In this day and age, when everyone has so little time and shows can be cancelled within just a few episodes, most shows put all their cards on the table straight away, leaving the viewer an easy decision – to watch or not to watch, based purely on that first episode, which should be representative of all subsequent episodes.
But there is a reason for the existence on this blog of first The Carusometer and then The Barrometer: shows may be bad or even completely different in their first episode and then get much better and/or change scenario after a few episodes. VR5 was one such show, a show considerably ahead of its time that dared to have a story arc, to fool the audience and expect them to be observant, to kill regulars and to introduce much loved characters only after the fifth episode.
It starred Lori Singer (Fame) as telephone engineer Sydney Bloom. Sydney’s had a crappy life. Her computer scientist father, Dr Joseph Bloom (David McCallum), was killed, along with her sister, Samantha, in a car accident when she was just a child. Her mother, Dr Nora Bloom (Louise Fletcher), a neuroscientist, ended up in a vegetative state after overdosing on pills.
Sydney’s a bit of a nerd. She likes playing with this new fangled virtual reality equipment that’s all the rage in the mid-90s (remember Oliver Stone’s Wild Palms, anyone?). One day, while taking a phone call from someone, she accidentally connects to her virtual reality equipment at the same time and finds herself entering the mind of the person she’s talking to. There, her subconscious is able to interact with the subconscious of the other person and change their behaviour when they leave this shared experience.
Troubled and wondering how on earth this could possibly have happened, she seeks guidance from noted scientist Dr Frank Morgan (Will Patton), who tells her she’s achieved VR.5 – virtual reality level 5. After failing to convince her not to use VR, he offers her a job with an organisation called ‘The Committee’, doing spy-like work. To keep herself grounded, she confides in her Zen-master like childhood friend Duncan (Michael Easton) who guides her both inside and outside of VR.5.
And that’s the first episode.
So you might assume that that’s the show: a slightly touchy feely show in which a nerdy woman goes around helping strangers get over their traumatic emotions while wearing much sexier clothes in a Cell-like virtual reality, guided by her craggy, uninteresting scientist mentor.
And you might have switched off as a result because it sounds a bit like complete bobbins.
Because it’s not long before you discover that all is not what it seems in VR5. Will Patton’s character gets killed in the fourth episode, to be replaced by the much sexier, somewhat morally ambivalent Oliver Sampson (Anthony Head – Giles from Buffy). There are problems with story continuity that at first seem like poor writing, but turn out to be planned – to be clues that not everything is what it seems, as you might expect with a show about different realities.
Because there are other levels of VR, including VR8 – the ability to transplant or implant personalities and life experiences in another person. And someone has done just that to Sydney. Here’s the title sequence.
VR.5 only lasted one season of 13 episodes, only 10 of which were shown on US TV – although they all were released later on VHS and aired on Sky in the UK. But over the course of the 13 episodes, a considerably impressive story arc was laid out.
Over the course of the season, Singer learns that her father and mother were working on advanced forms of virtual reality, levels far above VR5. And they were working for The Committee. When her father and mother tried to escape The Committee, her father and sister were taken away. Her mother decided on a drastic way to keep her remaining daughter safe, since only if The Committee thought she knew nothing about VR would they be left alone.
So her mother implants using VR fake memories of a car accident into the mind of both Singer and Duncan. Unfortunately, the process leaves her catatonic.
When McCallum escapes, his computer reactivates, which is how Singer, who was experimented on by McCallum, acquires access to VR5. Her sister (Tracy Needham from JAG) returns as well, and together with Duncan, they eventually piece together what really happened.
The show ends on a cliffhanger. After entering an even higher, more dangerous level of VR, VR7, they’re able to restore Louise Fletcher’s memories. Unfortunately, that leaves Sydney is something of a vegetative state herself.
And that was that for VR5.
How much of what happened in VR5 was planned from the beginning is hard to say. Whether it was always intended to have Will Patton killed so soon or whether it was decided he had no chemistry with Singer and they needed something a bit more Nikita-esque, I don’t know. Certainly, Head is in the initial publicity material and Patton isn’t. Singer and Head had more chemistry, too, as you can see from this clip, which also features Needham, further details of the series plot that I haven’t yet mentioned, as well as McCallum channelling his NCIS character.
The show, despite having a strong, complicated and original story arc, unfortunately suffered from being too episodic and from having a number of individually weak stories early on. However, there were also some very strong episodes, particularly towards the end:
- Love and Death (#4): Dr Morgan gets killed by a Committee assassin
- Escape (#6): In which Duncan has to save Sydney from the Committee by entering VR himself
- Control Freak (#10): Sydney discovers the Committee once tried to assassinate Oliver
- The Many Faces of Alex (#11): In which Oliver’s former lover turns up and turns out to have been experimented on by Dr Bloom
- Parallel Lives (#12): Duncan wakes up to discover it was Samantha not Sydney who survived the car accident and everyone else has a different lives
- Reunion (#13): The Blooms are reunited
Unfortunately, VR5 was very expensive to make, since all the VR5 sequences were filmed in black and white then coloured in, a process that took up to four weeks at time. It also got the notoriously bad Friday time-slot, which was more or less ratings death. As a result, it was cancelled.
Nevertheless, if all that intrigues you, here’s the entire series for you to enjoy! Have fun!