The doomed genre of Singapore’s story culture: Science Fiction

Part 1: (Re)discovering VR MAN, superhero TV series turned pop-culture


Disclaimer: Before indulging into this TV treasure it must be mentioned that, at the time of writing this article, I am employed at the very company that produced many of the titles mentioned. Views expressed represent entirely my own, NOT that of the company.

‘Oh well, he starts off with a disclaimer. This can’t be good…’
In fact a large portion of science fiction titles in Singapore media are originated by the National Broadcaster. Not discussing these titles renders an analysis on the genre virtually impossible. Hence, I will assess these projects upon their cultural context and pure artistic/narrative merits. Being a Science Fiction producer/director in my own right, I will be looking at the titles from a sole angle of a Science Fiction & Fantasy connoisseur. To give this some credit, it must also be mentioned, that all my drama production experience of the past 8 years is entirely attained in Asia and exclusively of the Science Fiction genre.

It goes without saying, the following text is a spoiler feast. A circumstance that will not be of much importance to most readers, given that the series VR MAN is unlikely to see the light of day again any time soon.


Science Fiction in Singapore

On a global map for Science Fiction stories one would probably not find Singapore, in any form or shape. Unlike other Asian countries (e.g. Japan or Hong Kong) with a long fantasy story tradition, Singapore never had a substantial output in futuristic titles. It is a genre mostly dodged or dismissed by local producers, purely due to practical reasons of budget constraints and local audience taste.

However, there have been little pockets of brave and defiant filmmakers and producers that broke new grounds by giving a Singaporean Science Fiction story a shot.

Many say it all started with the 1988 TV series STAR MAIDEN 飞越银河. In a time when Singapore’s National Broadcaster was experimenting with different formats this Chinese language space drama came about. Origins of the concept may root back to the popularity of foreign space odyssey features like Star Wars and Star Trek.

More recent productions however are often ignited by local technology trends. Promotional initiatives, financed by public funds to either showcase Singapore as hub for innovation and digital skills or as ‘public-service-broadcast’ tool. Feature films like AVATAR — CYBER WARS (2004) or last year’s TV series 2025 (2015) ended up facing criticism among both, local media industry and audience. Technically advanced and demonstrating that digital visual effects are still doable with a shoestring budget and limited talent pool, they fell short in offering a relevant and resonating storyline to local viewers.

[I will discuss these titles in greater detail in Part 2].
AVATAR — CYBER WARS (2004)

But one TV series still stands out. A series that became the benchmark for all Science Fiction and Fantasy productions to come, for better or worse.

VR MAN (1998)

What is VR Man?

I cannot help but to call VR MAN a rare pearl among the TV series heritage of Singapore. Produced and aired in 1998 by the Television Corporation of Singapore (TCS) VR MAN is the first ever superhero themed TV series coming from the Lion City.

The story revolves around an involuntary hero, an average Singaporean Clark Kent, running his own computer repair shop while his parents have a Kopitiam. He gains superpowers during a secret experiment. With these powers he will soon fight for the good and righteous in Singapore and stand up against all evil.

So far, so utterly average for a superhero story. So what’s the big deal?

VR MAN is the first story of an all Singaporean Hero, rooted in a present day backdrop of the ‘heartlands’. Someone that’s not imported from another culture. Someone that exemplifies a very own local lighthouse in the midst of a stormy sea that was (and still is) finding the own cultural identity. I have published on this identity quest before and VR MAN appears to be one of the milestones along this rocky road.

Link: [more about superheroes from Singapore]

Relevance and reputation

VR MAN may well have been the shiny hero Singapore deserved in the late 90s but apparently was not the one it needed. The project was ill-fated and comes with a lot of historic baggage. Local bloggers are in a better position to tell you what happened behind the scenes and whose career took a different path shortly after broadcasting of the series.

Fact is, VR MAN never made it beyond the first season of 13 episodes. Which by Singapore TV standards is not necessarily a bad omen. Many series are not renewed or are aimed to run for one season only.

