Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Caprica S1.0

"The future of humanity begins with a choice."
"Caprica is the story of a society that ultimately is going to come flying apart at the seams. It's all going to end for all of these people and it's really about here are these people who didn't see it coming and how it came. How they planted the seeds of their own destruction and how this society sort of had to be destroyed."
-Ronald D. Moore, SciFiNow #35, p.37-

Self-absorbed societies rife with social decay and a lack of faith or moral fiber have a tendency to go the way of the dinosaur. Does it sound familiar? Rome? Is America next? The United States hardly spans the length of the Roman Empire (roughly a complicated 500 years) and yet there is indeed a breakdown in our own collective mentality happening as we speak. Divided we stand?

Caprica (2010), the drama-heavy, sci-fi prequel to Ronald D. Moore's Battlestar Galactica, is something of a strange beast. Caprica lasted just a single season before making its way to the airlock of science fiction television history. Did it deserve such a fate?

The epic, military sci-fi drama that was Moore's reimagined Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009), based on Glen A. Larson's 1978 original, was always a gripping watch from week to week, with exceptions, until the end.

Caprica is indeed a different, earthbound animal. It's a dramatic look at the end of a fictional civilization we've touched upon for nearly four decades.

This writer had but a cursory interest. When the Pilot (Episode 1 and 2) was picked up as a series my interest grew, but it was cancelled before I had invested in the show. Was resurrection of this ship in order?

The series is comprised of Caprica Season 1.0 (Episodes 1-10) and Caprica Season 1.5 (Episodes 11-19), a DVD only release.

Ultimately, the focus of Caprica has forced my hand desiring only to make observations in two segments, 1.0 and 1.5, rather than the more detailed episodic analysis. Offering some general overall impressions to the uninitiated might be a nice way to offer something up to readers approaching the series cold. Immediately to the reader this may be telling. The lack of interest in writing a more in-depth review may say something.

Caprica had a lot going for it coming hot off the heels of one of the most popular science fiction series to grace television in some time. All of the camera techniques and post-editing tech applied to Battlestar Galactica would carry over to the sophisticated, sci-fi drama offering that would be Caprica. The series would focus on two families, the Graystones and the Adamas, and a variety of players surrounding their worlds that would converge leading to the creation of the Cylons (cybernetic life form node)and the near destruction of all of humanity.

The story surrounding the Adama and Graystone families plays like modern day William Shakespeare with the focus on tragic figures in conflict and inner turmoil 58 years before the events of Battlestar Galactica.

For those Battlestar connoisseurs hungry for Cylons, Cylon Raiders, Vipers and Battlestars, look elsewhere. Battlestar Galactica: Blood And Chrome (2012) may do the trick. But Caprica is intended as something of an origin story on the birth and creation of that vile enemy that would one day hunt humanity with all of its monotheistic versus polytheistic passion. Caprica is about its creators and its politics.

The birth of the Cylon occurs in the very early going of the series within the very Pilot episode. Fans of Battlestar Galactica may not get their required dose of space battles, but they won't have to wait until the end of this single season of Caprica to glimpse the Cylons. Did you know they have a plan? Though, that isn't revealed here in Season 1.0.

Caprica is indeed something of a modern day Frankenstein tale mixed with political warfare combined with topical matters like terrorism and virtual reality. It's a slow burn, a hodge-podge thriller of sci-fi ideas commenting on the state of our own decadent culture and whether or not we take science too far. There is indeed a mirror to our world on display in Caprica, particularly the USA.

An intoxication with technology and a seeming dismissiveness to terrorism mark the beginning of the end in Caprica reflecting our own societal ills.

Ultimately, the question is, does Caprica work for you? Does it tie these disparate ideas and concepts together cohesively and allow them to flow and coalesce into a sensible narrative?

Certainly Caprica was in exceptional creative hands with Moore executive producing along with David Eick (Battlestar Galactica), Jane Espenson (Firefly) and Kevin Murphy (Defiance) at the helm.

