Judge Jim Thomas is an avatar.
The Battle for Humanity Has a Beginning.
"It's not enough to survive. One has to be worthy of survival."—Commander William Adama, Battlestar Galactica
That line resonates through Battlestar Galactica's prequel, Caprica. As the pieces begin to move into place for the Fall of the Colonies, we have to ask, "Are these people worthy of survival?" Rarely has a series been populated with such utterly flawed characters—and gods help me, I can no more look away from this than I could the world's largest interstate pileup.
Universal brings before the court Caprica: Season 1.0.
Facts of the Case
"Let me explain. [pause] No, there is too much. Let me sum up."
• Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz, The Rules of Attraction), a computer genius who built his fortune on virtual world technology, is at a crossroads. Following the loss of daughter Zoe in a terrorist attack on a commuter train, he and his wife Amanda (Paula Malcomson, Deadwood) deal with their grief as he fights for a defense contract with his latest creation—a Cybernetic Lifeform Nodule—a Cylon.
• For her part, Amanda is spiraling out of control. Circumstantial evidence points to Zoe as the terrorist (In reality, it was Zoe's boyfriend Ben, acting on his own). Caught up in her own guilt at how little she knew her daughter, she makes a public announcement that jeopardizes Daniel's company and makes them both targets for retribution.
• Zoe (Alessandra Torresani, Grand Union), as brilliant with computers as her father, discovered a way to store personalities within the virtual world. Prior to Zoe's death, she created a digital avatar of herself, an alter ego who remained in the virtual world after her physical death. Her father captured the avatar, using it as part of his artificial intelligence design. He thinks the attempt was a failure; little does he know that Zoe is now alive within the Cylon prototype.
• Tauron immigrant and attorney Joseph Adama (a.k.a. Adams) (Esai Morales, NYPD Blue) lost his wife and daughter in the terrorist attack. A chance meeting with Daniel Graystone gets Adama obsessed with the idea of reuniting with his daughter; to that end, he uses his connections with the Tauron mob to steal a critical component from one of Daniel's competitors. His son William (Sina Najafi), feeling distanced from from his father, takes up with his uncle Sam (Sasha Roiz, The Day After Tomorrow), an enforcer in the aforementioned mob.
• Lacy Rand (Magda Aponowicz, Kyle XY), Zoe's best friend, has her own secret: She and Zoe both converted to the religion of the One True God, and had planned to flee to Geminon, the heart of that religion, with the avatar technology. Lacy was to have been on the train with Zoe, but backed out at the last moment. She alone knows that Zoe is still "alive" inside the Cylon. She wants to atone.
• Sister Clarice (Polly Walker, Enchanted April), the headmistress of Lacy and Zoe's school, leads a cell of Soldiers of the One (STO), a terrorist group associated with the Church of the One True God. She's fighting with another cell leader, Barnabas (James Marsters, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) for control of the STO.
• Tamara Adama (Genevieve Buechner, Jennifer's Body), the late daughter of Joseph, has also been converted into an avatar; however, she has no idea what's going on, or for that matter, that she's really dead. She roams New Cap City—a world within the V-world with its own skewed rules—looking for answers.
In the midst of all of this, the police are trying to expand their powers in order to root out the terrorist threat.
All of this has happened before; all of this will happen again.
You get the eight episodes thus far along with two versions of the pilot:
What does it say that the person showing the strongest sense of parental responsibility is William's uncle Sam—a mob enforcer? Or that the character with whom we empathize the most—Zoe—will inevitably lead to genocide on a planetary scale? Hell, by the end of this set, Daniel Graystone is arguably the most reprehensible character on the screen—yet we can't help but like him a little because we understand how he found himself with such bad choices, and why he has made these questionable (at best) choices. Caprica is essentially an avatar of our own society, where right and wrong are increasingly hard to define, where families grow further and further apart. These aren't Dallas-type soap opera villains and heroes, but real characters, with whom we can empathize even as they descend further and further and still further into the abyss. Interestingly, the show was initially developed as more of a soap opera—you get a sense of that from the operatic tone of the opening credits—but the writers quickly discovered that the story required a greater sense of realism.
