Posted January 7, 2011 by editor in Film Reviews
 
 

Caprica: Part 1 Review


I must begin this review with the sad news that Caprica has been officially axed from our TV screens after the completion of only its first season.

I feel it necessary to mention this as it adds a very important dimension to the review proceedings. Namely that the goals the show sets out to achieve, the story arcs that it sets in motion, and the characters that are introduced; none of them will have a chance to come to fruition or make their rightful progression as the creators intended.

This means that if the show is any good (and we’ll get to that), if it can draw the viewer in and generate an emotional investment from them, then said viewer is doomed to endure the cruel and wrenching disappointment a fan of Joss Whedon’s Firefly knows all too well (yes I know they got a movie, but I’m sure they would have preferred the TV show to run and run instead).

So let’s back up and start at the beginning, after all this show is of course partly about beginnings.

The very successful and critically acclaimed re-imagined Battlestar Galactica (BSG) TV show set up a very high concept premise: that a distant group of human colonies had invented a robot servant class of sentient beings called Cylons. These beings then rebel against their human oppressors and eventually all but eradicate them in an unprecedented and merciless coordinated attack. The show followed the plight of the last few survivors of this holocaust as they try to endure under continuing relentless Cylon pursuit.

The idea of Caprica on the other hand was to tell the more down to earth, ‘tragedy’ of how the great human civilisations of the twelve colonies arrived at such a holocaust in the first place. How did the Cylons come about, who made them and what forces were at work shaping world events, pushing humankind over the edge towards the catastrophe that forms the beginning of BSG.

Sounds interesting….

OK so it’s a ‘spin-off’ show naturally and by its very DNA was always going to be quite different from BSG. It’s not set in space for a start, and is more like a soap opera or family saga.

Spin-off shows hmmmm… I’m fairly certain that the success rate for these curious breeds (if one was to research the subject), would turn out a little low. I’m not sure why that is, but certainly for every Laverne & Shirley success, there’s a dozen Joanie Loves Chachi blunders that just don’t work as well as their parent shows, even with all the inherent advantages this brings.

We join the world of Caprica (the colony of Caprica itself being the technological and cultural hub of the twelve human colonies) some fifty plus years before the time of BSG, at a point where society is hugely decadent and excessive. Technology and the belief in it is running rampant unchecked and those in power are mostly in denial about the dangers of this situation. Times (for many) are good, and hedonism the order of the day.

A terrible and shocking act of terrorism on Caprica; in which many people lose their lives brings together two disparate families. The Graystones and the Adamas who both lose family members in the incident.

Daniel Graystone played by Eric Stoltz is the amazingly wealthy and successful techno wunderkind responsible for many of the world’s technological advances. This includes the creation of an immersive virtual world accessed via special visors or ‘holobands’. This ‘V’ world has become a primary example of the excess and decadence of human society. It’s populated mainly by teenagers who act out their most grisly and depraved desires within ‘hacked’ V areas not sanctioned or officially admitted to even exist by Graystone’s corporation.

It is within this ‘unofficial’ and unregulated virtual domain that Graystone’s daughter Zoe (played by Alessandra Torresani) and her friends spend much of their free time. This ‘V’ world is also key to a technological breakthrough that Zoe (apparently a brilliant chip off the old block) makes with the successful creation of a cyber ‘copy’ of herself within the virtual domain. The real flesh & blood Zoe actually dies in the first episode leaving the ‘copy’ in the virtual world seemingly intact and sentient. Herein lies the seed of the Cylon race.

An act of grand industrial espionage brings Daniel in contact with Joseph Adama played by Esai Morales. Joseph is a Tauron (one of the more traditional of the human colonies) living on Caprica, and is a lawyer connected to the Tauron criminal underworld. He is also the father of William Adama (later to become the commander of the Galactica), and like Graystone; also loses a daughter in the terror act.

Without giving away too much more of the plot, we see how this terror act, coupled with the motivational forces of grief, greed, religious fundamentalism and the excesses of a sickened society lead gradually to the creation of the Cylons. Had the series not been cancelled, the natural progression of the story would I guess have been to end somewhere around the first Cylon war alluded to in BSG.

Well let’s get one thing out of the way; I was hooked on Caprica by the close of the pilot episode.

Successful, intelligent sci-fi is a rare thing these days. If people aren’t galavanting around space at warp speed blasting aliens with ray guns; it seems ratings (particularly in the US) suffer. BSG itself; although ultimately successful did not have an easy time of it either.