Of its entire nineteen (19) episode run writing chores fell on Moore, Remi Aubuchon (Stargate Universe, Falling Skies), Jane Espenson, Mark Verheiden (Falling Skies), Kevin Murphy and other talents. Based on the players Caprica was no science fiction slouch. But was the end result more a dramatic soap opera without the required science fiction heft?

The series was more than capable on a performance level too based on a wealth of talent. Eric Stoltz as Daniel Graystone, Esai Morales (Jericho) as Joseph Adama and Paula Malcomson (Deadwood, Sons Of Anarchy) as Amanda Graystone are all universally excellent here despite the sometimes lackluster scripting.

Sometimes I wonder if Moore's ideas aren't a little ill-advised on rare occasions (Helix), but it only seems that way. The man is nothing if thoughtful and entirely in control of his output. The outstanding Outlander (2014-present) adaptation is a great example of the man's talent. The underappreciated but amazing Carnivale (2003-2005) was also a hell of a show. It could be Caprica's foundations as a series simply may not be worthy or interesting enough. To some degree Caprica seems to channel a bit of Moore's failed Pilot experiment for Virtuality (2009), a year earlier (here), as well. Though Virtuality was more intriguing with a backdrop in outer space and cyberspace. It seems some of Moore's excellent ideas can meander unsure of direction. Take Battlestar Galactica's final season as an example. But with Caprica it may just be Caprica simply didn't have the sci-fi credentials of its forefather space drama. It seems like a good idea, but ultimately did not translate into a fully coherent and compelling series.

Following the Pilot, written by Moore and Aubuchon, the Battlestar Galactica alum would continue to file in for Caprica. Mark Verheiden (Episode 3) and Michael Angeli (Episode 4) both played a part in the success of Battlestar Galactica and would attempt to work their magic here.

Episode 3, Rebirth continues to develop Caprica's themes of identity, racism (Tauron versus Caprican), Frankenstein's monster, female empowerment, artificial intelligence, teen angst and the potential for religious persecution based upon beliefs. The mythology for the series continues to expand with polygamy as a front for a terrorist organization, the mafia family dynamic of the Taurons and the various forms of corruption within the culture.

The writers play with the idea of Christianity as both a kind of terrorist organization and also a point of persecution by Capricans. It is indeed ambiguous even hazy or lacking clarity as it plays with these ideas. That should be a good thing. Certainly, today, the values of right and wrong and responsibility are hazier and as illogical as I've ever seen them in my lifetime. Those defining values are still clear, they just don't appear to be clear culturally.

Also awkward at times is the attempt to seamlessly transition between the Cylon unit and Zoe Graystone, played by Allesandra Torresani (who appeared in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Malcom In The Middle) implanted in the Cylon as an avatar via meta-cognitive processor. The camera plays with the physical idea of the Cylon unit and the artificial intelligence within it by moving between the physicality of the two in scenes. While it makes sense it's not entirely successful in convincing us of that duality. It's not terrible, but it's a bit uneven or even weird in parts. As an example, Battlestar Galactica was far superior at selling the Gaius Baltar and Number Six on screen fictional dynamic and relationship whether real or imaginary.

Directed by Ronald Moore himself, in a rare turn, Episode 4, Reins Of A Waterfall expands upon its themes and myth building: v-world, avatars, holobands, Soldier of the One, Madlev train bombing, new Cap city.

A couple of noteworthy performances include series regular Polly Walker as Clarice Willow. Walker's history in film and television is colorful including a terrific turn as Atia in oft-missed HBO series Rome (2005-2007). Genre fans will note her work in the film John Carter (2012) as well as SyFy's Sanctuary (2010) starring Amanda Tapping (Stargate SG-1). For those with an insatiable appetite for sci-fi linking, another surprise turns up in Reins Of A Waterfall with guest star Teryl Rothery (Stargate SG-1) looking absolutely fabulous. She had such a pivotal supporting role in Stargate SG-1 for roughly seven seasons. Her recurring role culminated in one of the most powerful two part stories in the show's run with Season 7, Heroes (2004). You have to watch that series from the beginning to fully appreciate that two-part episode. But I digress in awe of Rothery's unexpected appearance here.

