Just took another long stroll through downtown Hague, only a few blocks from my apartment. Leave it to me that one of the first Nederlanders I get to talking with turns out to be a radical Tamil nationalist from Sri Lanaka hahaha. As I mentioned in my last post, I took a few minutes Sunday evening to watch the uncut pilot episode of the Battlestar Galactica spin-off series, Caprica. What follows is my first-ever television review (lite spoilers ahead)…
Taut, introspective, and very, very adult; much more mature than its predecessor series, which is saying a lot — Caprica is brimming with potential. Where Battlestar Galactica, quite controversially, seemed to return to its Mormon theological roots, Caprica, although set 58 years prior to the events of the original show, seems to be reaching forward toward the Techological Singularity prophecied by futurists since the 1950s. Questions about morality and belief, the value (and undermining) of family and multicultural democracy, and the nature of humanity and transhumanity, abound in a dense hour and thirty minutes.
The characters for the most part were strong, although I wonder how they’ll develop Joseph Adama who seems remarkably impotent as a personality for a leading character. Indeed, the elder Adama seems the most puzzling character in the show: a lawyer and atheist who defends criminals yet upholds the moral laws of gods he’s long renounced, he strives to assimilate in a culture that prides its democratic character yet sneers at and neglects those who flee to it seeking a better life. He thus embodies the ironic moral ambiguity at the heart of the show, and mirrors America’s ambivalence about its immigrant past.
The Graystones, meanwhile, seem to reflect the Bill and Melinda Gates of real life, although through a mirror darkly. Daniel’s rock-like stoicism may very well carry the show, even if the character’s moral compass is (understandably) pointing in directions uncertain — hence the irony of his surname. But the character pines for simpler times, commenting to Adama that for all his mansion-laboratory’s opulence, nothing can ever quite replace “tinkering in my parents’ garage”. In this way he shares more in common with his rebellious daughter,who seeks a clear ethical system to cling to amidst the murk of wealth and decadence, than he realizes; as with all parent-child relations, we may ask: whom is the avatar of whom?
And speaking of which, the various incarnations of Zoe are petulant, precocious, yet pathetic; her character could easily descend into Heroes‘ Claire Bennet emo-ness or evolve into a compelling personality. Amanda, the wife, meanwhile, is pretty much non-present in the story, but unlike the equally spectral Sister Clarice, lacks menace. Rather, she has real pathos, actress having breathed life into the character and grounding her pain in believability.
Clearly Caprica City is modeled after 1950s New York City, from the fashion right down to the La Cosa Nostra, but with a high-technological spin reminiscent of the film Gattaca. And speaking of modelling, the sets are beautiful! Battlestar Galactica was magnificently dreary, what with the subject matter of refugees running for their lives across space in a bunch of rotting spaceships (as symbolized by the aging Galactica‘s deep-tissue cracks). Yet, sometimes the dreariness seemed to mask budgetary failings.
There were definitely moments when the original show’s sets matched its epic scale (e.g., New Caprica, the Pegasus, and the Galactica herself), but there were too many other moments when it felt like Ronald D. Moore and company were filming in a backlot or abandoned factory (e.g., practically anything on a ship other than one of the battlestars). By comparison, the sets on Caprica are really exquisite. Even the “middle-class professional” digs of Adama are out-of-this-world, to say nothing of the Graystone estate. Caprica, visually as much as narratively, is lush, labrynthine, and refined.
The missing Macguffin
Two core elements of the original show that are noticeably missing from the new show are a menacing enemy and a compelling, if vague, mystery, which was at first the identities of all 12 models of Cylons and whether Earth actually existed, but eventually became a veritable clusterbomb of puzzles. Indeed, other than a sense that at some point the Caprica storyline has to lead to the First Cylon War, there isn’t any Macguffin or similar thematic engine driving the plot, no salvifical Earth to seek or enigmatic Cylons to flee.
The chief conceptual conceit of the new show so far, other than, of course, the looming shadow of marauding killer robots, is the premise of a human society that is essentially similar yet texturally divergent enough from our own so as to simultaneously obey its own inner logic while serving as a mirror to you and I. No small feat, one which Battlestar Galactica, a few frustrating hiccups aside (e.g., the contrivances that led to Apollo’s detour into politics), was able to pull off admirably.
Although Macguffins are a narrative tool peculiar to science fiction, make no mistake, regular fiction has its own catalysts, ranging from Delphic oracles of ancient Greek dramaturgy to the “premise” of the modern sitcom. Caprica, despite the shadow of the coming apocalypse, is therefore in this regard unusually open-ended. The only thing the writers seem to be relying upon are the interactions of its characters against an interesting Gibbon-esque backdrop. The lack of a standard narrative engine could thus cause this show to meander even worse than its predecessor ever did, but then, not all who wander are lost: in retrospect, fans should thank the gods that Moore and company conjured up the New Caprica storyline.
