Sunday, November 27, 2011

Finishing The Series In Style: VR-5 Volume 7 Goes Out Great!

The Good: Pacing and intrigue, Psychological understanding displayed, Imagery, Acting, Character
The Bad: "" is an obvious unreality. . ..
The Basics: While the Committee begins to illustrate deep cracks in its surface, Sydney and Oliver discover that their intents may be more corrupt than either had believed.

Shows that have a premise and spend the series undermining that premise generally annoy me. You know, shows where a character is supposed to be a genius but every episode ends as a very special lesson that supposed intellectual heavyweight learns at the hands of less brilliant individuals. Then there are the series' where the backstory gets thrown out the window or mixed up for the current plotline of the week. With VR-5, there is a notable exception and because the series has been working toward it the entire time, it ends up making perfect sense and working beautifully to unfold a story that is intriguing, clever and surprisingly powerful. Unfortunately, it also comes at the very end of the series with "VR-5 - Vol. 7 - Parallel Lives / Reunion."

Unfortunately for new viewers, "Volume 7" is an impossible place to jump into the series. Despite the fact that "Reunion" is a perfect hour of television and an amazing season finale (one of the Top Ten of All Time, seriously the only reason it didn't make my list is because I forbade series finales from being considered and ultimately that's what it ended up being!) it is not easily accessible to those who have not been watching VR-5 up until this point. In the same way, "Parallel Lives" is a wash for those who have not been fans and are not able to appreciate the character twists embodied by the piece. In other words, this final set is for fans of the series only, no matter how highly I would recommend it.

And actually, I've tried to write this review well three times now without ruining surprises that would be shocking to those watching the first episode, but here's the thing, from the prior volume (reviewed here!) there is certain knowledge the viewer of the series has that would shock the viewer of the pilot episode. It's impossible to write intelligently about the episode "Reunion" without actually mentioning one of the characters whose fate seemed sealed before this point. Thus, as much as I'd hate to do it, if you're one who is thinking of picking up VR-5 and truly wants the richest experience in terms of surprises, you'll have to stop reading this review now and just go out and pick the seven volumes up (don't read the backs of the videos, either!).

That said, "Volume 7" . . .

"Parallel Lives" finds Duncan waking up to discover that none of his recent memories have occurred. Instead, he is a trendsetting visual artist and whose work is tearing up Los Angeles. Duncan, bewildered by the strange twist of fate, quickly discovers that he has woken up in a reality where Samantha, Sydney's sister, survived the car accident and Sydney drown. Seeing Samantha begin to get into some self-destructive habits, Duncan risks everything to track down Oliver Sampson, Dr. Morgan and the Committee, all the while trying to discover what has become of VR-5,

"Reunion" opens with the titled reunion; Samantha Bloom, thought dead for years pops up and lures Sydney away from Sampson and Duncan. Sampson, with orders to kill Sydney, rejects his Committee orders and flees with Duncan. With both pairs hunted by powerful members of the now-factionalized Committee, Oliver comes to discover just how far on the outs he is with his people and Sydney, Duncan, and Samantha use the VR system to unravel their memories to discover the truth about VR-5, the night of the accident and what truly happened afterward. In the process, they set off a series of events which make them hunted and leaves one in the most dangerous place possible!

So endeth VR-5. And wow, when it goes out, it goes out!

"Parallel Lives" is a bit obvious from the beginning. Anyone with any experience watching science fiction shows will know from the beginning that Duncan's trip through the rabbit hole is not real. In a show about virtual reality, this is - of course - even more obvious and in some ways it's respectable that the series waited so very long before trying an episode like this out. So, the questions on the plot front simply become "What is the mechanism/ is it plausible?" and "What's the point?" "Parallel Lives" actually has the first question pretty much answered by the series title, but the second question is one answered only in the final moments of the episode and it's a strongly satisfying and sensible answer that ties the unreal episode into the series that works very hard to create reality out of the virtual world.