By that rationale, Caprica was going to have to sink or swim based on developing a broader appeal as a drama/tragedy than just it’s sci-fi credentials. Here was a sci-fi series that for the most part eschewed almost all of those usual stock in trade check boxes and required the viewer to think just a little bit.

About three episodes into this nine episode collection (presented as Part 1) I realised that there were quite a few aspects of the world Caprica portrays that would resonate rather negatively, particularly with the conservative right, and I wondered often if any of it was contributory to the show’s demise.

For instance:

•Drugs are pretty much legal, no-one really cares too much about it and most of the adult characters smoke.

•Same sex relationships are so much ‘not’ a hot issue that the fact that one of the toughest characters in the show (Joseph’s brother Sam) is not only gay, but married to a guy named Larry goes barely noticed.

•Polyamorous relationships are also legal (if uncommon) and one of the principle characters (who is also a religious authority figure) lives within a group marriage dynamic.

All these things would be of varying significance to ‘offended’ type folks, however most controversial of all is the depiction of religion in Caprica.

The twelve human colonies are shown to be Polytheistic in nature like the ancient Greeks or Romans, with many Gods. Into this ‘norm’ come the rapacious followers of a Monotheistic ‘one God’ religion. Depicted as anti-establishment and anarchist and a growing disruptive element in Caprican society. To cap it all, the monotheists also form the terrorist group the ‘Soldiers of the One’ and are revealed to be responsible for the terror bombings that set the ball rolling in the first episode.

Phew!

Several times while watching the shows events unfold I had to blow air through me cheeks and think how much my mother (who is a devout but not fundamentalist Christian) would frown at this inference or that symbolism. It’s fairly brazen in places and may well have helped dis-engender the show to those of even a mild religious bent. At this stage we do not get to understand how this aspect plays out and where the show’s creators intended to go with it, but personally I applaud them for their boldness in this area.

The show offers a rich and fertile ground laid out for character development (although with only nine episodes to watch, examination and commentary here is somewhat limited). The show doesn’t pretend that there are only ever good guys and bad guys, rather it paints with shades of grey on almost every level.

Principal characters are driven by appreciable motives and weaknesses, and the show creates an atmosphere of ambiguous moral certitude in which none of them (even the teens) appear particularly virtuous. The groovy trick however is that despite the subtle vagaries of these characters, you do find yourself getting attached to them and invested in what happens along the way…..

Damn! How did that happen?!

The production is slick and ideas come thick and fast. Casting is great. I really like the dynamic between Stoltz and Morales in particular, and a shout out to Torresani for making the Zoe character so engaging and kooky. The writing is imaginative and intelligent, and as with the best sci-fi always thought provoking if your brain happens to be wired correctly for this sort of thing.

Although it seems that traditional ‘theme’ tunes are not the done thing anymore (can anyone even whistle the BSG theme?), Bear McCreary’s music within and around the show is pretty cool and reminds me of Eric Serra’s score for 5th Element which is no bad thing, quite fitting in fact.

Possible demerits are really aimed only at the average CGI quality of the Cylon prototype introduced from the beginning. It’s not the most convincing robot dude I’ve ever seen to be sure. The design is quite obviously meant to evoke a blend of cues both from the original 70s’ Cylon centurion as well as the elegant fully CG ones from the re-imagined series. As such, it’s a little contrived perhaps, but in keeping. More unfortunate is that the animation and realisation of it on screen seems slightly inferior even to that which BSG managed with their CG centurions. Dodgy CG is a real strain on the suspension of disbelief thing, and at times one does have to consciously try not to notice. The CG environments are much better, and I particularly like the difference in look, tone, lighting and colour between the real and virtual domains. It’s a nice touch and very effective in giving the ‘V’ world an unsettling ‘real but not real’ vibe.

So as I said earlier, this DVD set represents the first half, of an 18 episode first season, of a now cancelled show……”sigh!”

And yes, I’m now somewhat in the frustrating position I mentioned at the top of this review. I’ve certainly got to see the second half but I’m already feeling the wrench of knowing that come the end of episode 18, there will be no more. This is a real shame for lovers of bright, intelligent sci-fi everywhere.

I don’t know if any continuation of the story is possible or likely in the future, but I hope so. And I hope that the ultimate failure of the Caprica series to find a big enough audience to sustain itself is not indicative of a viewership too dumb to travel the road less trodden and appreciate smart and edgy sci-fi.

Ben Pegley


editor