Monday, January 25, 2010

Thoughts on Caprica

I loved about half the run of Battlestar Galactica. I was totally addicted to it for the first season, when emergency after emergency came up and it seemed as if at any moment it might be curtains for humanity. Then they lost me, when it started to be more of a soap opera than a far-flung sci-fi adventure series. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of character development and the human drama associated with big events like the near extinction of humanity and the headlong flight into the unknown reaches of space with the agents of said near extinction in hot pursuit. But the series was more interesting when it was about the hard choices and the sacrifices demanded. Once things got to be about how everybody felt about each other I became less interested, and once they started playing political campaign I found it difficult to suspend my disbelief. When they found a planet and then the Cylons came and conquered them it got a little more interesting, but by the time the revolution was over and they started looking for Earth again I just stopped caring, and watching.

So it was with mixed feelings that I approached the prequel series, Caprica, which takes place fifty-odd years before the Second Cylon invasion. For what it's worth, I paid no attention to any of the hype or the previews. Knew nothing about the plotlines or anything besides what the Directv description on my DVR had to say about it. Not a perfect beginner's mind, but close enough.

There will be spoilers in what's to follow. Caveat lector and such.
I will say this: it starts off with a bang. There's some pretty hardcore shit going down in the opening scene in the teenagers' virtual nightclub, sex and murder and human sacrifice even, that without context (and even with, honestly) is pretty jarring. But I appreciate that. One of the reasons I enjoy reading science- and speculative fiction is that sense of being thrown headlong into a world you don't understand and having to figure out what's happening and why it's meaningful. And I have to give the writers (and the network) props: they're definitely going to shock some people with some of the imagery, even if it doesn't ever quite get explicitly R-rated. The shockingness doesn't stop there, either, but we'll get to that in a minute.

The most striking thing about the future-world setting of Caprica is how similar it is to our own world. Yeah, there's a bit more in the way of technology, but the differences are differences of degree more than kind. People look and dress more or less the same as we do. They ride mass transit, hire lawyers, negotiate defense contracts. They think of people from other places as inferior to themselves (although those places are different planets rather than different countries), and speak to and of such people with the same distaste and vitriol as any racist anywhere in these United States, if not more so. There's even a mafia of sorts, among the Taurons, who are sort of Latino Sicilians and go in for tattoos a la the Yakuza.

The differences, however, are interesting, or at least potentially so, depending on where they go with things. One of the striking things about BSG was the conflict of religions, with the humans paying homage to the Greek Pantheon and the Cylons being monotheists, believers in a singular Deity who knows all and wills the universe to be a certain way. The conflict gets a lot of play in the season opener of Caprica, with Zoe, who seems like she might be the protagonist (or antagonist, depending on where you come down on certain questions) revealed as a closet radical monotheist. Of course, you don't find that out until well after her boyfriend kills her, himself, and a whole trainful of people in a suicide bombing, but it looks to be one of the major drivers of the story arc, since Zoe's consciousness ends up being uploaded into the first Cylon. But more on that later. What's interesting to me is the reversal of place between mono- and polytheism, which juxtaposition offers some interesting and rather complicated moral insights. In the world of Caprica, it's polytheism that enjoys the status of settled truth and carries the weight of tradition. But it also seems to entail a certain crippling moral relativism. The kids in the virtual nightclub are portrayed as lost souls because of it, with no limits to their behavior. They fuck and kill with abandon, because nothing matters. That it occurs in a virtuality, in which a case could be made that nothing really does matter, at least not the way it does in phenomenal reality, isn't really picked up on, but I guess there're really only so many moral and metaphysical inquiries you can take up in one TV show. No, what matters for the story arc is that the acceptance of mutliple divinities leads inevitably to a certain inevitable moral and ethical fuzziness, as if everyone's moral compass was thrown off, made useless by too many magnetic poles. I don't know that I necessarily believe that that would be the case in a polytheistic society, but the story demands it and that's that.