Otherwise, "Parallel Lives" is pretty much a throwback to "alternate universe" episodes in drama/science fiction that stretches back to Star Trek's "Mirror, Mirror" (reviewed here!). "Parallel Lives" has many similar elements, too; though the pacifistic Duncan is the only character to "cross over." The altered incarnations of people like Dr. Morgan have intriguing character differences and similarities that make him work.

"Reunion" is an amazing episode, which pays off the seeds from prior episodes in regard to the disintegration of the Committee. Within the Committee, there are clear factions being exposed and which side Sydney is unwittingly working for remains one of the great mysteries of the program. As a result, Sydney and Oliver become sensibly strained and as they struggle to learn who the Committee is and why they are doing what they're doing, they build a new relationship. The episode works well because it maintains a high level of tension throughout and the ending is one of the slam dunks of science fiction!

Both episodes are decent character studies. Duncan finally gets his day in "Parallel Lives" and he and Samantha have a pretty richly developed story working for them. Moreover, their characters mesh well and there seems to be a genuine sense of chemistry between them. This is enhanced by the acting as Michael Easton and Tracy Needham have pretty wonderful on-screen chemistry.

The strength of the character development comes in the serialization. Without "Parallel Lives" and the results of the character journey there, Duncan's willingness to step up in "Reunion" to be a man of action is utterly unbelievable. After all, Duncan is a pacifist, a philosopher and a guy who pretty much lays about all day. In "Reunion," he moves . . . and fast and it works within the context of his character because of the events in the prior episodes.

Both episodes are written for a savvy audience of science fiction fans. The final resolution to "Reunion" involves a twist and is pretty unpredictable even to seasoned fans. "Parallel Lives" has a twist, but the audience sees it coming well in advance, though it still works wonderfully. It is a rare thing that a show can pull off something that is both sensible to fans, despite its outlandishness, and so enjoyable on a character level and special effects level as to make it a great moment of television. The struggles and character aspects in these episodes manages to do that.

Michael Easton earns his paycheck in this volume by portraying Duncan as a man growing out of his shell and he does it at a pace that is very realistic. Easton maintains his soft-spoken quality and the base of his character while presenting a series of changes to the personality and he makes it seem perfectly fluid and real. In "Parallel Lives," his transformation is much the result of hair and make-up, but with "Reunion," he brings the performance into his body language and it works wonderfully.

Anthony Stewart Head is able to explode the role of Oliver Sampson and in these episodes his facade of ultimate strength is broken as his past is broken open with Sydney's. Head retains a sense of gravity to his character that allows the viewer to see the transformations as completely credible, even as the character goes off in some new directions. It is easy to see from his performance, especially with the complexities of facial expression and vocal emotions that he uses in "Reunion" why he was able to be cast as Giles on Buffy The Vampire Slayer (reviewed here!).

It is Lori Singer as Sydney Bloom upon whom the episodes rest and she brings them home. Singer plays Sydney now as an assertive character who acts proactively instead of reacting to everything around her falling apart. She is intense and clever in the role and it works well for her stand straighter and put more of her body into the role in these episodes. Fans of the entire series will notice the subtle transformations that are occurring in these episodes and those just picking up this tape will likely appreciate how she seems to have a well-rounded character who isn't a whispy wraith.

Visually, these episodes are strong and rely on a great deal of special effects and a sense of visual metaphor that requires the viewer to pay attention and be truly engaged throughout. If anything, the visual audacity in these final episodes makes the outlandish plots seem more sensible and the episodes are likely to leave the audience disappointed only in that the series ends on a wonderful and dark note, making the viewer wish for more. Sadly, that never materialized.

[Sadly, even with VHS being essentially a dead medium, the VR.5 DVD set is out of print and hard to come by. Still, for those interested in it, please check out my overview of the entire series available by clicking here!

“Parallel Lives” – 7/10
“Reunion” – 10/10
VHS – 7.5/10

For other television reviews, please visit my index page on the subject!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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