Sunday, August 2, 2009

Virtuality on Virtuality

Like a whole lot of folks, I missed the pilot for Ron Moore's new sf series Virtuality when it aired on Fox a couple of months ago. Sadly, it's unclear we should even call it a pilot at this point, since Fox simply billed it as a two-hour movie event and hasn't picked it up.

As its title suggests, the story revolves around the role of a new virtual reality technology on a ten-year space mission. Remember all those stories about how people on spaceships go a bit nuts because of close quarters and constant company? A VR headset offers a therapeutic solution. Take a break from the mission and be a soldier in the Old West. Or a rock star who doubles as a superspy. Or... anything!

This is familiar ground to sf fans. We're all thinking of the holodeck episodes from STNG. And, of course, films like the Matrix conglomerate, The Thirteenth Floor, Existenz, etc. So is there anything new or different about Virtuality? In an interview on, Moore says:
"The Holodeck on Star Trek was a physical space with three-dimensional forms you could feel and touch and interact with,” Moore says. “On the Phaeton, it’s much more akin to putting on a virtual headset where you have an experiential ability to touch and sense and smell things in your mind. On a story level, it’s not like The Matrix because we’re not playing the idea that if you die in the virtual space, you die in the real space.”
But there's more to say than that. Significantly, the pilot doesn't try very hard to raise the familiar epistemological question of how we know whether or not we're in a virtual environment. Instead, it tackles head on the issue of whether it matters if our surrounds are virtual. Two crew members use their VR headsgear to enact their sexual fantasies with one another. One of them is married to another member of the crew. Is this less of a betrayal because the sex is virtual rather than real body-to-body contact? Or is virtual sex real--in the sense of "real" that matters?

Unsurprisingly, something strange is happening in virtuality. (Actually, I'd like to have seen Moore do some work with "ordinary" VR before things started to get nutty. Oh well.) Things aren't going as they're programmed to go. A mysterious figure is showing up in everyone's programs. When a member of the crew is raped in her VR session, is that somehow less of a violation because the rape is virtual? Some members of the crew seem to think so; others are offended by their attitude.

Toward the end of the pilot/movie/whatever, Commander Frank Pike (played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who also starred in the interesting but short-lived sf series New Amsterdam) is killed. Yet in the final moments, we see him alive and well, but inside a virtual program. His presence is inexplicable, and here's what he says:
None of it’s real. Follow me through the mirror and down a rabbit hole...

Do you think if I play a video game and I kill someone in that video game should I then be charged with murder? I don’t think it’s real. It’s a game.
Now we really don't know what to think. The virtual world seems to loom larger and larger. Moore seems intent on covering some of the same ground here as he does in the Caprica pilot.

I'm also struck by the way Moore presents some of Virtuality's storyline through the lens of a Reality TV program. I've always thought that The Matrix is really more interested in thinking about how we're prisoners of our media culture than about how we really might be floating in vats of pink goo. Moore seems to get that just right here. The crew of the Phaeton may be spending some time in virtual environments of their own design, but they spend more of their time on camera for the viewing audience back home.

You can catch a decent batch of clips here and elsewhere, if you want. Or try to find the thing somewhere. Hulu had it, but it's not there any longer.

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