Sunday, March 9, 2014


"Follow me through the mirror and down the rabbit hole, because the only way for any of us now is to keep going. Trust me. It has to be this way."

-Commander Frank Pike in Ronald D. Moore's Virtuality looking within to explore-

When you consider the odds of getting a series green lit for TV it must seem near impossible to the creative minds out there trying to make it happen. Seeing a TV show remain on TV for two or more seasons must feel like a miracle let alone getting one to hang tough long enough to get the green light. You have to hand it to those people out there that make it happen and stick with it like a series or not. It's a bit like moving mountains.

Take Ronald D. Moore for instance. The man has one hell of a resume. For a sample of some of his best work you can click here. With the intriguing Helix (2014) on SyFy, struggling with viewership, Moore has been on my mind of late. It seemed only natural to take a look at something that seemed like it might have all the promise in the world only to stumble, fall and never get the go ahead.

Moore never lets the bastards keep him down and I really like that about him. He's had more success than he's had failures and even the failures don't necessarily have to be looked at that way.

Moore wrote some of the best Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994; twenty-seven episodes), Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001; two episodes) and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999; thirty episodes) episodes ever.  If he never did another thing and ended with those achievements, you would have to be pretty proud of that.

ST:DS9, in particular, demonstrated the kind of dark potential Moore had on his mind at the time.  Staying true to his efforts to plumb the depths of character, he went very dark for his re-imagined version of Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009) infusing today's global politics and themes of distrust and terrorism as his sci-fi backdrop.

But Moore was even more than that. He has penned stories for some terrific series including HBO's criminally underappreciated Carnivale (2003-2005; three episodes) and Roswell (1999-2002; ten episodes). And then, of course, in due time the influential Battlestar Galactica mini-series and series would arrive.

Upon the latter's conclusion, the arrival and relative failure of a single season of Battlestar Galactica prequel Caprica (2010) essentially saw Moore walk away from the limelight of the Battlestar Galactica mythology for the time being even opting out of involvement in the web-only shorts for Blood And Chrome (2012) leaving the ephemeral effort to David Eick. So with that it was back to the drawing board and pitching scripts and ideas. The process has to be an exhaustive, exhausting, painstaking one, but one you would imagine you must embrace.

Moore was at one point tied to a pilot called 17th Precinct and was set to star James Callis, Jamie Bamber and Tricia Helfer among others. It was never picked up. Moore had been tied to The Thing prequel before being dropped from that inevitable film. There have been others too. Taking some of the concepts and DNA he no doubt planned for The Thing prequel Moore revived those ideas and concepts for the TV Series Helix and is executive producer only. Helix has me cautiously optimistic about its future.  I'd like to see that series get the approval for a second season. Billy Campbell (The Rocketeer), Hiroyuki Sanada (Sunshine, Lost) and the rest of the cast has been uniformly excellent. That and a guest role for the world's ultra hottest Borg, Jeri Ryan, and you have a series that has great potential. Of course, it's the story that keeps me coming back. Not only am I interested in the series, but I'm interested in the general industry politics and fate of that series for Moore. It certainly deserves a chance. Helix isn't radically new drawing on concepts that go back as far as Virus (1980) and beyond, but it's always how Moore puts his spin on things that fascinates too.

Still, I'm just not sure the Friday night death slot or the viewing statistics will be enough. That would be a shame too. Again, it's incredibly difficult to be in such a position just once.  To see a series make it one time is nothing short of staggering. Certainly the lucky ones out there with talent, like Moore, get more than a single chance and deservedly so, but how can you not be impressed.

Another series pitched, and filmed, in the form of a pilot that was possibly even more impressive, interesting and original than Helix was the blip that was Virtuality (2009).

I recall reading in SciFiNow magazine toward the end of Battlestar Galactica's reign that even Edward James Olmos was excited about Virtuality's virtual potential and even hoped to be part of it. Olmos expected big things from it. Others did as well I'm sure. I did too. It's amazing how unpredictable these things really are.