However, for me, the relevance of VR MAN does not stem from the juicy production history or the series’ reputation as being an “amusing blooper”. The choice of stories depicted is by no means accidental nor irrelevant. Within the context of media trends in the late 90s and Singapore’s own history, VR MAN could not have been more relevant at its time or even nowadays.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWZJ-U6NSKk

The story (as well as the title itself) is closely tied to a technology that not only seems to make a revival almost 20 years later but also comes full circle. It seems history repeats itself and one of the latest TV series airing back in January 2015 was generating yet another media controversy.

Connections and setting

In order to understand how VR MAN and 2025 are culturally connected and could not have made at any other point in time I have to set the stage for this analysis. Bear with me, this might appear a bit far fetched at first.

Let us go back 21 years to the visionary year of 1995, when a Hollywood studio gave the famous American painter, Robert Longo enough money to create his cyberpunk cult movie JOHNNY MNEMONIC (1995).

It was a time when computer generated animation became a driving force in the feature film production process. The internet slowly taking off and people began to understand its potential. All this was paired with a groundbreaking technology that everyone deemed as the next big thing in digital media: virtual reality (VR).

In 1994 and 1995, Sega and Nintendo respectively, published computer games and simulators based on virtual reality. The flood gates seemed to be wide open. Humans would be able to do anything with and within the “VR” very soon. I remember how universities jumped onto the bandwagon, installing comprehensive labs fueled on exploding R&D budgets.

But the available technology seemed to bring this craze to a sudden end only a few years later. Practical mass consumer applications fell short and VR never made it outside of research labs.

The most practical use VR received was as a plot device in storytelling. When watching JOHNNY MNEMONIC today it might appear clumsy and one might even be thrilled how far computer effects have come during the past 21 years. But there is one scene that still strikes me as prophetic.

Most Science Fiction movies try to predict what might come. How our future might look like and what type of technology we will be using. Usually this vision renders itself outdated automatically only a few years after a movie’s release, simply because the technology displayed is straight taken from what is presently available. But, here’s Johnny! Sitting in the middle of a computer shop store room, putting on his silver “Oculus Rift” and a pair of motion gloves to make a “Skype call” to a hotel in Beijing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8p0jmewhXeU

Being closely linked to Western media culture and as a city that constantly thrives for adopting the next big thing in technology it comes as no surprise that VR was popular in Singapore too by the mid-late 90s, as it is in 2016.

Adding to this comes the Asian Financial Crisis from 1997 that hit Singapore hard. The urge for a local hero in pop culture was pressing. But it could not have been an imported alien hero like Superman with ‘unnatural powers’. It must be a self-made man. A start-up guy. Singapore’s Batman who roots his powers in technology and innovation. The only thing that can fix the economy at the time.

BeeBee: “Why YOU?”
VR Man: “Because I have the power. Because I feel the sense of responsibility!”
BeeBee: “To whom?”
VR Man: “To Singapore!!!”

An afterlife in pop-culture

Despite the unavailability of the series, the legend of VR MAN grew over the years. Even Millennials who never had the chance to watch the series would know about him, create memes to comment on social media. It is as if the figure itself became so iconic, burned into a collective conscious that it transcended the boundaries of the medium TV.

Since TCS never followed up on officially building this hero further, VR Man turned into an obligatory parody cameo and occasional vessel for social comments. Others tried to create their own hero or took on the vigilante image with a mission during the social media age.

Here are some traces throughout local pop-culture from recent years:

memes
https://twitter.com/search?f=realtime&q=%22VR%20Man%22&src=typd
revival ideas for #SG50
VR Man cameo on animation series Heartland Hubby
SMRT Man
SMRT (feedback) — online vigilante group
Link: 10 hilarious facts about VR Man that show why it’s the worst failure in TV history

The series

Watching VR MAN nowadays one might say the series presents itself as a naive, low budget TV series, hastily produced and with wooden acting performances. But there is more than meets the eye (if you manage to watch it).

The series displays far more social context and local sensitivity than many recent shows. TV series from the late 90s are still considered bold in mission and message compared to today’s. Similar productions that are deemed as daring in terms of dealing with conventions at the time would be MASTERS OF THE SEA (1994) or GROWING UP (1996). Although none ventured into an uncharted genre territory like VR MAN.

