Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Caprica City looks suspicuously like Vancouver on a bad hair day,
right down to the mountains in the background

While half of our household has been watching the new series of Caprica – which completed its first half-season last Friday – the other half, having abstained from six years of Battlestar Galactica, is finally starting to catch up, watching the first season of that series. So in the week since Caprica wound up, I had a chance to watch a couple of episodes of the earlier series at roughly the same point of development as the new prequel. The comparison convinced me that my son Jesse is basically right – thus far BSG is much better, even if it is being written by the same people. Over & over again throughout the first eight episodes, we are spoonfed voiceovers to remind us of where we are in an increasingly bewildering multilayer narrative. If you go back to BSG, there is almost none of that, even when certain characters are multiple instances of the same cylon template. The voiceovers for the most part are dramatic monologs & are quite different from the miniature flashbacks Amanda Graystone has of her long-dead brother who appears to have wandered in from The Sixth Sense to haunt her.

From a television producers perspective, the problem with BSG was that its story was so complex that if you missed an episode, you were pretty much never able to get back in synch with what was happening. That meant that the audience could really only dwindle over time. Now, normally, the knee-jerk response of the network suits is to demand stories that are episodic & contained with in a single hour, so you join in anywhere, viz. CSI, NCIS or countless other TV dramas. And when a show violates that code of modularity & gets yanked back into the fold (viz., West Wing or even the second season of Twin Peaks), it’s almost invariably a disaster. But the folks at SyFy (then Sci-Fi) did something different in letting it play out, seeing the show as having a natural arc & a termination point set more by narrative than ratings. The result was the best narrative TV I’ve ever seen, and it wasn’t even on HBO.

So what isn’t working & why with Caprica? It’s not a sudden loss of ambition. If anything, executive producer Ronald Moore has upped the wager markedly. The problem is that he & his writers have more story arcs going than Twin Peaks ever had, just eight weeks into the first season, and it’s obviously more than they know how to keep in the air at once. That old saying about Never catch a falling knife goes for master jugglers as well, and I fear that what might get cut ultimately is this ambitious, ambiguous experiment.

Consider, by way of contrast, BSG. Midway through their first season, the 50,000 survivors of the 12 nuked colonies had figured out that cylons had evolved, had made it for the most part off of Caprica & were even being prepared by the reconstituted government to start on a quest for the mythic planet Earth. The problem of identifying cylons that no longer looked like “toasters” was a serious issue & while we sense some divisions between certain cylons, we don’t spend a lot of time with them, nor on the other ships in the hastely thrown together fleet that has gathered around the museum-grade battlestar for safety. A show might focus on Admiral Adama, on viper pilot Starbuck & on Gaius Baltar’s relationship with the hallucinatory cylon Six, plus on Boomer’s relationship with the Chief (and a second Boomer’s relationship with another Galactica officer on Caprica). Plenty for a 42-minute episode.

That is about one quarter of what one gets into a comparable episode of Caprica. William Graystone, Faust by way of Bill Gates, is struggling to keep his corporation alive and deliver the military robot – he has coined the term cylon for cybernetic life form node – while dealing with the fact that his operating system was stolen from a Tauron corporation whose head is playing hardball to expose Graystone as ultimately responsible for two scientists slain in the theft. When she’s not seeing images of her dead brother, his psychiatrically fragile wife Amanda is in a deep depression triggered by the death of their daughter Zoe by a terrorist bombing (initiated, in fact, by Zoe’s boyfriend), while being courted by Clarice, the headmistress of Zoe’s school, who just happens to be the head of a cell of Soldiers of the One (STO), an off-world gang of monotheists, your basic Christian militia, out to carry out God’s Will. Meanwhile Zoe may be dead, but it hasn’t slowed her down all that much. Her avatar or apotheosis – the show has used both terms – was downloaded from a hacked version of something akin to SecondLife that was the source of Graystone’s fortune (he invented the holodeck band, basically virtual-reality glasses that every teenager on Caprica has to have) & by accident Zoe has gotten stuck, as it were, inside the prototype cylon robot, her life dependent on its hard drive. The only creatures that know this seem to be her dog (it barks at the cylon & wants to play fetch) and her best friend Lacey. (Her father suspects she's in there, but between a child and a profit, well, he knows where his loyalty lies.) She has convinced Lacey to help her complete the mission that she, Zoe & the train bomber Ben originally had set out on, to meet up with the STO on the planet Gemenon. Since stealing a one ton, eight-foot robot & getting it to another planet is not something your average high school girl is going to be able to do inconspicuously, she has had join a separate, rogue STO cell, run by Barnabus (think Dickens’ Fagin mixed with Charlie Manson, or perhaps Cinque of the Symbionese Liberation Army). Now I have not even mentioned Joseph Adams / Yusef Adama’s quest to find the avatar of his daughter, a teen likewise killed in the train explosion, [his surviving son (who will grow up to be the Edward James Olmos character in BSG, the only link thus far to the characters of the other series),] who has likewise been set loose in the hacked-realm of the V-world, where she has become the most dangerous lady in New Cap City, a game in which getting “killed” means your character cannot come back, but which doesn’t work on her since there is no original player with a holodeck sourcing her role. She is, in her words, a "ghost." Nor have I mentioned the ongoing thread of the FBI investigation into the bombing, the attempt by the Tauron corporation to make Graystone sell his Pyramid team, Adama’s brother Sam, a hit man in the Tauron variation of the mafia, but happily married to a guy named Larry.

That is all a bit much to fit into that same 42-minute time slot, but they’re trying, while also trying to keep folks oriented as best they can with all these cringy voiceovers. There are some unexplained details – such as how did Adama’s legal secretary know how to reach the dead daughter Tara in New Cap City – and potentially important figures who have already been killed off. In the last seconds of the eighth episode, one character is being driven in a limo that has been sabotaged with a large bomb, sees another character about to jump off a bridge & steps out of the car just in time to be away from it when it explodes while the escaping robot – it has fled to avoid hard drive wiped & reinstalled sans Zoe – crashes through a military barricade while one high school girl decides to save her self & her boyfriend by willingly killing her teacher. All of this happens in less than one minute. Just as the first foot of the jumper leaves the bridge we see the bomb go off. What happens next, Buck Rodgers?

The confluence of fortunate (or un-) coincidences at the end of the eighth episode were so overdone that Jesse & I were laughing our heads off as cars crashed & bombs exploded – not, I suspect, the intended effect. And not one that BSG gave rise to, even as some of its episodes are jaw dropping in their levels of allusion – there is an ongoing underlayer of topicality to BSG that Caprica thus far has only skimmed. Mostly, I think the creators of the new series, emboldened no doubt by reconceiving & rewriting the entire end of the series during the writers strike midway through the final season(Wasn’t that verboten?) are daring themselves to see just how much narrative trouble they can get themselves into in hopes that they can get it all to fit rubik-cubelike together later on. I did note two references in one of the early BSG episodes to elements of life on Caprica (“a pickup game of pyramid,” Adama describes his father as a “civil liberties lawyer”) which are spot on to the prequel seven years later. Maybe they can pull this off when the show returns in the fall. But for now, to deliberately mash up a metaphor, their narrative chutzpah is eating them alive.

You can watch all eight episodes of Caprica on Syfy Rewind.