VR Man: “Singapore’s First Superhero”

Introduction

VR Man Logo
VR Man logo. Credit: The doomed genre of Singapore’s story culture: Science Fiction

VR Man, whereby “VR” stands for “Virtual Reality”, was a 13 episode series that was produced and aired in 1998 by the Television Corporation of Singapore (TCS). It was considered the first live-action Singaporean superhero drama and was among the first wave of English language dramas produced on Channel 5. The show was almost unanimously critiqued as ridiculous by most of the Singaporean public during its existence on air but has become an indelible part of Singapore television history for its unusual concept. To this day, Singapore has yet to produce another live-action superhero show.

Today, not a single full episode of VR Man can be found anywhere online. The show was hosted briefly on Xinmsn in 2010 but has since primarily existed on casette tapes that are hard to find.

VR Man Cassette Tape
Credit: The doomed genre of Singapore’s story culture: Science Fiction

VR Man is nowhere to be found on Toggle, and on Youtube only the opening credits and one particular scene from the show showcasing VR Man’s superspeed can be found. There has hence been no online attempts to archive the show by either the audience or the producers of the show. Hence, the main source of information that remains of the show and the reception to it is through old articles on The New Paper and The Straits Times.

The World of VR Man

Before VR Man, the only other live-action superhero was Bionic Boy, which featured a 10-year-old actor Johnson Yap as Singapore’s “tae-kwon-do and karate black belt dynamo” (The Straits Times, 31 August 1976).  But even this character was a result of a Singaporean, Filipino and Malaysian co-production. VR Man is hence, as far as the record shows and it seems as far as most of the general public remembers, the first truly Singaporean super creation.

VR-Man-Standing
The eponymous VR Man. Credit: SeriouslySarah Reviews VR Man

Like most superhero television series, VR Man had an ensemble cast featuring the hero, a love interest, a best friend and the villain.

The main character was Alex Foo AKA VR Man, a computer engineer who gains superhuman powers, known as ‘virping’ (virtual reality projection) in the show, after being experimented on. As VR Man, he also apparently had super speed, teleporting and super strength and it is also implied that the suit others see him don as VR Man is also a projection he causes with his powers as it disappears and he reverts back to his normal appearance when he loses power. He was played by the heartthrob of the era, James Lye, fresh off the popular police procedural Triple Nine.

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Alex Foo, played by James Lye. Credit: SeriouslySarah reviews VR Man
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VR Man, played by James Lye (spoiler). Credit: SeriouslySarah reviews VR Man

 

Bee Bee took the role of best friend, and as the cliche goes, also was the character with the one-sided love for the hero of the story. She was played by Lisa Ang, who at the time was well-known as a host on the infotainment show Hey!Singapore.

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Bee Bee, played by Lisa Ang. Credit: SeriouslySarah Reviews VR Man

Alex’s designated love interest was Kristal Kong, a supermodel turned broadcast journalist. She is described to be “as dumb as they come”. (New Paper, 7 August 1998) The character was played by Michelle Goh, who was most famous for playing Bunny the prostitute in Eric Khoo’s 1995 debut movie Mee Pok Man.

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Kristal Kong, played by Michelle Goh. Credit: SeriouslySarah Reviews VR Man

The cast is rounded off by Peter Chan AKA Click Click Man, who both is the reason for VR Man’s superpowers and also serves as the main villain of the series. He is played by Mark Richmond, who was just venturing into full-time acting after an established deejay career (The Straits Times, 28 September 1997) and unfortunately also received the most flack for his acting, being described as “[doing] nothing but scowl…in the whole season”. (New Paper, 7 August 1998)

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Peter Chan/Click Click Man, played by Mark Richmond. Credit: SeriouslySarah Reviews VR Man

VR Man Begins

The conceptualisation of the show is likely closely linked to certain key factors that defined Singaporean society at the time and the vision that the government had for Singapore in the 1990s.

