15 September 2012

FWS Movie Review: Virtuality (2009)

After the end of the legendary Battlestar Galactica reboot, science fiction fans wondered what Ronald D. Moore would unleash on us next, and in 2009 we got our answer, Virtuality. Never heard of this RDM work? Not surprising. The two-hour pilot Virtuality was aired only once on normal TV in June 26th, 2009, and I was lucky enough to catch it, just before FOX washed their hands of this little sci-fi gem like so many before.
Personally, the film is one of my all time favorites, and encompasses some of the best elements of great science fiction. And best of all, it helped fuel my mind to forge my book Endangered Species. While Virtuality is not military science fiction, it is a great space sci-fi tale that deserves more attention, so I decided to devote one blogpost to this amazing, but failed effort to bring some great space sci-fi back to the small screen. Damn you, FOX!

The Plot of Virtuality

In the late 21st century, the International Space Federation launches an daring expedition to  star Epsilon Eridani, some ten lightyears away to search intelligence life, and test the ability for mankind to leave his star system. Backing this 200 billion dollar project in conjunction with the ISF, is the Consortium, a giant organism of business aligned to fund the Phaeton project. To make money off of the space voyage, the crew of 12 is stars of their own reality series and product placement (much like ABC’s Defying Gravity), called Edge of Never. For months, the nuclear pulse propulsion Phaeton has been taking a slingshot journey to Neptune, then out of the Sol system bound for Epsilon Eridani. When the show opens, the crew is only a few days from Neptune, and the go-no-go decision point. Phaeton is a massive vessel, with the crew living in a spinning hub around a central cylinder and all controlled via a computer called Jean that appears as a 3-D projected circularly shape. This ten-year mission of exploration radically changes months into the mission, scientists back on Earth inform the crew that their homeworld is becoming unstable due to environmental damage, and in less than century, Terra will be uninhabitable for human life, transforming the mission of the Phaeton into surveying Epsilon Eridani for a atmospheric world to house humanity.
 This, coupled with spending months in a metal tube, causing friction among the crew, as the show opens, morale is at all time low, eroding the chain of command, and causing doubt on carrying onwards. To escape the confines of the Phaeton, each of the crew has their own virtual reality headset that allows them access to a world of their own choosing, from Commander Pike’s Civil War simulation, to the Doctor’s painting program, or Dr. Meyer mountain climbing program where he gets to walk. Just as go-no-go comes up, there is a glitch in the VR software, several of the crew are murdered or raped in their simulations, and given the level of interactivity to the VR headsets, and the experiences seem real. This especially plays havoc with Commander Pike, making him seem manic, and setting the crew uneasy as the big decision comes up. Adding to the list of problems, the only medical doctor comes down with Parkinson’s disease, fuelling more tense onboard the ship, as the camera roll for the reality show. As Neptune comes into view, the journey only gets stranger for the crew and even deadly for another, who question if all of this was reality.

Waitaminute...wasn't there another series like this?

Yes...sort of. Around the same time as Virtuality was getting the axe-in-the-back by FOX, ABC had their own hard science fiction space epic, called Defying Gravity starring Ron Livingston. While Virtuality was about a mission to leave the star system and travel to a nearby star, the eight mixed-sex crew of the Antares (another hard science spaceship complete with Whipple Shield!) was on a mission to explore the solar system for NASA. I watched Defying Gravity and was fairly impressed with the series as a whole, but not surprised when ABC killed it after just ten episodes, (but 13 were filmed and on the DVD set). The series was sold to ABC as "Grey's Anatomy in space", but never lived up to that billing, thanks the gods.  


Realism. That is what the viewer of Virtuality gets over the spit-and-polish world of Star Trek (where RDM got his start), and it makes for compelling TV. If you’ve experienced RDM’s reboot of BSG, than you know his hallmarks: human drama over space opera. The good ship Phaeton’s crew seems to be rotting inside some six months after launch, the only married crew members are experiencing an affair, arguments are common, and the overall morale is cratered while the crew seems to be escaping into their VR modules more and more, ignoring normal taks of the mission.
Then there is the density of the material that is populated with three dimensional characters made of all races, backgrounds, sexuality ornintantion portrayed by good actors making the most of their time in front of the camera, complete with a script that gives all of them a different voice, and nods to the viewer on the overall mystery of the mission to Epsilon Eridani. Adding to this density is the brilliant set-design, mixing elements of replicated homey environment, and the cool hardness of the starship. 
Often the mark of good storytelling is it leaving with you wanting more, and Virtuality does that. It is madding to watch these two hours of great story telling, only to have the horrid realization that there are no answers coming. No spoiler website to inform me on if Frank Pike is alive or what is really going on with the mystery man in the VR modules, if the Consortium is lying to the crew and what awaits the crew once they reach another solar system.
Bottomline, Virtuality is the best science-fiction exploration show I’ve ever seen, and despite seeing a dozen since I bought the DVD in 2010, I still love to watch it several times a year.     


