I’m a big fan of Ronald D. Moore who not only made Deep Space Nine a thinking man’s Star Trek, but also was behind the incredible re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica. With the pilot episode for Virtuality, he’s joined by DS9 and Voyager veteran Michael Taylor, but other than this is set on a spaceship, there is no other notable overlaps to the Trek universe. Other than the Captain of the Phaeton is named ‘Pike’, of course.
The premise is a simple but intriguing one; the Phaeton is Earth’s first interstellar ship built to take its 12 man crew on a ten year journey to a distant star system. It’s approaching the point of go-no-go on its journey when the crew are informed that catastrophic changes on Earth have elevated the mission from purely science to the potential survival of humanity. Earth has 100 years left, and a habitable planet found by Phaeton might be the only hope of mankind.
With such a long journey and confined space, the crew use a virtual reality system, where they can experience danger, excitement, privacy and relaxation. The story starts with Captain Pike imagining he’s leading a group of Union soldiers in the American Civil War, when something unexpected happens in the simulation. He encounters a 13th person who isn’t a virtual character, and even knows his real name.
After that we’re introduced to the other characters, their loves and hates, highs and lows. It’s all done in a Big Brother house style, because as well as being space pioneers, everyone onboard is also part of a hugely successful reality TV show.
What I found especially clever is that when we’re first given their personality snapshots, the characters seem rather thin veneers, but as the pilot progresses they’re fleshed out more until at least half of them are actually much more interesting by the end.
The crew breakdown is four women and six men, rebalanced by making two of the men gay. Onboard is a captain, pilot, physiologist, doctor, botanist, two romantically involved astrobiologists, geologist, astrophysicist, engineer, computer scientist and the ship’s designer. My first concern is that at least four of these are exactly the wrong sort of people to confine on a long spaceflight, and maybe that’s exactly the intention here.
Those looking for quick action and immediate connections will find the first hour of this show something of a long haul, but in the final 30 minutes, once they commit to the burn that will take them out of the solar system, the groundwork starts to pay-off rather handsomely. What helps move it along are the unusual ways that each of the characters uses the VR system, often in unexpected ways. Two characters are having a physical relationship through it, despite one of them being part of the only married couple onboard. One imagines he’s climbing mountains although in reality he’s paraplegic, and another has a fantasy that she’s a Japanese rock phenomena and super-spy. One tried to deal with the death of his son, by trying to recreate him in the simulation.
But what they all soon start to realise is that VR can also have real as well as imaginary dangers, as they’re systematically killed and one even raped inside their own simulation modules. They might not have permanent physical damage from these encounters with the ‘green-eyed man’, but their mental scars are real enough.
There is something dark lurking in the shadows of the Phaeton, and before the end of the pilot it claims its first real victim. I won’t say who dies and how, but it’s an event that turns the whole scenario on its head.
At the end, you really begin to wonder if the whole mission is real or even if they’re actually on a spacecraft. An early clue that CO2 levels have risen and O2 dropped also suggests that maybe there is another person onboard who wasn’t in the original roster.
In terms of the actors there aren’t many familiar faces, although they all seem to be competent performers. I recognised Clea Duvall, as pilot Sue Parsons from Heroes where she played Parkman’s cop buddy before the writers got bored with her. Captain Pike is played by the excellent Danish actor Nikolaj Coster Waldau, who was in Black Hawk Down and Wimbledon.
But my personal favourite here is English actor James D’Arcy, who plays Roger Fallon, who is both the crew physiologist and the producer of the reality TV show they’re all forced to appear on. The part where he explains to the two gay guys that they need to bitch more for ratings, so that one of their relatives can move away from the coastal flood waters back on Earth, was quite chilling. He represents the TV crew back to Earth, but also ‘the consortium’ that spent $200bn on the Phaeton to the crew. Using his security camera array, he’s oddly the voyeur who can’t see past his own nose, and a man in desperate need of his own physiologist.
Overall, after seeing the pilot, do I want more? Hell, yes!
This isn’t a show that I’d want to see run for five seasons, but a couple of noodle-twisting ones might be really cool. Is their mission real? Is one of the crew dead? Were these people put together to intentionally fail?
I just hope it gets the green light, and we get a few answers to that and a thousand other questions that the pilot presents.