Air date: 2/26/2010
Written by Kath Lingenfelter
Directed by Michael Nankin
Note: This review contains significant spoilers.
“There Is Another Sky” is the coolest gee-whiz episode of Caprica yet. It starts with a high concept (teenage girl trapped in VR nightmare) and from there envisions a sleazy, amazing, virtual reality world of hacked, user-generated content that thematically isn’t all that far removed from the gaming subcultures we have today (even if the technology is infinitely superior).
I haven’t been a gamer for a very long time, so I’m not sure what the closest analogues to this VR world would be today. I’ve heard of Second Life, but have never actually seen or played it (and for all I know it’s not even still the big thing out there). The closest I ever got to being a gamer was back in the mid-1990s, when I was playing Doom II deathmatches in my dorm room with my college friends. For a brief while, we were hardcore; we played a lot, and some of us even designed our own levels and released them out into the world. My one regret from that era is that the one decent deathmatch level I designed did not survive the various data transfers from computer to computer over the years. I somehow lost it and it’s apparently gone forever.
I digress. The technology of Second Life I’m sure makes Doom II look like Pong, just as the technology of New Cap City makes Second Life look like — well, Pong. The point is, people spend all their time playing it, and invest so much into an enterprise that isn’t real when they could be living their actual lives. Perhaps their lives are pedestrian or boring or lacking, whereas New Cap City is filled with wondrously elevated realities (yet paradoxically based on the real world; a character notes that the real-life maglev bombing has been incorporated into the game as of the latest release). There are massive zeppelins that dispatch fighter planes that strafe you with machinegun fire. Why? Hell if I know. But it’s pretty awesome.
Enter into this world Tamara Adama, who is not aware that she is, in fact, just an AI avatar whose real-life counterpart died in the maglev bombing. She wants to get back to the real world but can’t wake up. She is taken in by a band of gamers who want to win New Cap City (in the game, once you die, you can never return; surely hackers have figured a way around that?) and who discover that she doesn’t vanish when her avatar is supposed to be killed. Naturally, the gamers try to make her an ally and use her to their advantage.
One of the gamers is an otherwise nice boy whom Tamara befriends. “This game really does mean something to me. It actually allows me to be something,” he tells her. Tamara’s reply: “Maybe if you weren’t in here playing this game you could be something out there too.” Obvious and heavy-handed? Yeah, I thought so. Yes, the gaming culture is an artificial existence, but I think there’s something more substantive here to comment on than the obvious notion that everyone’s wasting their time in VR. I preferred (as Daniel does later) thinking about the implications of an entire world created by unauthorized self-publishers who essentially took the holoband and repurposed it for something far more ambitious, and apparently did it for free.
And how about this place? It’s the ultimate in sci-fi film noir, with period costumes, a muted color palate, harsh contrast, and a slightly surreal quality. This is a production triumph, and I hope to see more of New Cap City. Watching how this unfolds, I became aware that within New Cap City exists the potential for an entire parallel narrative that could be a VR adventure/anthology series.
Yes, the similarities to The Matrix are obvious — right down to the notion that Tamara can exist outside the rules of the game and bend them to her own will. (Like Neo, she’s increasingly impervious to bullets, she can make AI avatars vanish, etc.) But this was some pretty neat stuff, and I enjoyed the idea of a naive 16-year-old girl who starts the hour unaware that she’s even dead and ends it strolling through the barren streets of New Cap City, machinegun in hand. The implied question here is what happens when an AI based on a person who was not fully mature when she was copied is unleashed upon the world. Consider how the not-fully-mature Cylons in BSG saw humanity as their parents; now draw a line back to Tamara and Zoe, and you see a race of AI that was perhaps literally established from children.
To further illustrate that point particularly ironically we have Daniel Graystone, facing a boardroom coup that vies to oust him from his own company. His response is brilliantly played: He marches confidently into the boardroom with the U-87 (aka RoboZoe) and declares that holobands are dead as a business model because, essentially, there’s no way for sales to compete with more in-demand — and free — user-generated content like New Cap City. (As someone who works in the newspaper industry but writes far more words for free in a profitless online venture, I admired this acknowledgement for its undeniable and yet refreshing honesty.)
The future, Daniel says, is in building a race of machines that will happily do the work humans don’t want to — and without ever needing a salary! He orders the U-87 to rip its own arm off, which plays like the ultimate ironic demonstration of hubris. (Missing here, perhaps intentionally, is the obvious payoff shot of Zoe with a missing limb; what might her facial reaction have revealed?)
“Do not underestimate the enormity of this creation,” Daniel says, in a sentence that drips with irony. Is this hopelessly transparent? (After all, how blind are you if you intend to create a sentient machine race while being oblivious to the danger that, gee, they might get pissed off that they’re being exploited?) Maybe it’s transparent, but it’s still a great scene, and it shows how being a BSG prequel can play to Caprica‘s advantage.
And now to pop several caps in your ass:
• The other story here is of Joseph’s battle for young William, who is quickly taking to Sam’s Tauron ways. This was reasonably portrayed (particularly the Tauron rites of closure for the deceased), but didn’t strike me as urgently as the show’s other elements.
• Was I the only one who found it impossible when Daniel came strolling in with the U-87 not to think of that famous boardroom scene with ED-209 in RoboCop? Part of me — okay, all of me — thought it would be awesome to see RoboZoe open fire on the Graystone Industries board of directors.
• I liked how the Graystone marriage was realistically portrayed as a support system between two adults who have long known each other. When Daniel faces a tough situation, Amanda pulls out reassuring history from long-ago trials to remind him of past successes.
• The look of Caprica this week really was something, in terms of production design, cinematography, and CGI. I already mentioned the look of V-World and New Cap City, but there’s also that massively impressive, cold, arid boardroom, and the vistas of the city in various shots through windows. This is shaping up to be a great-looking series, impressively imagined from a visual standpoint.
• There’s no Clarice, Lacy, STO, or GDD this week. And I can’t say I missed them, frankly, since that plot is easily the most impenetrable part of Caprica thus far.
• I had meant, but forgot, to mention the amusing in-jokey use of the original BSG theme last week. I will, however, remember to mention the use of the Adama theme in this week’s outing. A nice nod.
• Compelling hook at the end of the show: Just as Joseph seems able to move his family forward from the tragedy, Tamara’s online friend shows up to tell him that Tamara’s avatar has survived in V-World. And so the obsession continues. Poor Joseph, forever haunted by the computerized ghosts of the dead.