In general, superhero stories often help to process traumatic situations or society’s angst. VR MAN did the same. Many episodes address the constant threat of terrorism. Political situations are being translated into very tangible and relatable scenarios. For instance, Singapore’s dependency on water imports from Malaysia is reflected in episode 3 with a reservoir poisoning plot.


The story

(Source: Wikipedia)

“VR Man is the alter ego of computer engineer Alex Foo (James Lye). After a nearly fatal accident, Alex discovers that he has acquired superhuman powers which he later calls ‘Virping’—-virtual reality projection. His superhero alias ‘VR Man’ is coined (rather hastily) in Episode 2, after he saves his love interest Kristal Kong (Michelle Goh). His sidekick is Bee Bee (Lisa Ang), Alex’s friend of fifteen years, who is secretly in love with him.

The antagonist of the show is the bio-genetic engineer Peter Chan/Click Click Man (Mark Richmond), whom Alex suspects is responsible for him acquiring superhuman powers in the first place. In fact Click Click Man is the one who gave Alex his powers via an experimental procedure that killed all of its previous test subjects, but the project is shut down when Click Click Man is unable to prove that one of his subjects survived.

Most of VR Man’s powers come from a device called the Solidifier which belongs to the organization that Click Click Man worked for. When his (unnamed) employer ended the project, a disgruntled Click Click Man stole the device from his laboratory and gave it to Alex for safekeeping, thinking that Alex will not figure out what it is. Afterwards, Click Click Man wants revenge on his employer and tries to take the Solidifier from Alex, at one point performing the same procedure on himself to obtain the same powers as VR Man.

In the first half of the series, Alex faces a different villain in each episode, ranging from robbers to terrorists to Kristal’s stalker, while thwarting Click Click Man’s attempts to recover the Solidifier. In the second half, VR Man encounters Click Click Man’s former employer (who is never referred to by name; in the credits, he is known as “Bossman”). Having gained tremendous popularity as a superhero, VR Man appears on television more often and this allows Bossman and his henchmen to find him, eventually discovering his true identity. Like Click Click Man, Bossman’s goal is to take the Solidifier from VR Man.”


VR MAN quick episode guide:

As it seems to be very unlikely that VR MAN will be publicly available again, I’m listing key plot points of all episodes here, as far as my notes hold up. I had the unique chance to watch the series at the TV archive on DigiBeta. It must be said, the quality of the tapes is still impeccable despite their age.

While I was watching the series my notebook filled up with tons of quotes and remarks on highlight moments. For your fragmented enjoyment, I have ingested some unpolished observations (without context) to this guide.

#1 Fall into grace

Alex Foo is a computer wizard, running his own computer repair shop and hopes to be the next Sim Wong Hoo. He suffers a near fatal fall at a shopping mall. After recovery he discovers that he has acquired a special power called Virping (virtual reality projection).

Minimalistic but catchy theme music! Kopi used as blood substitute.

#2 A hero’s burden

Alex rescues Kristal from robbers and learns more about his powers.

There are a number of habits displayed one would not find in contemporary Singaporean TV: Characters heavily smoking at will or whenever their stereotype demands. Violence against women, from kidnapping to torture (unbound, harsh and questionable).
Iconic tilted camera work and low angles on villains are reminiscent to the 60s Batman TV series times. Same goes for the lighting style. Effective and colorful light setups are used to cover for budget shortcomings. Often this carnival of hard RGB is used to transform real locations into futuristic settings without actually building new backdrops. Here, the TV station’s very own gate turns into an avant-garde entrance to the villain’s lair. In fact, some night setups are so over the top colorful lit that they would make a Joel Schumacher and Stephen Goldblatt proud.

#3 Death by drinking

VR Man foils a terrorist group’s foul plans to poison Singapore’s reservoirs.

This episode is one of the strongest in message. And with no doubt it resonated strongly with the local audience at the time. The water poisoning background, the resulting community disorder and the unbound looting where allegory to a persisting threat.
VR Man’s parents run a Kopitiam that is set so colorful and artificial inside a studio that it almost covers for a pure comic setting. Adding to this comes VR Man’s “Batmobile”, a black van with painted fire stripes on the sides.

