Since I reviewed the Caprica pilot movie when it was released on DVD, I’m going to re-run that review in full below, to serve as a largely spoiler-free preview of the series’ debut, which airs tonight on SyFy at 9 p.m. Eastern. I’ve also watched the episode again, in preparation for launching my stint as your weekly Caprica discussion-leader, so I’ve got some further, more spoiler-ific thoughts on the episode to add. If you’ve already seen the pilot, feel free to start the discussion now. Otherwise, you may want to wait to read “Second Viewing Thoughts” until later tonight.
During the five-year run of Ronald Moore and David Eick’s revamped Battlestar Galactica, fans got so acclimated to the cramped quarters and wall-to-wall machinery that when the series arrived at a verdant, primitive world, the effect was jarring. Those fans will likely be similarly jarred by Caprica, the pilot movie for a new BSG prequel series. Set “58 years before the fall,” Caprica takes place in a civilized, largely complacent society, with schools, sports arenas, and an agreed-upon system of laws. There’s very little of the making-up-the-rules-on-the-spot tension of Battlestar, and much more of an atmosphere of comfort and luxury. But there are two ominous indicators of the universe to come: a band of monotheists has begun advocating violent action as a protest against Caprican decadence, and a few top scientists have begun building robots to do humanity’s everyday gruntwork.
Eric Stoltz plays one of those scientists: a super-rich technophile whose rebellious daughter Alessandra Torresani is killed in a terrorist bombing in one of Caprica’s opening scenes. When Stoltz learns that Torresani was spending time in a virtual nightclub where kids gather to act out their violent fantasies and sexual desires, and that she’d created an avatar fully invested with her own memories and personality, he becomes determined to find a way to use that virtual version of his daughter to revive her in robotic form. But he needs some proprietary technology to do it, so he asks for help from another man who lost a daughter (and a wife) in the bombing: Esai Morales, a foreign-born lawyer with ties to a criminal organization. Initially intrigued, Morales gradually begins to question the morality of what Stoltz is proposing.
When Caprica goes to series next year, it’ll reportedly be about the ongoing contest of wills between Stoltz and Morales (the latter playing the father of Galactica’s Admiral Adama). There are also hints in the pilot movie of future BSG-like inquiries into religious fanaticism, racism, and human arrogance. On the whole, it’s a well-plotted introduction to the world of Caprica, in terms of establishing both the premise of the series and the tone, which is clearly going to be more grounded in familiar human drama—almost soap-opera-like—than Battlestar was. Some BSG stalwarts may have some difficulty with the muted science-fiction/action elements, but it’s a lovely piece of work on its own merits, imbued with real visual poetry by director Jeffrey Reiner, who’s been the go-to guy on Friday Night Lights for its first three seasons. This new show feels different, but its concerns are the same. Eick, Moore, and company aim to show how grief and fear drives us to construct precarious paradises, with the seeds for their own destruction rooted underneath.
Second Viewing Thoughts:
First things first: For DVD reviews, as with cinema reviews, we refer to characters by the name of the actors who play them. That’s our house style. But for TV reviews, once we mention who plays whom the first time, we usually stick with character names for the remainder of the write-ups. So let me convert the above review into TV Club terms: Eric Stoltz plays Daniel Graystone, Alessandra Torresani plays his daughter Zoe, and Esai Morales is Joseph Adama (though for the first nine-tenths of the pilot episode, he’s going by his assimilation name, “Joe Adams”). And to fill in the plot gaps left out by the DVD review: Zoe is a monotheist who had planned to flee Caprica with two of her true-believer friends, until one of those friends (Lacy Rand, played by Magda Apanowicz) chickened out, and the other changed his mind and set off the bomb that killed Zoe and Joseph’s wife and daughter (among others). As hinted at in the review, Daniel uses Joseph’s mob ties to swipe a piece of technology he needs to fulfill his promise to the military to create responsive warrior robots (dubbed “Cylons,” as in “cybernetic life form node”), and Daniel pledges to work with the new tech to bring their respective daughters back to life, by retrieving their consciousnesses from cyberspace and downloading them into robotic form. But once Joseph gets a glimpse of his virtual daughter—who’s far less fully formed and self-aware as Zoe’s avatar—he decides that he and his son William need to reconnect with their heritage and sever ties with the Graystones of the world. The episode ends with Daniel mistakenly believing he’s lost Zoe’s consciousness during his attempt to load it into one of his Cylons, but in fact she’s awake, alert, and trapped in a massive, weapons-loaded robot body.
