3.5 stars.

Release date: 4/21/2009; Air date: 1/22/2010
Written by Remi Aubuchon & Ronald D. Moore
Directed by Jeffrey Reiner

Cast includes: Eric Stoltz (Daniel Graystone), Esai Morales (Joseph Adama), Paula Malcomson (Amanda Graystone), Alessandra Toressani (Zoe Graystone), Magda Apanowicz (Lacy Rand), Sasha Roiz (Sam Adama), Brian Markinson (Jordan Duram), Polly Walker (Clarice Willow), Sina Najafi (William Adama), Genevieve Buechner (Tamara Adama)

Review Text

Caprica was originally described by creator Ron Moore as a prime-time soap, "a sci-fi Dallas." I did not watch Dallas and only kind of vaguely remember when it was on — even though in looking it up on IMDB, I see that it ran for 14 seasons, all the way up until 1991. Still, that seems to me like an odd pitch for the prequel to Battlestar Galactica. In this day and age where serialized dramas are common, the term "soap opera" is to me a puzzlement. What exactly makes a soap a soap? Serialization? Lurid melodrama? Bad acting? I suppose that's fodder for another column.

In truth, Caprica doesn't feel any more like a soap opera to me than Battlestar did. Stylistically and, to a lesser degree, tonally, BSG and Caprica are different, yes. But the Caprica pilot has more similarities to BSG than you might assume. The show, like BSG before it, uses the trappings of sci-fi to tell stories about us and the way we live now. Caprica perhaps even more so, because it more resembles our existing world. To me, this is what true sci-fi is all about: It puts twists, by way of fictional technology, into what otherwise resembles a real world with real people, and considers the bigger questions of how those people behave.

Consider the opening sequence. A nightclub scene filled with young people that seems to be spinning out of control. An orgy of sex and violence. People shooting each other for fun. A human sacrifice ritual played out in front of a howling mob. The sequence is actually all taking place within a virtual reality realm not unlike an ultra-advanced RPG. The scene is an imagining of what would certainly happen in our society if the technology made it possible. If the tech were available here and today, would teenagers invent VR nightclubs where they could beat each other up and have group sex? Without a doubt, yes. It also underlines the truth that adults are always playing catch-up on these things. (Zoe's father has never even heard of these clubs, despite being a computer corporation billionaire.)

What most impressed me about Caprica was how quickly it seemed to invent and populate this believable, lived-in world. Perhaps a big part of that is because it takes place in a world that feels familiar — both to our own world, and to the BSG world it serves as a prequel to. Although much has been made about the fact that Caprica stands alone and does not require knowledge of BSG, there are a lot of thematic and aesthetic similarities. For fans of BSG, there will be a palpable sense that this is the same universe.

But it's a different series, with different priorities. There's no military setting, no spaceships, no action-adventure. If BSG was about military life, Caprica is about its very civilian counterpart. The docudrama camerawork is gone in favor of a much more traditional style.

But there's plenty of societal strife percolating below the surface, and it plays out here at a more micro level, on the scale of two individual families (as opposed to the macro destruction-of-the-worlds level of BSG). It involves a teenage girl named Zoe Graystone (Alessandra Toressani), who is a computer prodigy. Her genius experiments in software design have allowed her to make a VR replica of herself that is a unique and dynamic artificial intelligence.

Zoe has also recently found her way into a fringe monotheist religious movement along with some of her high-school classmates. In the opening scene we see Zoe and her friends in the nightclub, a scene they used to enjoy for its forbidden hedonism, but now — since they've come to know The Way of the One True God — see as a sickness pervading their increasingly decadent society. Zoe, along with her boyfriend Ben Stark (Avan Jogia) and best friend Lacy Rand (Magda Apanowicz), intend to run off to Geminon and start a new life. In its small way on its small scale, this represents a youth revolution that has rejected the ways of its parents. Like the Cylons did/will.

