ABOARD Earth’s first starship, the Phaeton, a crew of 12 astronauts is on the verge of embarking on an epic 10-year mission crucial to the survival of life on Earth. They have reached the “go” or “no go” point, the critical part of the journey where the crew must commit to traveling to a distant solar system millions of miles away. If they “go,” they cannot turn back.
Executive producers Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek: The Next Generation), Michael Taylor (Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek: Voyager) and director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, Hancock) present Virtuality, a breakthrough Science Fiction thriller set in two very different universes: outer space and the seemingly limitless virtual reality.
To give the crew a measure of privacy as well as a vital recreational outlet on the long journey, the ship has been equipped with revolutionary virtual reality modules. Each crew member can assume adventurous, avatar-like identities as they explore self-created worlds and scenarios, or simply spend quality downtime as themselves in the ultra-life-like simulators From a war hero to a rock star to secret lovers on an island, these are their psychological lifelines, and each module’s unique setting was chosen by the crew member before departing Earth.
But there is a bug in the system.
As crew members go in and out of reality, they realize that a virus has entered their private world. Questions are raised, and suspicions fanned; is someone on the crew responsible? When the interloper’s intrusions cross a violent and disturbing line, the ship’s commander makes a difficult decision to shut down the modules. But before he can, a tragic even threatens the mission. Is it an accident or a crime? Real or virtual? Whatever the case, it’s too late to turn back, so the group ventures forth into space, fearing that they may be harboring a person or presence determined to derail their vital mission. Meanwhile, tensions are further heightened as surveillance cameras capture their every move for a reality series back on Earth.
From executive producers Ronald D. Moore, Michael Taylor, Gail Berman, Lloyd Braun, Peter Berg and Sarah Aubrey, this captivating original feature invites viewers to join the crew of the Phaeton on a journey into a near-future, one that is a heightened version of our own Internet- and entertainment-mediated reality. A journey that will become even more surprising with each new revelation.
The cast of Virtuality, which airs Friday, June 26th from 8 p.m. - 10 p.m. EST/PST on the Fox Network. L-R: Kerry Bishe (as Billie Kashmiri); Ritchie Coster (as Dr. Jimmy Johnson); Eric Jensen (as Dr. Jules Braun); Nelson Lee (as Kenji Yamamoto); Joy Bryant (as Alice Thibadeau); Clea DuVall (as Sue Parsons); Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (as Commander Frank Pike); Sienna Guillory (as Rika Goddard); James D'Arcy (as Dr. Roger Fallon); Jose Pablo Cantillo (as Manny Rodriguez); Gene Farber (as Val Orlovsky); Omar Metwally (as Dr. Adin Meyer) and Jimmi Simpson (as Virtual Man). Photo credit: Kharen Hill/Fox and copyright of Fox Broadcasting
Earlier this month, myself and several other journalists participated in a Q & A conference call with Virtuality writer/executive producer Ron Moore. Here is an edited version of that conversation.
How is this [Virtuality] different from Star Trek where you would have the holodeck and people would get lost in that artificial environment?
RON MOORE – Well, it’s a different concept. The holodeck was an actual space that you would go into and three dimensional forms were physically created in front of you, which you were then able to feel, touch, interact with, etc. The computer would generate them as long as you were in there. This, however, is truly a virtual space, which is much more akin to putting on contemporary, sort of virtual headsets, but then taking that to the next level where you do have an experiential ability to touch, sense, taste and smell things in your mind, so it’s on a different mechanical level.
In terms of story, we’re not playing the idea that if you die in the virtual space, you then die in real space. It’s more like gaming is now. You go on-line, play a game and if you get killed, then you’re kicked out of the program, but you’re not dead in real life. We’re using these [virtual reality modules] much more psychologically as well. Essentially, the virtual experiences that the astronauts have aboard the Phaeton are the types of things that are psychologically motivated. They go in there and do things for entertainment and to pass the time of day while they’re on this very, very long-range mission. In the process, you’re also learning things about them personally as well as where they choose to spend their time, and when things go wrong inside that space how does that then influence them in the real world. That was the thing I was most interested in; how virtual space impacted the real story that was going on aboard the spacecraft and vice versa.