(Don’t) preach on, preacher
The new show is much more drama-focused, but also more idea-driven, than its predecessor (again, which is saying a lot). If the pilot episode is any measure, it seems this writing crew, which is only partially comprised of those from Battlestar Galactica, really wants to focus on character development and concept exploration. To put it another way, they hope to play up the social, political, and religious over the martial.
If there are two kinds of fans in the Battlestar Galactica cosmos — the mystic and the militarist — then it seems the Caprica writers may be throwing in their lot with the former. This may be a faulty dichotomy, perhaps better describing the debates between myself (the mystic) and my roommate Karl (the militarist), but even so, the new show’s writers are definitely approaching the themes of Battlestar Galactica from a decidedly non-military-themed perspective. If Battlestar Galactica can teach any lessons, it is that they will have to be careful that Caprica won’t be subject to the same contrived plot-twists and pandering to current events to which the original show too often fell victim (especially during the second season).
However, even if the show veers into the dogfights of contemporary politics, this doesn’t have to be a disaster, so long as it’s done carefully and subtly. The preachiness of the original show’s finale, which, personally speaking, degraded the series for me and has left me struggling to make peace with it, can and should be avoided at all costs; when it can’t, it should be done with tact. For example, the Caprican special agent’s defense of polytheism may have been a bit monologue-ish, but speaking as a student of religion, rarely have I encountered as coherent an argument in favor of multiple gods as the one he puts forth.
Textures and Tighs
For all the above reasons, I can see why Caprica probably won’t appeal to Battlestar Galactica stalwarts, who really enjoyed the underdog ethos, action, drive, and journalistic spin on shippy tropes that comprised the show’s military aspect. I enjoyed this aspect, too. What hot-blodded American doesn’t love the “one-against-them-all” motif (or legions of six-foot, drop-dead gorgeous blondes)? Yet, for mystically-inclined fans like me, I think Caprica‘s pilot episode hits on all the right notes. It distilled the more intriguing conceptual elements of the source material without the overwroughtness that bogged down the original storyline. The resultant texture of the new show is truly different than its predecessor.
That said, what made Battlestar Galactica more than just a science fiction military show like Space: Above and Beyond was its mystical aspect. On the one hand, there was the spirituality of sheer survival: these characters were fighting for something, be it for each other, their way of life, or the very persistence of the human species itself. On the other hand, there was the strange cybernetic-cosmic theology surrounding all the action, the sense that these characters were participating in a drama larger than man and machine and their longed-for paradises. At some point or another, all the characters bumped heads with these larger themes; this interaction was what ultimately contextualized their otherwise solitary, miniscule struggles.
Yet, when the show’s mystical aspect became more important than its military aspect, we ended up with the schlop that was the final season, from Starbuck’s screechy mess and the beating of the dead Watchtower horse, to the half-hearted character wrap-ups and what some would describe as the snide epilogue with the Virtual Beings. In other words, where season three mixed the perfect juicy blend of militarism and mysticism, season four blew chunks. The fulcrum point seems to have been the revelation of the Final Cylon, a plot-twist that resonated with me and which I consider the conceptual and dramatic high-note of the show, but for military fans, who rejoiced in the excellent mutiny storyline that occurred shortly thereafter, Ellen Tigh’s return to the storyline was, looking back, although logical, really the beginning of the show’s slow and painful implosion.
To avoid the same muddled fate for Caprica, the writers are going to have to do something to balance, if not temper, the high-flying philosophical elements with grit and at least some adrenaline. The question is how to do this without undermining the adulthood of the new show.
The shape of things to come?
Here’s what we didn’t see in the pilot episode: killer robots massacring humans — not yet. This series could move easily and quickly into the First Cylon War, especially given the fact that young William Adama can’t be less than 10 years old and presumably he was 18 when he became a Viper pilot. If Battlstar Galactica could bravely and deftly leap forward a year, there’s no reason Caprica can’t do something similar if necessary.
Personally speaking, I found Adama’s flashbacks during the Razor telefilm, between the Centurion’s fanatical, free-falling hatred for humanity, and the mysteriousness of the First Hybrid, among the most interesting and haunting moments in the entire original series. So, I include myself when I say that probably many people wouldn’t mind if the show developed in a militarist direction (and weren’t the Model 0005 Cylons so much more badass than their “evolved” replacements? If nothing else, they were truly cycloptic in their determination to destroy mankind).
However, I actually enjoy the way the new show already is, albeit we’ve been exposed to but one episode. If Carpica does move toward the First Cylon War, which may indeed be advisable, then the writers are already delivering the goods: could the 0005s’ belief in an all-powerful but morally absolute God have originated with Zoe? Could the Cylons’ ambivalence and hatred for humanity have emerged from a young Caprican girl, violently appalled by the decadence of human society and charged with adolsecent rage, resentment toward her parents, and thirst for identity?
Time will tell if Caprica is a series truly with its own voice, as indicated by the piolot episode. To keep it this way, the writers should avoid the twin pitfalls of re-militarizing and over-mystifying the storyline. Battlestar Galactica redux is somehting the new show should not be, in more ways than one.