The subsequent shocking suicide bombing carried out by Ben — who destroys a packed elevated train, killing its passengers including Zoe — is one of those dark moments that almost seems to say, "Brought to you from the creators of Battlestar Galactica!" Like its predecessor, Caprica does not shy away from ugly acts of fanaticism while at the same time using such an act to examine the sort of warped sensibilities where these acts grow from and are nurtured.

This is another aspect where Caprica benefits from resembling our own world but, like BSG before it, is freed by the sci-fi element: It is about people and issues that are real. It can be about terrorism, and about religious fanaticism, and about societal strife and ethnic prejudices — and it can do it in a fictional, self-contained way that comments on humanity on a conceptual and intellectual level rather than on specific real-world terms (which, let's face it, in this country's current political climate is impossible since all dialogue is immediately broken into bifurcated politically partisan camps, drained of all nuance, and rendered useless).

But it also uses familiar allegorical shorthand. The terrorists are religious fundamentalists, in this case fringe monotheists. The mainstream polytheistic scholastic establishment looks like a private Catholic school (although the dialogue says the school doesn't endorse any particular religion over another). Meanwhile, the Taurons in the story are viewed by many Capricans as untrustworthy "dirt-eating" immigrants (having prompted Joseph Adama to change his last name to "Adams" and somewhat eschew his roots).

The story looks at grief in the aftermath of tragedy as viewed through two fathers. Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz) is a billionaire computer mogul who lost his daughter Zoe, and Joseph Adama (Esai Morales) is a lawyer who lost his wife and daughter. They meet during a press conference for the bombing investigation, and their subsequent scenes together have a straightforward simplicity that simply looks at two men trying to cope as best they can with unimaginable loss.

Daniel comes to learn about Zoe's virtual copy through Zoe's best friend Lacy, who survived the bombing because she got cold feet and didn't get on the train. This leads Daniel to meet the virtual version of his daughter, who is somehow more than just a computer avatar. She's a unique artificial intelligence, and a nearly perfect copy of Zoe with all her memories. Virtual Zoe is sentient: "I'm not a person. I know that. But I feel like one." And there's something intriguingly revelatory about the scene where Virtual Zoe rattles off a long string of examples of everyday data that might be used to recreate a personality profile for an individual, hinting at how much any one of us might exist out there in the technological ether where data gets stored forever.

Of course, you can't make a person out of raw data — therein lies the miracle of Zoe's creation of Virtual Zoe (which, by the way, is at one point described as a possibly divine miracle) — but it is interesting to ponder how much of a digital footprint remains based on everything we've done while plugged in. (I read a story a while back about how social networking companies have had to start seriously thinking about how best to deal with the data of people who have died, leaving their active user profiles behind.)

Daniel's story is about his increasing obsession with figuring out a way to bring Virtual Zoe out of the VR realm of the holoband and into the real world where she can live again. This obsession is run against the parallel story of Joseph Adama, whose family also has been destroyed by the tragedy (he of course also has an 11-year-old son, William), but who takes a different trajectory and ultimately decides to deal with his grief and move forward, rather than being defined by trying to recreate the past.

Before we get to that point, however, these two men struggle with the question of grief versus using technology to circumvent it, and Joseph is briefly (albeit skeptically) brought along by Daniel to consider trying to bring his own daughter's data into a VR avatar where they might be able to bring her back to "life."

This is where the heart of the story's sci-fi arguments lie. Caprica asks tough and thoughtful questions about the nature and moral implications of VR and AI. Daniel's persuasive arguments about Virtual Zoe's existence have a certain logical implacability: "You're right," he says to Joseph. "She's a copy. But a perfect copy. In every way. There's an axiom in my business. A difference that makes no difference is no difference."

"Who's to say her soul isn't a copy?" Daniel asks. "You can't copy a soul," Joseph responds. "And you would know that how?" retorts Daniel. Fair enough; you can't prove or disprove the existence or nonexistence of a soul, even if you can successfully define it. All you can say is that you believe it's there or you don't.

The sci-fi questions coexist alongside plot elements that work efficiently here and reveal a lot of promise for Caprica as it moves beyond the pilot and into a longer series. For example, Joseph Adama is not just a defense lawyer, but a lawyer for the Tauron mob, the H'la'tha. Joseph's brother Sam (Sasha Roiz) is an active enforcer (i.e., killer) for the mob.

