Friday, November 18, 2011

Intrigue Long Before The Matrix When VR.5 Debuts Its "Pilot"

The Good: Intriguing concept, Interesting characters, Tone
The Bad: Clunky acting, Feels like a pilot, Effects seem a little primitive now
The Basics: When Sydney Bloom inadvertently taps into a sophisticated virtual reality system well beyond the limits of modern technology, she finds herself in a dangerous place.

The problem with having a hit television show - and it's a real "woe is me" difficulty! - is what to do with the rest of the night. Networks are always trying to find shows to pair up with their most successful series'. When Fox had the unlikely hit with The X-Files (reviewed here!) on Friday nights, the network scrambled to develop another show to put with it to keep the traditional loser night dominated by Fox. One of the attempts was the ambitious, generally serialized VR.5.

VR.5 was pretty much doomed from its beginning; the episodes were serialized and they were not aired in order and some of the episodes were not even aired on television, making for a somewhat fractured story that was hard to follow. Fortunately, when Rhino released it on home video, they solved the problem of the out-of-order and unaired episodes and put the volumes in the intended order. It all begins with the "Pilot."

Having witnessed the death of her father and sister at a young age in a car accident in which they drown, Sydney Bloom develops into a painfully shy woman who is socially awkward. She works for a California telephone company and taps into the lines to listen to chatter in her off time and she plays on her computer with the most primitive form of virtual reality available in 1995. Unable to stand up to her crabby neighbor in reality, Sydney isolates herself in her loft apartment where she is infrequently visited from her childhood friend, Duncan.

In an unlikely turn of events, Sydney is called by her angry neighbor and in the process of hanging up on him, accidentally sets the telephone into an alternate cradle and the two enter a virtual landscape. The next day, Kravitz has moved his car and Sydney is convinced the virtual experience they shared was in some way real. She and Duncan attempt to go in together and she seeks out Dr. Frank Morgan, an expert in the field of virtual reality, for advice. Morgan advises her to avoid the virtual reality system and when Sydney ignores him by trying to use the virtual reality system she has discovered to vet a potential date, the results turn deadly.

VR.5 sounds like a pretty straightforward science fiction show exploring the nature of virtual reality, but the nice thing about the series was that beginning here in the "Pilot," there is a sense that the show is going somewhere and there is something deeper going on. So, by the end of the "Pilot," the attentive viewer will easily realize what Sydney is not able to articulate: that the VR system takes the user into their subconscious and the revelations one finds there are psychologically valid, even if they are laced in visual metaphors and mysteries that need to be unraveled.

This creates a wonderful alternate reality that allows the viewer to revisit the episodes and pick out meanings in many of the visuals. In the "Pilot," the first virtual reality experience, which puts Kravitz and Sydney on a creepy bus together, reveals quite a bit about both people and it's a freaky experience for the viewer, Sydney and Kravitz. But the whole concept of the virtual world being constructed by the subconscious of the user becomes profoundly revelatory; Sydney's inability to process and understand images when she takes Scott - her coworker who she has a crush on - leads her into the danger that nearly kills her.

The "Pilot" actually has a pretty wonderful sense of tension once it gets going, no doubt a credit to the musical accompaniment which builds the mood quite efficiently. In fact, with the low sophistication of the visual effects - the creepy bus ride, for example, is mostly radical color alterations to represent the virtual world - the quality of the soundtrack helps pull the episode up into likable territory.

So, too, do the characters. Sydney is, admittedly, difficult to watch, especially in the pilot. Everything that happens to her is bigger than life and she freaks out. Sydney is very realistic in the "Pilot" and she is anything but heroic. Instead, she is real and between falling down the rabbit hole into virtual reality and being attacked by a serial killer, Sydney is actually a delight to watch once the episode gets going because she reacts anything but heroically, which is usually far more reasonable!

But surrounding Sydney are Duncan and the reluctant Dr. Morgan and they are instantly engaging. Duncan is a philosophically inclined, if generically good-looking guy who has a clear unstated affection for Sydney and their backstory is only grazed upon in the "Pilot," giving the viewer the sense that there is plenty of material there to mine in future episodes. Well before Michael Easton ended up as a daytime soap opera fixture, he illuminated the world of VR.5 as the cerebral Duncan.

But the one who steals the scenes is Dr. Morgan. Morgan is a fairly young curmudgeon and his opening lines on the nature of virtual experiences make him an amusing and clever character that the viewer wants to see more of. He is sardonic and while it is unclear how much he knows up until the final frames of the "Pilot," Morgan has a disaffected quality and his warnings carry an unsettling amount of weight.

Dr. Frank Morgan is played by Will Patton and he is quite good in the role. Patton impressed me with his chauvinistic and drawling performance in The Spitfire Grill (reviewed here!) and his role as Morgan is entirely different. Patton illustrates a versatility that is carried through his voice, body language and the ability to evoke a subtle menace with his eyes.

The show is carried by actress Lori Singer, a Hollywood-beautiful blonde who one would have thought would have sold the series alone for at least five years. Alias, er, Alas, such was not the case and Singer's role of Sydney Bloom ends up far more brief. And, unfortunately, the "Pilot" may reveal some of the seeds of that. Singer is portraying Sydney as a very realistic character. As a result, she often comes across as stiff, shy in a way that is not at all coy or entertaining and ignorant of exactly what she has gotten into. The problem might be that Singer is too good at the role and her spacy stares and freak-outs are less entertaining or engaging than the producers intended.

The result is that VR.5 feels very much like a pilot episode and Singer seems a little uncomfortable in the role, combining with the lack of technical sophistication in the special effects and the level of technobabble, this becomes a hard sell for those unwilling to commit to the full series. "Pilot" raises the questions from the opening frames with the accident that cost her father and sister their lives, but it does not wrap up neatly by the end of the episode (of course!). As a result, those looking for a straightforward drama are unlikely to enjoy the episode, despite the fact that the show delves smartly into imagery from the subconscious.

As an aside, Robert Picardo of Star Trek: Voyager fame makes an uncredited cameo as a scientist working on VR systems. The irony here is something only a Star Trek fan is likely to be in a position to truly appreciate; Picardo played a virtual character on Star Trek: Voyager and here he is developing the technology!

On its own, though, "Pilot" has many of the essential clues needed to truly understand the story that is being told with the series and it is, at worst, entertaining. And anyone who likes smart science fiction is likely to find something enjoyable here, even if it didn't endure on Fox!

[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!

For other reality-bending works, please visit my reviews of:
The Matrix
Sucker Punch


For other television reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

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

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