I wasn’t terribly looking forward to Virtuality, a little side project Battlestar Galactica superhero Ron Moore and BSG producer Michael Taylor have been futzing around with for what seems like seven years now. The whole premise of it sounded like the kind of over-ambitious mess a producer who’s discovered he has a blank check at the big networks after cable success might come up with. It’s, among other things, a spaceship show, a critique of reality TV, an interpersonal soap opera and a drawing room murder mystery. Also, occasionally, it’s a Civil War drama. It all seemed like a recipe for a huge muddle that would get lost up its own high concept.

But Virtuality was pretty awesome, the kind of brainy, swing-for-the-fences science fiction that Moore made his name for on both BSG and prior shows as diverse as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Roswell (go ahead and laugh). This is Taylor’s baby, obviously, but Moore was the guy who liked it well enough to put his name on it so it could get a go-ahead at a major network (though having Peter Berg as the pilot director certainly didn’t hurt, I’m sure). Moore’s obviously got good taste, and Taylor’s got a real ability to juggle all of these concepts and make most of them stick. There’s some filler here, but overall, Virtuality was a solid, solid two-hour pilot, both a great commercial for the series to come and a good episode in and of itself, providing a cerebral kick that makes you think both about the potential pitfalls of new technology and about assorted modern issues, like the consumption of infotainment and the headlong rush into making reality into just another TV show. When this show comes back in the fall for its full run, I’ll …

Wait. What?

It’s not?

Well, son of a bitch.

Virtuality is airing in the summer (and on the summer Friday night after Transformers 2 opened) because it’s a part of the return of an age-old tradition: airing a pilot that wasn’t picked up just to see if enough people will watch it to recoup some of the investment in the original episode. Networks used to do this all the time, but they’ve gotten away from it now, mostly just eating the cost of production in favor of neither being embarrassed by how awful some of these pilots are or just how good some of them are (since the theory goes that networks only pick up their best pilots when that’s so, so obviously not true). Virtuality, then, by virtue of popping up with a pilot that doesn’t have any closure (thus making its billing as a movie event sort of misleading) on a night that’s less problematic than its prior scheduled night (July 4) with a sort of virtual press tour for its producers has gotten some fans wondering if this is a stealth experiment by Fox, a way for the network to test if there’s an audience for this and then pick it up at some later date. Or, if you’re being cynical, it was an expensive pilot (look at all of those effects shots) and Fox just wants to make some of its money back and figures science fiction fans, lured by the sight of spaceships and the name Ron Moore will watch any old thing, so why not throw it on the air and see what happens anyway?

I tend to think the cynical view is probably right. The audience for Virtuality is inherently limited. It’s going to be a serialized show (strike one) based around heady sci-fi concepts (strike two) with a really convoluted and hard to explain premise (strike three). It’s also prohibitively expensive, almost certainly, and unlike Fox’s similar science fiction shows, Fringe and Dollhouse, production costs really can’t be kept down too much because the premise itself necessitates special effects week in and week out. Maybe this will get 10 million viewers and become a series, but that seems unlikely. And that’s too bad. Because I really want to know where this story is going.

Virtuality, as basically as I can make it, is about a spaceship crew of 12 sent to another star (five years there and five years back) on a mission that may have life-saving import for everyone on Earth. To while away the hours on their way there, they’ve been given virtual reality simulators that allow them to enter new worlds designed to take the edge off. These worlds range from Civil War battlefield to cheesy ‘70s rock-n-roll cop drama to romantic beachside resort, but they all have one thing in common: a creepy, malevolent character within the simulation who’s gone rogue and enjoys visiting punishment on the crew members. On top of all of that, their progress is being filmed by a reality show crew and turned into a show to be enjoyed by all of us here planetside. And at pilot’s end, the ship’s captain dies, leaving behind a crew unable to cope without him, though he seems to live on within the simulator where he suggests that this whole thing is some sort of set-up, one big fake, to his lover, who happens to be the wife of another crew member.

So, yeah, there’s a lot going on here, but as with any series Ron Moore gets his fingers on, the pilot’s script, intelligently and deftly written by Taylor, delves both into its crazy science fiction concepts as deeply as possible and attaches those concepts to modern day concerns. On BSG, the two delved into the political questions of our age. Here, Taylor is way more interested in what the line is between reality and celebrity, entertainment and life. The title works on two levels. Obviously, the virtual reality worlds and the malevolent imp contained within are the main selling point, but the idea of the reality show (and how it portrays the various real people on the ship as the broad types all reality shows devolve into) turning the impending doom of planet Earth into entertainment suggests another kind of virtuality and one we’re already engaging in right now.

The show’s large ensemble cast, full of actors I recognize from bit guest parts on other shows as well as Clea DuVall and New Amsterdam star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as the captain, is well-chosen, and they sink into their roles in a way that suggests they’d be fun to follow from week to week. The pilot ends with the sorts of questions every pilot should end with: Who killed the captain? What’s the true nature of the mission? What is the relationship of one crew member to the presence in the simulator? All of these questions are ones I could imagine being teased out over the course of years or even just one season. (And before you ask, I thought the last ten episodes of BSG were great, and you can read more of my thoughts on them here.)

But we’ll never get to see that, and that’s too bad. Virtuality will just have to be an even bigger example of what might have been than your typical one-season wonder. If those shows were killed off as tiny babies, this one wasn’t even delivered. It’s a curious oddity, both a relic of a bygone era of summer TV programming and something that will hopefully become general practice in the future (when I think of the unpurchased pilots I would have loved to have seen be aired in the past, at least). And it’s something that very certainly should have gotten a chance.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • If you’re wondering where you’ve seen the creepy computer program, you saw him on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where he played Liam McPoyle.
  • Despite always enjoying Clea DuVall in just about everything, it was hard not to think of her as “And Clea DuVall as Starbuck” in this show.
  • Let’s live it up in comments. Where were they going with this? Is there any way this could have worked as a big network series? And is network TV just doomed to become creatively unambitious, while cable can air shows like this but not really provide for them budgetarily?