Caprica: “Rebirth”

Once More, With Feeling
By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Stegall


Syfy Channel, Friday at 10 PM Written by Mark Verheiden Directed by Jonas Pate

Disclaimer: I have not seen the re-visioned Battlestar Galactica, and therefore all my comments on Caprica are from the point of view of someone completely new to the franchise.

It’s hard not to see Zoe as a spoiled brat. When we are introduced, she and her friends are “slumming” in a virtual world of incoherent decadence and corruption, commenting on how immoral the denizens of a rave club are. At the same time, they are using those very denizens, or at least their avatars, as part of an ongoing experiment with their own avatars. Rich, privileged, and holding a high opinion of herself, Zoe is using other people as testing ground for her advanced avatar, with the same clinical detachment her own father will later use in resurrecting her into the metal body of a robot. When she returns to her “self”, she does not reveal her presence to her father, but instead turns to Lacy, her friend, for “rescue”. What is Lacy supposed to do? What does Zoe imagine her father will do if he finds out she is “present” in his robot–ground her? Rather, he is more likely to embrace her and do everything in her power to restore her to some semblance of human life. If Daniel Graystone ends up turning his daughter into a killing machine, it won’t be his fault. It will be hers, for not doing what a normal person would do: talking to him.

This is the very definition of soap opera: people who do not tell each other those things which normal people would always tell each other. The secret hidden for no good reason, the unnecessary lie, the pointless evasion are the very essence of a dramatic form which relies on unreliability to drive its plots. This is an excellent formula for producing long, drawn-out story arcs. It is not a formula for fast-paced science fiction. Use of it in the very first normal episode of Caprica tells me these writers are going to be more focused on feelings and relationships than the science, culture or politics of their imagined world.

Too bad, because that’s the part that interests me. The attraction of Caprica is the constant contrast between the mundane and the new, between a world that looks disturbingly like ours–men wear ties, there are athletic arenas, racial tensions, skyscrapers–and a world utterly different–polytheism, group marriage, computers that look like a sheet of paper. It’s a version of science fiction that plays like anthropology, where we get to study a culture that mirrors our own, with the differences functioning as commentary. I can’t wait to find out what other telling differences exist between the world of Caprica and early 21st century Earth (or more specifically, early 21st century North America).

As noted in my earlier review, Zoe is cast in the mold of Frankenstein’s monster, a being brought into the world by a father, not a mother, and abandoned at birth to find her own way in the world. Like Frankenstein’s creature, she is mocked, humiliated, rejected, and finally lashes out at one of her tormentors in her first act of violence. Like the creature, she is rational but does not know how to understand or control her feelings; unlike the creature, she could access the love and care of her father if only she would reach out to

him. Like the creature, Zoe proves herself to be enslaved to her own pride and ignorance. Neither is a very heroic characteristic.

Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz, Grey’s Anatomy), who could have come off as a soulless monster himself, instead appears more and more to be a man of feeling, confused but compassionate. He shares his wife’s grief but not her bewilderment, unburdened by Amanda’s (Paula Malcomson, CSI) egotistic assumption that she knew everything about her daughter. No parent of a teenager should ever fall prey to such a dangerous assumption. Daniel would be surprised, but not angered, to learn the extent to which his daughter decieved him, but Amanda turns her anger outward, lashing out at her daughter by accusing her of being a terrorist in front of a televised crowd. It’s hard for me to feel much sympathy for someone who has so thoroughly set herself up for destruction.

I can appreciate the difficulty of showing an audience that Zoe (Alessandra Torresani, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) is a human inside a metal shell. However, the trick of switching between an image of a Cylon and an image of a human teenager, within the same scene, is confusing even when I know why they’re doing it. What would make more sense would be for other robots, Surge for example, to react to her as another robot. One clue to this was a bit where Zoe’s dog sits loyally at her Cylon feet, waiting for a pat on his head. No one else seems to be aware that the dog is “recognizing” her mistress; it’s a good touch, all the better for its subtlety. This is not a show that would be improved by hitting us over the heads with the obvious.

I liked a couple of clever bits: CylonZoe breaking her bed when she sat on it, Daniel programming Surge to root for him as he plays Air Pyramid. I would love to see more of the dynamics of a group marriage–better than “Big Love”, this looks to be an egalitarian marriage, with equal numbers of husbands and wives. (The Mormon influence on the franchise is getting less subtle all the time.) Zoe’s and Lacy’s hug was awkward but sweet. Uncle Sam’s lessons for young Will Adama in gangster life were fun and revealing.

The glimpses of Tauron culture are intriguing–what is that language? Greek? I got a great fish-out-of-water vibe from all their interactions with the Capricans. In accordance with most sociologically-based SF, I expect to see quite a bit more contrast between the two cultures. Ron Moore and his writers seem very confident about tackling issues of race, class, religion and politics that most conventional drama avoids. As such, it is following in one of the finest traditions of SF, if very, very slowly. Self-aware androids? Gay mobsters? Sign me up. Sounds interesting.

Given that some outlets (the New York Post, for one) are calling the premiere a “bomb” due to low ratings, I was anxiously awaiting the results of Friday’s broadcast. I am still awaiting them. Like all other cable shows, Caprica will suffer from the slow ratings reports that are endemic to the genre. When I get new ratings news, I’ll put it in the next review. Until then, Caprica bobs in the void…