Given the nature of Battlestar Galactica, you had to be very serious dealing with the spaceship and everything. Does Virtuality allow you to have a little bit more fun with the concept of people in space?
RM - Oh, yes. It’s a much less serious situation than Battlestar dealt with. Battlestar was literally a post-apocalyptic show where the future of humanity rode on their every decision, and death was stalking them continuously. This [Virtuality] is not set up in the same way. The crew on-board the Phaeton signed up for what just seemed like a very straightforward mission of exploration and they were chosen with that in mind. They were also chosen to participate in this sort of reality show that is being broadcast back on Earth.
So there was a conscious attempt on the part of the people who put the crew together to have an interesting mix of people. There are debates amongst the crew itself when it comes to who was chosen just for their demographic content as opposed to who is legitimately supposed to be there. Now you’ve got a group of 12 people stuck in a metal tube going in a straight line for a decade or so, and that’s going to result in a lot of tension, friction and manipulation, and cause problems between the characters. It has a strong element of fun and suspense and interesting plot twists in terms of what characters will do with one another. Battlestar, on the other hand, was very much driven by the internal pressures of the huge weight that was on all of their shoulders from the beginning of the miniseries. So there’s definitely more humor. Let’s just say that in the first 10 minutes of Virtuality there is probably more humor than there was in the [entire] run of Battlestar.
When did you come up with the idea of blending a Sci-Fi thriller with a reality show element to it?
RM - It was sort of in stages. When we first started talking about the concept it was about a long-range space mission, which I was intrigued with. Like I said before, I was interested in the idea of what do you do with 12 people in a metal tube for that long. I thought there were interesting dramatic possibilities right there and, OK, what would they realistically need to do. What would NASA or the space confederation do at that point to keep them from going crazy? They would probably have a really advanced virtual reality program to help them pass the time, and there’s interaction between those two worlds.
Somewhere in those discussions, we began talking about when they would be broadcasting pieces back to Earth, like astronauts do today, and, hey, what if they made a reality show out of that? Then it all kind of started to come together. You had these three layers of storytelling going on in the show where you had what was happening in the real world on the ship, what was happening in the virtual space, and then what was the reality show that was seen back on Earth. Were the needs of the reality show starting to impact what was happening on the spacecraft? Were people being manipulated in order to make better drama for the reality show? So it evolved into this really interesting psychological crucible that our characters would all be put in.
When you were writing this were there any major hurdles or blind alleys? Did it get confusing?
RM - Yes. I mean, it was a tough thing to juggle. It’s a very ambitious piece, and I think that was the reaction on the part of Fox when they saw it. It’s a very challenging, complicated piece of work and there are a number of moving parts. We knew that going in and writing the script wasn’t easy. There was a lot of trying to decide how much time to spend in any one of these three categories, and at what point do you shift from the audience’s point of view to the other. What’s the language for that? Where are we going to introduce certain characters? How often do you go to the first person confessionals and the reality show, etc. So there were several complicated questions, all of which were still there in the editing process. When do you switch to which piece of material? I found it all a fascinating challenge.
In the virtual world are there avatar-style characters or are there real people?
RM - The actors play themselves in the virtual space. What we did during the production was shoot all of the virtual reality scenes using green screen. So for instance, the story opens with an extended piece that involves the lead character within a Civil War virtual space. None of that was shot on-location, and we didn’t build a set, either. It was all done on a green screen stage using a computer. We kept that language for all the virtual pieces to give them all a sense of continuity so that you always felt that you were in a virtual space.
This was originally supposed to be a pilot for a TV series, right?
RM - It is a pilot. Fox is going to broadcast it as a two-hour movie, but in my mind it’s a pilot and it always has been.
So it can still become a series?