On the flipside, the monotheists, whose one god is repeatedly characterized as the one who knows right from wrong, apparently consider themselves insurgents whose one god doesn't think it's wrong to, say, blow up a whole train-car full of people in order to make a point about how serious they are about their god. They're a pretty disapproving lot, these one-god believers. They don't seem to like the status quo, although the only evidence of civilizational or moral decline offered as reason for their disapproval is the licentiousness of teenagers. For what it's worth, there is some evidence of oppression of them and their belief system offered, but which is the chicken and which the egg is left ambiguous, at least for now.

The next big question the show seems to want to address has to do with the nature of identity. Much of the plot revolves around a virtual copy of herself that Zoe made, that her father, the insanely wealthy genius inventor, discovers thanks to her friend and obsesses over putting into a cybernetic body so that he can have a facsimile of his daughter back. There're some interesting questions here that are not particularly interestingly answered as of yet. For instance, if a conscious entity is convinced that it's a person, even if its lebenswelt is different from phenomenological reality, can it be right?

"I know I'm not real. But I feel real."

"A difference that makes no difference is no difference."

Facile, yes, but they do get at some interesting notions of consciousness, notions that humanity (in the real world as well as the fictional world of Caprica) is probably going to find itself wrestling with sooner than later, historically speaking. We're already on the verge of cloning, and the recent product rollout of the Roxxxy robotic sex toy/girlfriend analogue is just another step in the creation of artificial life forms that may or may not one day think of themselves as conscious beings. Face it, anything that learns to be aware of itself will eventually consider itself, if not human, then functionally (and perhaps legally) equivalent. And perhaps it will be.

But how, you ask, does Caprica work as entertainment? After all, this is not a speculative psychology or comparative religions lecture. The answer is, well, not great, but not bad. Some of the writing, and some of the acting, is less than enthralling. There're lots of good ideas floating around in the background, and the worldbuilding, such as it is, is good, although I can't help but wonder that some of the tech they've got wouldn't change some things. But I suppose it really does make it more compelling to watch if we can recognize ourselves in that world. I did enjoy the many little starts of recognition as the actors appeared. There's Trixie from Deadwood, and Caesar's sister from Rome, and the guy in the pet store in Best in Show, who all have major parts. Even the Smoking Man from the X Files appears, although he doesn't last long. And Eric Stoltz and Esai Morales both put in reasonable performances given the script, which is long on big ideas and short on snappy or memorable dialogue.

All in all, I'm intrigued. I'm a sucker for good sci-fi from way back, and I'm glad to see that it's experiencing a sort of Renaissance of mainstreaming. And there are definitely some worthwhile ideas, as I've mentioned, that I'm interested to see explored in the context of the story. And the story itself looks like it could be interesting. One of my main gripes with mainstream sci-fi entertainment is how hackneyed the storytelling often is, as if so much money gets spent on the set pieces and special effects that they couldn't afford anybody with any talent to actually write the thing. And while Caprica seems like it might skirt that line pretty closely, I think that, if nothing else, the big picture stuff will manage to make up for whatever weaknesses the dialogue and the storytelling suffer from. I also like that while it ties in to BSG, and manages to fill in some backstory, that it's its own thing, its own story.

In all I see a lot of potential, and I look forward to watching more, although I may also wait for the DVDs to come out, or at least let the DVR fill up a bit before I go back. I don't have a lot of time to watch TV, and I generally prefer watching these metamovies (snazzy new term for series with season-long story arcs and such) in larger chunks than just a single episode. Besides, it's not like I'm going to spend my Friday nights in front of the TV.

Oh, one last thing I just have to mention. 'Cylon' turns out to be the lamest acronym ever. Cybernetic Lifeform Node? For realz? Weak.

But, if Ronald Moore and Co. manage to continue exploring these interesting questions and areas of inquiry while producing a credible facsimile of entertaining televsion, well, then I'll forgive them.

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