The 1990s was a period of time whereby the computerisation of work processes in the public sector was in full-swing. There was a strong push for infocomm technology (IT) to be incorporated not only in workplaces but also in the lives of individuals in Singapore. The goal was to allow make IT an essential part of  every home, school and workplace. The era was also marked by the rise of the Internet in providing services and information to the general public and the need to build a core of IT professionals in Singapore. (Ministry of National Development, 2018) The seeds of our move towards becoming a Smart Nation today can be traced back to this era. When the show was released, in the late 1990s, the continual push of individual IT literacy could have been the reason behind a show like VR Man. Alex, the main character and the hero of the series, is shown to own a computer repair service, and the hero’s powers are focused on the idea of bringing virtual reality to life. Singaporean television has been used since its inception to help develop national ideology and building national identity. (Chan, B., 2011) The goal could be to familiarise the Singapore public with such technology and to present skilfulness with IT in a positive, empowering light.

Superheroes have also long been used to reflect the fabric of society (Vollum, S. & Adkinson, C., 2003) and a way to impart moral lessons to its readers.(Lang, J. S., & Trimble, P., 1988)

An example is Captain America, who is often said to symbolise American virtues such as justice, liberty, and patriotism. A superhero show dictating right and wrong in a Singaporean context was likely similary intended to reflect the values of Singapore society. However, in the case of VR Man, it perhaps backfired as the show may have embraced the moral values of foreign superhero icons but not the fun in the over the top action of the genre. This could be summed up by New Paper’s description of the show as “a conscientious battle against evil in serious and stressful, albeit clean and green, present-day Singapore…He seems a stressed-out hero with bottled-up frustrations.”

Quote from Medium
Episode source unknown. Credit: The Doomed Genre of Singapore’s Story Culture: Science Fiction

The lacking production capabilities of TCS with regards to english language shows are also largely responsible for the creation and ultimately failure of the show. At this time, Channel 5 was starting to shift local shows to prime time slots, replacing the international programmes, mostly American, that dominated the public consciousness and favour. It was tricky producing local shows that had the same appeal, and the TCS drew criticism for creating shows that were just “poor attempts at imitating more established American productions” such as The X-Files. The shows were also criticised for having Singaporeans “spouting disconcerting American accents” (The Straits Times, 28 June 1998), only adding to the public opinion that these shows were simply too awkwardly executed.  VR Man itself was compared to The New Adventures of Superman. (Unknown, 6 November 1998) With other shows like Xena, Hercules and Conan the Barbarian airing at a similar period as VR Man, it is likely VR Man was also created as a response to the popularity of these American productions featuring heroic super powered characters. Unfortunately, .the limited size and skill of the writing team, the poor acting and the lack of budget to create more realistic CGI effects only added VR Man to the list of shows that paled compared to their foreign counterparts. (The Straits Times, 28 June 1998)

The show also came after the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and the bursting of the Dot Com Bubble. At a time of financial crisis when many were down on their luck a superhero series may have sounded like just the right genre to provide some escapism for the average Singaporean.

Audience Expectations and Reception

Expectations

VR Man was anticipated for a few main reasons before it came out. Firstly, the show was presented as “TCS’ First Superhero”, being the first superhero series attempted by the broadcasting station. It was notable that the show was not based on any source materials and was a completely original creation (New Paper, 29 October 1997).  The Straits Times reported the show as “TCS’ ‘first bold step’ to come up with a Singaporean hero, so that children have an icon closer to home”. (The Straits Times, 17 January 1998)

Secondly, VR Man was one of the first few Singapore shows that employed the use of Computer Generated Imagery (CGI). It was reported that 10 to 20 percent of the show would be created using CGI. Executive prodcuer JT Koh told the publication Preview “CGI allows us greater flexibility and it’s much easier to do a stunt with digital effects”. (New Paper, 29 October 1997).

Lastly, there was much buzz around the actors and actresses attached the show. James Lye had come fresh off Triple Nine after playing Mike. Based on early reports of the show, there was also a big contrast between Mike who was an “invincible” cop while Lye’s new role Alex was a computer shop manager who was “a little bit of a pushover” (New Paper, 29 October 1997).