#4 Hide and seek

VR Man overcomes a murderous maniac teacher threatening to kill students and Click Click Man goes berserk after an experiment.

The 16 year old sister of VR Man is defusing a bomb in a classroom with a pair of children’s scissors (!).
This episode’s PSB (public service broadcast) values are presented less subtle than usual. Citizens have to help each other and must report crime within their community. This includes addressing sexual harassment by teachers at school.

#5 Mother of mine

VR Man learns to use his powers wisely and foils a bank heist. Meanwhile, Kristal runs a story on VR Man which attracts the attention of Click Click Man’s employer, Bossman.

The series shows a surprising amount of ambivalent (involuntary or calculated?) comments . Although the characters always refer to TCS as “the TV station”, it was clearly visible that most the scenes were produced on TCS’s campus. Most Singaporeans would be familiar with the location, was it is featured in many TV series over the years. Hence, one could see VR Man as a self-parody to a certain extend. But ultimately it must be contributed to budget constraints. The villain’s headquarters where evil experiments are conducted and a generation of children is brainwashed and groomed is also set on the same campus. On top, the TV reporter is portrayed as obsessed with her work and devoted to her investigations, determined to serve with uncovering the truth.

#6 Showdown

VR Man and Click Click Man fight over the solidifier. VR Man learns about the shady Agency and its secret experiments as the defeated villain spills the beans during combat. A local marathon event receives a bomb threat and VR Man’s family gets kidnapped. Solution to both is a ray gun.

Villain impresses with ‘alinasal acting’. Actors usually seem out of their depth, displaced by the genre. Scenes where they happen to play within their comfort zone, like comedy situations with inter-personal relationship reveals, the acting improves significantly and characters like Alex’s mother and sister perform very well.

#8 Help me save me

VR Man rescues Kristal from a murderous maniac who heads a group of terrorists with white porcelain guns that take hostages at the airport. Departure hall shooting erupts.

Definitely one of the breakout episodes.

#9 HERO NO MORE

Jaded by fame, VR Man chooses glamor life over friends.

‘Thank you VR Man’ t-shirt is a must have!
This episode ends with an open cliffhanger, unusual structure for the rest of the series. However, this cliffhanger gets never resolved in episode #10.

#10 Gift of death

VR Man busts the Agency that kills parents of gifted students, then adopts the kids with sinister intent. Meanwhile a VR Man imposter roams the city. Eventually, VR Man gets framed as bad guy. A new villain is seeking revenge for the death of his brother.

Very confusing signals are send by this episode’s script. Moral implications are rather ambivalent. Yet, this is the ‘chaperone episode’. PSB values are preached. A boy cannot sleep in the same room as a girl. Ultimately, the episodes ends with the long awaited first-kiss scene between Andy and Beebee, although that final kiss is rather awkward. No more hidden love or beating around the bush.

#11 City of lost children

The agency abducts gifted children to raise a group of smart, but vicious, policy-makers of the future. Alex and BeeBee go undercover to foil the evil plan. VR Man and Bossman meet for the first time.

#12 Discoveries

The Bossman, goes after Alex’s family. A cat and mouse game ensues. Andy reveals his VR Man identity to family.

Beebee is (accidentally?) portrayed as very strong female character. Despite her being shot, she keeps going without treatment for the entire episode.

#13 Destroy VR Man

Alex’s family is still hiding from the Bossman. VR Man takes on the Agency and destroys the campus during the final showdown.

“Bio Genes Laboratories Inc.” name of evil agency. VR Man cannot FLY. Beebee and VR Man acknowledge their love, again. Laser torture (No, Mr. Bond…). Bossman finds classic 80s flogging death on a white picket fence, which is part of an awkwardly placed indoor garden arrangement.

As if the title of this very last episode would not be prophetic enough, the final scene of the series comes highly charged and multi-layered in message. After the evil headquarters exploded in a white optical flash (no fancy explosion effects), VR Man and Beebee emerge from some rubble placed on a clean street. During the course of the big finale Kristal (the “media”/TCS) turns to him and presents the last line of the series:

“Don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me.”