There's a moment here where Joseph crosses an ethical line into the kind of criminal malfeasance he swore to stay away from, as a direct result of giving into Daniel and his own grief. Because of this, a man is brutally murdered in a moment of grand cine-Mafioso melodrama. Sam is the one who does the killing. (Although the three-tiered scene that cuts between sex, murder, and despair struck me as cliché; BSG did the crosscutting sex scene one or two times too many, and here we take yet another trip to that well.) Meanwhile, Daniel's corporate malfeasance and his theft of his competitor's technology promises future corporate intrigue (what with all the bidding wars and military contracts at stake).

Joseph's bout with VR to try to recreate his daughter's likeness ends in disaster. "An abomination," he rightly calls it. Daniel is not dissuaded. A powerful scene, equal parts wondrous and creepy, comes when he attempts to transfer the Virtual Zoe program into a Cylon robot body. If you think of this AI as a sentient being that expects to feel human, what must it feel when it suddenly wakes up and experiences the world as a cold, metallic, non-breathing ... thing? Daniel's experiment is a failure and Zoe's VR program appears lost. (Though the final scene, which is a great ending hook, suggests otherwise.) In a pilot with many solid performances, Stoltz's is memorable for bringing emotional urgency to scenes involving this robot.

And then there's the question of what's exactly going on back at the school. Sister Clarice Willow (Polly Walker) is ultimately revealed as the head of the group of underground monotheists that pulled in Zoe, Lacy, and Ben and turned Ben into a deadly radical; Clarice is apparently also the mastermind behind the bombing. Lacy discovers this in a moment that is, for her, of great comfort and relief simply because she knows she isn't alone. The storyline demonstrates how the young and impressionable can be manipulated by their elders on behalf of a cause.

From a production standpoint, Caprica looks great. The production design is alternately arid and high-tech (the Graystone house), or more homey and old-fashioned (the Adama home). The look and feel of the show's technology is elegant and believable, from the touch-screen paper to the holoband devices and their holo-environments. The Cylon robots are very convincing (you sometimes forget you are watching CGI, the animation has gotten so good). The location photography is handsome. And the CGI city shots are impressively persuasive in their ability to create a huge, sprawling, living, breathing Caprica City. (The version of the pilot that aired on Syfy has additional establishing shots of Caprica City not included on the DVD version; these shots were no doubt later produced for the series after it was commissioned.)

So I think Caprica's off and running with a very good start. The pilot covers a lot of ground, and most importantly, it asks a lot of really interesting and probing sci-fi questions and considers their implications. And for the BSG crowd, the end of the pilot reveals that the Cylon race was born from a copy of the late Zoe Graystone, a monotheist who would become the first of a race of AI monotheists.

Now that's a neat narrative trick they pulled off there.

Next episode: Rebirth

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23 comments on this post

    "What exactly makes a soap a soap? Serialization? Lurid melodrama? Bad acting? I suppose that's fodder for another column."

    I think that, more broadly, what makes a soap a soap is serialization, melodrama (which is to say, heightened/exaggerated emotional stakes), sometimes lurid, and a focus on domestic and romantic life. I'd say that scenery-chewing acting might be a qualifier, but obviously "bad" isn't unless you're assuming that the term is automatically negative. DALLAS but also THIRTYSOMETHING, or Douglas Sirk movies, or Far From Heaven. Or for that matter BATTLESTAR a great deal of the time--it just avoided the description because there were clearly other genre markers, which is to say space ships, political intrigue, action, etc. And its focus was not on families as families, the way CAPRICA seems to be about watching how families interact and deal with their grief, as well as having robots and speculative fiction stuff. BATTLESTAR was...families in the military, families in war, not families in a relatively mundane part of the life. Similarly for other shows with serialization, e.g. no one calls THE SOPRANOS or DEADWOOD or BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER soaps even though they are to some extent, because they have other immediately obvious genre markers.

