When a television series pilot opens with what seems to be a vision of hell – writhing naked bodies, men fighting bloodily to the death, people being shot, human sacrifices – and then later features a suicide bomber on a train… you know you’re not watching your usual anodyne and juvenile science fiction series. But then Caprica is the new series from the makers of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, and Battlestar Galactica could never have been described as “anodyne and juvenile”.
Caprica is set fifty-eight years before the events of Battlestar Galactica – in fact, Commander Adama is a child in the Caprica pilot – and sets out the events which led to the creation of the Cylons and their eventual revolt against the humans.
Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz) is the CEO and driving force behind an electronics company on the world of Caprica, one of the Twelve Colonies. He invented the holoband, which provides access to a virtual world or cyberspace called V-Space. At present, he’s working on a robot soldier for the Caprican government, but is having little success. Graystone’s teenage daughter, Zoe, is a computer genius. She has invented an AI copy of herself, called Zoe-R, in the virtual nightclub she and her friends frequent in V-Space. It’s the nightclub which is the aforementioned vision of hell.
Joseph Adams (Esai Morales) is a lawyer on Caprica, although he is originally from Tauron. He has connections with the Ha’la’tha, an organised crime syndicate on that world, but refuses to do their bidding.
As in Battlestar Galactica, the Twelve Colonies practice pantheism – and again, their gods share the names of the Greek pantheon. But Zoe and two school friends have turned their back on the gods and embraced monotheism. They are secretly members of a group called the “Soldiers of the One”. Zoe and her friends run away to Gemenom, where they hope to contribute to the monotheistic cause. They don’t get very far. One gets cold feet and doesn’t even get on the maglev train to the starport. And, while on the train, another reveals that he is carrying bombs strapped around his middle. Which he promptly detonates.
Daniel Graystone and Adams meet at the enquiry into the terrorist attack. Adams’ wife and daughter were on the same carriage as Zoe and her suicide bomber school friend.
It’s not hard to see where the story will go. Graystone is struggling with his robot, his daughter has created an AI. Put the two together and you have a… Cybernetic Lifeform Node (which is, I must admit, a particularly naff backronym). This, then, is the genesis of the Cylons.
Adams’ role in the story is less immediately obvious. Towards the end of the pilot, he admits his family name was originally Adama, and vows to change it back. This certainly explains his connection to Battlestar Galactica, if not to the story of Caprica. Because up until that point, he has only been used by Graystone, chiefly by approaching his Ha’la’tha contacts and asking them to steal a chip created by a competitor which Graystone needs to load Zoe-R into the Cylon. Adama’s payment for this will be an AI of his dead daughter.
One of the things that made Battlestar Galactica such compelling viewing was its full-frontal assault on the difficult subjects not normally tackled by sf television series. Perhaps sometimes it tried too hard to be edgy, and so sacrificed rigour for the issue of the week. Opening Caprica with a terrorist bombing shows the series certainly plans to continue Battlestar Galactica‘s dramatic use of contentious topics. While the programme makers have married this to a religious war – monotheism vs pantheism – they’ve also demonised the monotheistic worldview by defining it using only a black and white moral framework. There’s no reference to a creed, or a body of law, only the repeated insistence that morality is polar and imposed on humanity by their god. It feels overly simplistic, as if the monotheistic cult were invented by Zoe and her teenage friends.
Also appealing in Battlestar Galactica was the care and depth of detail with which its world had been built. Admittedly, it’s easy enough to create a futuristic, and not quite recognisable, world when the programme is almost exclusively set inside various spaceships. It’s harder to do for a programme set in a city – especially if the city is not entirely CGI. Caprica uses production design to show that it predates Battlestar Galactica, but it doesn’t quite work. Hats and old-fashioned suits are not enough. Of course, Caprica of sixty years prior to Battlestar Galactica is not going to map on any comparison between now and a US city of the 1940s. But there are enough differences between the two Earth time periods – not just the clothes; but the cars, the sensibilities, the technology… – to at least suggest that Caprica doesn’t really feel as though it takes place sixty-eight years before Battlestar Galactica.
Also somewhat problematical is Graystone’s motivation. He’s a fat cat captain of industry. He wants his Cylon to succeed because it means a huge contract from the Caprican government. Zoe-R is a means to an end – on first meeting her in the V-space nightclub, he dismisses her as a sophisticated software construct, not a true AI. Yet he offers to create a similar AI of Adama’s dead daughter. Not his wife, but his daughter. And Adama comes close to seriously considering the offer, even though he has a son (who grows up to become Commander Adama of Battlestar Galactica).
According to Caprica‘s makers, the programme will be a soap opera of sorts, focusing on the Graystone and Adama families. A rich industrialist with a low ethics threshold versus a lawyer who denies his crime syndicate background as a matter of personal morality sounds way too much like a loaded scenario, especially given the simplistic moral framework the Cylons are plainly going to inherit from Zoe-R… Nonetheless, I suspect it will be addictive viewing and I plan to buy the Season One DVD boxed set of Caprica when it is released in UK later this year.