The flip side to RDM’s chewy, layered, realistic characters is that they come off with standard issues seen in RDM’s other works. After all, what would BSG without personal conflict and eye towards realistic human behavior? Oh yeah…the original 1970’s series. Still, while I love most of what he does, and the people he surrounds himself with, portions of Virtuality can see tiresome. These carefully selected astronauts are coming apart at the steams, which either is great storytelling about the hard realities of long space missions or Moore being Moore. That extends to only marriage on the ship, between the biologist and the psychiatrist, he is obsessed with the Edge of Never  reality show for FOX that ignores his wife, who looks to Commander Pike for some VR sack-time. Now, I liked this angle, but it is classic Moore, who has been divorced, and I personally do not think supports the concept of marriage, because it consistently bleeds into his sci-fi. That brings us to the other minor players in Virtuality who were going to get developed later in the series if it had been picked up, but in the two-hour movie-pilot comes off has background players. I am mainly taking about Kenji Yamamoto and Alice Thibadeau. They are the happy relationship onboard the Phaeton, but are seen in a limited fashion onboard ship, and I'll bet if the show had continued, the sparks would have flown.  
The worst crime against Alice is that her VR module simulation is lame. Really lame, and it left me with questions about how developed her character was by the creators of Virtuality. Her VR simulation that allows her to escape the confines of the metal tube? Getting pregnant and going to the doctor’s office. Really? I did that with my wife when she was pregnant with our daughter, and it was not something that I would want to be my escape (VR HALO anyone?). I can only hope that there was some greater purpose for that VR sim-world. For all of their critical need onboard ship and the attention paid to them in the plot, little is explored about the VR modules themselves. Who made them? Are you only allowed on simulation matrix per person? Are there other ‘standard’ programs for interaction? Like when we see Sue using her VR headset when she is on her bike or surfing, is that her VR world that she selected prior to launch? Or is that some standard excise program at all of the crew has access to? 


FOX Television gets the ugly portion of this review for rejecting Virtuality and dooming one of the best sci-fi hard science space exploration epics to the dusty DVD rack of aborted FOX sci-fi shows, right next to Firefly, Space: Above and Beyond, Terra Nova, VR5, and Harsh Realms. I agree with FOX that the payoff for the audience would take many years to come to reality, some ten years if told in real-time to get to Epsilon Eridani, then ten more years for the voyage back to Earth. But, Virtuality could have been a summer or limited series that could have aired annually, much like Rookie Blue on ABC or even Mad Men on AMC. It pisses me off that I will never get the answer I seek for what the hell was going onboard the Phaeton...thank you very fucking much FOX.    

The Good Ship Phaeton 

Setting Virtuality apart of the normal soft science fictional starships is the ISA Phaeton, one of the only nuclear pulse propulsion  ships very seen on film. Via a remotely controled setup, the Phaeton fires missile-shaped nuclear charges out of the rear of the vessel, exploding them, and the shockwave pushes a series of plates on the ship to propel it faster and faster, depending on the amount of nuclear charges used. During this sequence during the pilot, Dr. Jimmy Johnson says that needs to deploy 180 charges to get the Phaeton close to light-speed.
The power for the rest of the ship's systems is a fusion generator (only mentioned once), and possible some solar panels. Artificial gravity is achieved via the habitable hubs of the Phaeton rotating at 6 RPM, while some of clean water/air are plant-based systems. Portions of the Phaeton ship are designed for the crew's comfort with trees and more earth-like surrounds, like the living quarters', while others are designed for the machinery, the core or spine of the vessel being one of these sections.
Not seen or mentioned in the pilot (and only) episode, is the ander bay the 'front' of the ship, and other habitable sections. One of the few faults of the hard-science Phaeton was that it lacked a Whipple Shield to protect the near-lightspeed propelled vessel from space debris/micro-meteors and no visible heat radiators.

