Tuesday 30 March 2010

Caprica: Season 1.0

Fifty-eight years before the Fall of the Twelve Colonies, the inhabitants of Caprica live in an exciting and pioneering age. Computer technology is advancing at an unprecedented rate, giving youngsters the opportunity to experience virtual sex, drugs and violence outside the control of their parents. At the centre of this storm of progress is the computer pioneer Daniel Graystone, whose inventions are shaping the lives of billions. His latest project is to create a combat robot for the Caprican military, a Cylon, but after perfecting the prototype he finds replicating it to be a tricky proposition.

"Ah, how refreshing to see a show that focuses on its older, more experienced castmembers as their selling point rather than the attractive, younger female castmembers in suggestive naked poses."

Both Graystone and an acquaintance, lawyer Joseph Adama, lost their daughters in a terrorist bombing incident. Graystone's wife, Amanda, becomes convinced that their daughter Zoe had something to do with the bombing, whilst Joseph Adama struggles to overcome his grief and raise his son William as a single father. Unknown to their fathers, both Zoe and Tamara Graystone survive, after a fashion, as digital avatars, one trapped in the virtual online world and the other inside the mind of the prototype Cylon...

Caprica is the spin-off prequel series of Battlestar Galactica, set many years before the events of that show (of which foreknowledge is not required). The pilot debuted on DVD last year and was received relatively well (compared to the heavily mixed reception for BSG's final season), and has now been followed by the first ten episodes of Season 1 (although the first two episodes are just a recut version of the pilot featuring more special effects and some different scenes). The show has now gone off the air in the USA and UK, but will return in October for the second half of the season.

Caprica is a very different show to BSG, focusing on life on the Twelve Colonies with, so far, no space travel and only very brief glimpses of life on the other planets. One of the things that made early BSG so distinctive and compelling was its laser-sharp focus, with the confines of life in the Fleet meaning that it was straightforward to get most or all of the cast involved in whatever crisis was going on at the time. Caprica, in comparison, sprawls almost languorously in all directions with its numerous story threads and characters being fairly separate to start off with. This results in a somewhat slow pace to the opening episodes of the series, as each episode gives us just a few minutes of development for the Cylon-Zoe's story, then a few more minutes for her friend Lacey getting more involved with the terrorists, then a few more minutes for the Tauran gangster stuff and so on. In effect the viewer is left with the impression that the producers are going for an SF version of The Wire, only with less compelling characters, a less interesting plot and a lack of comparative intelligent social commentary.

"Ahem. But obviously it's okay if done artistically and thematically well. See the apple? See the subtle symbolism? Do you get it? You know, Eve and the forbidden fruit of knowledge? Ah hell, just Wikipedia it."

Taken on its own merits though, Caprica is actually perfectly acceptable SF TV. It's examination of the development of AI is interesting, if not particularly groundbreaking, but it suffers a little from the fact that most of the development of the Cylons from unintelligent robots to sentient homicidal maniacs took place in the pilot alone. As a result, there's an awful lot of wheel-spinning to keep the Cylon-Zoe in place and prevent her from building the Cylon army three episodes into the series, and this looks like it may continue (understandably, as the show would almost be over at that point).

More interesting is the worldbuilding of Caprica, with its old-fashioned clothes and retro-decor sitting side-by-side ultra-advanced architecture and an interplanetary economy. The show is fleshed out by various supporting websites (such as a Twitter account run by the Graystone's robot butler, Serge, and an online newspaper, The Caprican) that reveal more of the worlds of the Twelve Colonies and expands on worldbuilding elements briefly mentioned in the series for the committed fans, an interesting approach which satisfies the hardcore fans of the series without bogging down the episodes in unnecessary exposition.

Generally, the acting is of a high quality from most of the castmembers, although the writing is rather more mixed. In particular, an over-reliance of dreams and hallucinations in the later episodes is worrying, as this crutch was over-used on BSG during its last two seasons and contributed to some of its problems. On the other hand, the introduction of 'New Cap City', a shadowy game hidden in the virtual net, is a masterstroke, giving us a grey-tinged noir steampunk world of airships, shady nightclubs and femme fatales which allows for a startling change of pace and intensity in the storylines.

Gradually, the scattered storylines begin to converge after the halfway point of these initial episodes before things come together in an impressively messy mid-season cliffhanger, with several regular characters left dead, missing or severely compromised. It'll be interesting to see where the show goes when it returns, but something it does need is a bit more of a sense of cohesion and direction. If the writers can achieve that, they may finally produce a worthy heir to BSG at its best (Caprica already far exceeding it at its worst).

Caprica: Season 1.0 has finished airing in the USA and UK and will be released on DVD later in the year in both territories. Season 1.5 will start airing in October.

101-102: Pilot (****)
103: Rebirth (***½)
104: Reins of a Waterfall (***)
105: Gravedancing (***)
106: There is Another Sky (****½)
107: Know Thy Enemy (****)
108: The Imperfections of Memory (***½)
109: Ghosts in the Machine (****)
110: End of Line (****)


Ruacach said...

Meh! I watched the pilot with interest, and then got halfway through episode 3 before I became horrendously bored and stopped watching

RobB said...

I enjoyed the show for the most part, the only real annoyance was the Amanda Greystone/Dead Brother storyline.

In a sense, the future/noir combination is reminiscent of the look and feel of the superb Batman: The Animated Series from Dini/Timm in the 90s.

Anonymous said...

Any chance you will review 1.5 and make the connection with BSG?

Adam Whitehead said...

Eventually, yes. It's only just come out on DVD here and I'm waiting for it to fall in price.