On second pass, I liked the first episode of Caprica about as much as I did the first time. Some flaws struck me as more glaring, but the potential of the show became clearer too.
On the downside, Stoltz’s performance is awfully overheated, even for someone playing a desperate father/businessman (which to me makes Daniel’s attempts to persuade Joseph and Zoe come off as less than convincing). And the big cross-cut scene where Daniel has sex with his wife while one of Joseph’s associates kills a government minister—played by William “Cigarette Smoking Man” Davis!—comes off as painfully Munich-y, even though it does introduce some foreshadowing with the line, “Never turn your back on a man you call friend.” I’m also hoping that future episodes of Caprica will make Zoe’s conversion to monotheism seem more like a natural progression and not some Road To Damascus switcheroo, as it is in the pilot’s flashbacks.
That said, I thought the pilot was pretty smart about the way teenagers handle religion: with a combination of genuine fervor and public pretense. Consider the way Lacy backs out of her pact with Zoe, then regains her footing in the faith when she finds out that her headmistress at school is a secret monotheist too. (Kids do love their secret clubs, especially if they come with their own private symbols, be they Jesus Fish or infinity signs.) I also liked that Zoe and Lacy keep hanging out at a sex-and-violence-promoting virtual nightclub, where they can cluck their tongues at Caprican decadence while still getting to enjoy it.
There’s an element too of Zoe's commitment to her faith being a way of distancing herself from her brilliant father, who complains early on that she has “no idea how to work for something.” The pilot paints a picture of a culture where people cling to customs they admit they don’t fully understand, while citing Gods they don’t really believe in. It looks like Caprica—like its parent show—is going to deal with a lot of different issues, among them questions of assimilation and tradition, and what happens when groups cling to an outsider culture, be it old or new.
I’m looking forward to a lot in the near future with Caprica. I’m looking forward to finding out more about the Adamas’ home-world of Tauron, which Joseph makes sound forbidding, and historically troubled; and I’m looking forward to seeing Joseph grapple more with the implications of what technology is doing to his adopted home-world. (I found the scene in the pilot where Joseph has trouble adjusting to virtual reality strangely touching.) And though I thought Stoltz was occasionally cartoonish, I liked the contradictions of the character: an inventor and businessman so used to working every angle that he even takes the miracle of his daughter’s resurrection and uses it as a bargaining chip.
And yes, I said “miracle.” After the controversial “angels are real” finale of Battlestar Galactica, I don’t know how far the Caprica team is going to be willing to take the idea that there really is a God, and that said God is working through Zoe. But I’m hopeful that this will be a show that’s as willing to challenge its viewers as BSG was. There have been a lot of comic books and feature films lately (Gamer, Surrogates, etc.) that have similar premises to Caprica. What I think will set Caprica apart is how it deals with the premise: with a little soap opera intrigue, a little socio-political relevance, and a whole lot of immersion into another world. Some of you may be skeptical about the whole enterprise going in, and that’s cool if you are. But I’m coming in enthusiastic. Just so you know.
-Interesting thought: “A difference that makes no difference is no difference.”
-At the least, let’s give it up for the stellar set design and ‘50s-style costume design. It’s going to be a pleasure (akin to Mad Men in a way) to visit that space each week.
-My second viewing of the pilot was of the edited-for-television version, and I have to say, I think I liked it better without the gratuitous nudity. I’m pro-nudity generally, but on the DVD it seemed wedged-in, and distracting. (Or maybe I’m just saying that because I knew it’d be cut for air.)
-I’ve got a DVD screener of the next two episodes, but I haven’t had time to watch them, because of Sundance. (I’m actually in Sundance right now, so I won’t be able to join you in the comments section this week. Play nice while I’m gone.) Anyway, for the next two weeks, thanks to those screeners, I’ll be able to have Caprica reviews up right after the show airs. After that… well, I’ll do my best to turn ‘em around quick.