Caprica: “Pilot”

Everything is Connected
By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Stegall


Syfy Channel, Fridays at 9 PM
Written byRemi Aubuchon & Ronald D. Moore Directed by Jeffrey Reiner

Disclaimer: Caprica is the “prequel” to the re-imagined SyFy Channel series Battlestar Galactica, an attempt to extend the franchise even after the demise of both original versions. Unlike Battlestar Galactica, there is no precedent to Caprica, it is the wholly original conception of creators Remi Aubuchon and Ronald D. Moore. Moore was the original creative force behind the revival of the series from its 1980s grave, and original 1980s creator Glen A. Larson is credited as a consulting producer on the series. I will state here and now that, although I watched the original 1980s version, I never really saw much of the 21st century version of Battlestar Galactica. As such, my reviews of this show will not deal with how Caprica fits or does not fit into the “mythology” already established for Battlestar Galactica. I will be treating this show as a standalone series, without reference to its “sequel”. I am firmly of the opinion that a series must stand or fall on its own merits, not on the basis of what other show it may invoke. Just as my reviews of Stargate Universe make little or no reference to SG-1 or Stargate: Atlantis, this series will not make much reference

to Battlestar Galactica.

On a freezing January day of 1803, a man named George Foster was hanged at Newgate Prison in London for the murder of his wife and child. An hour later, he became one of the most notorious science experiments of the new century. Professor Giovanni Aldini, a

nephew of the famed electricity researcher Luigi Galvani, was allowed to experiment on Foster’s corpse by hooking it up to a primitive battery. According to published accounts, “…one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process, the right hand was raised and clenched…” Horrified witnesses, believing the dead man had been reanimated, called for him to be hanged again.

This experiment, along with other attempts at re-animation, became part of the dinner table conversations at the home of radical philosopher William Godwin. Sitting at that table, no doubt drinking in every word, was his daughter Mary. Thirteen years later, Mary Godwin, soon to be Mary Shelley, wrote Frankenstein. In the novel, she describes the animation of the Creature: “I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs…one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me…”

In 1931, director James Whale produced the iconic Boris Karloff movie version of Frankenstein. As the creature comes to life after its electrocution by lightning, we see the hand convulse slowly. In almost every subsequent movie version of the story, the revival of the dead is presaged by this clutching, grasping hand.

In Caprica, scientist Daniel Graystone has implanted the consciousness of his dead daughter in a robot he has constructed. As it surges to “life” for the first time, its scanner (eye) scans from side to side, its hand clutches convulsively. Like a hundred avatars of the Dead Revived before it, this creature lurches to its feet, confused and disoriented, its very existence a monument to hubris. Like Victor Frankenstein before him, Daniel has brought to life a “hideous progeny”, a life which may or may not have a soul, a “child” born of no mother, only a man’s pride.

There is something about this image that haunts us. I doubt that James Whale was aware of the literary antecedents of his Creature’s grasping hand, and was almost certainly ignorant of Aldini’s pioneering work. I would not be surprised if Caprica director Jeffrey Reiner were familiar with Whale’s image (who has not seen the 1931 Frankenstein?), but I doubt if he consciously incorporated it into the birth of the Cylons. Rather, I think that image or resurrection, the moment when a human consciousness comes back to life, has worked its way into our collective cultural consciousness, a background default image if you will, of the return to life. What comes to life first is the eye, the organ of light, and then the hand, the tool-making feature that makes all this technology possible in the first place. One glance at that spastic hand, that slowly opening eye, and we are all transported to that chamber of horrors in which life is given to the undead. It’s never a foot or a leg that shakes, not the lips that open to let us know life has returned–it is always the eye, the hand, the harbingers of primate superiority. Perhaps what haunts us is the image of those two organs, the window of the soul and the tool-making hand, the two characteristics that define us to ourselves, coming to life again, conquering death.

In Caprica, Daniel Graystone (whose very name echoes Frankenstein: stein = German for “stone”) has lost his beloved daughter Zoe (whose name means “life”) to a terrorist bomber. When he discovers that she had not only recorded her consciousness into an “avatar”, but done so at a level far beyond what he believed possible, he decides to resurrect her. It’s not a great leap for him to make, as his robotics corporation has been seeking a way to get human-type intelligence into a combat robot for some time. He turns to fellow sufferer Joseph Adama (Esai Morales, Jericho), whose daughter Tamara (Genevieve Buechner, Jennifer’s Body) also died in the terrorist explosion. It seems that Adama has underworld connections, connections which can steal on demand. Adama, deeply conflicted, agrees and provides Graystone with the special processor he needs. Alone in the laboratory, Graystone (Eric Stoltz, who once played Mary Shelley’s husband Percy in the movie Haunted Summer) inserts the only copy of Zoe’s avatar into a combat chassis robot. It “blinks” its one red eye, its right hand convulses, it staggers to its feet. Then it collapses, to Graystone’s wails as he realizes he has lost his daughter again. Later, the inert robot comes to life again, and in Zoe’s bewildered little-girl voice calls for help. We close on a note of deep foreboding.

