Readers of a certain age will very likely remember the virtual reality fad of the 90s. For the youthful whippersnappers among you, VR was sort of a precursor to the Kinect. Instead of arsing around in front of your TV, accidentally smashing up your furniture, you’d put on a fancy headset with some gloves and walk on the spot for a bit. The result was the illusion that you were interacting with a (very blocky) virtual environment. It was going to take the gaming world by storm. It was expected that every house would have one.
Needless to say, it didn’t quite catch on. But its influence did give us such classic sci-fi gems as The Matrix, eXistenZ and, er, The Lawnmower Man. Yeah.
Closer to the latter end of that scale lies VR.5, a short-lived TV series starring Lori Singer as Sydney Bloom and a pre-Buffy Anthony Head as Oliver Sampson.
Sydney Bloom is a young woman with a troubled past. She lost her scientist father and identical twin sister in a tragic car accident long ago and has never fully come to terms with it. Now she works for a telephone company, fooling around with computers in her spare time.
One day, purely by accident, she discovers that she can somehow bring people into a strange virtual reality world of her own design, patching into their subconscious memory and affecting them in ways she doesn’t really understand at first. She soon finds herself embroiled in the shady dealings of The Committee, a secret organisation who may or may not have been responsible for her father’s death.
The show is inevitably dated by today’s standards, of course. Technology has come along in such leaps and bounds that you often find yourself chuckling away at how quaint it all is. A scene in the pilot shows some ‘top of the range’ virtual reality footage (with an engineer played by a surprising Robert Picardo, cooing about how brilliant it is). In this world of Kinect and PlayStation Move, it’s impossible to keep a straight face. It’s like watching a Tomorrow’s World rerun.
The sequences set in subconscious cyberland look, well, there’s no beating about the bush. They look fairly awful. Even by 90s standards, they’re just horrible. You can definitely see what they tried to accomplish, and they succeeded, in that it does look otherworldly, if somehow garish and washed out at the same time. It just looks so hackneyed and cheesy.
It’s definitely not the standout portion of the show, which is a real problem, as it’s the portion that the show’s entire premise hangs on. I remember being impressed back in the day, but I was 11 at the time, and hardly difficult to impress.
The over-arcing plot and character development were much better, especially in the case of Anthony Head’s Oliver, who goes from reliable Committee agent to a conflicted man whose loyalties are in question. It’s quite a good performance from Head, who never fails to please.
Lori Singer and David McCallum give especially good performances, too, as the socially awkward Sydney and her genius father, Dr Joseph Bloom.
In all, the cast do a pretty good job with the cheesy material they’re given. I’d say the only dud note is Michael Easton’s new age hippy, Duncan, who looks like he escaped from the early-90s Red Hot Chilli Peppers line-up and spouts annoying surfe dude mysticism at the drop of a hat.
Sadly, VR.5 was never released on DVD and it looks like it never will be. It was cancelled after one year with no fuss and too little outcry. It’s a shame, as it was shaping up to be quite an interesting series. It would likely never have gained the popularity of then-cult shows like The X Files, but it certainly had potential.
Fans unsuccessfully petitioned for its return and even managed to convince the powers that be to try out a big screen follow-up, but that fell through at the scripting stage.
Unless you were lucky enough to have recorded them off TV back in the day, it looks like VR.5 exists solely (and perhaps appropriately) in the virtual realm of the Internet and the collective memory of its fans.
There are few images form the show available, but we have two videos that give tyou an idea of what went on, although they may actually confuse those who’ve never seen the show, more than they enlighten…
VR.5 Opening Credits
Scene from the pilot episode