Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Weakest Volume Of VR-5, "Dr. Strangechild" & "Sisters" Far Too Obvious For Science Fiction Fan!

The Good: Moments of character insight, Basic principles of plots
The Bad: Predictable plots, Obvious characters, Disappointing acting on many fronts
The Basics: When Sydney Bloom begins working more with the virtual reality system, she becomes intrigued by it, though the viewers become a bit bored by the canned plots and acting.

It is weird to write a review of episodes in a series that utterly failed because the instinct to jump write into a review must be set aside some in order to recap the concept of the series. After all, while pop-culture hits like Buffy The Vampire Slayer (reviewed here!) or The X-Files (reviewed here!) might be virtually self-explanatory or so well known that even a person unfamiliar with the series might pick up enough just by a review that jumps right in, failures require some measure of recap, especially when the series being discussed is serialized.

VR-5 is one of those commercial failures that I am gladly picking up and reviewing. The basic premise is quite simple: protagonist Sydney Bloom has unwittingly stumbled onto a sophisticated virtual reality mechanism known as VR-5 and with it she is able to access the subconscious of those she calls using the special program. Following an intriguing pilot episode, VR-5 quickly tried to explore what Sydney Bloom could do with this skill and her talents were utilized by the mysterious Committee, an organization she knows almost nothing about.

On "Volume 2," VR-5 goes largely episodic with two episodes designed to illustrate more or less standalone adventures involving Sydney and her discovery of what the VR system can be. Unfortunately, "Dr. Strangechild" is just awful and while "Sisters" is not as bad, it is far more obvious. Either way, these become, ultimately, two episodes it is surprisingly easy to pass by when watching the series.

In "Dr. Strangechild," Sydney begins to work for the Committee and Dr. Morgan teams her up with three experts in psychology, numerology, physics and comparative religions to try to find a prodigy who has gone on the run. An expert in military research, the young man developed an incredible weapon and then disappeared. He calls in to make demands and to lead the authorities pursuing him astray, while threatening to kill civilians if he is not let out of the program. Sydney brings him into the virtual reality that is created by his subconscious and while the others piece together the metaphors, she comes to realize she and the boy share a common bond of complete loneliness.

In "Sisters," Sydney goes off on her own and begins to investigate her coworker, Janine Messersmith. Sydney knows that Janine is stealing from Tel Cal and she becomes determined to prove it using what she learns in VR. Instead, she finds herself getting excited off the rush of stealing with Janine in the virtual world and she comes to miss her dead sister even more. As a result, Dr. Morgan begins to become concerned about what the VR system might be doing to Sydney and he appeals for her to get out while she can.

"Dr. Strangechild" and "Sisters" are generally more dramatic works, but they are plagued by a strong sense of camp. While most of the rest of the series overcomes the pretense and silliness that one might expect from a science fiction series operating on a limited budget and telling stories designed to appeal to mid-teens, this volume falls squarely into the category of silly, obvious and unfortunately more hokey than it was intended to be.

"Dr. Strangechild," for example, feels remarkably assembled, like it was put together all special for television. For example, the team that Sydney is brought in to aid feature Team Ethnic Diversity, which I would usually applaud, but there's something about it that just seems very produced in the episode. Sydney and Dr. Morgan are the ignorant white people stepping in to deal with the problem that the diverse intelligencia cannot seem to crack. And there's something patronizing about the team being all men and that because the solution is more emotional than logical, Sydney reaches the conclusions first.

But more than that, the episode is remarkably repetitive. In her VR vision, Sydney comes to realize that the youth is utilizing images corresponding with the iconography of the Tree Of Life, which also has physics and chemistry applications. Once this is realized, the episode degenerates into a repetitive collection of places popping up where the imagery can be used. After a few times, it begins to feel very produced. Of course scripted television is put together, by writers, producers, directors, etc. But the best works do not feel that way.

"Sisters" suffers less from feeling so assembled, but instead it is predictable on the plot front and sadly obvious on the character front. Sydney's endeavor on her own into Janine's mind becomes predictably addictive and raises the necessary question of "how much of this can she handle?" The problem is because those savvy with science fiction are expecting something like that to be asked, the episode lives or dies on how clever it asks the question.

Unfortunately, the answer is less-than-satisfying. Sydney Bloom has a strange addiction; one moment she is powerless and thrilled by the excitement of having a bond with Janine, even if Janine does not remember it outside VR-5. But the next minute, Sydney is just over it. So, it's not like an addiction and the emotional weight Duncan and Dr. Morgan place on the need to not become dependent on the experience ultimately feels cheap and silly.

Janine herself is intriguing, though her story becomes a very cliche "hooker with a heart of gold" type story wherein Janine's reasons for stealing make her empathetic instead of wrong. Or, at least that is what is supposed to happen. Instead, possibly because of the "Bonnie and Clyde" imagery and obvious noir influences on the VR sequences, it just seems obvious. For a change her reasons are less compelling than the viewers desire for an interesting outcome. The viewer gets neither.

Janine herself is well played by guest actress Colleen Flynn who portrays the woman from the script remarkably well. Flynn does what she can and she keeps the VR sequences exciting to watch with a twitchy quality to her eyes, but she is ultimately limited by what is in the script.

Similarly, in "Dr. Strangechild," an appearance by genre regular character actor Eric Avari - recently seen as the senior Dr. Suresh on Heroes - finds him doing what he can, but dealing with an inferior script. Regular performers Michael Easton and Will Patton are underused in these episodes and their performances push their acting nor their characters any further than where they were in the pilot episode.

The episodes rest on the performance of Lori Singer, though, and in "Dr. Strangechild," she just does not land that plane. Instead, she fumbles through the episode with a surprisingly bland affect and a lack of surprise that portrays indifference more than empathy toward the boy's loneliness. In "Sisters," Singer is allowed to be quite a bit more expressive and she rises nicely to the challenge. In that episode, Sydney is watchable at the very least.

While Sydney might be behind others in terms of understanding what is going on in a situation, it is important that her performance never seem like Lori Singer is behind the curve. In "Dr. Strangechild," that is exactly where she appears. Fortunately, in "Sisters" is seems she is growing into the role and more comfortable with what that represents. Her performance is better there.

It's still not at all exciting, though and these episodes are more than likely to disappoint fans of science fiction and offer little to nothing for fans of drama in general. While "Sisters" explores the psychological metaphor nature of the VR system, the other episode fails utterly and this volume is one that can be avoided with no real loss to the series.

[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 works with Eric Avari, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Charlie Wilson's War
Heroes - Season 1
"Unification, Part 1"

"Dr. Strangechild" - 2.5/10
"Sisters" - 5/10
VHS - 3.5/10

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

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

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