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"If I were just a fan of 'Battlestar' or science fiction in general, I would be watching it, TiVoing it on Friday night, there's just no doubt," co-creator Michael Taylor says about tonight's "movie of the week" presentation of "Virtuality." A two-hour backdoor pilot about Earth's first starship, the Phaeton, "Virtuality" is the culmination of a yearlong collaboration between Taylor, fellow co-creator/"Battlestar Galactica" alum Ronald D. Moore and director Peter Berg ("Friday Night Lights"). And if there's one thing that potential fans have latched onto, it's that "Battlestar" connection. "Because it has such a strong fan base it wasn't surprising at all actually," said Gene Farber, who plays Russian geologist Val Orlovsky, at the movie's premiere on Wednesday. "I kind of expected it, you know?" Co-star Clea DuVall, whose character Sue Parsons serves as the ship's pilot, agrees: "The only thing that doesn't surprise me about it is that there's the Ron Moore, Michael Taylor aspect of it. How could anyone not want to see it and get behind it?"
Cast members Jose Pablo Cantillo [astrophysicist Manny Rodriguez] and Erik Jensen [Dr. Jules Braun, the ship's designer] are two such fans. "I had to be very professional and not ask about spoilers," Jose reveals. "Because I would teeter between asking, 'What's going to happen in the prequel ['Caprica']?'" Erik echoes his statements, adding that "Virtuality" is literally a dream come true for him: "I'm that way about Ron Moore. I actually grew up reading Jack Kirby comics and reading the Teen Titans and anything that DC or Marvel would throw out; reading Robert Heinlein, reading any science fiction I could get my hands on, Robert Jordan, J.R.R. Tolkien; so this for me, this is something I've been wanting to do since 1977. I wanted to be Han Solo. [Laughs.] I'm not, I'm Chewbacca in this one but I'll take it man, I'll take whatever they throw at me. So I actually became a Ron Moore fan when I had the flu, I had a really bad flu... [and my wife rented me] the first season of 'Battlestar Galactica' and I was immediately addicted. And reading the script [to] 'Virtuality' was a very similar experience to me."
For Gene and Sienna Guillory, who plays microbial exobiologist Rika Goddard, however "Virtuality" marked their first taste of a Moore/Taylor production. "The minute that I had my hands on the script I was just so massively relieved that it was something that had big ideas," says Sienna. "And they were actual ideas, not abstract fantasy but actual stuff... and that gave me so much hope." And in Gene's case, "I became more of a science fiction fan, having booked this. Because I did watch 'Battlestar Galactica' to kind of do my research and I loved it so I became more of a fan."
So what is "Virtuality?" "In a way it's a space show that's also about television, very much so," Taylor admits. "It started in a very organic way. We already had the idea of a mission, a space mission, an interstellar mission in which there would be virtual reality modules to help the crew have some privacy, some entertainment, some release. Then the idea that, you know, crews these days they send messages back to Earth and talk to school kids, and I thought, well, it's a big mission, what if it was privately funded? What if they want to make some of that money back? What a better situation than to have a reality show on a spaceship? And in a strange way that added a layer, that third layer - instead of making it more complex, it really brought it into focus for both Ron and myself. Because now we really understood what the show was about. It was about us. It's about our culture, our obsession with technology, our saturation with the media and how we live in that world. We live essentially in 'Virtuality' already. And how will that affect us? How will that change us? And that's really what the show is about."
"I read it three times before I like really got it, which is a good thing," Jose notes. "Because something kept bringing me back and I left like, [when] I do theatre, it's like there's something in your will that's responding that something great is going to happen. And I felt some good, positive pressure from it. Like I felt like, dare I say an obligation, but there's something there. I think it was just my will responding to it." Sienna was likewise reeled in: "I was drawn to it because it's an ensemble and working with actors who are actors rather than stars. And I like the idea that everybody has a story."
As a pilot for a potential series, "Virtuality" is one of those rare cases were a one-off airing will ultimately determine its fate. "I feel like, I don't know if you ever saw a Paul Newman movie called 'Slap Shot.' He's trying to sell a hockey team which is not about to be sold," Taylor admits. "But then you realize, there's a shot here. And FOX changed the scheduling from July 4, they moved it up a week and a little known secret is the actors' contracts haven't expired yet and that's why they moved it up. So I think they're playing a wait and see game. They have a wonderful publicist in New York, Michael Fabiani, and he's done a ton of promotion - but all online, internet, radio; no billboards, bus station shelter signs, no ads, well, some ads on FOX but not a major push - and [it's] on a Friday night during the summer."
