Caprica review: Pilot
Release date: 4/21/2009; Air date: 1/22/2010
Written by Remi Aubuchon & Ronald D. Moore
Directed by Jeffrey Reiner
Cast includes: Eric Stoltz (Daniel Graystone), Esai Morales (Joseph Adama), Paula Malcomson (Amanda Graystone), Alessandra Toressani (Zoe Graystone), Magda Apanowicz (Lacy Rand), Sasha Roiz (Sam Adama), Brian Markinson (Jordan Duram), Polly Walker (Clarice Willow), Sina Najafi (William Adama), Genevieve Buechner (Tamara Adama)
Note: This review contains significant spoilers.
Caprica was originally described by creator Ron Moore as a prime-time soap, “a sci-fi Dallas.” I did not watch Dallas and only kind of vaguely remember when it was on — even though in looking it up on IMDB, I see that it ran for 14 seasons, all the way up until 1991. Still, that seems to me like an odd pitch for the prequel to Battlestar Galactica. In this day and age where serialized dramas are common, the term “soap opera” is to me a puzzlement. What exactly makes a soap a soap? Serialization? Lurid melodrama? Bad acting? I suppose that’s fodder for another column.
In truth, Caprica doesn’t feel any more like a soap opera to me than Battlestar did. Stylistically and, to a lesser degree, tonally, BSG and Caprica are different, yes. But the Caprica pilot has more similarities to BSG than you might assume. The show, like BSG before it, uses the trappings of sci-fi to tell stories about us and the way we live now. Caprica perhaps even more so, because it more resembles our existing world. To me, this is what true sci-fi is all about: It puts twists, by way of fictional technology, into what otherwise resembles a real world with real people, and considers the bigger questions of how those people behave.
Consider the opening sequence. A nightclub scene filled with young people that seems to be spinning out of control. An orgy of sex and violence. People shooting each other for fun. A human sacrifice ritual played out in front of a howling mob. The sequence is actually all taking place within a virtual reality realm not unlike an ultra-advanced RPG. The scene is an imagining of what would certainly happen in our society if the technology made it possible. If the tech were available here and today, would teenagers invent VR nightclubs where they could beat each other up and have group sex? Without a doubt, yes. It also underlines the truth that adults are always playing catch-up on these things. (Zoe’s father has never even heard of these clubs, despite being a computer corporation billionaire.)
What most impressed me about Caprica was how quickly it seemed to invent and populate this believable, lived-in world. Perhaps a big part of that is because it takes place in a world that feels familiar — both to our own world, and to the BSG world it serves as a prequel to. Although much has been made about the fact that Caprica stands alone and does not require knowledge of BSG, there are a lot of thematic and aesthetic similarities. For fans of BSG, there will be a palpable sense that this is the same universe.
But it’s a different series, with different priorities. There’s no military setting, no spaceships, no action-adventure. If BSG was about military life, Caprica is about its very civilian counterpart. The docudrama camerawork is gone in favor of a much more traditional style.
But there’s plenty of societal strife percolating below the surface, and it plays out here at a more micro level, on the scale of two individual families (as opposed to the macro destruction-of-the-worlds level of BSG). It involves a teenage girl named Zoe Graystone (Alessandra Toressani), who is a computer prodigy. Her genius experiments in software design have allowed her to make a VR replica of herself that is a unique and dynamic artificial intelligence.
Zoe has also recently found her way into a fringe monotheist religious movement along with some of her high-school classmates. In the opening scene we see Zoe and her friends in the nightclub, a scene they used to enjoy for its forbidden hedonism, but now — since they’ve come to know The Way of the One True God — see as a sickness pervading their increasingly decadent society. Zoe, along with her boyfriend Ben Stark (Avan Jogia) and best friend Lacy Rand (Magda Apanowicz), intend to run off to Geminon and start a new life. In its small way on its small scale, this represents a youth revolution that has rejected the ways of its parents. Like the Cylons did/will.
The subsequent shocking suicide bombing carried out by Ben — who destroys a packed elevated train, killing its passengers including Zoe — is one of those dark moments that almost seems to say, “Brought to you from the creators of Battlestar Galactica!” Like its predecessor, Caprica does not shy away from ugly acts of fanaticism while at the same time using such an act to examine the sort of warped sensibilities where these acts grow from and are nurtured.
This is another aspect where Caprica benefits from resembling our own world but, like BSG before it, is freed by the sci-fi element: It is about people and issues that are real. It can be about terrorism, and about religious fanaticism, and about societal strife and ethnic prejudices — and it can do it in a fictional, self-contained way that comments on humanity on a conceptual and intellectual level rather than on specific real-world terms (which, let’s face it, in this country’s current political climate is impossible since all dialogue is immediately broken into bifurcated politically partisan camps, drained of all nuance, and rendered useless).
But it also uses familiar allegorical shorthand. The terrorists are religious fundamentalists, in this case fringe monotheists. The mainstream polytheistic scholastic establishment looks like a private Catholic school (although the dialogue says the school doesn’t endorse any particular religion over another). Meanwhile, the Taurons in the story are viewed by many Capricans as untrustworthy “dirt-eating” immigrants (having prompted Joseph Adama to change his last name to “Adams” and somewhat eschew his roots).
The story looks at grief in the aftermath of tragedy as viewed through two fathers. Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz) is a billionaire computer mogul who lost his daughter Zoe, and Joseph Adama (Esai Morales) is a lawyer who lost his wife and daughter. They meet during a press conference for the bombing investigation, and their subsequent scenes together have a straightforward simplicity that simply looks at two men trying to cope as best they can with unimaginable loss.
