Balancing It Out: ‘Caprica’

'Dynasty' with cybernetics

I’m a loyal viewer of television. If I start a series and like it, I’ll usually carry on – in most cases, if I start late I’ll go backwards, too. I watched season seven of The West Wing; I bought the fifth season of Babylon 5 on DVD; I went back to catch up on the first and second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’m a completist by instinct.

So the fact that I gave up on Ronald D Moore’s reimagining of Battlestar Galactica – that at the end of its third season, as ‘All Along The Watchtower’ swaggered portentously on its closing moments, I decided I’d had enough of what had become a bloated, confused and wrong-headed series – and stuck to that fit of pique – says a lot. I don’t recall ever having given up on a show in which I’d invested so much – I gave up on Lost, for example, but way before the first season had even finished. Such had been the force with which BSG had careered into irrelevance, however, that I never looked back. I wasn’t even tempted to watch its very last episode. (Which, in case you were wondering, is billed by the people I listen to as a total cop-out. I was flabbergasted.)

So when I was asked, “Hey, do you want to watch some episodes of Caprica?” it might be fair to say my answer was equivocal. Caprica has been mooted since BSG’S second season, was put into development hell from 2006 thanks to wrangles between almost everyone involved, and seems to continue to have teething troubles behind the scenes – it has been through three showrunners, for a start. None of which necessarily means it will be bad; what made it sound bad was its premise – set 50 or 60 years before the fall of the Twelve Colonies depicted in BSG’s opening miniseries, Caprica was to focus on the events surrounding the conception and construction of the first Cylons. The Cylons – their exact nature, their essential purpose, their absurd simultaneous depiction as both omnipotent and incompetent – became one of the weakest elements of the parent series. A prequel focusing so fully on a subject the writers had already made such a hash of didn’t fill me with enthusiasm.

But ultimately I have a lot of sympathy with this post at Cultural Learnings: any show, Caprica included, deserves to be judged on its own merits. In the last week, then, I’ve watched the series pilot, and two of the subsequent regular episodes. And the good news is that Caprica isn’t bad. The bad news is that nor is it actually good. It has potential, but it hasn’t yet made the sale.

As Abigail has pointed out over at Asking The Wrong Questions, it’s satisfying that Caprica posits that the Cylons find their origin in a self-absorbed teenage girl. This makes more sense of BSG than BSG made of BSG. I disagree, though, that the show’s core fault is its disconnect from its parent show – this is actually its only hope. Abigail was offended by BSG as much as I was in the end, so I’m surprised she feels this way; but Caprica must stand alone and apart from the earlier series, even as it feeds into it. It must try its best to ignore the controversies of the old series, and find a way of its own. True, it must also make sense of the wider story – but this is not something it’s having trouble, even as it becomes itself. It seems to me, for instance, that its high-tech future can conceivably give way to the more basic one of BSG rather easily – the highest technology in the series is froth on the top of a fiftiesish wider culture in which police detectives use old style phones, answering machines have switches, and men lower down the food chain than the proprieter of a major technologies company have never even touched that company’s most popular product. A sort of Butlerian Jihad Lite makes a lot of sense in this mashed-up world.

On which note, Abigail’s thoughts on the show’s admittedly poorly executed opening credits also seem to me to miss Caprica‘s vision of itself: its vision of an advanced society is precisely pulpy – all uncomfortable juxtaposition of 40s cars with cell phones that look like Kirk’s communicator, or fedora hats resting next to a comedy robot butler. Caprica seeks to be more accessible than BSG, softer, and its science fictional vision is consequently a grab-bag of everything from Philip K Dick to The Jetsons. Indeed, it is this which may be its flaw – I don’t disagree with the commenter at Enik Rising that this tension is deliberate on one level (although Seth’s on difficult ground with his point on decadence and the show’s marriages); but, at times, its Cylon, a military robot programmed with the personality of the aforementioned brat, can look comical rather than ominous, lost in the kitschy little retrofuture it stumbles through. Perhaps this element of physical humour is part of Caprica‘s softening; perhaps it’s a sign that the show is as confused as its forebear. (How much humour can be drawn out of a show taking place mere decades prior to the practical extinction of humanity?).

In the show’s defense, some of its central performances are very good: Eric Stoltz and Paula Malcomson as the Greystones are particularly fine. The couple’s daughter, Zoe (played not always engagingly by Alessandra Torresani), is the personality installed in that first Cylon, in the wake of her death in a suicide bombing performed by her boyfriend and fellow transgressive monotheist, Ben Stark. Zoe’s father, Daniel (Stoltz), is the show’s central figure, and it is his drive to reclaim his daughter which powers the creation of that ‘Cybernetic Life-form Node’; his wife, Amanda, is profoundly shocked by the extent of her daughter’s secret life, and Malcomson’s portrayal of a woman deeply conflicted is a highlight of the series (though, confusingly, she is not Trixie).

Less convincing is Esai Morales as Joseph Adama. This is a shame, given his character’s importance to the BSG mythos – Adama is the father of the boy who will become the Admiral of the Colonial Fleet, after all – but a combination of slow writing and forced stoicism gives his portrayal too little fizz. A lawyer who bribes judges and asks his gangster brother to settle personal scores, it’s pleasing to see in him something of the moral dubiousness he will pass on to his son, but given how badly Bill Adama’s misplaced righteousness came to unbalance BSG, it may again portend badly for the future of the show. (If, indeed, it has one.)

