Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Caprica: "Pilot" (1x01)

As much as I was excited to hear that the Battlestar Galactica prequel series Caprica was picked up, I had some major reservations. The series is both a prequel and a spinoff, two of the trickiest works to do. The big issue with either of these is that for all the audience you’re attracting by association with the parent work, you’re cutting off potential new viewers, who are already behind in their knowledge of the story universe. And, you’re invariably going to leave some fans of the original series unsatisfied, since you’re not necessarily giving them the things they liked about the original series.

In terms of production circumstance, Caprica is reminiscent of Crusade, the Babylon 5 spinoff that aired shortly after the main series’ conclusion. Crusade, while not an outright awful series, suffers from pretty much all the problems a spinoff can have. Its premise was stuck in Babylon 5 continuity, and based on a TV movie starring the Babylon 5 cast, but it featured no actual Babylon 5 main characters in the show, giving fans and new viewers the worst of both worlds. In addition, the show never really staked out its own identity. Babylon 5 had defined itself as a space series that wasn’t Star Trek, Crusade was like Star Trek in the Babylon 5 verse.

On top of these spinoff issues, Caprica has to deal with the problem with prequels. The Star Wars prequels started the prequel phenomenon and are also exemplary of the problem with most prequels, they’re generally about watching pieces fall into place. Good stories drop you in at the most interesting point, and let things develop from there. If this time was so interesting, why didn’t the original series start here? The people behind the X-Men franchise are just baffling in their choice to do two prequel movies rather than go forward into the future. We all know what will happen to Caprica, why bother watching this series?

Well, thankfully the pilot totally wiped away my doubts about the shows purpose and quality with a standout pilot episode that managed to fit nicely in to the pre-existing BSG universe, but still carve out its own style and feel. The military aspects of BSG were never my favorite, so it was refreshing to be able to explore the issues of identity and humanity without getting bogged down in action scenes every few minutes. This is a more cerebral, introspective show, one that feels very much drawn from the world we live in today. That connection to our world was one of the best things about BSG, and this one draws even more on the beats of everyday life, the struggle to find meaning in a world where awful things happen.

One of my all time favorite film openings is Miami Vice’s drop directly into a nightclub, and I loved the similar opening here, as we instantly find ourselves at an over the top bacchanalia of sex and violence. The DVD only release gives us a bit more nudity and violence than the series itself will likely have, and I think that added bit makes it clear how far this place goes. This is a world without rules or moral consequences, where people can kill and fight and do all the things they secretly want to do, but society won’t allow them to. Why would you spend your time in boring school when you could be doing this?

I think it’s key that Zoe, Lacy and her friends go to an elite prep school and are so wealthy. These are the kind of kids who have no worries in the world, who can do whatever they want, and that’s why they go so far. It’s also why they burn out on it the quickest. They’ve been able to get anything they want in the real world, and now they can have anything they want in the virtual world, Zoe needs a more substantial transgression against authority, and that’s where the notion of the one God comes in.

It’s interesting to see the scene with the investigator and Sister Willow, where the notion of a single god is portrayed as something to be terrified of. In a world with many gods, there is no central authority, morality can be subjective and slippery, a conglomerate of different voices. One god means one truth, and that can also mean an inability to accept other viewpoints.

The episode’s greatest strength is the mood, and the way that the filmmaking establishes this series as its own world. It draws on the style of BSG, but I was instantly engaged on an aesthetic level. Because the show was shot so well, and created this mix of surreal and hyper-real, I was totally engaged through the exposition. It wasn’t a question of waiting to get to the good part of the story, just the images of the club and the world alone were interesting enough to hold my attention.

Once Zoe died, the show took a more contemplative turn, the energy of youth replaced by the regret and sadness of an older generation. Watching Daniel’s excitement at discovering new technology, we can see what inspired Zoe. The two of them are very similar, and it took her death to make him realize that.

That said, the show wasn’t perfect. I think the mob lawyer stuff could lead to some weak standalone episodes in the future. And, the transition of Zoe to cylon was a bit goofy. I think the major question is what is the show about on a weekly basis. Though this is a far better pilot than Dollhouse, I think it’s similar in that it’s got a lot of interesting ideas, but not necessarily a clear narrative drive forward. I’m interested in seeing them continue to explore the universe, and the world of the holo-club and the disconnect between that decadence and the more restrained surface world. But, if it’s just going to be mob drama and stuff like that, I don’t think it’ll work as well.

But, I was very impressed by this episode. It’s a really strong pilot, with a clear identity and sense of place. The cast is great, the production value is pretty high, and I’m eager to see what happens when the show continues in 2010.