Illustration on New Paper, October 1997
New Paper poking fun at VR Man before its debut. Credit: New Paper, 29 October 1997

Mark Richmond, who plays the villain Click Click Man, had also been a a successful radio deejay, known as Singapore’s youngest radio Deejay when he was 17 at the time. Since then, he had dropped his deejay career to become a full-time TCS actor and VR Man was one of his first big roles. (The Straits Times, 28 September 1998)

Lastly, eyes were on Michelle Goh, who was well-known for playing Bunny the prostitute in the Eric Khoo film Mee Pok Man (1995). She had also replaced Wong Li-Lin in the role of Kristal Kong, who at the time must have seemed like a more natural fit as Lye’s love interest since she was also well-known for acting alongside Lye on Triple Nine.

Reception

The production of the show was apparently already rocky, with filming described as “dogged by problem after problem”. (The Straits Times, 15 May 1998) One of the issues may have been the changing cast, as mentioned above, or troubleshooting with the suit. The costume itself had to be changed multiple times more for practical rather than aesthetic reasons. Lye reported issues squeezing in and out of his suit, and  having to remove the mask every 15 minutes to avoid being choked by it. In the second design of the costume for VR Man, Lye had to be cut out of the suit when the zipper got stuck in his hair. (New Paper, 13 May 1998).

First costume design: “An 18kg fiberglass and rubber-moulded latex suit that looked like a Transformer robot”.  Credit: New Paper, 13 May 1998

When the show finally debuted, early reviews seemed to agree that the show was “generally watchable”. Business Times referred to the show as “rather well thought out as a concept” and “original without stooping to the ridiculous stereotypes of superhuman strength and heightened senses”. However, the review also pointed out multiple plot holes and weak acting. Criticising Click Click Man (Richmond) to be spending “all his energy just trying to look sinister”, and the fight scenes carried out by characters like Lisa Ang’s Bee Bee, quipping that she must have trained at “the School of Limited Kicks”.  (Business Times, 23 May 1998)

This was not helped by the fact that Viagra had newly come out on the market around the same time the show came out. The parody of V-Man (Viagra-Man) (New Paper, 18 May 1998) was only one nickname in a long list of monikers that spawned from the show.

“Which woman wants a man who is faster than a speeding bullet?” Credit: (New Paper, 18 May 1998)

According to the New Paper, the series was expected to be a 26-parter.  (New Paper, 29 October 1997) This indicates that the reception of the show may have led to it being cut down by half to its current 13 episodes.

The show itself had decent viewership, likely because it was airing during the heyday of Channel 5. Compared to other hero shows airing at the same time on Channel 5 like Hercules, Xena and Conan the Adventurer, the show did not lag far behind. Hercules had a viewership of 181,000 while VR Man boasted about 138,000 vies per week. (New Paper, 30 July 1998)

However, as the show went on, the main problem continued to be the acting and the writing of the show. With the immense popularity of the artistes like Zoe Tay and Fann Wong, TCS was also striving to find the next big star in its current crop of actors rather than seeking new talent. (The Straits Times, 28 June 1998). Much of the positive publicity from the show came from the popularity of Lye. He was the However, even his stardom could not quite outweigh all the negative aspects of the show. Many also associate the show with the end of his career, whether it was catalysed by VR Man or simply a matter of coincidence. After VR Man, Lye took the leap to Channel 8 in the drama Seasons of Love following VR Man, described as his “comeback show” (New Paper, 14 December 1998), and at this time Robin Leong started to become the new it-man on Channel 5. Just over a year later, Lye retired from acting to become a banker. (The Straits Times, 25 February 2000)

A reader of The New Paper went as far as to pen these lines to the tune of Happy Brithday for TNP birthday song contest. (New Paper, 17 July 1998)

and another for you, James Lye

Happy birthday to you

Being VR Man is so cruel

The show sucks and no one likes you

I am sorry for you

The audience in general seemed to find it hard to take the show seriously at all. By the end of the first and what would turn out to be its last season, VR Man was referred to as unintentionally “the funniest show on Singapore TV”. One viewer representing the general audience said the show was “Nothing like Superman at all…the actors can’t act. The characters are stupid, not real at all.” Even the advertising of the show throughout its run was ridiculed. New Paper proposed new storylines for Season 2 of VR Man with titles such as “VR Man Kills Copywriter” that talks about VR Man going insane after seeing the advertisement featuring Lye and a tagline reading “He is not a man!” (New Paper, 14 July 1998)

