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Caprica (Pilot)

Part of me wonders how a prequel television show is supposed to work. It’s worrying that the only other example which springs to mind is Star Trek: Enterprise, which suffered from failing to explore its premise for three years before finally engaging with the mythos in time to be resoundingly cancelled. I wonder whether I can sit down and watch a prequel day-in and day-out. In a way, no matter how good the show is, it has been spoiled for you. No matter how sharp a left turn the writers may stick into a particular episode, you just know they’ll have to straighten it out down the line. The very premise for Battlestar Galactica is a spoiler for Caprica: mankind is wiped out by the robotic Cylons, former soldiers and slaves who rose up and rebelled. As a result, there’s no suspense when Daniel Grayson finds himself up for a government contract or attempts to crack A.I. – unless the series is a gigantic red herring (and, though I wouldn’t put it past the creators, it is far too early to show their hand if it is), we know that his actions will create robotic killing machines made just a little too perfect.

Oh, the lawyer and the computer genius should be friends... oh, the lawyer and the computer genius should be friends...

Of course, the counter argument suggests that just because we know what the jigsaw puzzle will eventually look doesn’t mean that piecing it together can’t be fun. Isn’t a story a journey, regardless of whether we know the destination? On a trip from A to B, it’s never about A or B, but about the path we take – the people and stories we encounter along the way.

It’s to Caprica’s credit that I remain open-minded on this particular point. We know the greater part of the Adama family cycle from Battlestar Galactica, down to Joseph Adama’s lucky little lighter. We know that all the internal strife among the colonies will eventually be resolved (but hints of racism will remain). Still, I am intrigued by a lot of what I see. The pilot hasn’t grabbed me by any sensitive part of my anatomy, but I am open to it.

Part of this might be the esposition-filled first fifteen minutes, which didn’t seem to go anywhere but to establish the incredibly privileged lives of the Graysons. The virtual underground club seemed a bizarre place to start, with the audience having little or no idea exactly what was going on (which is particularly diappointing if you’re going to have fifteen minutes of exposition anyway – at least let us know what the hell this is while you’re at it). Once the pilot settled in to what it was doing, it got much better.

Let’s talk about the aesthetic – because that’s what’s truly striking about the show, to be entirely honest. The costumes, the set design and the general atmosphere all draw images of some sort of fantasy world caught between the past and the future. Characters walk around like fifties business men in traditional suits and hats. A couple play tennis by the lake in a way that recalls the classical notion of celebrity before it became a byword for sleaze and excess. The apartments are efficient and stylised, a weird kind of art deco style echoing through the world. Characters meet in diners and coffee shops. On the other hand – in a nod to Blade Runner – there are hints of a dominant Asian influence on the culture. Robotic assistants play umpire. Sleak trains glide through the city.

There’s a hint of all that was and all that ever will be to Caprica, but it’s also a sense of respect for its traditional science fiction roots – a deference to the classic era of the genre. Not one that needs to bow its head to poor production values or cheesy special effects, but instead constructs a vision of the future as it might have looked imagined half-a-century ago. Galactica has always suggested that time is cylical, a circle we navigate again and again again. In a way, isn’t everything simultaneously the future and the past?

The story itself looks to be a great family saga. A great science fiction family saga. And that, to be honest, excites me. Because the generational saga is a practiced and classic artform that has fallen by the wayside, but could work as an overarching frame between this show and its parent series. While I was watching the show, I had a great deal of difficulty getting Frank Herbert’s Dune out of my head. For those who haven’t encountered the classic, it is well worth a read. Anyway, the original book was iconic and sprawling. Herbert wrote a string of sequels that… well, had their ups and their downs (I loved The God Emperor of Dune, but I’m weird like that). Eventually, when he died, his son took up the mantle a wrote a string of prequels set before the first book. These centred around the three core families embroiled in the saga.

This is a little bit was Caprica felt like. Of course, it seems to be of higher quality than those prequels, but there’s the same sort of trepidation about the material. The sense that this is an epic and sprawling universe – on one hand, you wish to see all of it; on the other, you don’t want to ruin it. It’s going to be a very tough line to walk, but – for the moment – I feel relatively confident it can be done.

Caprica City... Who needs to think of original city names when you can just name them the same as your planet?

The show ties itself to its predecessor in several smart ways. Though it’s obviously a very different show – gone are the tight confines of a warship, replaced with wide open spaces and a metropolis – but it feels right. There are several obvious cues taken – Bear McCreary ensures that Grayson’s theme, for example, echoes the rather amazing Passacaglia theme from the parent show, which ties nicely back to Baltar, at once his predecessor and successor; the lake house seems to be the same one where Baltar was living at the time of the attack on the colonies, adding a nice piece of symmetry. It is a beginning and a continuation.

If the show is to succeed, it needs to focus a lot more on the how and the why of events than simply the what. Already we are exploring the origins of the Cylons’ monotheism, which itself appears to be a copied trait from humanity. Fittingly the creature is born in a church of human violence – the sins of the parent are visited upon the child, and here we witness them observing such monstrous actions. Even before the slavery we know must be ahead we can begin to see where all that rage and hatred comes from.

