In the US: SyFy, 2010
In the UK: Sky One, 2010
I’m confused. This is a review of a DVD that contains an extended version of the pilot episode of Battlestar Galactica prequel Caprica, which won’t be transmitted until next year. So is it a preview or a review?
Whatever it is, let’s begin.
Science fiction is a lot of things to a lot of people. It can be space exploration, like Star Trek; it can be alternative reality fare like Eureka; it can be science extrapolation like The Six Million Dollar Man.
Battlestar Galactica is loosely credited with revitalising science fiction, taking the dull, lifeless and artificial people and situations of Star Trek and replacing them with a dark, gritty, quasi-realistic examination of the horrors of war. But BSG only really addressed one category of science-fiction.
Caprica takes away the war, combat and exploration of BSG to revitalise another vein of science fiction: what another, futuristic society might be like. More of a soap opera concerned with relationships and the nature of belief and society than with spaceships and war, Caprica isn’t really like anything you’ve seen before – although it’s probably like something you might have read.
The burning question: do we have a soul and if we do, can it be copied?
An astonishing breakthrough is taking shape on the planet Caprica. The rapidly evolving spheres of human and mechanical engineering have collided, along with the fates of two families. Joined by tragedy in an explosive instant of terror, two rival clans led by powerful patriarchs, Joseph Adama (Esai Morales) and Daniel Greystone (Eric Stoltz) duel in an era of questionable ethics, corporate machinations and unbridled personal ambition as the final war for humanity looms. The latest phenomenon from the executive producers of Battlestar Galactica (Ronald D. Moore and David Eick), set in a time over 50 years earlier, Caprica is entirely its own world – provocative, thrilling and startling relevant to our own.
Is it any good?
It’s good, but not as good as it thinks it is. It probably would have been better if it hadn’t had to be a prequel to Battlestar Galactica. Much of the story involves teenagers – always a problem, particularly if one of them seems like a psychotic girl zealot version of Wesley Crusher – who get it into their heads that there aren’t a motley collection of Greek and Roman gods ruling over as all, but an all-knowing, all-loving God who knows the difference between right and wrong. When things go tragically wrong, brilliant scientist Eric Stoltz finds a way to imbue his new Cylon with the spirit of his departed daughter.
You can see where this is all leading, can’t you?
Which is the problem. In many ways, this is a really clever piece of work. This isn’t just setting things in the future by giving people new clothes and being retro to suggest you’ve actually thought about the future might be like when you actually haven’t – the use of robots, virtual reality, electronic paper et al are more in keeping with Minority Report‘s extrapolation of existing trends to create a plausible society than lesser sci-fis.
The depiction of a polytheistic society with a monotheistic minority is also interesting. Here the shoe’s on the other foot and although the Capricans are shown to be a hedonistic bunch who enjoy virtual reality* human sacrifice, fight clubs, orgies and galleries where you can fake shoot your friends to get rid of the stress of everyday life, they’re a relatively happy bunch, none too different from us, while the God-botherers are humourless psychos who invoke a greater, inflexible morality to justify suicide bombings.
Meanwhile, we have a not even slightly veiled racial subtext with Joseph Adams (aka Joseph Adama), the slightly corrupt lawyer father of Bill Adama from BSG, comes from another of the 12 colonies, Tauron, and faces constant prejudice against him and the Taurons’ backward, Mafiosa-like ways. Which would help if he wasn’t allied with the Tauron Mafiosa himself, having to decide whether to deal with them to cope with his own tragedies with the help of Stoltz.
This isn’t quite the Dallas/Dynasty power wrangling the plot summary would have you believe – at least not yet – since much of the story is about whether you can create artificial life and if you can, can you make it identical to an existing human life, right down to his or her emotions. And if you can, isn’t that a bit like resurrection so therefore the realm of the gods or God? But I’m sure the power-wrangling will be there by the time of the series.
But, as I said, the problem with this is that it’s a BSG prequel. Despite the incredible effects, the imagination and intelligence that’s gone into it, the beautiful sets, the acting, the depth of writing and more, it’s still got to lead up to a war with the robot cylons who believe in a God, who eventually turns up with his angels to help them found Earth. That means that it can’t actually make any cases for polytheism, imbuing robots with artificial intelligence and so on, because we already know what’s going to happen, what’s true and what’s not.
The producers also seem to have decided to copy BSG‘s blanket ban on humour and fun. No one may crack a joke at any time. It’s against the law, making the apocalypse in the BSG mini-series probably a blessed relief for many Capricans, I’m sure.
At the moment, it’s also very hard to identify with anyone, since BSG‘s ‘everyone’s a shade of black’ edict is in force and we already know that things are going to go pear-shaped, so can’t give anyone the benefit of the doubt.
Still, it’s lovely work, good to watch, with some clever ideas, even if you’ll find – as with BSG – the average serious sci-fi novel has been there before and done it better and in greater depth, if not as beautifully or with as much emphasis on people. And unfortunately, you might just want to give everyone a happy slap and a copy of a 30 Rock box set to cheer them up by the end of it.
Here’s a slightly spoilery promo. Warning: some nudity which will probably be edited out of the final version:
* Curiously though, and probably to make life easier for the budget department and the audience, unlike the users of the Internet and Second Life on this world, everyone wants to be themselves by the looks of it in this world’s virtual reality. Imagine that? Being a teenager and thinking, yep, the best version of myself possible is me.