RM - I think you never say never. It hasn’t been picked up yet. The network’s attitude is, I think, to kind of wait and see what the reaction is going to be. What are the critics going to say? Is it going to get word of mouth. Are fans going to gravitate to it or is the Science Fiction community really going to turn up for it? Is there going to be a certain buzz and excitement? Right now it doesn’t look like it’s going to series, but I think if enough people watched and got excited about it, then anything is possible. It [the story] certainly does not resolve itself in two hours. Some pretty heavy things go down in it, and by the end of it you’re kind of left thinking, “Whoa! Where is that going?”
Why do you think people have become so obsessed with reality TV? What is the attraction to it? What made you want to include it in this particular story?
RM - The first two questions are kind of complicated and I’m not sure what the answers are. At first, I think I was one of those skeptics who doubted that reality TV was going to be with us for any great length of time. Certainly that has been proven wrong. There seems to be a fundamental interest of real people watching other real people, or at least what they perceive to be real people, as opposed to watching fictional programming. There’s a powerful draw there of us wanting to look in on other peoples’ lives and seeing them pretty much exist as they actually do.
As for why we’ve included it in Virtuality, we just felt like it’s become such a staple of pop culture at this point in time. It seemed interesting to then incorporate it into a Science Fiction setting, which was something that we had never seen before or heard of. We’ve all seen video that’s been broadcast back by the astronauts from the Apollo missions to the Space Shuttle, but we’ve never seen it done in a format where it’s trying to be a reality show. I thought it was kind of a different hook for the audience and might be a cool angle for our story.
What do you think of the network climate right now, especially in light of Terminator being cancelled and Dollhouse having been on the cusp? It seems like anything complex aimed at a younger audience has a really hard time staying on.
RM - Well, I think it’s a difficult time for the networks in general, and scheduling kind of reflects that. Everybody in this business has a sense that television is changing right underneath our feet, and while we all say, “Yes, we’re going to be ahead of the curve and we know that TV is changing,” no one has an idea of what it’s changing into. It’s that sort of anxiety and lack of knowledge about where TV is headed that contributes to the overall atmosphere of fear and panic where networks are saying, “Oh, my God, this didn’t work. We can’t afford the time to stick with this show. We gave it four episodes and that’s it.”
And that’s unfortunate because many of the most successful shows on TV had rocky starts and really required networks that believed in the process and were willing to stick by them. For example, they really had to believe in Seinfeld, and it turned out to be not only a critical hit and one of the great comedies of all time, but also incredibly lucrative. So there’s certainly a strong argument for having patience along with faith and really trusting your audience as well as your instincts and going with programming.
And here are some closing remarks from Ron Moore.
There is a series of webisodes that were created for Virtuality. These webisodes, however, are not just your traditional here’s an extra piece of story that you didn’t see on the show, and here’s another little segment to tease you. These webisodes for Virtuality are actually segments of the reality show within the show itself, so in theory, when you logged onto the website, what you would see when you clicked on webisodes would be pieces of the reality show as it was broadcast back to Earth. That was in our original pitch to the network. We said, “Everyone is always looking for this sort of interaction between the broadcast show and driving people to the website.” It’s always been sort of an uncomfortable marriage and they never quite seem to marry up in an interesting way for the audience. Ours had this sort of organic way of doing that where you could go to the website and experience Edge of Never, which is the name of the reality show.
The concept and the plan would have been if the pilot went to series, that every week you could log onto the website and see pieces of the reality show. And buried within those pieces would be actual information and clues that would not be accessible to the people watching the broadcast of the show. There was going to be a deliberate effort to sort of say, “Really, if you want to get all of what’s going on and to even crack some of the underlying mysteries to what this series is about, then you have to go and watch these pieces of Edge of Never.” There is, in fact, a Facebook page for Edge of Never, and I would encourage people to go take a look at it because I think it’s a unique bit of Virtuality.
As noted above, the Virtuality cast photo is copyright of the Fox Network, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any form. Thanks!