By: Aleks Chan
Ronald D. Moore, he of various STAR TREK incarnations, ROSWELL, and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, has earned enough creditability in the last 15 years that when his name is attached to a project, just enough eager heads turn to look. Like his fellow auteurs JJ Abrams and Joss Whedon, he garners a viewership that – no matter where he takes them – is willing to at least have a peek and look around. Their devotion is anchored mostly by one or two hits: Whedon’s BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER helps drive what little viewership DOLLHOUSE has – the fact that JJ Abrams is one of the masterminds behind LOST and FRINGE probably didn’t hurt the recent Star Trek film’s box office gross.
Which is part of the initial allure of VIRTUALITY (airing tonight at 8PM on FOX), the hope that lighting can indeed strike twice. Set in a nondescript future, a team of 12 astronauts travel the far reaches of the Milky Way on a 10-year journey to a faraway star system that could hold the salvation of the human race – scientists back on earth have concluded that the planet will succumb to environmental doom in the next century. They travel in, by comparison to BATTLESTAR’s cramped, rickety ship, a luxury cruiser called Phaeton, equipped with a talking computer system that speaks in calm, dulcet tones, and seemingly has complete control over the ship’s functions.
On the ship are virtual reality modules that allow the crew members to enter realms devised by their own desires – the captain (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a soldier for the Union during the Civil War, a computer scientist (Kerry Bishé) moonlights as an international pop star – one imagines a world where he can speak with the son he’s never had. Ostensibly these modules were put in place to help keep the shipmates sane over the course of their journey, but a figure begins to haunt their experiences. A glitch, or just a big fat metaphor?
We’ll never know. VIRTUALITY was originally conceived as a series, with tonight’s two-hour movie being the pilot. It works as the latter, and not at all as the former: it sets up what could have been (the fact that FOX is airing it all puts it at a marginally greater chance of survival, but I wouldn’t hold my breath) an ambitious narrative, laying the groundwork (if a little broadly) for the kind of layered, complicated story Moore does. But by making it a self-contained film, it has unintentionally cut itself short.
It weaves a worthy thematic thread by having part of the mission financed by an entertainment company that has decided to pay the bill by porting the happenings aboard Phaeton back to earth as a reality series. The ship’s psychologist (James D’Arcy) is a producer; the pert computer scientist the host, this conflict of interest compounded a certain quandary: is earth really doomed, or is this a ratings ploy?
But like the remaining plot lines, it remains dangled in front us, unresolved, culminating to a frustratingly ponderous ending that exudes, “See ya next week!” as opposed to “The End.” But Moore (and director Peter Burg, whose signature close-ups serve him just as well in deep space) can’t be blamed for this – how could he have known that his new show would end with the pilot? It boasts capable dramatic performances from a cast that is mostly spent setting up for future nonexistent episodes and it does create an engaging sense of tension, and from the looks of it, a pretty penny was paid in producing it.
In the press kit for VIRTUALITY, Moore explains that he and his team “set out to tell a cool story…intended to entertain and provoke.” He would have succeeded had the show gone to series, but now it only gets three out of four: cool, entertaining, and provoking. Story? Nope. Those have beginnings, middles, and ends. Grade: B-
VIRTUALITY airs tonight at 8PM on FOX