Notable at times, particularly by the fourth entry, is the subdued score by Bear McCreary. His compositions for Caprica including the theme, a rather odd, subtle and ultimately abrupt opener but surprising grower, are not among my favorites. Still the musical themes definitively build upon the beats and themes inherent to his Battlestar Galactica scoring, thereby uniting the two sister series spiritually and materially. The Battlestar Galactica and Defiance scoring still stand mighty among his greatest television compositions. You can add Outlander to that list. Caprica simply isn't that good. But one thing is interesting and that is the use of McCreary's music to build tension or climax where sometimes there is very little in the actual story itself to get that excited about. His music actually masks or attempts to mask some of the series dramatic shortcomings. His music, to look at it another way, is also utilized to inject dramatic crescendo where there may be little. Reins Of A Waterfall offers a number of nice examples of these builds to breaks. Sadly, in this case, McCreary's score, while it serves the series, is also, like the series, somewhat quieter even underwhelming. Still, musically, it's tough to work with dramatically deficient Caprica.

Episode 5, Gravedancing sees the return of writer Jane Espenson. This is her first of two appearances along with Episode 19, the series finale, Apotheosis, a collaboration with Kevin Murphy. Espenson's credentials are indeed long. Her genre cred includes penning stories for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1996), Buff The Vampire Layer (1998-2003; 23 episodes), Angel (1999-2000), Firefly (2002; Shindig), Battlestar Galactica (2006-2009; 5 episodes plus Razor and The Plan), Eureka (2007), Game Of Thrones (2011; A Golden Crown), Torchwood: Miracle Day (2011; 5 episodes) and Once Upon A Time (2011-present; 11 episodes) which also features Robert Carlyle of Stargate Universe. Espenson also served as executive or consulting producer on a number of those entries. Not too shabby.

Apart from the police procedural aspects of the Caprica series which begin becoming more prominent as a result of terrorist and gang activity on display here in Gravedancing, Espenson dips her writing pen into the polygamist activities of Clarice Willow romping about in the sack.

The centerpiece of Gravedancing is an exceptionally entertaining dialogue between the Graystones and a TV host of a fictional talk show. Espenson writes terrific portions for both her male and female counterparts here as expected.

Episode 6, There Is Another Sky, explores the virtual world themes in Caprica and begs the question does technological man ever really die in an artificially viable world?

As noted earlier, Caprica really allowed Moore to explore the virtual concepts of the world he intended for the space series Virtuality. Inner virtual space was to be explored as much as outer space and Caprica has provided the vehicle to keep those ideas alive, if for a single season. As Caprica continues to unfold as a prequel to Battlestar it begins to blossom its own world-building. This is a series far from the obsession of Cylons, and just as interested in cultivating plot threads and machinations between human beings that prove to be generally vile at this stage in civilization's development.

Caprica plays within the virtual reality often creating the impression that sometimes things aren't always what they seem.

There Is Another Sky echoes the likes of Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow (2004) as it recalls those kinds of visual tricks to sell its inner universe. Caprica draws upon the likes of Mamoru Oshii's Avalon (2001) or the kinds of creative effects found in Simon Hunter's The Mutant Chronicles (2008). There's even a board room homage to Paul Voerhoven's Robocop (1987) here. You can't miss it.

Though some of the elements do seem a bit disparate at times. Plot threads don't always feel particularly connected. As one virtual character notes, "I know this must seem really random to you." At times, yes.

So as There Is Another Sky delves deeper into artificial sentience, it calls upon a fair number of teen actors who don't quite seem up to the task. They aren't extraordinary and have difficulty selling material that is, well, quite extraordinary. The younger actors don't measure up to the veterans on board the series.

