[07/07/08 - 01:14 AM]
The Futon's First Look: "Virtuality" (FOX, Script)
By Brian Ford Sullivan (TFC)

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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2008-2009 season. Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot - or in this new post-strike/straight-to-series world, reading the pilot script. We'll start with the ones that were actually filmed and move on to the others in the coming weeks.

For our final two weeks, we're going to shift gears a little and look at the scripts for 10 high-concept projects in the works for midseason. All of them have just started or recently completed production so it may be some time before we hear when and if they make the cut.

As always a lot can change from what's on the page right now but we couldn't resist taking a peek.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: To read our review of the final product, click here.]

(written by Michael Taylor; story by Michael Taylor & Ronald D. Moore; 73 pages)

The network's description: No official description was released.

What did they leave out: Note that it's actually Taylor's script based on a story by he and Moore.

The plot in a nutshell: "We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are." -- The Talmud; "I know Kung Fu." -- Neo, The Matrix. And with that we meet Francis "Frank" Pike (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) or at least according to the virtual reality simulation he's experiencing, Colonel Pike of the Union Army, circa 1863. He's leading a surprise attack against a platoon's worth of Confederate soldiers transporting supplies - only to have it backfire as a trap. And in an even stranger twist - one of Pike's own men, a green-eyed corporal (Jimmi Simpson), pulls out a gun and kills him. A surprised Pike awakens in the real world as he's about to start another day as commander of the Phaeton, Earth's first starship. From here we begin our introductions to the crew as Pike makes his way through the football field-sized ship ("neither sleek 'Star Trek' nor Gothic 'Alien' but something much closer to a blandly contemporary NASA design," notes the script) - there's nuclear scientist/engineer James "Jimmy" Johnson (Richie Coster), a slightly bitter paraplegic; happily married exobiologists Alice Thibadeau (Joy Bryant) and Kenji Yamaguchi (Nelson Lee), who have "christened" most of the ship's compartments; microbial ecologist Rika Goddard (Sienna Guillory), who's having a "virtual" affair with Pike; life partners Manny Rodriguez (Jose Pablo Cantillo), a mathematician, and Valentin "Val" Orlov (yet to be cast), a Russian geologist, who always seem to be bickering; Dr. Eyal Meyer (Omar Metwally), the ship's medical officer; Billie Kashmiri (Kerry Bishe), the ship's computer specialist; Sue Parsons (Clea DuVall), the Phaeton's co-pilot and resident surfer chick; Dr. Julius "Jules" Braun (Erik Jensen), an ex-NASA scientist/college professor/New York Giants fan; Roger Fallon (James D'Arcy), Rika's husband, who serves the dual roles of psych officer and - oddly enough - on-board media liaison; and last, but not least, Jean (voice yet to be cast), the ship's onboard computer who's always just a chirp away.

Weaving throughout said introductions are clips from each crew member's confessional which Fallon is editing for the latest transmission back to Earth. You see, the Phaeton's mission is being backed by both NASA and the Consortium, a mega corporation which is planning to make back its investment by producing a reality series about the crew and - no joke - selling advertising on it to the highest bidder. Fallon then serves as the show's "executive producer" as his cameras are present on nearly every corner of the ship - making him something of a pariah amongst the crew. (He does however have one friend in Billie, whom he's tapped as the show's "host" and lead documentarian.) In any case, the coming days should prove to be particularly eventful as the Phaeton is closing in on Neptune - the go/no-go point for their planned mission to Eridani - where Pike must make the final decision whether or not the crew is ready to make the trip. Complicating his decision - word has just came out that one of the crew has been diagnosed with Parkinson's. That and this "green-eyed" man is turning up in other people's virtual sessions in increasingly more disturbing ways. And we're only in act two... wait for the holy shit of holy shit endings (we're talking game changer here).

What works: "Battlestar Galactica" in a lot of ways rewrote the book on what audiences could expect from hard science fiction. And as that series draws to a close there seems to be an unspoken feeling that it will be some time before the next "big" science fiction series adds a few pages to that book. Well, I hesitate to set the bar so high this early but... this just might be the next "big" show (and when I say big, I mean the astronomical number of fan web sites that will be devoted to it). "Virtuality" is brimming with joyously clever ideas and concepts, not to mention filled with decidedly unique characters and relationships - and I didn't see any of it coming. While "Battlestar" is mired in metaphors about the politics of 2008, "Virtuality" takes on our growing attachment to technology - how it's starting to define us and how we see ourselves. The two-hour pilot posits that to endure the stress of their decade long mission (five years there, five years back), the crew must have access to a virtual reality of their own creation as a means of escape. And while most of the crew uses it for said purpose (Sue tries to catch some waves during any free moment, Billie envisions herself as a "Buckaroo Banzai"-esque rock star/superspy) others use it to live a life free of their current predicaments - for Jimmy, his lost limbs; for Rika, her passionless marriage; and for Jules, to rewrite a tragic event back on Earth. So what would happen then if something came along that could harm them in that virtual world? Would you still use it? Even if the alternative was to potentially go stir crazy (as we're told happened on the first Mars mission)?

These are but a few of the dizzying amount of questions "Virtuality" asks about our relationship to technology. And if that wasn't enough, imagine that story being told through the prism of not only literally going where no man has gone before but also being part of the biggest reality show ever produced. It's an intoxicating mix I can't recall ever seeing before. I mean a science fiction show where the ship's mathematician and geologist bitch about how they're being portrayed on "the show," where the host pauses to thank one of their sponsors before the big launch and where the psych officer isn't shy about the network's need maximize the drama - and have it all take place on what we've come to expect from a typical starship? Sign me up. Adding more fuel to the fire is that Peter Berg is directing this. Hell, the script literally spells out the need for his handheld, documentary style (a la "Friday Night Lights") for the non-VR moments and his whiz bang, Hollywood production hand (a la "Hancock") for the VR ones. I can't help it - I'm giggling like a schoolgirl right now.

What doesn't: A few bits of the show's mythology are kept frustratingly vague - we're never told exactly what year it is (other than it's still the 21st century) and while it's hinted that Earth has experienced some sort of major ecological change (Fallon notes that "dry land is an increasingly expensive commodity"), it's never spelled out what exactly the Phaeton's mission is once they get to Eridani.

The bottom line: Again, I hate to set the bar so high this early - but wow I'm excited for this project.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: To read our review of the final product, click here.]

  [july 2008]  


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