To make the original Cylon model an actual human child is a bold move, and a compelling one. In a way, they are humanity’s children (and constantly refer to themselves as such during Battlestar Galactica), but I had always assumed the connection to be a spiritual one rather than a literal one, the creation of a new intelligence from scratch as if an act of divinity – adding new life to the universe would somehow seem a more impressive feat than simply copying an existing life. The connection is now explicitly one of flesh. The Cylons are Daniel Grayson’s children, in any possible sense of the word. It’s hard not to hear the copy of his daughter describe her sensations without thinking of Six or Leoben making similar arguments a few decades later. The desire on the part of these machines to be more human is one not of original ambition, but of memory. It isn’t a forward path, but a cyclic one – they aren’t searching for something new, but instead wish to reclaim something they have lost.

The rest of the material intrigues me, which is perhaps the best I can say of it. The writers of Galactica proved adept at handling religious strife, so I assume the same will hold true here. The suicide bomber on a train somehow seemed more on-the-nose than the suicide bombers of New Caprica, for example, though I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because the original show took the time to get us to that point, but here it is launched upon us within the first fifteen minutes. I’ll wait to see where these threads go before commenting on them, but I am cautiously optimistic.

The episode is stunningly well put directed. Notwithstanding an initial difficulty finding its feet, the show looks and feels strange yeat familiar, which is a core ingredient for great science-fiction. It’s hard not to get a chill when, during the second demonstration, Grayson’s combat prototype turns out to a ruthlessly efficient killing machine. The show flirts with the grand notion of tragedy, in the traditional Greek sense. Grayson has the hubris to challenge the gods for dominion over life and death. We know the consequences this will have for society as a whole, but we also get the sense this will also take a more personal toll.

It was remarked in Battlestar Galactica that, before the scattering of the twelve tribes, mankind lived in peace with the gods in the paradise of Kobol. It appears that Caprica was where man waged war upon the gods.

Battlestar Galactica earned a great deal of praise for its sense of relevance – tackling the religious underpinnings of terrorism in a mature and considered fashion. Though there are elements of this here (with the Soldiers of the One), it seems that Caprica is more focused on holding a mirror to modern Western culture. The ethics of scientific advancement are understandably a hot topic in recent years, with stem cells and the LHC sparking debate and controversy. Are there limits or boundaries to how far we go in pursuit of knowledge? Similarly, the saga of the Adamas explores the experience of immigration and integration, an increasingly relevant aspect of our modern and smaller world. Science fiction is essentially allegory, and we have that in spades.

I remember reading of Battlestar Galactica that the audience was skewed male and the network suggested that this was simply due to the ‘war in space’ aspect of the series. I wonder if the retro-future chic, the urban setting and the family dynamics are a clear and conscious attempt to move away from that – to broaden the appeal of the franchise. It seems a cynical move, but it also means that we aren’t simply getting ‘more of the same’, which was arguable the biggest blight to the two later Star Trek spin-offs, Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise. At the very least this has an original concept and idea, and it has the guts to run with it.

The performances run the gamut from okay-to-fantastic. The leading men, Stoltz and Morales, are amazing and knock the ball out of the park. Stoltz in particular is fantastic as a character who is bother wounded and vulnerable, but also driven and manipulative. Like a slightly darker and more badass Baltar. I’m less certain about Alessandra Torresani as Zoe Grayson. She tended to fall flat as the ‘real’ Zoe, but did better as the virtual imprint of the character. Part of that might just be the way the character is written (smart-ass kids are the bane of many-a-sci-fi franchise), but Torresani doesn’t seem to have it in her to rise above the material. But she’s young and hopefully she’ll improve as the year progresses.

For the moment it’s getting a cautious recommendation. With Lost finishing up and the rumour that 24 is in its final year, I need a new show in my line-up. I think that Caprica might be that show. The pilot has a few missteps and is far from perfect, but it’s intriguing and new – which is a lot more than most other genre shows this year. It’s worth remembering that Battlestar Galactica featured a superb pilot miniseries, but it was really the first episode of the show proper – the amazing 33 – which set the standard for the show. I think it’ll be at least a season before we can be entirely sure about this bad boy.

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3 Responses

  1. Interesting. Many thanks for that, however let me also thank you for something else. I am afflicted with color blindness (protanopia in my case). I mostly use Safari browser (not sure if that changes anything), and a good few web sites are challenging to comprehend as a result of a careless choice of colors employed ithe design. Here, as the selection of colours is sensible, the design is quite tidy and easy to understand. I am not sure if it was a premeditated and mindful undertaking, or just a happy accident, but thanks anyway.

  2. “I loved The God Emperor of Dune, but I’m weird like that”

    Yes! Finally, somebody else who appreciates it. Sadly, I think a lot of people dismiss all of Herbert’s sequels too quickly before getting to “God Emperor.”

    • Yep. I know loads of people who loved Dune, but gave up on Messiah, which is understandable. And I remember Children as retreading a lot of the same ground as Dune…

      … and then Leto becomes a giant worm god.

      I think I was twelve-ish and God Emperor blew my fragile little mind.

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