You have to admire an outer-space fantasy that kicks off during the Civil War. OK, that’s not really the case, but the opening moments of “Virtuality” (7 p.m., Fox) would have you think so, and that’s what had me hooked.
“Virtuality” combines elements of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Big Brother” and “Total Recall.” The crew of an enormous spacecraft embark on a 10-year voyage to a distant star that could provide a new home to endangered Earthlings. They also agree to submit to the surveillance of an enormously popular reality TV show that reaches an audience of 5 billion back on Earth. On Fox, no less.
Stuck in a metal tube in the cold vast emptiness of space, their only chance at privacy is to retreat into virtual reality fantasies. That’s where the Civil War comes in. The ship’s Commander Frank Pike (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) kicks back by re-fighting on the Union side. But an uninvited stranger keeps entering his virtual realm and shooting him. This mysterious and violent cyber-stranger also creeps into other’s fantasies, causing tension amongst the crew and sparking fears about the mission.
A sudden accident in the real world adds to the suspicions and pits crew members against each other and against their own technology.
The biggest mystery about “Virtuality” is the future of “Virtuality” itself. Produced by Ronald D. Moore and Michael Taylor of “Battlestar Galactica,” it has been presented as a stand-alone two-hour movie. And as such, it may leave viewers scratching their heads. But everyone can see that it’s really a pilot for a new series — and a very good series at that — but one that neither Fox, nor any other network, has agreed to pick up.
“Virtuality” may fall into kind of black hole of programming, too expensive for cable, but too limited in appeal for network television.
Viewers who like good sci-fi and smart television should not miss this one. If enough people watch, then perhaps Fox or some other outlet will allow the long space voyage to continue. After all, do we really want to live in an unjust universe where “Dollhouse” survives and “Virtuality” can’t find a home?
• Deposed in a military coup, a spoiled royal (Demi Lovato) takes refuge with the help of an all-American family in the 2009 fantasy “Princess Protection Program” (7 p.m., Disney).
Harmless enough as these things go, but an elaborate subplot about a vast bureaucracy to provide refuge for deposed aristocracy may make some ’tweens wonder why these spoiled and entitled titled types are so hunted, endangered and despised.
• A remarkable mimic (Sacha Baron Cohen) pretends to be a naive and vulgar foreigner in order to trick Americans into saying dumb things on camera in the 2006 comedy “Borat” (8 p.m., USA). Arguably the most overpraised movie of all time, “Borat” is “Jackass: The Movie” for an audience too smug to admit they like “Jackass.”
Tonight’s other highlights
• Amnesia strikes again on “Ghost Whisperer” (7 p.m., CBS).
• Egos saute and simmer in “Chopping Block” (7 p.m., NBC).
• Scheduled on “Friday Night With Jonathan Ross” (7 p.m., BBC America): Jack Black, Sue Perkins, Giles Coren and Take That.