Television Graveyard – Supplemental Plot, “Virtuality”

11 Jul


Stewart here, and I’m bringing you a show that got canned in its pilot phase, and only by contractual obligation, got aired on television once (and made its way onto DVD).  What makes it weird is the pedigree behind the pilot for the sci-fi Virtuality:  Ronald D. Moore and Michael Taylor, two of the architects behind the Battlestar Galactica remake (and also writers for the myriad of Star Trek shows starting with Next Generation), and a pilot directed by Peter Berg (at the time still recognized for his work on the Friday Night Lights movie and series, long before that Battleship movie).  It was an ambitious series probably to pitch for network TV, and the pilot certainly must’ve not been cheap, so what happened?  Let’s take a look at what the pilot has for evidence.

The plot revolves around the twelve astronauts of the Phaeton, a spaceship on a multi-year trek into a distant star system to find a planet to colonize (unlike most Earth facing the apocalypse stories, this one involves the ice caps melting and taking up dry land in the process).  Besides tending to running the ship and placating the numerous corporations who funded this mission, they have to also contend with their activities being filmed for a reality TV show back home (it’s a gag that dependent of what day it is, decides which sponsor shows up on their clothing).  Even with the relationships and preparation for the big jump which marks the last attempt the crew can have to abort the mission, they have to find a way to avoid going stir crazy.  So, there’s a virtual reality system that the crew can lose themselves in that isn’t monitored or televised.

And really, the pilot is a setup for everything to go wrong in so many ways.  For instance, they successfully pass the point of no return on their mission, and then things take a turn for the worse.  For one thing, one of the crew is diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and unfortunately, that person is the ship’s doctor.  Then a bizarre person starts showing up in the crew’s trips into VR, and his actions in their simulations against them gets progressively more violent.  And if that wasn’t enough, there’s pressure from the crew’s sponsors to go through with the mission, even if conditions and pleasantries are starting to fall apart.

To the pilot’s credit, it nicely reveals the relationships on board the ship, and some of the more complicated connections, like the mission commander’s (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, aka Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones) VR-only relationship with the ship’s married botanist Rika (Sienna Guillory).  There’s also Rika’s husband Roger (James D’Arcy) who’s both the shrink and the reality show’s producer/editor, and in a way controls the appearance of the crew with the mission’s tech expert/show host Billie (Kerry Bishe).  You got a regular heterosexual married couple, a gay couple, a paralyzed second-in-command, an engineer, and a slightly edgy pilot (Clea DuVall).  And what is a surprise is how much we focus on the commander, Pike, who since he’s the first character we see, we immediately identify him as the main hero of this, which makes the turn near the end of the pilot all the more surprising.


I say surprising because Pike dies from being exposed to space without protection in an airlock mishap.  It’s a wonderful little turn the pilot pulls off by upending what you think is going to happen by having its lead die before its over.  And this leaves the entire crew on a mission without a commander, worrying about what to do, and knowing something in the VR system is trying and succeeding at hurting them.  What keeps this death more mysterious is the captain’s behavior after reviewing one of the mystery man’s attacks on him, which makes him change his mind radically from scrubbing the mission to going through with it.  Of course, he actually pops up in the VR system to Rika in the pilot’s finale to tease some future plot developments that unfortunately never came to pass.                 

****************(END SPOILERS)***********************

One of the things I got from the pilot of Virtuality is how ambitious it was, and maybe that was the problem for it being a network TV pilot.  You got a lot to take in with the idea of a corporate-funded space mission, the tension of an ensemble cast, the paranoia of what’s really going on with the mission itself, a lead character who meets with an unusual change of heart and unusual death, but add to that the mystery of what’s going on with the VR and the mystery man who keeps popping up.  Then there’s also the bad timing that it was being made at the same time another “astronaut drama on a deep space mission” network TV show, Defying Gravity, which was a bit more accessible, popped up and lasted barely half a season before it was cancelled.  It’s a show I could’ve seen surviving on Syfy a bit more than say Fox, who ordered and aired the pilot despite it not getting picked up to series (yay to contractual obligations in this case, and boo to Fox’s long record of finding inventive ways to kill sci-fi shows).

It certainly swung for the fences visually, with its frequent uses of confessionals from the crew to punctuate their concerns in a given scene, and using any shots of the Phaeton itself to be only those taken by cameras on the hull of the ship.  Even the VR excursions we have appear with a slight unrealness to them that almost intentionally gives those scenes the feel of being shot on bad green screen, but adds to the fake reality the crew enters every time.  And like I said, it was probably too ambitious for network TV, and it’s a shame, really.  The mind wonders what weird rabbit hole this show would have been going through in an actual season or so.       

Believe it or not, Jaime Lannister fares better on Game of Thrones than he does in this pilot.

Believe it or not, Jaime Lannister fares better on Game of Thrones than he does in this pilot.

One Response to “Television Graveyard – Supplemental Plot, “Virtuality””

  1. elizabeth ann July 12, 2013 at 2:36 pm #

    I have super sad face… I don’t remember this at all and now I want to see it!

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