Friday, November 25, 2011

The Weirdness Of Virtual Reality Comes To A Head With The Too-Typical "Vol. 4" Of VR-5!

The Good: Pacing and intrigue of one episode, Psychological understanding displayed in another, Imagery, Acting, Character
The Bad: Some plot/character aspects seem contrived and difficult to believe in.
The Basics: When Sydney Bloom is captured and tormented in a surreal landscape, Duncan must rescue her in one of the best episodes of VR-5!

Sadly for a series as good as VR-5, the show never had a chance to develop enough such that the risks it took were treated as clever or even as interesting as they actually were. This becomes an issue with "Escape," an episode whose plot begins well under way. Sydney is trapped and involved in an interrogation and the viewer of the series is left scratching their head and asking, "How did I miss the episode she was captured in? Who captured her? What is going on?" The episode, fortunately, is clever enough to maintain the interest and it is so engaging viewers almost forget that lost feeling they'd have if they picked the episode up at the beginning and saw the running already in progress. Today's television does this sort of thing rarely, but the level of bewilderment that results from picking up "Escape" and watching it is like what would happen if one picked up a random episode of Lost (reviewed here!) and began watching without having any context. Unfortunately for fans of the series, "Facing The Fire" leaves the viewer with a somewhat familiar feel and it does not take long to figure out why.

"Escape" finds Sydney Bloom running from mysterious captors. She is on the run from enemies who soon take a face and she is terrified to see that it is Oliver Sampson, her contact with the Committee. As he probes her for all she knows about VR-5 and the death of her father, Sydney works desperately to escape. When she is able to reach out to Duncan through the VR system, Duncan tries to piece together the clues to find where Sydney is in the real world. It's a race against time between Duncan and the inquisitors to get to Sydney . . . or the best parts of her mind!

"Facing The Fire" puts Sydney, who is slowly piecing together the contents of her father's secret journal, in a mental hospital where she is assigned to figure out why a test pilot, Lance Jackson, is seeing fire constantly. In the process of studying him using the VR system, she finds that he is full of rage toward his own father and she begins to empathize with Jackson. Unfortunately, as Sydney and Lance make public accusations, it begins to become clear that the memories Lance has may not entirely be his own.

Fans of VR-5 might quickly realize that "Facing The Fire" should be called "Relearning The Lesson." Back in "Sisters" (reviewed here!) Dr. Morgan warned Sydney that things in VR-5 might not be real and because they deal with the subconscious, there was a large capacity to bring one's own emotional baggage into the system with them. Sydney got that in "Sisters" as she worked very hard to fight a virtual reality addiction that came about when she found herself getting a thrill off vicariously robbing through a new friend's/charge's subconscious. With "Facing The Fire," we have a clever repackage of that, but the message soon becomes clear to even the most-dense viewers of the series. Sydney's resentments toward her father for dying might be tainting Lance Jackson's memories.

While it, arguably, does the job better than "Sisters," it ultimately is a lesson already learned and the whole idea that Sydney bears some resentment toward her father is truly the only new information. Well, there is one other piece of information that is new, but it is the kicker of the episode and I'll not ruin it here. But "Facing The Fire," with the presence of Dr. Bloom's mysterious journal, clearly comes after "Escape," making the order of this serialized show very important.

"Escape" is a surprisingly taut psychological action-adventure and it is a rare thing for a television show to be able to pull that off as well as it is executed here on VR-5. In the literal world, Sydney Bloom is tortured and the possibility that Oliver Sampson is her tormentor makes for a truly chilling episode. Moreover, this is a wonderful character study and it gives an opportunity for Duncan to rise to the occasion.

"Escape" has some of the most iconic VR-5 images . . . or what would have been iconic images, if only the series had survived and progressed. Duncan VR's himself to try to decipher the clues gleaned from Sydney's call and there is a wonderful film noir detective bit that has to be seen to be believed. The torture of Sydney and Duncan's use of the same imagery to try to probe Sampson to find where Sydney might be being held makes for great - actually great - television and it is compelling.

And who would have guessed that Duncan could so amazingly rise to the occasion? He is the pacifist action hero and his role takes him from the cerebral, slightly dim detective to the sidekick to Sampson who defies all he knows to rescue Sydney. "Escape" reinforces the subtle concept that has been building on VR-5 for several episodes, that the Committee might not be the most beneficial organization and there appear to be fractures within the group.

The best television is about characters and despite the reuse of the "VR-5 plays with the brain such that one's own issues might affect it" theme, "Escape" and "Facing The Fire" net two wonderful character studies. Protagonist Sydney Bloom makes for a compelling character and her inability to answer her interrogator's questions provides a terrifyingly real twist on the often straightforward science fiction series. That she reaches out to Duncan makes sense; that she trusts Sampson after her rescue at all makes less sense given how all of her own subconscious imagery treated Sampson as her interrogator.

But "Facing The Fire" makes very real character elements with a deep-held resentment toward Dr. Bloom. How wonderfully real that a show branded typical science fiction would take the time to explore the possibility that an individual might cling - for years - to such feelings of hurt over her father's accidental death that she would grow with them as an adult to express them as anger? It's a wonderful conceptual twist and it works amazingly well in this episode.

"Facing The Fire" features a decent performance by genre actor Neal McDonough. Fans of science fiction will remember him as Lt. Hawk from Star Trek: First Contact and in his role as Lance, he is able to be far more expressive and it is surprising he does not get more work as tormented characters, he plays it so well here!

And while actress Lori Singer sheds her shy skin as Sydney Bloom, the acting winners of "Escape" are Anthony Stuart Head and Michael Easton. No longer relegated to the back rows, Easton explodes onto the screen as a vital character who becomes so much more than the quiet simpleton he's been playing the prior episodes and he sells it as a perfectly natural and real growth twist for the character. He's realistic and charming and he steals every scene he is in in "Escape." And he and Singer continue to play off one another with an amazing sense of chemistry that is not as effortless as one might suspect. It should be recognized for the impressive feat it is.

"Escape" especially pushes up the standards of the special effects and they make the episode surreal, clever, witty and satirical alternatively. The episode represents one of the best episodes this brief series ever created and it is one that anyone who likes a psychological thriller will like. Unfortunately, it also is very esoteric to the universe of VR-5, so people who have not seen prior episodes will be very lost. Fans of science fiction are likely to enjoy this anyway, but they, too will be behind those who have kept with the series up until now.

[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 Neal McDonough, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Captain America: The First Avenger
Tin Man
Minority Report
Star Trek: First Contact

“Escape” – 9/10
“Facing The Fire” – 6/10
VHS – 7/10

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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