Typing Faster

August 6, 2009

Thursday Throwdown: Virtuality vs Defying Gravity

Filed under: Craft, Marketing, Pilot School, Stuff I Like, Thursday Throwdown — petertypingfaster @ 6:41 pm

Every now and then we’ll see two extremely similar projects released at the same time. Armageddon and Deep Impact. The Illusionist and The Prestige. Mission to Mars and Red Planet.

This summer it was a couple of eerily similar sci-fi shows that premiered a month apart. Of course I’m talking about Virtuality and Defying Gravity. And while the Virtuality pilot was, unfortunately, just being burned off, it’s looking like Defying Gravity will be around for a while yet.

So, how do these two shows stack up? Let’s take a look!

And in case it’s not abundantly clear, there WILL BE SPOILERS.

On the surface these shows are practically identical. Both Virtuality and Defying Gravity revolve around a long term space mission. Both shows prominently feature romantic pairings amongst the astronauts. Both shows have an unexplained sci-fi twist. Both feature a fake documentary within the show proper.

Of course once you’ve watched both pilots you’ll quickly realize that the shows couldn’t be more different.

Defying Gravity is very much an ABC production (yes, I’m aware that it’s theoretically a Canadian co-pro, but let’s not kid ourselves, this thing is ABC to the bone). Just take a look at the first paragraph of Alan Sepinwall’s review:

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before — and if you’ve been watching ABC for the last few years, you have — but ABC’s “Defying Gravity” is about a group of young professionals being trained in a dangerous specialty with a high wash-out rate, where the main character has an infirm parent and frames each episode with metaphor-laden narration, and where the male lead (an authority figure) and the female lead (one of his students) have a drunken one-night stand the day they meet. Yes, “Defying Gravity” is more or less “Grey’s Anatomy” in space (or, as my friend Dan Fienberg has dubbed it, “Grey’s Astronomy”), with a splash of “Lost” and a cast of familiar faces from recent ABC dramas. But the game of Spot the Similarities (which also extends to “Virtuality,” the unsold pilot that Fox aired earlier this summer) is by far the most interesting thing about it.

If you’ve seen an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, you’ll feel very comfortable dropping into an episode of Defying Gravity, or at least that’s what ABC’s hoping.

Personally I think they’re barking mad.

Defying Gravity is the bastard child of two very different genres. The soapy romance of Grey’s Anatomy went and knocked up Star Trek, and the result is, well, I’m not quite sure what this is.

The problem is we have two very different genres, with very different storytelling needs and very different target demographics, competing for screen time. The end result is neither is serviced properly. This might just be pilot malaise, but if the writing staff doesn’t figure it out in the near future, the show will suffer for it.

Right now Defying Gravity is fixated on it’s soapy nature. We have characters hopping willy-nilly into bed with each other, but with no emotional attachment to any of them, it’s hard to care about any of their space dating problems. These are supposed to be highly trained astronauts, but the fact that they’re coming across like sex starved college students completely destroys whatever credibility they might have.

This is what I call the Grey’s Anatomy problem. Given the behavior (and idiocy) of the doctors on Grey’s, who the hell would want to be treated at that hospital? Give me Dr. House any day of the week!

On Defying Gravity I have a hard time believing that any of these characters could ever actually qualify as astronauts, let alone convince someone to send them into space.

The other issue is that all the soap elements, that aren’t working very well, take time away from what could be an interesting sci-fi world. There’s an underlying mystery to why these specific astronauts were chosen, the implication being that it’s some sort of alien intelligence (they’ve only referred to it as an “it” so far, and haven’t shown it yet).

Rather than compelling stories, what we’re left with is a soap opera about characters we don’t know or like, and an underdeveloped sci-fi world. There isn’t enough here yet to satisfy soap fans, or the sci-fi geeks.

Going back to Alan Sepinwall’s review again:

“…Defying Gravity…feels too slight, or silly, to treat as anything but the cheap, disposable summer programming it is.”

Virtuality, on the other hand, suffers from the opposite problem.

This is a heady, complex, challenging sci-fi show. It’s what science fiction is meant to be. And it’s doubtful that it would ever find a mainstream audience, which is why Fox had very little incentive to pick it up. Which is a real shame, because this would of been a great show.

Again focused on a long term space mission, Virtuality is more interested in how the crew will cope with long term confinement than who will hook up with whom. This is why the ship’s been fitted with a virtual reality system, the system from whence the show got its name.

Further blurring the lines between what’s real and what’s not, the crew of Virtuality are, like their counterparts on Defying Gravity, producing a reality series chronicling their journey. Various crew members complain about how they’re portrayed on the reality show, as well as the imposition of the corporate sponsorship that’s made their journey possible (they have to wear specific logos on specific days to meet their broadcast requirements).

Then the virtual reality modules start to malfunction, and things get really weird. Needless to say that the lines between what’s real and what’s not blur to such a degree that they may as well not exist.

If my comments on Virtuality seem to be meatier than those for Defying Gravity, that’s because they are. There’s just so much more meat on Virtuality‘s bones, it’s like comparing a filet mignon to a cheeseburger.

Obviously Virtuality does a lot more to build its genre credibility than Defying Gravity, that’s where its focus lays. But the ironic thing is that the characters on Virtuality are much more believable as well. The couples actually feel like real people. We see them bicker and make up, and yes we see them have sex, but there’s never that sense of artificiality that permeates the relationships on Defying Gravity.

The other great thing about Virtuality as opposed to Defying Gravity is the care that went into building the world, and observing the rules inherent to that world. Virtuality incorporates some cool ideas common to the genre. Virtuality‘s ship, the Phaeton, uses Nuclear Pulse Propulsion, which frankly is awesome on so, so many levels. To generate gravity the Phaeton has a rotating habitat, using centrifugal force to generate artificial gravity.

It’s obvious that Michael Taylor and Ron Moore have given a lot of thought into how the world of Virtuality works.

Defying Gravity on the other hand?

Not so much.

In fact the “science” in Defying Gravity is, frankly, offensively stupid.

They generate artificial gravity by injecting magnetic particles into their clothing, which is then pulled to the deck by super magnets. Anything without the particles floats in zero-g. They demonstrate this by floating a tomato across a room.

Then, twenty minutes later, they have a character tossing a baseball. In gravity. No floating. It might be a pet peeve, but logical inconsistencies like that drive me crazy.

But at the end of the day, I find those two little approaches are emblematic of everything that works and doesn’t work in these two series.

It’s obvious that a whole lot of thought was put into Virtuality. The characters are deep and rich. The world is compelling and interesting. It asks the big questions. It’s an all around smart, smart show.

Defying Gravity is the vapid floozy Virtuality takes to the award shows.



  1. Virtuality was a GREAT pilot. I don’t know if Fox ever tried to make a deal in Canada with it as it did with Defying Gravity. The genesis of DG was at Fox, created by James Parriott. The parent network did not pick up the show but Fox International went out with it and offered it to the highest bidder in Canada which resulted in CTV buying into the show so it could access CanCon goodies like tax credits. In the end, Fox International sold the show to ABC as an acquisition. And it came in dead last in its initial airing. No surprise really. Sci-fi fans want science fiction, not soap operas.

    Comment by deb — August 7, 2009 @ 4:12 am

  2. Virtuality was a great pilot. It’s a real shame that Fox didn’t pick it up, though realistically I wonder how well it would of meshed with Dollhouse. Two pretty distinct audience demos I’d imagine.

    Thanks for the info on the genesis of DG, I wasn’t aware of a lot of it.

    Comment by petertypingfaster — August 8, 2009 @ 12:55 pm

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