When pressed for specifics about when FOX will make a decision, Taylor confessed: "The truth in Hollywood is we have very busy, talented actors who could go on to different things. But if someone decided over the course of whatever time it might be, a few weeks or whatever, 'You know what, let's get our actors together, let's do something,' we could assemble the team, we could do it. But we've love it to be on FOX, we'd love to be on Sci Fi, I mean there's some budgetary issues there, but bottom line I'm super gratified by the support. I am so thrilled that people seem to be so interested in it. We're so glad it's on the air."
And if "Virtuality" does become a series, what can viewers expect? "We don't actually have a mythology. We only have a two-hour pilot," Taylor jokes. "Yes, the pilot would set the story in motion and I think what you're set up for by the end is a mystery and a thriller. You've already seen it so I can probably tell you without spoiling anything... but we see a very intense, thriller-like first season. All of these same sort of issues at stake - virtual reality, threats to the mission, threats to individual characters, danger - and yet playing very much like a thriller, a thriller in space. So that's how we see it."
[EDITOR'S NOTE: For spoiler reasons, the following section is best read after viewing the pilot.]
As for what the actors would like to see on the series, each gave us their respective hopes - and a few spoilers. Nelson Lee, who plays married astronaut Kenji Yamamoto, says while you didn't see any of his "virt" sessions, his character's are surprising: "I know exactly what I was doing but I can't tell you, I'd ruin everything! But it's interesting, it's definitely about our relationship and about things we had to give up and say goodbye to in order [to take] this mission. It's kind of about a beginning divide, I can say that, between husband and wife. And just what's going to happen to a lot of us on the ship. That's what great about taking people and putting them together in a can - all of these relationships that you thought you had begin to break down and new ones form."
Erik also sees a breaking down of his character Jules in the show's future: "Michael and I have talked a little about it, I don't know exactly what they have planned for the character but I think that - Michael and I were talking on set and he said, 'Your guy's kind of like Richard Dreyfuss.' And I said, 'Which Richard Dreyfuss?' [Laughs.] And I said, ''Goodbye Girl' Richard Dreyfuss?' He's like, 'No, no. 'Close Encounters,' 'Jaws' Richard Dreyfuss.' And I was like, 'Oh, cool.' And I sort of like broke that down. First off all, it helped me get deeper into my character because I really love Richard Dreyfuss's work. But I actually broke down what was going on in those films and it's a guy who's very in control in a way, who seems to know like what the circumstances of a situation is.
And things spin out of control and the layers of that character get stripped away. So there's going to be a lot of stripping away here. Jules is going to become less fatherly and more chaotic. I think Richie [Coster], my good friend Richie described his character as an agent of chaos. I think my character's convinced he's an agent of order but there's too much history and too much crap going on inside him to get away with something like that for long. So I think that's going to start to break down, at least I hope it does because I think it will be fun to do."
Clea, much like Nelson, is also excited to see the elements the audience didn't see: "I would like to know more about the Roger Fallon character played by James D'Arcy - what he's doing, how he's sort of being the puppeteer of everything that's happening. And what's going on with Pike, where's he? Like what happened in the end, is he dead? Is it real? Is it not? And there were a lot of things that we shot, we shot so much stuff for the pilot that didn't end up in the show. Some of really, really, really intriguing storylines did not make it into the final cut so I would love to see those explored."
The actress, best known on the small screen for her work on HBO's "Carnivale" and NBC's "Heroes," also goes on to credit "Virtuality," and science fiction in general, for offering limitless possibilities each week. "More than anything it's just what I like to work on because it's not, I mean not to take away from anything, any other formats of television but I think it's not the same episode every week, you know? And I think some shows definitely are the same episode every week and I definitely watch a lot of the shows that are that and I'm very intrigued by them. But as an actress to work on that sort of constant evolution, just the evolution of story is so interesting to me - especially on a show like 'Carnivale.' It was so intricate and there were so many different things going on."
It's Sienna however that gave us the biggest tease. When chatting about the "big ideas" Ron and Michael had in the script, she noted: "What if there is a planet out there with intelligent life that sent us a message? And what if we're not the only people left propping up our planet? And what if there's someone out there that can help us? And what if we're not the last answer?" Big ideas indeed.
"Virtuality" airs tonight at 8:00/7:00c on FOX.
And in case you missed it from a few weeks ago, here's our review of the final product.