What the Hell Happened to Virtuality?

The easy answer: FOX strikes again. It is amazing me to the steer amount of talent, skill, and writing that was thrown into this project, for it to become nothing, which really pisses me off. Anyway, off of my rant, Virtuality died because FOX did not the faith in the show finding an audience, and I believe that they did not see the viewers tuning in for five years to see what the crew finds in the Epsilon Eridani system and how far the rabbit hole goes. So now, Virtuality lives on a single bare-bones DVD, and a few articles on-line. It is hope one day to met Ronald D. Moore, and talk to him about this grand attempt.

The Virtuality DVD

Another insult thrown at us fans of the pilot was the bare-bones DVD release...ugh...very basic, like white bread. It was the same treatment with the Space: Above and Beyond boxset a few years ago, with little or no thought or care thrown into the DVD. That is a really a shame, because they could have included the interview series with the cast, some design notes on the ship, and maybe RDM explaining the whole thought process to us about what the hell is going on.
The good news, the DVD is available at Best Buy for about five dollars...best five dollars I've spent in a long time...expect for that time in Bangkok...

The Music of Virtuality 

One of the cool things about Virtuality was the original musical score and handpicked music packed into this two-hour film. Here is the list of the music so you don't have to google it. You're welcome, by the way.
At the opening of Commander Pike taking his tour of the ship, there is a reggae/dub track playing with the words 'desolation' being sung in an audio-tuned voice. It is from noted British bass player and composer Jah Wobble's 2007 CD Heart and Soul, the first track, Desolation. Damn fine track, if you ask me., even though it is not my type of music.
In the VR simulation of computer nerd/reality show host, Billie Kashmiri is a rock goddess and super-spy, channeling Buckaroo Banzai. She rocks out before a large Japanese crowd, and sings in Japanese. When I watched the show, I kept thinking I knew the tune. It was the Munsters theme song, and it drove me nuts until I figured it out. Thanks the Lords of Kobol for Google!
During the nuclear pulse propulstion acceleration scene, when the Phaeton sling-shots around Neptune, the music that is playing is a familiar one. It is the track 'Alive Alone' by the Chemical Brothers off of their 1995 release, Exit the Planet Dust. Love that fucking song. The only remaining mystery of the Virtuality soundtrack is the end track that plays during the final credits. It sounds like a hard/dub/reggae song...I've wondered if it part of Jah Wobble's catalog?

Should you watch Virtuality?

YES! This pilot was amazing hard science work that mixed human drama with technology and a desperate space mission. This one of my favorite DVDs to watch, and if I were a ten year mission to a nearby star, this would be in my library! Virtuality is for all fans of sci-fi, and even if you hated the Ronald D. Moore BSG...but how could you...right?


Here is one of the best posts on the internet about the nuclear-pulse starship Phaeton:

An RDM Interview about Virtuality from io9


  1. I haven't seen Virtuality (yet, that is), but it really is too bad that Fox killed this show- it sounds like it really had some promise. That said, one plot development in this show rather annoys me- the cliche "finding a new planet for humanity after we ruin ours" plot twist.

    The technology required for interstellar travel implies that we are probably approaching Kardashev Type-2 status, or at least become a rather advanced Type 1 civilization- thus, no energy crisis, and no fossil fuel use. We will also have to have developed closed cycle life support systems, spinoffs of which would help maintain Earth's environment and create a sustainable planetary civilization. They would probably have access to planetary engineering technologies that could reverse some of the effects of environmental damage, even if the dire predictions of global warming came to pass.

    That aside, what is the chance that these future humans could successfully settle a planet in Epsilon Eridani, assuming an Earth-like world is found? After all, one of the stated goals of interstellar travel is reaching- and possibly colonizing- habitable exoplanets. Distance is the main problem for those without warp drives, but there are many potential obstacles for founding a colony on an exoplanet: an ecosphere based on a different biochemistry that does not provide an edible food or water, diseases too which the human immune system cannot adapt adequately, toxic substances, etc.