This is quite apparent in Episode 7, Know Thy Enemy, whereby the more mature actors on the series elevate the tension and sell the drama in a much more enticing fashion. This is one of the best episodes to this point to create an air of distrust and tension that is palpable. This is largely the result of introducing Tomas Vergis as a worthy adversary to Daniel Graystone. Meanwhile, Polly Walker's Sister Clarice brings her seditious and evil best to Amanda Graystone, expertly portrayed by Paula Malcomson. Caprica is generally filled with the dark and seedy, unpleasant little underbelly, but Know Thy Enemy is the most successful to date in striking a good balance with a lesser emphasis on the sub-standard teen drama threads that permeate the series, though Alessandra Torresani delivers her best Kelly Martin (Life Goes On) impression in the virtual nightclub scenes.

 One visual highlight is the wide pan shots of the cities and the efforts to apply neon lighting to the scenery to give Caprica a slightly otherworldly feel. That effort is one of the more visually interesting moments of an otherwise not so interesting season visually.

Episode 8, The Imperfections Of Memory builds upon a marked upswing in quality. The writing too is notably better, but still has its cringe-inducing moments. But the overall quality of The Imperfections Of Memory places it among the best of Season 1.0. This is also in large part due to the chemistry between the principal adult cast which is at its intense best here.

Finally, there is a proper bit of tension in play. Amada Graystone is led to question her beliefs by Sister Clarice whilst Daniel Graystone senses the ghost in the shell that is Zoe Graystone.

This naturally leads into Episode 9, Ghost In The Machine. Caprica definitively taps the concepts of Mamoro Oshii and Masamune Shirow's Ghost In The Shell. While the ideas were not new to those anime and manga classics respectively, the idea of a ghost in the machine has been explored in science fiction for decades. Creators Moore and Aubuchon truly delve into the virtual concepts with Caprica and this time through writer Michael Taylor.

Taylor's credits are long and worthy considering his input on Moore's Battlestar Galactica as a writer and supervising producer. Before that he worked with Moore on the often controversial Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999; 4 episodes incluing The Visitor, Things Past, In The Pale Moonlight and Resurrection) and Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001; 20 episodes). Ghost In The Machine is the first of three contributions to Caprica. And indeed the deeper Caprica goes exploring virtuality, artificial intelligence and New Cap City one senses Caprica's connection to the likes of The Wachowskis' (now both sisters) The Matrix and Mamoru Oshii's Avalon and Ghost In The Shell and even Moore's own Virtuality. At the same time this prequel to Battlestar Galactica is undeniably a different animal to its birth mother. It's easy to see why it was a turn off for those reared on Vipers, Cylons and Colonial Warriors. There was a certain irresistible single-mindedness and space-faring adventurism that was undeniable in Battlestar. That vibe is all gone with Caprica.

Sadly, whilst some storylines continue to improve others continue to bore. Actor Esai Morales, who plays Joseph Adama, spends a good deal of Season 1.0 chasing his daughter's ghost in the New Cap City machine and it gets old. Dialogue is particularly wearing as he flits about yelling for his "daughter," Tamara Adama.

All in all, Ghost In The Machine amplifies Caprica at it most horrifying, shocking and twisted in parts. The show to this point is a frustrating mix of the silly, the convoluted and the sometimes thoroughly gratifying in its slow burn approach to the Graystone dilemma. This is a show that is tough to hate, but not an easy one to like either.

As we reach the final episode of the first half of Caprica's single and only season, Episode 10, End Of Line, a few realizations about why some of the series doesn't seem to quite work. Some of it has to do with chemistry as much as story or writing. Much of the story is founded on Zoe Graystone, who dies in the Pilot episode, but remains a central figure throughout Caprica as a sounding board for both the Daniel and Amanda Graystone characters not to mention others. Though not a terrorist, and not apparently evil, this mischievous girl with authority issues never really developed a relationship with her parents. There was essentially a brief bit of hostility and not much else. In other words, there is no truly established emotional connection between any of these characters. There is no warmth or likability to their dynamic that would nourish the audience. Even the Joseph Adama character has a dysfunctional relationship with his gay thug brother (I guess that happens), an equally unhealthy connection with his son William thus far and a yearning to seek out his daughter. Here Joseph chooses to ignore his living son whilst chasing Alice down some kind of virtual rabbit hole. These disconnects are problematic as is some of the logic in play throughout Caprica. The second rate special effects are forgivable if only these other elements were stronger.

