Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Caprica: The Pilot

Tensions are rising between the Twelve Colonies of Kobol. The poorer planets are feeling oppressed and exploited by the richer, whilst the more powerful worlds are arrogant and decadent. On Caprica, richest and most powerful of the twelve worlds, people live increasingly empty lives. A new technological innovation, the holoband, has led to the creation of stunningly convincing artificial worlds or 'V-clubs' where young people can murder and torture one another for pleasure. Sickened by the collapse in morals around them, a small group of people have been swayed by the argument that there is one all-powerful, all-knowing god who can save them if they chose to be saved. But some the followers of the One God believe more direct action is needed, and one troubled young man proves his faith by stepping onto a packed commuter train laden with explosives.

In the aftermath of the disaster, two men are brought together by shared grief: computer programmer and entrepreneur Daniel Graystone and lawyer Joseph Adams. Both of them lost a daughter on the train, Zoe and Tamara, and both are searching for answers. Daniel soon learns that his daughter may not have just been an innocent bystander and, buried in the depths of the V-club, Zoe hid a programme of stunning complexity that may provide him with the breakthrough he needs in the creation of a new military robot for the Caprican government: the Cybernetic Lifeform Node. For Joseph, whose brother is a high-ranking member of the Tauron crime syndicate, his life becomes more dangerous and complex as he tries to provide a living for his son, William, and find a way to cope with his own sense of loss.

Caprica is a prequel series to Battlestar Galactica, beginning fifty-eight years before the Fall of the Twelve Colonies and about six years before the beginning of the First Cylon War. Absolutely no knowledge of BSG whatsoever is required to watch this show. Whilst BSG was a space opera, Caprica is resolutely a planet-bound drama, focusing on the characters, the politics, the crime syndicates and scientists of their world. There isn't a single space shot in the whole pilot movie, not even an establishing shot of Caprica, which seems to be a declaration that this show is going to try to do something different.

Yet it shares more similarities with the progenitor show than just a shared background. It's similarly ruthless and hard-edged. The pilot does not shy away from scenes of violence. In fact, the opening sequence in the V-club is far more explicit in violence and nudity than anything seen on BSG. The questions raised in BSG about artificial sentience and what constitutes a person or a soul are explored in even greater depth in this opening episode, and it's fascinating to see Caprica as technically more advanced than it is later on (due to the First Cylon War forcing humanity to abandon its more advanced technology that can be easily hacked by the Cylons). Those claiming this show isn't science fiction simply because it focuses more on an AI singularity than on space battles are seriously in error. This show has the potential to be a far more hardcore SF show than BSG itself.

The characters chosen to tell this story work very well. Eric Stoltz is the biggest name and plays Daniel Graystone as a driven man whose desire to learn, to innovate and to always come out on top is beginning to compromise his morals, and this character development is complicated by the death of his daughter and the manner in which he deals with his grief. Esai Morales brings significant gravitas to his role as Joseph Adams, and you could easily imagine him being related to Edward James Olmos (and yes, there's a reason why the surname gets changed). The interplay between these two very different men is interesting to watch and the scenes with the two actors are impressively handled.

The rest of the cast likewise impresses. Polly Walker, recently seen as Atia in Rome, takes on the role of Sister Clarice Willow, the head of the school where the cult of the One God has taken root. She has only a few scenes but channels an impressive amount of intensity into a very different role. Alessandra Toressani as Zoe Graystone is a bit more variable, but most pulls off a very tricky and demanding role, rising above the simple 'troubled teen' archetype to take the character into a somewhat more disturbing place. Paula Malcomson as Amanda Graystone also gives a remarkably good performance as the mother who has to cope with the loss of her daughter.

Special effects-wise, Caprica obviously doesn't have tons of space shots like BSG, but if anything it has a harder job, transforming downtown Vancouver into Caprica City without it standing out to the viewer. There's a couple of impressive sequences (the destruction of the train, most notably), but mostly their work is confined to establishing shots which, curiously, aren't as impressive as the stunning establishing shot of Caprica City in the BSG finale (which I'd assumed was test-run for Caprica). Bear McCreary is also on board for the music and his work is initially more muted than BSG, though BSG fans will take great delight at spotting a couple of themes from the parent show that are deployed at strategic moments.

Caprica's pilot episode does have one significant problem: it feels like we cover about 50% of the plot needed to get us to the show's end-point (presumably the start of the war) in just the pilot by itself. I'm not sure if there's enough plot strands to fill a single 20-episode season, let alone a multi-year ongoing series, and this raises the prospect of dreaded filler episodes (and BSG showed that this team are particularly inept at handling filler). But, given that the pilot has an excellent cast, solid writing, a compelling and dark storyline and an atmosphere not quite like anything I've seen before in SF, I'm more than willing to give them a chance to show what they can do.

Caprica's pilot (****½) is available on DVD now in the United States. There is no immediate UK release planned. The pilot will air on the Sci-Fi Channel in the United States and on Sky One in the UK and Ireland in early 2010, followed by the rest of the first season.

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