The Virtuality Catastrophe: A Failure to Launch

A post by Shmathan…

It is a matter of public record that I have a frightening obsession with deep affection for Battlestar Galactica.  The word “frak” entered my vocabulary with such regularity that my exasperated friends had to forbid its use.  I approached every situation by asking myself, “What would Starbuck do?”  I prayed every so fervently to the Lords of Kobol that I would be revealed as the Final Cylon.  When group plans are made, I always end with “So say we all.”  Consequently, my anticipation for Ron Moore’s next creative project, Virtuality, was understandably great…and he did not disappoint.

Virtuality was intended to be the pilot episode of a full series, following the lives of 12 crewmen on Earth’s first starship, the Phaeton.  The ship is on scientific mission of exploration to that takes on epic importance when it became known that Earth faces an imminent ecological disaster; suddenly, the ship’s mission to explore a new solar system offers the only hope finding a new home for humanity.  The show’s title is derived from two interesting aspects.  The first is the presence of a sophisticated virtual reality system, controlled by an 2001: A Space Odyssey-esque AI, meant to give the crew some relief from their ten-year incarceration in a rotating tin-can.  The second is the fact that the entire journey is being broadcast back to Earth as a reality tv show (complete with confessionals!).  As the show opens, we are introduced to the cast-crew of the Phaeton.  As it progresses, we watch things go terribly wrong as the moment nears in which they must choose to “Go, or no go”; to launch themselves into the void, or return home.   As a pilot it was engaging and compelling, with moments of sheer awesomeness (of near Battlestar proportions) as it offered the most tantalizing glimpses into a far-out space odyssey/psychological thriller that would have challenged the very notions of reality and perception.  Unfortunately, it is all for naught, as Fox failed to pick it up as a series; yet another example of the network’s failure to appreciate and support quality science fiction.

Spoilers, and a rant against the Fox network’s horrid priorities, ahead!

Now, you may ask, “Why should I care about Virtuality?”  Personally, I would have watched solely for the homotastic characters of Manny Rodgriquz (ship’s mathematician) and Val Orlovsky (ship’s geologist), who quite possibly could have been the greatest gay couple sci-fi has ever seen.  I mean, come on…look at them!


However, if two hot men recreating the Big Bang in deep space is not enough for you, let me offer just a few of the gems Ron Moore offered up to us.

Now, Virtuality is structured far differently than Battlestar Galactica, which was basically The West Wing with robots and explosions.  Virtuality is grounded in its characters, their interactions with one another and their environment (virtual or otherwise).  Shining exemplars are the aforementioned Manny and Val, as well as the development of the friendship between tough-as-nails pilot Sue Parsons (played with distinction by delightful sci-fi veteran Clea Duvall) and saccharin-sweet but surprisingly steely Billie Kashmiri.  Also noteworthy is the ship’s psychologist/reality show producer Roger Fallon, who in both capacities manipulates the crew according to ulterior motives yet revealed, and observes with strange detachment the affair between his wife, the ship’s botanist and hyroponics engineer,Rika Godard, and the commander, Frank Pike.

Even more fascinating, however, are the characters’ interactions with their virtual reality modules.  The ship’s navigator, Julius, uses his to resurrect his dead son.  Exobiologist Alice Thibideau uses it to simulate a pregnancy with her huband, fellow exobiologist Kenji, that their circumstances won’t allow.  Others use their modules to play the hero, like Commander Pike’s Civil War reenactment, or live out childhood fantasies, such as Kashmiri’s module in which she is a J-Rocker/secret agent (I mean…really?!).  But then, things go horribly wrong.   A new avatar enters their simulations (played by the unsettling Jimmi Simpson), unfettered by the normal bounds of the program and its safety controls.  Commander Pike is shot in the stomach.   The ship’s doctor is thrown from a cliff while painting a landscape.  Kashmiri is sexually assaulted.    How the characters react to the experience of virtual violence is the most interesting aspect of the show.  The doctor, Adin Meyer finds freedom from the fear of the death that had begun creeping over him ever since he had diagnosed himself with Parkinson’s disease.   Kashmiri finds herself in shock, trying to convince herself that a virtual violation was not actually real, no more than a bad dream, while plagued by the very real emotions and psychological damage it created.  Pike finds some sort of spiritual ecstasy in the experience, reliving it over and over, even to the point of slowing it down to savor the experience.  He becomes convinced that the ship’s journey will become some sort of awakening, facilitated by the virtual reality.  He develops a manic energy for the mission…which ends in  his tragic and brutal air-lock related death.

Though the plot is largely character driven, there aspects of mystery interwoven that would have served as threads for the show’s over arching plot.  Is the destructive avatar independent, an unlooked for anomoly, or a heretofore hidden, and sinister, aspect of the ship’s AI, Jean, who controls every aspect of the ship’s systems?  What is Alice’s connection to the avatar (who seemed to have originated as the doctor in her pregnancy simulation)?  Just how much of a puppeteer is Fallon, and what of these hints about the nefarious nature of the vast corporation that built the Phaeton and distributes the show?  What caused the glitch that led to the commander’s death?  Who, or what, placed his virtual module  in Rika’s quarters after his death?  And who or what is the virtual Commander Pike that appeared in the program after his physical counterpart’s death, telling Rika to follow him down the rabbit hole, as it was “the only way out” for the crew? Unfortunately, we shall never know, because once again Fox exercised poor judgment, and failed to pick up the show.

The Fox network and I have a love-hate relationship.  I love that alone of the major networks, they take chances on promoting science fiction shows.  However, I hate that they do not know how to market them, tend to interfere in their creative development, and usually cancel them when they take even a slight dip in the ratings.  This is a network that brought us the X-Files, but also killed Joss Wheedon’s Space-Western masterpiece, Firefly, after only a single season and recently canceled Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.  Admittedly, the show struggled a bit midway through its second (and now last) season.  However, it regained its stride and left us with a season cliffhanger so earth-shattering I wept for what the third season could have been when official news of its demise emerged.  Seriously, the fact that Fox could cancel two shows in which Summer Glau plays a quietly eccentric hottie who kicks ass on a regular basis shows their lack of judgment.   I mean, just look at her…


This woman is the Goddess of Geekdom, her power absolute and extending even to those such as myself, whose sci-fi crushes usually depend on how big the captain’s blaster is.  To cancel her shows, well, Fox has a committed a blasphemy that cannot stand.  Of course, we geeks do not let shows go gentle into that good night.  We fight.  When Firefly was canceled, a fan group calling itself the Brown Coats (so named for the freedom frighters that rebelled against the tyrannical systems Alliance) organized a campaign to save it.  Though we ultimately failed to revive the show, it did result in a feature-length movie, Serenity.  A similar campaign was also organized to save the ailing Sarah Connor Chronicles, but netted not even a moral victory.  Still, I ask you my friends to join me once again in glorious combat, to go once more into the breach and against hopeless odds.  Virtuality can still be saved!  First, if you have not already done so, check out the movie on Hulu.  We need to bolster it’s hit figures.  Second, go here, where you will find contact info for the relevant Fox and SyFy Channel executives.  Send an e-mail showing support for Virtuality.  We can still prevail!  The fight to save Virtuality is a fight for truth, justice…and hot Manny on Val loving.  I can think of no greater, or sexier, cause.

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