nearest star system with a habitable planet, in search of alien life. Its crew of 12 are funding the voyage by filming their adventures for reality TV, and their only escape from each other is into hyper-realistic virtual reality programs. So even as they try to capture the gritty reality of ship-board life for "Edge of Never: Life on the Phaeton," their sanity depends on an ability to escape the ship via immersive VR fantasies.

It's the kind of meta-meditation on technology that Ron Moore loves, and which he explored via the cylons' synthetic-but-real identities in Battlestar. Virtuality is dark like Battlestar too, but in a much more intimate way. The ship's counselor Roger Fallon is also the producer of the reality show, so he has a vested interest in keeping his patients neurotically off-center. After all, perfectly mentallly healthy people do not create good drama. While his wife sneaks off to have sex with the ship's captain in virtual reality, Fallon is left to lecture the reality TV audience back home about how everybody "plays a role" in a crisis situtation and therefore all the roles they play on ship are "as real as it could possibly be."

"Virtuality" Promises Cynical Media Melodrama - In SpaceS

The ship's crisis, at least in the pilot episode, is whether or not there will even be a ten-year mission at all. Captain Pike must decide when they reach Jupiter whether they'll slingshot out of the solar system using the gas giant's gravity (along with several nukes), or return to Earth. Given that new research has revealed Earth will be going waterworld in less than a century, finding a possible new home for humanity is more important than ever. As millions tune in to find out whether it's "go or no go" for the Phaeton, Pike has to consider whether his tiny crew is ready to endure ten years together in deep space - especially given that the doctor has just discovered he has Parkinson's disease, and their virtual reality program is starting to act really weird.

Although the "go or no go" dilemma is solved in this episode, we get a potential season-long arc in the VR bug plot. A strange man starts appearing in the crew's VR fantasies, beating them and killing them before they have a chance to take off their interface goggles. It's not as if the VR fantasies can harm people physically - this isn't a Matrix deal where dying inside means you die outside - but there is still something psychologically scarring about being murdered no matter how it happens.

"Virtuality" Promises Cynical Media Melodrama - In SpaceS

Much of the pilot episode, directed by Peter Berg (who is also directing an upcoming film version of Dune), simply introduces all our characters. There's the girly hacker who also serves as host for the reality TV show; the gay couple of astrobiologists who cook for the rest of the crew and complain that they come across as "bitchy queens" on TV; the sick doctor; the lonely ship's designer; the creepy counselor and his biologist wife; the tough-but-fair captain; his irascible second-in-command who manages to turn a wheelchair into his macho accessory; and the ex-military pilot who is a smart-mouthed, tomboy maverick. It's a cool group, and you'll definitely wind up wanting to know more about some of them.

It's unclear whether FOX will turn Virtuality into a series, but this two-hour premiere is certainly not a self-contained story. As I said earlier, the "go no go" plot is resolved, but so many lose ends remain at the end that it feels unsatisfying as a stand-alone TV movie.

Virtuality spins a lot of balls into the air with this pilot, and it's not clear that Ron Moore can keep them from crashing down. Is the show really going to be able to balance the reality-TV storyline with our crew's virtual reality adventures (and their real-life dramas)? The reality TV angle brings a much-needed cynical subtlety to the show, which rescues it from pure space psychodrama. But Moore isn't exactly known for his cynical storytelling, and I worry that this prickly aspect of the series will get smoothed over by Fantasy Island morality tales set in VR land.

Still, I would like the chance to find out where Virtuality might take us. Moore was willing to deliver quite a shock at the end of the pilot, which set the stage for a show unafraid to take risks. And I have to admit I'm intrigued to see what will befall the crew next, in a watching-a-trainwreck-on-Livejournal way. Creepy mind games mixed with media weirdness in space? Yeah, sign me up. Let's hope the show goes on.