Thursday, April 23, 2009

Caprica or How To Apologize To Your Fan Base


I just watched the DVD released pilot for Battlestar Galactica's prequel series, Caprica. Now, I have to get out of the way fairly quickly that I was disappointed with BSG's finale. It was a good conclusion to some of the story, but it left us wondering about some very serious details, and that felt kind of like a cop-out.

Caprica, however, is very nearly the opposite. It doesn't have a story yet, other than some history we've been told in BSG. It happens 58 years before the cylon attack on the colonies ("The Fall" as it's refered to in the opening of the pilot) and focuses pretty strongly on the creation of the "toaster" style cylons (the ones that look like they're from the original series). Where BSG's finale felt like a grudging conclusion with so much left unanswered, I think Caprica manages to answer more questions in its two hours than it asks (unusual for a pilot). By the end you will know something more about cylons, Capricans, Taurons, the Adamas (I'd consider using that name a spoiler if it weren't all over the previews SciFi has been showing), God, gods, and a great deal about the state of technology in the pre-Fall colonies.

Some things that struck me about the pilot include the increased discussion of both the monotheistic cylon religion and the polytheistic human religion. One character even attends a religious prep school based on Athena. There's some stark cultural lines too. Taurons, it turns out, are even more severly discriminated against than BSG hinted. They're called dirt eaters rather openly, and are widely assumed to be part of organized crime. The Taurons we see appear to have a combination of Eastern European Jewish and mid-20th century Italian culture with just a dash of what feels to me like late-20th century Irish. The Capricans, on the other hand are a very Western European, late 20th century urban culture. This makes for some excellent visual and cultural contrast that I'm sure will play out further in the series. Caprica itself appears to be at the cusp of decadence with the new generation of teens leading the way. This, in turn, gives the writers the opportunity to use the adults as a proxy for the viewer in being introduced to these new forms of decadence that are currently only underground.

Before I get into spoilers, let me sum up by saying that this is the DVD to buy. There are many scenes that simply can't be shown on TV, and will obviously have to be re-shot (probably were on day one) for television, so do see this version if you get the chance.

OK, now let's talk SPOILERS...

The central plot revolves around Zoe's creation of a lifelike avatar that's based on public and private records of her life, ranging from medical tests to news articles. This artificial intelligence appears to be unique, and while it's not said explicitly in the show, I think the suggestion here is akin to the mid-90s concept that AI isn't about programming, but a deeper emergent phenomenon that might require more physics than we currently have worked out to understand. That is, humans in Caprica haven't been able to create an AI, even given their very advanced computer tech. Zoe doesn't really create one either, we're told. She's just made a search engine that does a really great job of faking it. How true that is remains to be seen. Certainly the avatar Zoe seems to think she's quite real.

It's so good, in fact that it and a new fancy processor are the last steps required to create the first cylon. Just one problem: this cylon'd personality is a member of an obscure, fanatical religious sect that believes in one true god... oh and it's a teenage girl. In fact, there's a fascinating parallel to be made between Zoe-as-cylon and Cameron from Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Where that machine is a cold and calculating device that emulates a teenage girl on the outside, this cylon is a cold, hard metal Frankenstein's monster on the outside with the soul of a teenage girl. An interesting reversal that makes me wonder how conscious it was.

There are four organizations involved so far. We have the military-industrial complex represented by Graystone; law enforcement represented by Jordan Duram who is looking into the attack that killed Zoe; the religious fanatics are headed up by Zoe's former teacher; and finally, we have organized crime represented by the Adamas and their contacts with the Tauron Halafa. This web of power is likely to become the fulcrum on which the plot of the series pivots. I don't get the sense that the Soldiers of the One (the monotheist extremists) will be around all that long. Certainly, they're no longer an issue in BSG, and while it is now clear that they are where the cylons got monotheism from (remember BSG established that it was the centurions who brought monotheism to the them, but we never knew where the centurions got it), that loop has already been closed by Zoe. We'll see, but I'd like to think the plot will develop beyond BSG's monotheism-driven faction vs. polytheism-driven faction. Ideally I'd like to see a more nuanced story than that, and I think Moore's desire to make Caprica its own show will drive it in that direction.

So that's Caprica. Sadly we now have to wait an indefinitely long time for the actual series, but on the bright side, the pilot was actually good enough to make me anticipate that with some eagerness.