Thursday, February 11, 2010

Esai Morales & Eric Stolz in Caprica

Something one of my sons said the other night, after having watched Caprica’s two-hour pilot, and the first two episodes of its initial season over the course of ten days, caught my attention. “A lot of Caprica depends on a view of social networking you’d expect from old people.” To which he then added, “Not old like you, Dad. Old like the writers.” By which he meant 30ish & ready for walkers, not somebody my age who gets measured in geologic time. Tonight, when I asked him about it, he added “One of the great things about Battlestar Galactica was that it didn’t depend on the technology.” Caprica, which is a prequel to Galactica (hereafter BSG), does.

This reminded me, for maybe the third time in two-plus months, of the inherent risks in any TV or cinema project that hinges or is derived from another. I’d seen Nine, which turned Fellini’s 8½, into a British musical – and then forgot to mention Fellini altogether – and the American film Brothers, based on the Danish Brødre. I’d actually preferred the American version of that, for the brilliance of Tobey Maguire’s acting, and because the culture & code of the Marines made the premise of the film infinitely more believable.

Caprica, on the other hand, has the unenviable challenge of being the prequel – set 50 years in the past – to one of the most intense & well-written shows in television history. Far from abiding by the first law of narrative TV – that all story arcs need to be resolved by the end of a single episode – BSG spun an increasingly complicated tale that was almost guaranteed to lose anyone who hadn’t seen the series from its very beginning. BSG was a show whose audience could only get smaller over time, which is inevitably fatal.

The underlying premise was this. Humans have created a culture of drones, ranging from crude robots right out of Star Wars to a set of 12 Cylons who are more or less indistinguishable from humans, except when they show up in multiple copies. The Cylons resent their servitude and, being monotheistic (unlike the humans), have an unstoppable sense of right & wrong. Right, their belief systems tell them, is a universe rid of the “vermin” that is humanity. So they nuke the planets (a.k.a. colonies) where the humans live &, when a few escape via some old decomissioned space ships, the Cylons take off after them, attempting to finish the job. The humans in turn set out to find a planet whose existence may only be a myth, called Earth. Which, when they do find it, several seasons later, is itself an uninhabitable smouldering husk of post-nuclear devastation.

But there is much more than this, including – in the final episode – an assertion that this narrative recurs over & over in the universe, humans emerging from primitive cultures only to create automated slaves that in turn rise up to devastate their “advanced civilization.” Caprica offers a critical point in one of these alternate futures, focusing at least in these early episodes, on the creation of the Cylon – cybernetic life form node – itself. The Cylon has the same basic problem as the replicants in Bladerunner, Ahnold’s Terminator, Donna Haraway’s cyborg, Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, or even Pinocchio: the instant you endow a machine with the ability to think, to become self-regulating, self-motivating, self-actualizing, all the questions concerning life & the soul soon follow.

Caprica’s viewers will inevitably fall into two categories: a hard core who have seen BSG (or at least have some semblance of its plotline), and a presumably broader base of those who have not, who may be interested in the series because they like Eric Stolz as an actor or remember Alessandra Torresani from her days hosting the WB Kids Club, that defunct network’s attempt at Mouseketeers. Or who may just have been snagged by SyFy’s marketing. Or who maybe never got into BSG because they showed up late to that party & hope to see this series from the beginning so that they might make sense of it all. Good luck with that!

What a viewer of BSG knows that non-viewers don’t is not a lot really. We know that in 50 years, Caprica & the other planets in “the colonies” will be annihilated by an attack from the Cylons, we know a little about Cylon motivation & Cylon religion, & that “frak” is the most popular of cuss words. For season after season, we have watched the nuclear blast from the original Cylon attack in BSG’s opening credits from the vantage point of a living room that we now recognize as belonging to technology magnate William Graystone. And by the end of the pilot episode we have met the first of the characters who will later populate the narrative of BSG, a ten-year-old boy named Willie Adams whose mother & sister have been killed by a terrorist explosion on board a train. By the end of the pilot, Willie’s dad, a top corporate lawyer with gangster connections played by Esai Morales, will have reverted to his Tauron name, Adama. Ten-year-old Willie is going to become Admiral William Adama, the lead figure in BSG, portrayed by Edward James Olmos.