    I've never actually watched DALLAS, but the general idea is that it's about how one rich family interacts and has power struggles. The type of rich-family patriarch seems an inspiration for Greystone, anyway. And your reference to melodrama, well, the show is based on huge tragedies befalling two families, losing children, wives, etc.--it is a huge emotional loss presented as a starting point for the story for these characters, so I think the show is definitely gesturing toward melodrama, maybe even of the lurid sort. That melodrama can be done intelligently shouldn't really be a suprrise?

    The term is sometimes pejorative (the way you're using it here), the same way that space opera is sometimes pejorative, but I think Moore et al. mean it in its broader sense. The show will probably focus on character relationships within the family without an absolutely obvious greater threat in the episode-to-episode plotting, though obvious there's still terrorism and robots and lots of other elements and genre cues to the show's makeup.

    Not that you ever left of course, but Welcome Back Jammer!! As we begin the journey into another show it's very encouraging to know that your reviews are still going. 12 years of patronage isn't enough for me!!

    A fantastic review of the pilot here. I agree on all points. There is definitely potential here and, like you, I'm glad that Caprica seems to be willing to look at some Big Questions, in addition to telling a character study.

    I've just watched episode two, and I'm looking forward to reading your review with baited breath.

    In regards to the opening sequence in the VR club, those first few minutes as I watched the escalating, behaviour of those people, wroking their way up from mindless sex, to outright, cheering on a bllodbath, I though, and said, This is what BSG was about, saving the born from /this/?

    Additionally, there are a few asthetic similarities to BSG. in one shot, in the secret room off the VR nightclub (Actually the inside of the Opera House) you get a clear shot of the door, and surrounding walls, and one of those walls looks like a wall from Galactica, you know, the one with vertical ridges, and such that you would see inside Adama's or Tigh's quarters? Something I found interesting.

    Just a heads-up Jammer, halfway through your listing of the cast you flip from Actor Name(Character Name) to Character Name(Actor Name)

    Are you going to be reviewing the series or just the pilot? The placement of this review on the blog rather than the review site suggests the latter.

    It was indeed very good. Whether it can sustain itself will only be revealed in time.

    I'll be watching. The ending, as you say, was more than enough of a hook. As the Zoebot awoke, you could almost here Angel Six proclaiming, "The first of God's new generation."

    Sam: Thanks for the heads-up. I've made the correction.

    Brendan: The placement of this review on the blog shouldn't imply anything, either for or against, my plans/non-plans for Caprica the series (although based on previous posts and comments, there should be enough pieces for you to figure out my likely plans). That said, I will have another post with a detailed explanation in the next few days. Until then, I will remain enigmatically mysterious. :)

    By the end of the pilot, the question that was foremost in my mind - who the heck are the target demographic for this mashup of BSG and Buffy.
    BSG, with it's eye candy and vanilla sex was presumably aimed at the highly desirable 18-45 hetero male market.

    I find the father - daughter fixation positively creepy /incestuous.
    I find the virtual nightclub scenes lame in an over-the-top kind of way (is that really what people find alluring.)
    Zoe reminds me strongly of Wesley Crusher - one of my least favorite plot devices in Star Trek.
    I could do without the heavy handed mafia violence.

    I actually found the source of the cylons one true god to be kind of disappointing.

    Are the cylons of BSG really immortal adolescents?


    I agree that the father/daughter thing looked like it could head towards creepyville (given they were meeting in virtual sex-club), but I am hoping that now that Zoe is "out", that won't be an issue.

    The immortal adolescents thing kind of makes sense given Cavil's actions in the series. Committing genocide just to prove a point to his "parents" sounds like something an all powerful teenager would do.

    Um, yes the (colonial skinjob) cylons were effectively children who did not realize they were children, who did not realize they had a great deal of growing up to do. Their emotional immaturity was a *key* point of the show.