Daniel comes to learn about Zoe’s virtual copy through Zoe’s best friend Lacy, who survived the bombing because she got cold feet and didn’t get on the train. This leads Daniel to meet the virtual version of his daughter, who is somehow more than just a computer avatar. She’s a unique artificial intelligence, and a nearly perfect copy of Zoe with all her memories. Virtual Zoe is sentient: “I’m not a person. I know that. But I feel like one.” And there’s something intriguingly revelatory about the scene where Virtual Zoe rattles off a long string of examples of everyday data that might be used to recreate a personality profile for an individual, hinting at how much any one of us might exist out there in the technological ether where data gets stored forever.
Of course, you can’t make a person out of raw data — therein lies the miracle of Zoe’s creation of Virtual Zoe (which, by the way, is at one point described as a possibly divine miracle) — but it is interesting to ponder how much of a digital footprint remains based on everything we’ve done while plugged in. (I read a story a while back about how social networking companies have had to start seriously thinking about how best to deal with the data of people who have died, leaving their active user profiles behind.)
Daniel’s story is about his increasing obsession with figuring out a way to bring Virtual Zoe out of the VR realm of the holoband and into the real world where she can live again. This obsession is run against the parallel story of Joseph Adama, whose family also has been destroyed by the tragedy (he of course also has an 11-year-old son, William), but who takes a different trajectory and ultimately decides to deal with his grief and move forward, rather than being defined by trying to recreate the past.
Before we get to that point, however, these two men struggle with the question of grief versus using technology to circumvent it, and Joseph is briefly (albeit skeptically) brought along by Daniel to consider trying to bring his own daughter’s data into a VR avatar where they might be able to bring her back to “life.”
This is where the heart of the story’s sci-fi arguments lie. Caprica asks tough and thoughtful questions about the nature and moral implications of VR and AI. Daniel’s persuasive arguments about Virtual Zoe’s existence have a certain logical implacability: “You’re right,” he says to Joseph. “She’s a copy. But a perfect copy. In every way. There’s an axiom in my business. A difference that makes no difference is no difference.”
“Who’s to say her soul isn’t a copy?” Daniel asks. “You can’t copy a soul,” Joseph responds. “And you would know that how?” retorts Daniel. Fair enough; you can’t prove or disprove the existence or nonexistence of a soul, even if you can successfully define it. All you can say is that you believe it’s there or you don’t.
The sci-fi questions coexist alongside plot elements that work efficiently here and reveal a lot of promise for Caprica as it moves beyond the pilot and into a longer series. For example, Joseph Adama is not just a defense lawyer, but a lawyer for the Tauron mob, the H’la’tha. Joseph’s brother Sam (Sasha Roiz) is an active enforcer (i.e., killer) for the mob.
There’s a moment here where Joseph crosses an ethical line into the kind of criminal malfeasance he swore to stay away from, as a direct result of giving into Daniel and his own grief. Because of this, a man is brutally murdered in a moment of grand cine-Mafioso melodrama. Sam is the one who does the killing. (Although the three-tiered scene that cuts between sex, murder, and despair struck me as cliché; BSG did the crosscutting sex scene one or two times too many, and here we take yet another trip to that well.) Meanwhile, Daniel’s corporate malfeasance and his theft of his competitor’s technology promises future corporate intrigue (what with all the bidding wars and military contracts at stake).
Joseph’s bout with VR to try to recreate his daughter’s likeness ends in disaster. “An abomination,” he rightly calls it. Daniel is not dissuaded. A powerful scene, equal parts wondrous and creepy, comes when he attempts to transfer the Virtual Zoe program into a Cylon robot body. If you think of this AI as a sentient being that expects to feel human, what must it feel when it suddenly wakes up and experiences the world as a cold, metallic, non-breathing … thing? Daniel’s experiment is a failure and Zoe’s VR program appears lost. (Though the final scene, which is a great ending hook, suggests otherwise.) In a pilot with many solid performances, Stoltz’s is memorable for bringing emotional urgency to scenes involving this robot.
And then there’s the question of what’s exactly going on back at the school. Sister Clarice Willow (Polly Walker) is ultimately revealed as the head of the group of underground monotheists that pulled in Zoe, Lacy, and Ben and turned Ben into a deadly radical; Clarice is apparently also the mastermind behind the bombing. Lacy discovers this in a moment that is, for her, of great comfort and relief simply because she knows she isn’t alone. The storyline demonstrates how the young and impressionable can be manipulated by their elders on behalf of a cause.
From a production standpoint, Caprica looks great. The production design is alternately arid and high-tech (the Graystone house), or more homey and old-fashioned (the Adama home). The look and feel of the show’s technology is elegant and believable, from the touch-screen paper to the holoband devices and their holo-environments. The Cylon robots are very convincing (you sometimes forget you are watching CGI, the animation has gotten so good). The location photography is handsome. And the CGI city shots are impressively persuasive in their ability to create a huge, sprawling, living, breathing Caprica City. (The version of the pilot that aired on Syfy has additional establishing shots of Caprica City not included on the DVD version; these shots were no doubt later produced for the series after it was commissioned.)
So I think Caprica‘s off and running with a very good start. The pilot covers a lot of ground, and most importantly, it asks a lot of really interesting and probing sci-fi questions and considers their implications. And for the BSG crowd, the end of the pilot reveals that the Cylon race was born from a copy of the late Zoe Graystone, a monotheist who would become the first of a race of AI monotheists.
Now that’s a neat narrative trick they pulled off there.