With my recent surging interest in the legitimate exploratory space journey that is Stargate Universe, I turned my attention to Virtuality. Defying Gravity could be next. It had been sitting on my shelf, but it was a one-off Pilot that struck me as something that might be in the mold of a Stargate Universe or the film Sunshine and I wanted to see why it missed the mark. Or, what if the concepts of Moore's Virtuality quietly influenced SGU as much as Battlestar Galactica? Peter Berg was landed as director and executive producer. How could Virtuality possibly go wrong?  Best laid plans I suppose. I thought I'd see for myself if Virtuality demonstrated the caliber of quality dramatic science fiction one had come to expect from Moore.

Clearly it's very difficult to judge these things on a single pilot, on several episodes, and, let alone, in some cases even a full season to get your bearings (cough ST:TNG cough). Still, was the potential evident in Virtuality for this discerning viewer?  I needed to see that for myself.

And so I begin.  It had virtually everything going for it. Virtuality that is. From the opening frames Virtuality feels like a winner.

Sequences intended to express immersion in the virtual world are filled with brighter than normal colors offering a sense of other worldly fantasy as the denizens aboard the ship called Phaeton break from the grind of their contained reality for something fantastic.

Like walking through a Stargate or travelling aboard a Tardis, the possibilities of virtual environments assures the show an endless sea of limitless possibilities.

The special effects are clearly state-of-the-art with Moore hot off the heels of Battlestar Galactica. All of those camera techniques are backed with a series of new, static interview moments of Earth's spaceship inhabitants as they record for viewers back home like the kino records those aboard the Destiny in Stargate Universe.

Those residents of the Phaeton are truly being watched for a reality television series back home called Edge Of Never: Life On The Phaeton. They were chosen for a ten year mission to Epsilon Eridani to discover if life exists for humanity beyond our dying planet that is Earth.

Like the Serenity or the Enterprise or the Nostromo, the Phaeton itself has all of the wonderful trappings of a true character developed for the show like the best of science fiction vessels. The set designs are exquisite. This is clearly the home to twelve crew members. The thirteenth member is a disembodied artificial intelligence called Jean, voiced by Kari Wahlgren (an anime voice actress; Last Exile, Steamboy, Witch Hunter Robin, Yukikaze), that is all-knowing and appears anywhere as a circular colored light reminiscent of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). One clearly wonders about such a powerful AI and how it will serve those aboard the ship.

As the Pilot continues it becomes increasingly clear that the virtual world the crew members enter is experiencing unexpected and life-threatening results. Errors in the programming are resulting in horrible conclusions to what should be a pleasant pre-programmed experience or affair, in some cases literally. There is indeed a mysterious glitch in the computer matrix. Does Jean have any real knowledge of those programming anomalies or not?

Exterior shots of outer space are expertly rendered and often breathtaking. The combination of score and space is at times mesmerizing. It's exactly the kind of hypnotic and isolating experience one hopes for in good science fiction television.

Interior shots too are handled with care. For example, a hydroponic greenhouse and its stylistic atmosphere reminisce of the wonderfully underrated gem Silent Running (1972) or more recent endeavors like Danny Boyle's Sunshine (2007). These people are clearly in it for the long haul. There are even echoes of the forever influential Alien as crew members sit around a table to break bread, personalities clash and tempers flare.

An homage to a sci-fi classic.

Virtuality is even helmed with a handsome lead in Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Commander Frank Pike. Of course things haven't turned out too terribly for the Danish born actor and man who would be Jamie Lannister on HBO's Game Of Thrones following the demise of this potential series.

A virtually unrecognizable Sienna Guillory, the once gorgeous, brunette assassin in Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004), is now an equally beautiful, rusty blonde as botanist/microbial exobiologist Rika Goddard.

Also on board is Clea Duvall who once lit the screen in the ephemeral, but positively wonderful, HBO series Carnivale, of which Ronald D. Moore penned a few scripts. She is cast here as Sue Parsons, pilot and flight systems engineer. Carnivale was a gem of a series and I have a number of drafted but unfinished posts to attest to it. You'll just have to believe me on that one.