By the end of 1998 and at the ends of its run, VR Man had officially taken top spot as the most ridiculous show. In a poll run for the award of “Most Idiotic Idiot Box Show (Made in Singapore)”, VR Man overtook another well-known flop Masters of the Sea and Gurmit Singh’s stand-up show Tonight with Gurmit to take first place with 15% of the votes. (New Paper, 19 December 1998)

VR Man Forever

Despite the general ridicule that surrounded the show, it is still remembered somewhat fondly as Singapore’s sole attempt thus far at a live action superhero on television. Although the viewer mentioned above derided the show, in the same quote he adds “If I’m in, I try to catch the show: I watch it to laugh. It’s so bad it brightens up your Sunday.” (New Paper, 19 December 1998)

Moreover, it seems no matter how the show may be mocked, one cannot deny that it holds a special place as a unique show in Singapore television history that exists in the Singaporean collective memory. VR Man was still referred to as “Singapore’s only television hero” in a “Are you a true S’prean” quiz in 2003 (New Paper, 21 September 2003) . In another quiz four years later in 2007, the New Paper states “Committing the Pledge to memory is one thing, but you cannot be a real Singaporean if you cannot name at least three masterpieces of local television series. And if you answer Masters of the Sea, VR Man and Dreamers without bursting into gales of laughter you are a fake Singaporean.” (New Paper, 12 August 2007)

Conclusion

Despite what would be considered a negative reception, VR Man nonetheless provoked a reaction from the public to the extent that response to the show is still remembered years after its conception. It is a shame that no online archives of the show episodes exist at the moment. There are likely nuances of the show which may resonate differently today or may have provided a clearer picture of audiences in the late 1990s that would not be captured by only newspaper clippings. In addition, with the rise and proliferation of memetic mutation in pop culture thanks to the advent of the Internet, a show like VR Man if released today could achieve a niche cult following. At the very least, a show that revisits the concept of VR Man may assuage complaints about Singaporean television being boring and repetitive. Twenty years later, the solution for revitalising Singapore television may be to finally take another crack at the superhero genre.

References

The Straits Times, 31 August 1976, page 22. “Bionic Boy’s Return”

New Paper, 7 August 1998, page 36. “In the line of ire”

The Straits Times, 28 September, 1997, page 36. “Mark”

Ministry of National Development. (2018). Urban Systems Studies, Technology and the City: Foundation for a Smart Nation, First Edition.

Chan, Brenda. 2011. “Home, Identities and Transnational Appeal: The Case of Singaporean Television Drama.” Critical Studies in Television 6 (2): 114-126

The Straits Times, 28 June 1998, page 12. “That’s the way to go, TCS”

Vollum, S., & Adkinson, C.D. (2003). The Portrayal of Crime and Justice in the Comic Book Superhero Mythos, Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 10(2), 96-108.

Lang, J. S., & Trimble, P. (1988). Whatever happened to the man of tomorrow? an examination of the american monomyth and the comic book superhero. Journal of Popular Culture, 22(3), 157.

Unknown, 6 November 1998, page 71. “No bad local productions during prime time, please!”

New Paper, 29 October 1997, page 33. “VR Man”

The Straits Times, 17 January 1998, page 2. “This VR Man says he’s no PR Man”

The Straits Times, 28 September, 1997, page 36. “Mark”

The Straits Times, 15 May 1998, Page 1. “Vr Man is here!”

New Paper, 13 May 1998, Page 22. “It’s James the VR Man”

Business Times, 23 May 1998, Page 20. “Singapore’s superhero hindered by script”

New Paper, 18 May 1998, page 16. “Move over James Lye, here comes the V-Man and we’re not talking virtual”

New Paper, 30 July 1998, Page 26. “Not Enough Muscle?”

New Paper, 14 December 1998, page 22. “James Lye is GR, (Gets Replaced Man)”

The Straits Times, 25 February 2000, Page 68. “James Lye joining Citibank in April as private banker”

New Paper, 17 July 1998, Page 21. “One for you, TNP…”

New Paper, 14 July 1998, page 19. “What’s up for Season 2, VR Man?”

New Paper, 19 December 1998, Page 64. “Hate their shows”

New Paper, 21 September 2003, page 10.“Are you a true S’porean?”

New Paper, 12 August 2007, page 23. “Want to be S’prean? Take this test”

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