You might have noticed in the Facts of the Case that there's a lot going on here. The production team learned a lot about storytelling during Galactica; those skills are on full display here. Whether it's New Cap City, or the slightly retro costume design, everything works to move the story forward. Perhaps the best example of their narrative efficiency is the way they use Zoe. You can't get much in the way of emotional cues from a robot, so when Zoe is in a scene they cut between shots of the Zoebot and shots of Zoe herself, allowing us to see both how the world sees her and how she still sees herself. Just on those terms, it's a great piece of visual shorthand, and the editing switching between Zoe and the robot is nothing short of brilliant. Sometimes it's played for comic effect, as when Daniel and Amanda decide to get in on in the same room as Zoe: Her horrified reaction gives way to the Cylon's red eye quickly swiveling away. On occasion, the conceit becomes magical, as in "Gravedancing," when Zoebot dances with the man trying to better understand how the robot works—the man Zoe's growing to like.
Zoe's sensuous dancing juxtaposed with the mechanical movements of the robot capture just how alive—and how trapped—she really is. In that light, the impending Cylon revolt is likely to be as much about frustration over this existence than a slave revolt. (It also explains why resurrection and skin jobs will in the future convince the Cylons to end the war.)
Acting is very good, but it's not quite on par with Galactica; then again, that's a damned high bar to clear. Everyone's working at a high level, but the two that really stand out are Stolz and Alessandra Torresani. Stoltz is going to some dark places indeed, and still makes sure that we can recognize his basic decency. Morales is a little uneven at times, particularly when he's searching for Tamara in New Cap City, but has moments when he's absolutely chilling. Torresani is in turn charming, manipulative, sweet, and ruthless. Stolz and Morales may have top billing, but she's the lynchpin of the series, and she turns in a bravura performance.
On the technical side—hey, it's the same people who made Galactica, and this set is at the same level. Great video, great sound.
A solid set of extras is included. The featurettes are a bit superficial; a more involved look at the mechanics of the CGI work would be good, particularly from the actor's perspective—a lot of the show is shot on green screen—but that's more than balanced by the remaining extras. The deleted scenes are great; you don't just get alternate takes, but complete sequences that ended being cut or redone; it's like watching an alternate universe version. Better still, the commentaries and podcasts often refer to the scenes, giving you great glimpse of how the series evolved. Several episodes have commentary tracks, but all of the episodes but the pilot have podcasts, which tend to be more interesting because they're less formal, and less time has elapsed between filming the episode. Some of the podcasts just have producer David Eick, but several also include members of the cast and crew. These group efforts are great, raucous affairs, and I hope we get more of them in the future.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Given the number of narrative threads, some stories rely a bit too much on visual shorthand. The religious angle in particular has yet to coalesce; details of any of the religions are so sparse that the conflicts are more character vs. character than faith vs. faith. That may well be what Moore is pushing for, but the conflicts would gain effectiveness with stronger underpinning, to better explain why Barnabas and Clarice are at each others' throats.
Another problem—and it is a major one—is the marginalization of Amanda Graystone. Amanda starts off strong and self-possessed in her own right—no mean feat given the accomplishments of her husband—but devolves into a literal wreck, a madwoman in the attic. Setting aside the waste of Paula Malcomson's talent, it strains credulity that someone with such an extensive history of serious mental illness would be admitted to medical school, let alone become a surgeon. In their defense, the character and her arc went through massive changes as the series developed—you hear about several of these abandoned plot threads in some of the commentaries and podcasts. The cumulative impact of all those changes created something of a vacuum for the character.
Caprica doesn't hit a grand slam out of the gate the way its older brother did, but then again, it had a tougher job. It has a much more complicated structure, requires more exposition, and the production team is still feeling out what the show wants to be. That's a good thing; it keeps everyone, audience included, on their toes. The end result is solid, honest drama, one that has plenty of room to grow. Are these characters worthy of survival? The jury's still out on that one; but regardless of their final verdict, these are some of the most compelling characters on television.
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