Even Jose Pablo Cantillo of Sons Of Anarchy fame and The Walking Dead adds to a strong cast selection.

The thought of a science fiction series with a ship like the Phaeton, traversing space with Duvall, Guillory and Moore-supported special effects never seeing fruition just makes you want to curl up in a ball. Okay, not quite that, but what a missed opportunity.

The score is provided by the singers behind the minor hit Waterfall (1987), the ladies once dubbed The Revolution and supporting act for Prince. Yes, the music is the handiwork of Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman (Heroes, Carnivale) who have mined a successful career as scoring composers behind the scenes of some of the very best in film and television. Melvoin and Coleman were once upon a time largely responsible and underappreciated as the composers behind some of the very best Prince compositions including Purple Rain (1984), Around The World In A Day (1985) and Parade (1986), arguably his best, before dissolving.  They never really got their due, but their sound speaks volumes regarding their influence over Prince during that incomparable period in his legacy. Mountains, America, b-side 17 Days and Computer Blue have Wendy and Lisa unmistakable prints on writing credits, but it's many of the other songs they handled where their presence is undeniable marking Prince's heyday.

So with all of this going for Virtuality, once again, fickle corporate support (Fox) ended its life support and we would never experience a series that appeared in keeping with the best of survival science fiction (Stargate Universe, Space:1999). A series became a standalone movie moment.

Throughout the Pilot film the crew members sometimes annoyingly reference the "go - no go" mission. Well, sadly, Virtuality was a no go and it really looks like it had potential.

Though based on the evidence here, those disappointed by Battlestar Galactica's lack of real space exploration may well have been let down once again. Virtuality appears poised to take a similar approach at the failings of humanity looking within the characters than out through a virtual module. Rather than approach science fiction through the prism of the post-911 nightmare of justifiable American distrust and issues of faith and other political factors, Virtuality was poised to approach the fascination of reality television set against a science fiction backdrop. Would that have been enough for some? Moore's handling of human foibles and his niche for finding the pulse of the human condition for contemporary science fiction would seem to have warranted giving Virtuality a chance. We see many of those dark qualities manifest in the early going here. Virtuality seemed the perfect next phase in exploring the psychological darkness of man, but whether it would explore the mysteries of space like Stargate Universe along with it - we'll never know.  There is indeed more than a little homage to the greats here and the pilot frames itself with a new virtual spin on that science fiction universe tapping into reality television for the ride.  When it was over I was definitely interested in where Virtuality was going. Sadly, like the short-lived Firefly, based on the singular evidence of one space entry Virtuality would definitely have kept things interesting in Moore I have no doubt. Shame to see it no go.

One thing is sure, Ronald D. Moore has a flair for the dramatic and writes concepts around sometimes claustrophobic or intimate settings between character for internal conflict. He ranks among the best of them in this approach.  Battlestar Galactica, Virtuality and even Helix (though Moore is only an executive producer along with The X-Files' writer Steven Maeda he has to contribute a script in its inaugural season) all demonstrate those Moore strengths while actual science fiction often takes a back seat to the drama. In fact, Moore has always been more intrigued by the space within the human mind and the dark side of the human condition than the space beyond our physical selves. Moore often finds the darkness more fascinating than the light.  And, of course, care with character is essential to a story's success. The conflict certainly makes for great entertainment. I count myself among those who enjoy his work, but I can comprehend why some science fiction fans of the traditional science fiction lineage have difficulty reconciling the writer's approach to their own interpretations of science fiction.

Virtuality: B+.

Writer: Michael Taylor/ Ronald D. Moore.
Director: Peter Berg.


le0pard13 said...

What a splendid write-up, G! I'm playing a bit of catch up here with your posts of late, but this was awesome. Well done, my friend.

SFF said...

Thanks M! I understand. Plenty in this life to keep us busy. Nevermind virtuality.