Honestly, a TV movie, this is not, but a fantastic frackin pilot this is, and I surely hope enough of you tune in tonight so we can see more of this intriguing world.
While Battlestar faithful would argue that their beloved show is so much more than just a sci-fi show, a fact that can be backed up by the heaps of praise the show has received from not only the critics but the UNITED NATIONS, Virtuality expands on that premise, and then some. The show can almost be split into thirds. The main crux of the story deals with the crew of the spaceship Phateon, which is six months deep into an impending 10-year mission to find life in other galaxies. The mission came about when it is discovered that the Earth is decaying more rapidly than expected and the Phateon is charged with finding another suitable home for humanity. We open with the crew of the ship, and mostly the ship’s captain, Commander Frank Pike (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) facing the “go/no-go” phase of the mission, where he has to determine if they indeed will go on for another nine and a half years or turn back home. While this alone would be enough for most series’, there is oh so much more to this series as this entire journey aboard the Phateon is being filmed for a reality series that is being beamed back to eager audiences on Earth. We are given a little glimpse at just how huge this show is when the reality show’s producer Roger Fallon (James D”Arcy) talks about last week’s ratings hitting over 5 billion people. Dang. But wait, there’s more. Given the decade-long nature of this mission and, well, since they can’t leave the ship, the crew is able to entertain themselves via virtual reality pods, these spiffy silver glasses that they can put on and program to escape into anywhere or anytime in the world they want. But there appears to be some sort of digital glitch in these VR portals as a mysterious digital man (Jimmi Simpson) keeps appearing in everyone’s separately-programmed pods that casts a mysterious pall over the mission.
While Ronald D. Moore and Michael Taylor both came up with the story, it is Taylor that wrote the pilot script, and it’s a damn fine one as well. The pilot seamlessly navigates through this tri-fold story and gives us some incredibly diverse characters – especially for a Big 4 network show – than we’ve seen in the past. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau does a wonderful job as the ship’s skipper, Frank Pike, who is at odds with his own leadership abilities, faced with a massive decision on whether to carry on with the mission… while also having a virtual tryst with the lovely Rika Goddard (Sienna Gullory) through the VR pods… even though she is married to James D’Arcy’s Roger Fallon, the producer of the reality show on board. Amongst the other crew members we have a few couples in Joy Bryant’s Alice Thiabdeau and Nelson Lee’s Kenji Yamamoto and even a homosexual relationship between Jose Pablo Cantillo’s Manny Rodriguez and Gene Farber’s Val Orlofsky. Rounding out the crew we have the feisty pilot Sue Parsons (Clea Duvall), a hard-nosed chick who doesn’t seem to take to authority figures well, Richie Coster’s Jimmy Johnson, the equally hard-nosed officer who is ship’s second-in-command and who is wheelchair-bound, Kerry Bishie’s Billie Kashmiri, a skittish computer expert and part of the reality show’s crew who is promoted to the host, Erik Jensen’s Jules Braun, who is still mourning the death of his son and who tries to keep a virtual relationship with his deceased son through the VR and Omar Mentwally’s Dr. Adin Meyer, the ship’s doctor who discovers he has Parkinson’s Disease, which could threaten the ship’s ability to continue their mission.
While these amazingly diverse characters and the three-fold story may seem like a lot to keep up with, Michael Taylor does a fabulous job with the pilot script, keeping all of these balls in the air in terrific fashion but also not over-developing the characters. There is a tendency to over-develop characters in some pilots, because, well, they want to give it their best shot at getting on the air so they’ll try to include as much as they can in the pilot, but that’s really not the case here. A pilot’s main job is not to make the first show as this stand-alone movie type of thing, but, simply, to leave enough out so that viewers will be intrigued enough to watch and learn more about these characters and this story. I think Taylor did a splendid job in giving us more than enough to go on, in establishing these characters and their innate traits, but Taylor leaves a ton of mystery out in the open and I think it would be just sad if this was only a two-hour TV movie and not the start of what looks to be a pretty damn good series. The pilot also was fortunate enough to land a fantastic director in Peter Berg, who maintains an effortless flow throughout the pilot, despite all the story and character balls to be juggled here. While, of course, each character doesn’t hold equal weight in the story, Berg and Taylor allow ample opportunity for us to get to know at least a few unique things about each character that we can build on in future episodes, which I truly hope we get to see.
Virtuality is truly unlike anything on television right now. It’s a gutsy sci-fi drama with intriguing reality and virtual reality elements that any fan of Ronald D. Moore, Michael Taylor or their groundbreaking series Battlestar Galactica will surely relish. I just hope we all get the chance to relish more of this series, so tune in tonight (8 PM ET on Fox) to help this pilot get a fully-realized series.