    Then again, when the ISF says "house humanity", do they mean to bring ALL the people of Earth to this new hoped-for Eden, or do they mean only the select few who get to travel there are seed a new branch of humanity at Epsilon Eridani? If Earth is indeed going to become uninhabitable, it is unlikely that everyone can be moved off-planet, let alone to another star. Most likely, everyone back on Earth- you, me, and probably your daughter as well- would be left to choke on our own mess while a few select astronauts skip off on a cosmic picnic to annihilate- or be annihilated by- a unique ecosphere on a planet that is not our own.

    The "fleeing dying Earth" cliche is both tiresome and unrealistic, and simply plays to the modern distrust to science and technology in favor of return-to-nature fantasies (never mind cavemen dying of natural toothaches, or villages starving because natural locusts ate their artificially cultivated grains). They should have left the Phaeton as an exploration ship on a scientific expedition. Sorry for the rant- but that particular cliche always drives me up the wall.

    If you want to live away from Earth, constructing vast space habitats out of asteroidal material would be much simpler than searching for habitable planets to invade, and you can do that at stars with little more than a debris ring circling them. You can support a thriving Kardashev Type-2 civilization with a small star, rock, metal and ice- planets are not necessarily required, especially for space industry.

    Christopher Phoenix

  2. The Phaeton is indeed an interesting ship- she is only nuclear pulse ship that has appeared on film that I've heard of. A real starship using a powerful fission, fusion, or antimatter "torch drive" would quite possibly resemble her.

    The Phaeton does have a problem- even the most optimistic calculations show that a thermonuclear pulse starship has a maximum speed of 8% to 10% C, and an atomic (fission) based Orion can achieve perhaps 3% to 5% C. Since the ships must save fuel if they want to slow down and explore the target star system, the actual cruising speeds will be half the maximum speed. So, our poor Phaeton will take 200 years to reach Epsilon Eridani (about 10lys distant) with a fusion bomb engine- with the crew bickering, fighting, and having affairs the whole time!! However, the Phaeton does not rely on fusion bombs, according what I've read online- it uses M/AM charges, which according to some studies would allow a starship to reach 50% to 80% C, or 25% to 40% C if it planned to slow down.

    In other words, the Phaeton is propelled by photon torpedoes. This is a bigger challenge than it sounds. M/AM explosions tend to be inefficient, since the blast will carry many of the antimatter particles away before they annihilate with a matter particle. Antimatter bomb designers may divide the antimatter up into tiny packets and include a large excess of ordinary matter to "burn" as much AM as possible. But what will the blast yield? Roughly 30% of the proton/antiproton annihilation is released as energetic gamma rays, and 70% as charged pions which then decay into an electron and several neutrinos. The charged pions travel a significant distance (several meters to several hundred meters) before decaying. The bomb case itself will be vaporized and expand as flash of superheated matter. So, each explosion will yield a blast of gamma rays, energetic charged pions, and vaporized bomb casing, which the Phaeton will deflect with magnetic fields and a mythical "gamma ray mirror". This is pretty advanced tech, to be sure, but not nearly as fanciful as a warp drive. Continued, since Blogger won't let me use more 4,096 characters...

    Christopher Phoenix

  3. The Phaeton will need protection from the annoying hydrogen atoms and dust grains found in interstellar space, and from cosmic rays. Titanium windscreens and water shields (or ice bulges) might help protect the ship from induced cosmic rays, but the barriers will need to be several meters thick- and will be quite heavy. Whipple shields and liquid droplet barriers have been suggested as well. Possibly, ionizing lasers and magnetic fields could be used, a bit like the deflectors from "Star Trek". We don't see thick shielding in front of the Phaeton, but then again she probably has gamma ray mirrors, so who knows what she has to ward off cosmic dust?

    It makes sense to design comfortable crew quarters with trees and plants, and the VR simulators will provide something to do on the long voyage. The ship will need a closed life support system that recycles air and water with plants, algae cultures, etc. You'll need a fission or fusion reactor to provide power, or it will be REAL dark on the Phaeton- and solar panels can't produce energy far away outside our solar system. Originally, it was thought that few astronauts could adapt to 6rpm- the Phaeton's centrifuges rate of rotation- but it that by incrementally increasing rotation and making few limb movements, the astronauts could adapt to the Phaeton's artificial gravity and still remain adapted to zero-spin for leaving the centrifuge.