    Caprica is definitely not a soap opera since soap operas usually are silly and cheap melodramatic stories with no theme at all (other of cliche romance and equally cliche power struggles). Caprica is something really different: a rare case of tv science fiction without starships and space battles, planet based and with a lot of intriguing social themes and questions. As such it is something really new and refreshing for sci-fi tv (not forgetting of course Dollhouse).
    There is ofcourse a rather weak point to the plot : the cylon monotheism started becouse the first cylon with personality was created with the virtual copy of a young monotheist girl? for the moment i don;t find this very convincing but it's still too early to judge. Otherwise it is a very good start and i hope that the series will have a story arc as BSG did, the whole theme does not seem suitable for an episodic series.

    What this is is not funny. There was almlost zero humor in the pilot, no wacky, fun, striking characters. A neat mystery, a fantastically created world, a wonderful use of virtual reality in sci-fi plotting and thinking, but not a good promise for the future for characters. I didn't LIKE any of them, despite feeling quite interested and involved right off the bat. A very pretty, very impressive little pilot, but actually... not very good the most important aspect of being a drama worth following, establishing characters I want to follow.

    Graham, you may have a point, which may partially be why they hired Jane Espenson (known for her irreverent humor from the Whedon universes, I'm informed) to run the writing staff.

    Also, Patton Oswalt is going to be on the show's third episode (and I believe a recurring character), so perhaps he will inject some humor into the proceedings.

    Graham - I agree about the lack of engagement with the characters. I think that's why I'm ranting about other aspects of the show that bug the heck out of me. I watched the first season of BSG on DVD, and was able to engage quickly with many of the characters, which carried me over the stuff I didn't like (or loathed, in some cases).

    Jammer, I stumbled across this review in Cyberspace, and was delighted so to do, as I used to read your Star Trek reviews, many moons ago. Hope to dip in from now on to keep up with all things Caprican!

    I'm finding myself wondering if one of Ron Moore's influences in his re-envisioning of the BSG universe was an odd little mid-1970s series of Star Trek novels dealing with the "Phoenix process" -- a permutation of the transporter that created virtually perfect replicas of people at the moment of death or a near-death experience. The discussion of Virtual Zoe ("she's a copy, but a perfect copy") reads VERY much like something out of the Phoenix books.

    Those books -- "Price of the Phoenix" and "Fate of the Phoenix" -- were very controversial among Trek fans, first of all for being borderline-slash, and secondly for being something of a tangent from what most people considered the regular Trek universe. Ron Moore has name-checked the authors, Sandra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath, so he may well have read those novels.

    Yes, absolutely, to compare with BSG, I was immediately in love with at least four characters right off the bat (Baltar, Bill Adama, Roslin, Starbuck... and Six shortly after that). There was nothing like that here, in fact, I don't know if I really LIKE any of them, particularly Eric Stoltz's character whom I found pretty irritating... Last year, Fringe had the same problem, minus one, as John Noble was marvellous and I really didn't like anyone else on the show, even if it was a very pretty, very well made show.

    The episodes since the pilot have been a bit hit or miss. I haven't caught all of them, although a friend of mine DVR'd them all, so I intend to do a little marathon next weekend with him. We'll see what I think, but I'm not happy as I could be. Still, what great sci-fi show ever starts off as well as BSG? We've been a little spolied, I say.

    I thought the pilot was fine dramatically and all, I liked the tone, the monotheisme versus polytheisme, the visual style and so on.

    But here comes my biggest and maybe only issue: are we to believe that we go from this situation to the denouncement of the Cylons, to the Cylons+ ('They evolved') as we know them from BSG, to a scorched 'earth' and back to the attack on Caprica in just 56 years*. And you can take off a few years off of that, because (possible spoiler) Tigh is a long time friend of Bill Adama after the dramatic events on 'earth' (sorry, people, my BSG-lingo is not that good). The speed of evolution in robotics that this suggests, is unbelievable to me. It would practically mean that they go from no realy good working mechanical robot (like the pseudo-butler) to the Cylonmodels we know from BSG. To me that's the biggest hurdle.

    Somebody please give me a plausible explanation (I'm realy hoping I missed something in BSG), so I can pick up the rest of the series once it goes to dvd/bd here in Belgium. I know it's worth it, I just can't take the hurdle yet.

    * The subtitles in Dutch say (translated back to English): Caprica, 56 years before the fall.

