Saturday, June 27, 2009

Virtuality vs. Caprica

It was by mere coincidence that I watched BSG prequel-pilot Caprica (on DVD) the day before I watched Fox's t.v. movie/possibly pilot Virtuality (on DVR), although I think I'm glad I did. I had very different reactions to the two shows but, if nothing else it proves that Ron Moore (heavily involved in both shows in various capacities) is a true gift to television. Which we all knew already.

Note: SPOILERS throughout, so don't read if you don't want to know.

Caprica will return in the fall to the SciFi (or *ugh* "SyFy") channel and continue to tell the story of the rise of the Cylons, and how events were set in motion for the Fall and the whole BSG saga. This is not a space drama like its predecessor, but is set on-planet, following the Greystones and the Adamas. All BSG fans know that Joseph Adama, played rather mumblingly by Esai Morales, is the father of Admiral William Adama (young William gets some screentime in this episode and hopefully will have had some acting lessons by the time he gets some more): he is a lawyer with deep mob connections who struggles with the line between good and evil, right and wrong. Eric Stoltz is Daniel Greystone, genius computer millionaire who invented holoband technology - virtual reality - and who is developing cybernetic warriors for the military.

Joseph and Daniel are thrown into each others' lives when Joseph's wife and daughter are killed in the same terrorist explosion that claims Daniel's daughter Zoe. Zoe was a computer genius in her own right and was adapting her father's virtual reality technology to create an avatar of herself, but imbued with self-perpetuating personality - a soul, if you will - in some means of supporting the newly-rising underground monotheism movement. After Zoe's death, her father finds her computer code and attempts to download her avatar into a proto-Cylon. He think he fails - but the last scene shows the robot awakening to self-realization.

I liked: the crazed scenes in the virtual nightclub where Zoe and her friends were carrying out their master plan; the conceit that a girl named "Zoe" (Greek for "life") is the progenitor of the sentient monotheistic Number-Model Cylons; Paula Malcolmson ("Trixie" from Deadwood) as Zoe's mom; the scene with Adama and his avatar-daughter. What I didn't like: Caprica left me cold and unconnected to the characters. BSG captured my heart from the very first moment; Caprica is going to have to grow on me.

Not so with Virtuality. After only two hours, I'm hooked and am totally annoyed that there's a possibility that it might not get picked up and two hours is all there may be. It's a complicated, interesting show, with a terrific cast and twists galore.

There are twelve astronauts on the Phaeton, embarking upon a ten-year mission to explore another solar system. We have the captain (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, whom I crushed on in the departed New Amsterdam), his second in command, the pilot (Clea DuVall), a doctor, a shrink and a botanist (married), a computer whiz and five other scientists (including another married couple and a gay couple). That's the basic show.

The mission is also being entirely filmed as reality television for the folks back home on Earth, complete with confessional interviews. In an odd sort of double duty, the shrink (James D'Arcy) is also the reality show's producer, and he seems to be uniquely able to manipulate the crew for better ratings. The company funding the mission, ominously referred to as "the Consortium," calls the shots and the captain feels that the shrink may not be telling the crew everything.

Finally, to maintain the crew's mental health on such a long journey, virtual reality modules have been implemented so that the astronauts can relax, blow off steam, interact with something other than the other crewmembers. We see several of the crewmembers' virtual fantasies: the captain's Civil War re-enactment; the computer genius's rockstar/superspy adventures (a la Alias); the pilot's bicycle rides. There is a computer glitch, however, which is not so good for folks' mental health: several of the crew members discover a mystery man in their virtual fantasies - someone whom they did not program in, and who attacks them violently and virtually, to differing results.

I thought Virtuality was fantastic. Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) is the director and the show is just gorgeous. There are a lot of characters involved and although some do not get much screen time, we are given enough to connect with them, making them more than caricatures. I loved the layers upon layers: the virtual modules seem real, and the memories they create are real; the reality show is as unreal as any reality t.v. on today, edited together by the shrink for maximum ratings; and it is called into question as to whether the actual mission the astronauts are on is even real itself - or have they been put into a Truman Show-like situation? I've watched enough television to know that at least one person would be killed off but I couldn't believe who it was when it happened - if this show gets picked up, I hope if they can find a way to keep the actor on.

I really would like to see Virtuality get picked up. It looks like it's an expensive show to make with the huge cast and all the beautiful space shots, so that's a strike against it. It's also an intelligent, tricky, makes-you-think thriller ... so that's probably a strike against it too. Caprica we know is coming back, and I'm just not sure that it's appointment television for me like Battlestar Galactica was, but Virtuality I would absolutely make a point of watching. Here's hoping I get the chance.

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