Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Plane Downed, A Woman Fractured, It's All Foreshadowing On VR-5 Volume 6!

The Good: Pacing and intrigue, Psychological understanding displayed, Imagery, Acting, Character
The Bad: Some plot/character aspects seem contrived and difficult to believe in.
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.

One of the things I absolutely love about serialized television is that when it is done well, it tends to be going somewhere. Having just finished watching the second season of Veronica Mars (reviewed here!), I'm currently rather jazzed about the idea of serialized television and how truly wonderful it can be. This, naturally, led me back to VR-5, a short-lived series I've been rewatching and reviewing and the truth is, one of the things the series did very well as it progressed was progress the main storyline. And by the time a viewer gets to VR-5 - Vol. 6 - Control Freak / The Many Faces Of Alex it is hard to imagine a viewer who would not be hooked.

Unfortunately for new viewers, "Volume 6" is a very awkward place to jump into the series. It does at the same time, however, make it easier for those who are more likely to be upset by repetition. After all, a few episodes back there were visions of plane crashes and with "Control Freak," the viewer is subjected to that again. In the toss up, though between coming ignorant to this volume and being overloaded with a little bit of repetition, I think I'd take the repetition every time in order to truly be able to appreciate the end of "The Many Faces Of Alex." It's worth it.

"Control Freak" has Sydney Bloom assisting hostage negotiators from the FAA when a radio control tower is taken over by Kyle Jarvis, a former air traffic controller who was blamed for a crash years before. Determined to sabotage the primitive network of air traffic control computers, Jarvis appears to be the linchpin in a conspiracy that Sydney uncovers through entering his mind using Virtual Reality. But even as she does, she discovers that there might be a connection between Jarvis, the Committee and someone very close to her!

"The Many Faces Of Alex" has the Committee and Simon using Sydney to investigate a trained handler for the Committee who appears to be in the midst of a breakdown. Unsure who she is, Alex is known by Oliver, who used to be her lover. Alex, as it turns out, has a history which seems to contradict much of what Sydney knows about her past, leading to an epiphany that changes everything for her.

"Control Freak" is a - despite reusing crashing planes as a theme yet again in the series - wonderful episode for establishing 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 is able to probe into the minds of Jarvis and those around him to learn who the Committee is influencing and which of their own are targets. The episode works well because it maintains a high level of tension throughout and Kyle Jarvis is nowhere near as crazy as we would like him to be.

Ironically, Jarvis is shouting back in 1995 about the inadequacies in the FAA computer and monitoring systems all sorts of things that came to light in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. VR-5, like The Lone Gunmen (reviewed here!) might well have been ahead of its time.

While "Control Freak" is big and filled with explosions and giant conspiracies, "The Many Faces Of Alex" is a much more character-driven story that challenges the viewers to empathize with a new character who is morally ambiguous. Alex, another character quite ahead of her time, is undercover for various organizations and she struggles to keep her various identities straight. This is a conflict that comes up with Sydney Bristow on Alias many years later. And yes, there are conspiracy theories in this episode, too, but it is tightly character driven.

Both episodes are written for a savvy audience of science fiction fans. The final resolution to each episode involves a twist and is pretty unpredictable even to seasoned fans. This makes them work 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.

"Volume 6" continues the old story of the conflicts we carry with us, fathers and sons, daughters and mothers, through the generations and that resonate in our lives and live within us. "Control Freak" is surprisingly insightful on what it takes to push a person to the edge and "The Many Faces Of Alex" portrays well what happens when one is living well over that edge. Both do what great television ought to; they inform the viewer of bigger picture issues outside the microcosm of the story.

Part of the reason for its success is that the characters all work and are intriguing and easy to empathize with. Kyle Jarvis is intriguing and tortured and makes for an interesting antagonistic protagonist for Sydney Bloom and the audience to explore. Jarvis is a living scapegoat who has been constantly beaten down, unjustly and against his will. In some ways watching him take the control tower is liberating as he strives to expose the nefarious Committee and the viewer is likely to have some real issues empathizing with Oliver or other members of the Committee and wonder how long it will be before Sydney leaves the apparently corrupt and factionalized group.

Similarly, Alex has a genuine and compelling character conflict. The price we pay for human intelligence is rarely depicted on television or in film and that VR-5 both went there and explored the issue with decent sensibilities. Alex is both recognizably intelligent and suffering from a destroyed core identity. This is a wonderfully realistic way to play the character and Alex stands out as one of the more memorable guest characters on this brief series.

Jarvis is played by Markus Flanagan, who has a wonderful ability to emote with his eyes and he does an amazing job of playing the slightly off-balanced part of Jarvis masterfully. Jarvis is empathetic because Flanagan never steps over the line that might make him seem comedically crazy; a parody of mental illness. Similarly, Alex is played by Markie Post in a role that she nails. Without any sense of comic timing, she plays Alex as exhausted and beaten down, yet with all of the kernels of efficiency that make her a credible character.

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 Lori Singer as Sydney Bloom upon whom the episodes rest and she brings them home. Singer transforms Sydney into a more 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. And while the final line of the episode in this volume might be predictable to those who are fans of the series, it comes as enjoyable nonetheless and it manages to hold up over multiple viewings.

By this point, though, it's hard to recommend the volume to anyone not already into VR-5.

[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!

“Control Freak” – 7/10
“The Many Faces Of Alex” – 7/10
VHS – 6.5/10

For other television reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

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