    @Ian - I've seen everything (incl. The Plan), but I have to say that I don't rewatch or analyse anything. I savor the moment sort of speak and then let it pass. This enables me to enjoy it again in the future. Some people watch things over and over (like my wife) and realy enjoy knowing what will happen next and sometimes know verbatim what characters are going to say; I realy don't. (except maybe: "Mr. Worf, fire!")

    That's why I might have missed something important that explains my question. On the other hand: I don't like the tendency to create overly complicated storylines √° la Lost (season 5 = horror). Storylines in which something is said or happens (almost hidden) and not realy picked up again, but indeed 'used' to rationalise something that for some reason needs to happen. I know the typical BSG-fan likes things unexplained (like what the frack realy happened to Starbuck at the end of S3 and the very end), I simply don't. It seems to me like a cheap way to cut corners.
    I can imagine that the explenation I seek are in season 4, maybe even in the ramblings of Anders.
    What I (maybe falsely) remember from S4 in fact, is that 'earth' (spoiler alert) was destroyed thousands of years before. And that the Five have been around for a very long time.

    To sum it up: BSG in seasons 1 and 2 was my kind of show all the way. Seasons 3 and 4 were overly philosophical and complicated in structure, but not bad per se. The result is that I remember more from S1+S2 than from S3+S4. Hence my problem.

    POSSIBLE GSB SPOILERS AHEAD - I get it now (Hail Wikipedia). It was somewhat like I thought (about earth and the Five). I clearly missed a/the key element. My opinions stands though (IMHO). Things like that should be clear as a doorbell, not be sought after on the internet. And the whole Cylon-internal-turmoil-business didn't interest me one bit anyway.

    One more thing: I fear the makers of Caprica are making the same mistake that most do when they make a prequel. They tend to force in elements that people already know and (hopefully) will find either interesting or fun. In this case it's the name 'Cylon' and the fact that there had to be an Adama (Adams) in it.
    Prequel are almost be definition contrived, because they simply have to end up at a certain point. I hope the strength of this series will be the drama and not so much the 'history of Caprica before the fall'.

    One thing's for sure. I'll have to wait a while to see it all. The pilot was released on dvd here mid march. Season 1 won't be around on dvd before the end of the year. Hope it's worth the wait (and the money).

    I think it's too soon to judge the show as a whole after the pilot episode. How can we possible know where the show will go over the next few years, based on a single instalment which is simply laying the groundwork and introducing the major players?

    I have seen a lot of premature conclusions being reached in the comments on this review. Zoe is the very first sentient AI, and she is "near perfect". What makes it so hard to believe that the Cylon race will evolve over the next 58 years? Look at how cars, computers and mobile phones were in our world just 10 years ago, compared to today. All of these things have improved vastly to the point where they are almost not the same things they were back then, particularly in the case of cars, which are in general a lot bigger, a lot more powerful, yet comfier and much more economical. In most cases there is literally no comparison between a modern motor and its elderly siblings (compare the Peugeot 407 to the 406 and 405, or the latest BMW 6-series to its last incarnation).

    Production line machines can assemble and paint these modern day behemoths a damn sight quicker than people could have built and finished off the smaller, lighter, boxier constructions of yesteryear.

    Imagine what could happen with a sentient AI that was already at human level. How long would it really take a race of such beings to surpass our reactions, intelligence and innovation by a trillion times?

    Anyway, I loved the way Caprica looks, its overly-flashy title sequence is growing on me (even if the blonde girl's hair is blowing in a ridiculous ethereal, indoor wind which isn't touching the character who stands with her), and although I am fairly disappointed with the theme music, the title logo itself is impressively bold.

    I was really happy with the way this show integrates itself into the BSG universe almost instantly. On the other hand I found it consistently doom-and-gloomy, not just because it's a tale of death, grief and obsession, but because we KNOW that everyone in the account will be dead within 60 years, rendering a lot of what happens in the series to be moot.

    I will keep watching Caprica until I've had a proper chance to make my mind up about it. I am distinctly 50-50 at the moment.

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