Caprica has a few tons of baggage sitting on its shoulders, inheriting the mantle of “Battlestar Galactica” after that legendary series concluded with a finale that struck many as a colossal disappointment. In the interests of full disclosure: I liked the finale of “Battlestar Galactica.” There were problems to be sure, elements like the resolution of the opera house coming too quickly and with too little significance after all the build up. But all in all, I thought that they told their story. When a story is good enough that it takes on a life of its own, it’s hard to quibble with the particulars of the ending. The story as a whole is what must be judged, not one piece or another.
I approached Caprica with a great deal of skepticism. Why jump back 50 years before the “Battlestar Galactica” series? It was the same doubt I felt about the Star Wars prequels, not seeing the rationale for telling a story of which we already knew the ending.
So the gist of Caprica’s origin is that Ron Moore and David Eick were sitting around after “Battlestar Galactica” started to wrap up and had the bright idea to make another television series set in the same universe, only exactly the opposite of “Battlestar Galactica” in every way. Their reasoning was that “Battlestar” had never gotten the ratings to match the critical and fan response, and so the way to put the endeavor over the top might be to strip out the space porn and explosions and turn it into something a bit more mainstream. The early descriptions were not encouraging: “Television’s first science fiction family saga,” likened to “Dallas” or “Dynasty.”
Yeah … there’s a reason why I own all the “Battlestar” DVDs and have never seen an episode of the “O.C.” or “Desperate Housewives.” Those preliminary descriptions are like describing a potential Godfather prequel as a song and dance number with a little slapstick tossed in.
Caprica is set 60 years before “Battlestar Galactica,” before the Cylons have been created, before two wars and the atomic genocide. It is the story of the creation of the Cylons, told from the viewpoints of two families: the Adamas and the Graystones. The former are first generation immigrants, despised and proud, hiding behind an adopted name and foreign customs, tied to their ethnic mafia, but striving to break free by playing with the rules of their new planet. The latter are a wealthy clan, the father an entrepreneur billionaire running a computer firm, the mother a doctor, the daughter in the Caprican version of a Catholic prep school.
A sudden act of terrorism rips the characters immediately out of their quickly drawn lives, pulling the story down a rabbit hole of virtual reality and artificial intelligence research. The characterizations are deep, shades of gray on all sides, the acting holding up to the high standards set on “Battlestar Galactica.” Both the Adamas and Graystones pursue the monstrous with the most understandable of intentions.
The science fiction elements of Caprica are muted, revealed in bits and pieces of virtual reality and robotics rather than flying cars and lasers. It is reminiscent of Children of Men and Blade Runner in the way it introduces a society of the near-future mostly compatible with our present time.
The story plays out by parceling out information as the characters themselves learn it, yielding a tension that keeps you watching for the next scene, trying to figure out where it is going to go. The overall plot of the piece is fairly straightforward and predictable, but it frames the deeper questions of character that are where the real story is at anyway. At its heart, the story is almost an updated version of Frankenstein, mixed in with the central conceit of Pet Semetary: What if you could bring back your dead child? Caprica introduces a number of subplots that are left hanging in the pilot, which is to be expected since it paves the way for the planned series.
What they’ve produced is an extraordinary piece of science fiction, different in almost every way from “Battlestar Galactica,” yet still getting the central point of science fiction perfectly right. The role of science fiction has never been reveling in spaceships and aliens, it has been to hold up metaphors to us as twisted mirrors of our own world. Concepts that are invisible to us within our own society are stark and obvious when seen in an alien context. Blacks and whites fighting for no reason doesn’t necessarily seem so obviously insane until you see a green guy and a red guy fighting for no reason. Moore’s and Eick’s motivation for going in a different direction than “Battlestar Galactica” becomes very clear upon seeing Caprica. “Battlestar Galactica” was never about the space porn for them, it was about telling very dark stories about god, psychology, revenge, the nature of democracy, the friction between surviving and being worthy of that survival. To a degree, they could have told the same fundamental stories set in a cul de sac in Rio De Janeiro or among a tribe of penguins and their eternal war with killer whales from the sixth dimension.
The main drawback of Caprica is sadly in marketability. Moore and Eick have created a highly intelligent science fiction series that relies on ideas and dialogue out of Philip K. Dick rather than explosions, funny-looking aliens and wry quips. But the intended market is a network with a track record of show mismanagement on par with Fox, run by executives who think that changing the name from “SciFi” to “SyFy” will somehow make them cooler while they’re airing professional wrestling and “Ghosthunters.”
Caprica may have been one of the best pilots I’ve seen since the “Battlestar Galactica” miniseries, but I have almost no confidence that we’ll get to see anything more than whatever nominal number of initial episodes are ordered by the SciFi Network.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego’s strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come. Burning Violin is still published weekly on Wednesdays at www.burningviolin.com, along with assorted fiction and other ramblings.