This is one of several narrative arcs that are ongoing at the same time, not all of which necessarily lead to BSG. For one thing, the story of young Willie’s transformation into the admiral is not easily predicated on his apprenticeship here to his father’s brother, Sam Adama, who is a serious henchman in the Tauron gang. Taurons, it seems, come from another planet (Tauron) and are treated as tattoed hoodlums by the waspier denizens of Caprica. Because they come from a planet without agriculture, they’re commonly refered to as dirt eaters. Even Willie’s father, the lawyer, who serves the gang as a messenger to the upper reaches of Caprican society & politics, struggles with discrimination. When one top pol tells Joseph Adama to take a hike, it’s Adama’s brother who turns up in the middle of the night to kill the politician in a fairly ritualistic fashion. When Willie pals around with Sam, we’re watching Goodfellas Goes to Outer Space.

A second arc focuses on William & Amanda Graystone. He’s a tech guru so closely patterned on Bill Gates that it’s almost comical (the house is modeled on the Gates’ mansion on Lake Redmond). Their daughter Zoe was killed on the train in the terrorist explosion while she was running away from home. Zoe, it turns out, was much smarter than her dad & had taken his career-making invention of a holodeck – virtual reality glasses – to enter a hacker-designed world known as the V Club. The V Club has every vice & perversion imaginable, including a stage devoted to the sacrifice of virgins, but it also has rooms away from the main floor’s group sex, fight & kill venues, one of which belongs to The Soldiers of the One (STO), a monotheistic secret society planning the overthrow of the decadent Caprican way of life. Zoe’s boyfriend, Ben Starke, wired himself up with an explosive vest & it was his act that sets the entire series’ narrative in order.

Zoe’s parents didn’t even know she had a boyfriend, let alone that she had been “frakking” him for a year (plus who knows who else in the group sex rooms), or that Zoe was part of this secret society. But what really stuns her father is discovering that his daughter has created an avatar of herself in the V Club, and that this avatar has continued on after Zoe’s death. He tries to download it into the body of a military robot he’s been struggling with, and is unsuccessful until the Tauron’s steal him some special tech. However the transfer fails & the system crashes, or so dad thinks.

In reality, the avatar Zoe (think slight teenage girl) is now trapped inside the 8-foot-tall, one ton ‘bot, which Graystone takes home to work on in his personal lab there. This puts her in the position of getting to watch her parents frak since they don’t know that there’s a ghost in the toaster, so to speak. The girl-in-the-robot, it is clear, will be one of Caprica’s main themes. One minute we see the ‘bot, which BSG vets will recognize as a Centurion (the simplest of the Cylons), the next minute we see Zoe.

On top of all this is another narrative involving one of the teacher’s at Zoe’s school, “Sister Clarice, and Zoe’s best bud, Lacey – played by Magda Apanowicz, the best actor in the whole show. Clarice was the organizer of the STO at the school, their handler, though she denies it & basically comes across as your typical school nun when being interrogated. In fact, “sisters” on Caprica have more personal lattitude than they do here on earth. Clarice is part of a group marriage, and sics one of her husbands to seduce Lacey. This is just one of the other alternate realities the show likes to present, another being that Sam Adama, gangster & ritual killer, happens also to be gay & in a committed relationship. (“How come you don’t have kids?” asks Willie, noting that lots of same sex couples do.) Consider, for example, how The Sopranos handled this same issue.

There’s more going on than just this (e.g., Joseph Adama, who has generally tried to stay arm’s length from his gangster connections, has just put a contract out on Amanda Graystone, to “even things up” between him & the tech magnate; plus the robot is trying to get Lacey to take it to the planet of Gemenon, where Zoe & Ben had been planning to escape before the explosion). But essentially you can take the underlying story arc of BSG & add layers of Goodfellas, Dallas & Buffy the Cylon into the mix. And that’s just the pilot & two episodes. What Caprica, using most of the same writers & producers as BSG, may lack in its hokey variant of Second Life, it certainly is making up for in ambition.