The most interesting facet of this new series to me is not just its reference to the iconic Frankenstein, but its unabashed engagement with religion. Hollywood is more than happy to render all sorts of stories about ghouls, vampires, and even angels, but start using words like “god” and most of Tinseltown tries to hide under the bed. People who think there are no taboos in moviemaking or television should start counting up how many shows realistically and unsentimentally incorporate religion into their storylines–you will need only one hand. The only aspect of “the supernatural” that Hollywood is usually comfortable with is the negative side. I find it very refreshing and interesting, therefore, that Moore and his writers so fearlessly involve their characters in religious motifs from the beginning.

The background of Caprica is set fifty years before the Cylon revolt that touches off Battlestar Galactica. The culture of the twelve colonies seems to be modeled on ancient Rome or modern cliches of Hollywood, equally portrayed as fleshpots of corruption. In the opening scenes, young Zoe (Alessandra Torresani, CSI) and her friends are in a rave club, watching various and assorted “entertainments”: a woman gunning down a man to the cheers of an audience, a virgin sacrifice. As it turns out, none of this is objectively “real”, it is all part of a shared virtual culture of “underground” clubs, and their visit is a test run for Zoe’s avatar. Zoe is a genius, able to tweak the standard pleasure-seeking avatar into something orders of magnitude superior–when it works. She is presented to us as a hip, savvy teenager at odds with the culturally prevalent motif of sybaritic hedonism, of surrender to the senses, of complete degeneracy. She and her friends Lacy (Magda Apanowicz, Kyle XY) and Ben (Avan Jogia, Aliens in America) express disgust at the kind of people who can watch a girl being murdered in the name of religion.

Zoe’s other big project is religion. It seems that this society is divided between the established polytheistic religion, which uses the names of ancient Greek gods, and a rising monotheistic religion. It’s not quite at the level of Roman repression of Christianity, but there is the strong implication that the monotheists are pretty much social outcasts. There are cracks in this established religion, however. Zoe and her friends attend a religious school dedicated to the goddess of wisdom, Athena, and her own headmistress, Sister Clarice (Polly Walker, Rome) solemnly affirms more than once that the school is open to all viewpoints. Zoe and her buds, as it turns out, are secret monotheists, and are planning to run away from home to live on a colony where their views are allowed. But while they are on the monorail carrying them to the spaceport, Ben detonates a suicide bomb, killing them all. From this action, all

the subsequent decades of misery, war and death will play out. The war between humans and their mechanical offspring will hinge on questions of the soul, of theology, of pride and responsibility. What does mankind (or Daniel Graystone) owe its technological descendants? What do those creatures owe to their makers? Can such a creature love or be loved? Does it have a soul? Where does God fit into this, if anywhere? These are and were the fundamental themes of the original Frankenstein, and it is no accident that, nearly two hundred years later and into our second technological revolution, they still engage us passionately and directly. Both Victor Fankenstein and Daniel Graystone made their Creatures with the best of intentions–and saw them go horribly wrong. Was that due to their own hubris, or is it more intimately connected to those intangible qualities of human life we call a soul? From 1803 to 1816 to 1931 to today, we keep coming back to those images, those questions. That does not surprise me; these issues will haunt every generation. What surprises, and pleases me, is that Hollywood is willing to discuss them. For that reason if no other, I’ll be watching Capricafor the next few weeks.

Executive producer David Eick told an interviewer, “We wanted to go in the opposite direction of George Lucas, if you will. We wanted to make [Caprica] less about escapism and more about moral complexity and great characters.” So far, I’d say he’d succeeded.

Discussing the ratings for this episode is complicated by the fact that the pilot has already been released on DVD, and has been available for online viewing since last March. SyFy claims that it has generated an audience of 1.5 million even before its broadcast premiere. It has been available for download from Apple and Amazon, and was showcased at film festivals. So what is the true viewer rating for this premiere? I’ll pass. At any rate, a pilot is not the series. The next few weeks will decide whether Caprica is a worthy ancestor to a critically acclaimed show, or a bad knock-off.