    I don't think Phaeton needs visible heat radiators. The waste heat from the M/AM pulse units will be carried away in the exhaust plume and radiate into the void of space. The "pusher" at the back can't absorb much of the energy from the blast, or it would just melt instead of propelling the ship, and whatever heat it absorbed would radiate relatively easily from its delicate lamp-like structure. Life support, lights, astronauts, and coffee makers don't produce enough heat to require huge fins, so the heat radiators for the crew habitat should be small enough to be layered over some section of the hull.

    Christopher Phoenix

  4. That was one excellent comment, Mr. Phoenix! I would make the time to watch Virtuality...it is really worth the time, but I see your point on the nuclear pulse propulsion speeds. I wonder why that got that so wrong? I guess life without warp drive sucks, especially with no shield!
    The "Fleeing Dying Earth" lit device in sci-fi is overused and verging on lame status, much like super-soldiers. Hell, even I use the Dying Earth device two of my books! I am torn on this one, I think that given our crumbling environment, it gives a current (or fab) reason for space colonization, however, could we really transport billions of people to a new star system, like in FIREFLY? Especially with no FTL drive? I think if the reason and the writing is there, like AVATAR and FIREFLY or even BLADE RUNNER, than it can work, but not if you think it about too much! But unlike those works, the failed NBC 1994 sci-fi show, EARTH-2, did have humanity constructing L-5 stations to house mankind until a M-class world was discovered, which, like you, I think would be the way it would be done. My generation has been exposed to the Fleeing Dying Earth, which is why it comes so easily to current writers, remember Disney's Earth Star Voyager? I'm going to do some more thinking on this, but some damn good comments here.

  5. Hello, William!! I guess the writers wanted something that looked "hard SF", but they weren't going to grapple with all the issues with interstellar travel, so that was where a little science "fiction" entered the scene. From what I've read about the Phaeton, it seems that the ship vaporizes propellent plates with M/AM pulse units and rides the shockwaves of the blast, which suggest they aren't utilizing the gamma rays and charge pions from the blast directly. Instead, the gamma rays and pions superheat the bomb casing and propellent, which then transfers the energy through the pusher plate to the ship. This could work, but I doubt that it will have as high an exhaust velocity as we would like, and this ship would probably be pretty slow. As you said, life without a warp drive sucks. I suspect that even high sublight speeds will require a propulsion breakthrough like propelling a craft with spatial distortions instead of rockets.

    The "fleeing dying Earth" cliche is way overused, as you said, and it also doesn't make much sense from a scientific perspective. If we can launch a starship, it is almost certain that we can reverse environmental damage and construct massive space habitats. Think about it- the crew of a multigenerational starship must recycle their air and water and grow their own food for decades or even centuries- such technology would help repair environmental damage and feed large populations back on Earth. In fact, studies of ecological health use terms originally invented to describe space colonies, or so I've read. To send a ship to the stars, we need vast amounts of energy, and that energy is available in sunlight and hydrogen fuel gathered from the outer planets. Spacefaring civilizations don't have an energy crisis- the universe is crawling with energy and resources!! By the time we have all of that, we will also have experimented with planetary engineering and terraforming, which could reverse environmental damage, even if it as bad as some people claim- of which I am not sure at all. Still, we had better be careful- if we overpopulate to the point where Earth's ecosphere can't support us, our civilization may disappear forever before we ever get a chance to reach the stars. We find, however, that the technology required to reach the stars would also allow us to survive and thrive on Earth and throughout the solar system. Studies of multigenerational starships may help us solve the question of whether we can achieve a sustainable civilization with zero population growth, perhaps, and so on.

    I know that your generation has been exposed to the "fleeing dying Earth" plot, in a good part as a response to ecological concerns and fear mongering, but the best thing to do is to recognize when something is unrealistic, worn out cliche and invent a new setting with fresh ideas. "Fleeing dying Earth", "the evil corporation", and the "evil bug aliens" are exaggerated cliches now. Why would aliens be bugs, for instance? They could by jellylike creatures like the Invid from Robotech, or resemble predators from Earth, or even be fragile glass-like beings who use silicon to create their body structure, or who knows what else. Maybe you should write a post on old SF cliches, including the ones that writers continue to use today!!

    Christopher Phoenix

  6. I am thinking of writing a post on SF cliches! That should be a fun post!
    I see your point on the nature of the overuse of the dying Earth device, sometimes, it is hard to break from the programming. It is true that if Terrans could build a FTL or generational starship that the technology could be used to save the Earth.
    And you are correct, the universe is teeming with energy...now, just to access it!