Nevertheless, End Of Line continues to pound home what are clearly Shakespearean aspirations toward the modern tragedy. These are indeed tragic figures and events with a contemporary flourish that populate the world of Caprica. But Brutus and Cassius were more interesting.

All that's in play may be remotely different from the genrific Battlestar Galactica, but its downbeat atmosphere and themes are indeed the spiritual cousin to the previous sci-fi success by Moore but with hardly an ounce of the likability of those troubled characters. This remains tragic space opera to be sure.

Sometimes in Moore's dark creations his characters while not impenetrable aren't always likable. This held true for much of Battlestar Galactica. Caprica, Season 1.0, too, is infused with a difficult bunch to embrace or celebrate.

And speaking of cold, as serviceable as computer effects are in creating Cylons, they will never replace the practical production effects and designs of the original series. You talk about blood and chrome, nothing can really touch the real work that went into creating that original world and those respective Cylon costumes. Caprica lacks all of the magic and wonder of those original beloved Cylons of yore. Those were believable through and through. In fact, I think some of the effects work may have been better on Battlestar Galactica. Caprica works ever so hard to bring it all together while so much seems to be working against it.

The bottom line is Caprica is a rather imperfect science fiction. While this is hardly feel good television, there is something rather curious about this unsettling, dark, mythical place. Despite the flaws, there is enough here to spend some time immersing one's self in the pre-Battlestar Galactica world to explore some of the founding building blocks to that popular sci-fi epic.

Caprica never reached the heights of appointment television in the way Battlestar Galactica had established itself within the genre. Despite some good ideas and a good cast the experience is simply never quite compelling enough. It's a good, commendable effort but not required. While this is not essential viewing, a visit to the tumultuous world of Caprica is mildly recommended only for fans of the Battlestar Galactica mythology or maybe Moore's work.

The tale of a decadent, crumbling nation succumbing to moral decay and ethical bankruptcy may be timely and reflective on its surface, it also touches a nerve and never sits right. Maybe it's presentation of social decay hits a little too close to home.

Caprica lacks the production value of its predecessor. It is also odd in its story concepts, what it wants to be and where it wants to go. It is also not as visually engaging complete with a second rate version of the Cylon thanks to substantially degraded and disappointing CGI.

Damien Holbrook (TV Guide) noted the series was "totally worthy of its Battlestar Galactica roots." But there isn't a single performance containing the heart or character of its antecedents. There isn't a single episode here worthy of its more imaginative progenitors. It simply doesn't hold a candle to both the classic Battlestar Galactica of 1978 or the reimagined series of 2004. I wish this writer could report otherwise, but alas, like the alleged Cylon plan, the Caprica plan is a fail based upon the first half of its single season.

Of course Caprica was intentionally a different animal. Moore readily admitted in Cinema Blend, "everything about Caprica was designed specifically to not repeat what we had done in Galactica." As he said, "you don't try to repeat the formula." While there may be some things for Battlestar fans to appreciate, it is a wholly different enterprise.

Returning to Moore's Battlestar Galactica is an endless source of enjoyment offering an endless world of meaning and analysis and equally grand science fiction entertainment. Caprica falls sadly short. If returning to its world were any litmus test, and keeping in mind this analysis is solely based on the first half Caprica Season 1.0, Caprica won't have the staying power of Battlestar Galactica and will collect dust sitting cozily on the shelf alongside Galactica 1980. Though it's certainly not that bad.


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