Despite these concerns, the show still feels like it’s limbering up, setting things in their proper places. Its pilot episode packs a lot into its 92 minutes, and yet much of it is merely getting the show to where it needs to start – grieving parents, creepy robot, febrile society. And if its confounding opening 15 minutes, set inside a virtual reality designed to symbolise, but not be in the way viewers may first suspect, a civilization collapsing into self-indulgence, also feels a little teen-angsty, this merely throws into greater relief the adult angst which comes later. If Adama feels at times so repressed as to be unknowable, this makes in the second regular episode for some effective moments of surprise which serve to add some much-needed grit. And if it seems that the whole thing is moving too slowly, it is also true that rather a lot has already happened – if it is uncomfortable to realise that a main character (Sister Clarice, a teacher at Zoe’s school) has, yes, a shadowy Plan, then it is also true that the Cylon stuff happens surprisingly quickly. All of which careful placement suggests a show with a sense of balance and proportion. But there are, alas, sins other than those of the father.

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9 thoughts on “Balancing It Out: ‘Caprica’

  1. Be fair: my exact thoughts about Caprica‘s disconnect from BSG were that it is “Caprica’s most appealing feature, but which may turn out to be its core flaw.” I still think that if the show’s writers are planning to draw a strong connection between the two series, the fact that they seem to take place in entirely different worlds may work against them, but for the time being I’m greatly enjoying that difference.

    Some interesting thoughts on the show’s look, but you’re ignoring the fact that alongside the 40s cars and Kirk’s cellphone there’s also an elegant implementation of an internet-like global network, AI, and embedded computer systems. Whether the combination of these three sensibilities is intentional or thoughtless (it is perhaps intended to convey differences in class and culture), I’m not sure I would call it pulpy.

  2. Be fair

    Yep, you’re right to pick me up on that, of course – in my defense, my quibble was more with your notion that it could turn out to be a flaw: I’m not sure it could, let alone will. As I say, I can understand the progression from here. And, to be fair, even if I couldn’t I’m not sure I’d be too worried – especially as I’m not expecting the sort of strong connection you seem to fear. Begone, BSG universe! I’m happy not to care about its cohesion, frankly. 😛

    More seriously, I think we’re perceiving the world of Caprica differently. Yes, it has all those sexy high-tech developments you list – but again, they’re froth, augmentations bolted onto as you say a more naturalist world. I don’t see it so much as a high advanced society as a society which has some highly advanced parts and some, by our standards, fairly backwards ones – it’s a gumbo future. This may or may not be convincing, but that’s what’s being presented.

    And here we come to that issue of pulpiness. “Precisely pulpy” was maybe an overstatement, but I do think that the faintly unconvincing future is fairly redolent of magazine SF of that period: the few changes rather than the many. Caprica has what writers of modern SF might call a naive approach; and that’s where I think it’s an inheritor of the pulp tradition. Y/N? (OK, I guess you’re going to say N. But a guy can try.)

  3. As I’ve said already, I suspect that Caprica won’t get the chance to connect to the BSG universe even if its writers plan to, so I’m happy to enjoy the disconnect.

    a society which has some highly advanced parts and some, by our standards, fairly backwards ones – it’s a gumbo future

    But isn’t the future unequally distributed? From my nondescript, middle class house I could drive an hour in either direction and reach either tin shacks or computer-controlled mansions.

    That said, I don’t think that the writers are trying to make this point so much as they’re lazily combining several different visual sensibilities, each matching the stereotypical presentation of their type of story. Adama is an immigrant with one foot in his mob-controlled ethnic community and the other in polite society, so he looks like a 40s mobster. Greystone is a mad scientist, so his house is futuristic. The rotary phones and telex machines are straight out of 80s cop shows. You may be right that the pulps used this same approach, but to me that seems more like a coincidence than a reflection on the nature of the show. Caprica‘s indecisive visual palette doesn’t say ‘pulp,’ to me – it says ‘televized SF.’

  4. But isn’t the future unequally distributed?

    Yeah, it is – but Caprica‘s isn’t a future unequally distributed so much as it is a future unequally developed. There’s an element of our own economic/social/cultural splits – Adama never having seen a holoband outside of the TV – but also there are simply unlikely design issues: bakelite switches in one house, touch-sensitive paper in another. Not everyone can afford the paper, sure; but surely even the bog standard phones would have developed beyond chunky receivers and clicked dials?

    Which, yes, opens Caprica up to charges of laziness – and perhaps you’re right, that the show is deploying stock imagery convenient to its various stock characters. But I’m not so sure – Greystone might have a swish pad, but he also wears a fedora and a pocket square. He inhabits the same culture as Adama – the show isn’t as cynical as all that. It’s trying to pull its elements together, even if its failing in the attempt…

  5. We disagree on the performance of Esai Morales. Shock, depression, grief all boil down to apathy. He hit the right note in the first scene when Sam and Joseph interact. Also, children of a depressed parent often do what Willie did, hang out until the parent wakes up and realizes kid is still home. The child is instinctively making sure the parent is okay, plus getting a little gaming in. This was a nice touch by the writers.

    • Yes, there is something of that in Morales’s performance – and you’re right to cite his relationship with Willy as the best part of his performance. But, and I know we saw little of him beforehand, I’m not sure he was all charisma and fizz prior to the bombing, either. More to the point, surely there are ways of depicting apathy which do not in themselves inspire it?

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