[06/05/09 - 03:31 PM]
The Futon's First Look: "Virtuality" (FOX)
By Brian Ford Sullivan (TFC)

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(Friday, June 26 at 8:00/7:00c; TRT: 1:13:41)

The network's description: "The crew of the Phaeton is approaching the go/no-go point of their epic 10-year journey through outer space. With the fate of Earth in their hands, the pressure is intense. The best bet for helping the crew members maintain their sanity is the cutting-edge virtual reality technology installed on the ship. It's the perfect stress-reliever until they realize a glitch in the system has unleashed a virus on to the ship. Tensions mount as the crew decides how to contain the virus and complete their mission. Meanwhile, their lives are being taped for a reality show back on Earth in the World Broadcast Premiere of VIRTUALITY airing Friday, June 26 (8:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX."

What did they leave out? We poured over the script almost a year ago and the end product features some significant omissions and deviations, most notably the last act.

The plot in a nutshell: Earth's first starship is The Phaeton. Its mission: search for extraterrestrial life around Epsilon Eridani, one of our nearest Sun-like stars. Its 10-year journey is being financed by The Consortium, a mega-corporation that hopes to make back its investment through various sponsorships, most notably a "Big Brother"-esque reality show about the ship's 12 astronauts. Dubbed "Edge of Never: Life on the Phaeton" (Wednesdays at 20:00, Live Virt 24/7 on ITY-FOX!), its latest broadcast was seen by five billion people, the most since its launch a few months ago. The reason for the revived interest: they're approaching the go/no-go point where Commander Frank Pike (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) must ultimately decide whether to continue the mission or return home. Several things however are complicating his decision: Dr. Adin Meyer (Omar Metwally) has discovered he's suffering from Parkinson's and the drug needed for its treatment is in limited supply; plus a glitch in the crew's virtual reality modules ("virts") is causing a mysterious figure (Jimmi Simpson) to appear and virtually murder them. (Said modules are viewed as the crew's only real means of privacy and recreation - getting to play cowboy, rock star or anything in between, a psychological necessity to endure the stresses of long-term space travel.) And if that wasn't enough, scientists back home have just discovered that the oceans are rising to the point that Earth will become uninhabitable within the next century. In other words, things are about to get a lot more serious.

Rounding out the crew then are Rika Goddard (Sienna Guillory), a bored microbial exobiologist with whom Frank is having a virtual affair; Dr. J (Richie Coster), the ship's paraplegic engineer and crotchety second-in-command; Dr. Jules Braun (Erik Jensen), the brainy designer of the ship; Sue Parsons (Clea Duvall), the Phaeton's pilot; Russian geologist Val Orlovsky (Gene Farber) and his life/cooking partner Manny Rodriguez (Jose Pablo Cantillo), an astrophysicist; Kenji Yamamoto (Nelson Lee) and his squeeze Alice Thibadeau (Joy Bryant); Billie Kashmiri (Kerry Bishe, a dead ringer for Leighton Meester), a computer genius who doubles as the show's host; Dr. Roger Fallon (a very awesome James D'Arcy) as the resident psychologist, who's also in charge of producing "Edge of Never"; and "Jean" (voiced by Kari Wahlgren), the ship's HAL 9000-esque computer. It's a combustible group of personalities in a stressful situation. Or as the "Edge" teasers (which dot the action) put it: "Now this mission of exploration has become a mission of salvation. With the hopes of billions riding on their shoulders 12 brave astronauts now approach the most critical decision of their lives - go or no go. Leave the solar system and journey for 10 years or turn around and come home. The stakes are enormous, the drama intense and you are along for every step of the way!" The aforementioned stakes however turn out to be even greater than that.

What works: As mentioned in our script review, the show's concept remains stunningly original - imagine a "spaceship" show through the lens of a reality series, all wrapped in a meta-commentary about our dependence on technology. Director Peter Berg keeps things focused and intimate as our only views outside the ship are via static hull cams pulled from a switchboard. The action inside then is similarly shown through either hidden cameras, confessionals or handheld shots. In other words, this isn't "Star Trek." The end result is truly something unique and unexpected. "I'm just playing a role, we all play roles all the time," Roger explains in one of his confessionals. "We become more deeply entrenched in them in moments of crisis. And I think from an audience perspective it's very exciting. I think it's as real as it could possibly be. And it makes very good television." Said roles play out during the crew's various ethical debates - whether it be to proceed despite Dr. Meyer's condition or to turn off the virts in the face of the growing number of glitches.

The members of the crew however aren't that easy to pigeonhole. It's fascinating to watch the bitter Dr. J gripe about being kept out of Frank's loop, only to reveal in confessional that he secretly hangs on his every word; or Manny and Val complain to Roger about coming off as bitchy queens on the show (one promo notes: "Salty Sweets! Trouble in the Kitchen!"), and yet in an intimate moment together Manny likens their current mission to a childhood experience in which some friends dared him to jump into a lake in total darkness ("You couldn't even see the water. You just had to keep telling yourself it was there."). The show itself also proves to be surprisingly funny - whether it be Frank forgetting to wear the correct sponsor's shirt for that day or during a final systems check, Val quips, "Fearless gay duo are ready to face unknown, Commander," followed by a plug for their fully articulated action figures. Like I said, it's a wonderful fusion of genres that opens up a unique type of storytelling.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: After seeing a cut of the final air version - which runs 13 minutes longer - a lot of the following statements have been rendered moot, most notably the parts about the omissions from the script.]

What doesn't: I was a little surprised to see how differently the final act plays out. Obviously I'm not going to give away "the holy shit of holy shit endings." But I was surprised to see Roger and Frank trade places in the "keep the virts going/turn them off" argument, for reasons which again I won't spoil. It ultimately paints the ending in a slightly different light. Not that it's necessary bad, it just takes some of the edge off the "Guys, where are we?"-from-"Lost" chill I got off the page. The show also oddly seems to abandon its reality trappings in the second half as things like the "Edge" teasers are dropped in favor of more straightforward drama while Jules's arc is abandoned completely. Overall though my only real disappointment is that the "how far are we willing to go to keep our technological security blanket" debate feels a little blunted in the light of the aforementioned changes.

After all it's a compelling issue - the "glitch" in the virts is initially written off as harmless: so somebody shoots you or throws you off a mountaintop. It's all fake, like a video game, right? Why give it up when the end result is harmless to you physically? But what if the attacks became much more intimate? What if this "glitch" raped you? Is that as forgivable? Would you still keep on using it? Is it worth it to have your own private fiefdom? That particular thread spoke to me the most in the script. And while it's still there, it ends up getting sidestepped in favor of a reinterpretation of what the virts do/are for. (Don't worry this will all make sense after you see it - just trying to be a good neighbor and be as vague as possible.) Regardless, any show that's willing to dip its toes into any kind of philosophical pool not to mention posit a totally unique lens to watch your typical science fiction show...

The bottom line: ...is without a doubt worth your time.

  [june 2009]  


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