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'Caprica' recap: Rebooting the reboot

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How can Caprica possibly succeed? It is a prequel to a remake to a rip-off. Of course, that remake, the updated Battlestar Galactica, was actually one of the greatest TV shows ever, but that only indicates just how impossible Caprica‘s task really is. The new BSG was great precisely because it literally destroyed everything Caprica is. The original 2003 miniseries introduced us to the kind of science-fiction space culture we all got bored with somewhere between Star Trek: Voyager and Stargate: Atlantis. The fact that most of the main cast was in the military recalled everything from the Federation to the Mobile Infantry to the Earth Alliance. Caprica City resembled leftover digital effects from Matt LeBlanc’s Lost in Space remake. The planets all had Zodiac names, and everyone worshiped the Greek gods, because the simple truism about science fiction is that gods don’t exist, unless they are Greek, in which case they are aliens.

Of course, in the BSG miniseries, Caprica City soon resembled an empty pile of irradiated rubble, and all that was left of human civilization was a morally ambiguous band of survivors, in search of a home… called Earth. More than the gritty handheld style, more than the twisted storytelling, more than the dynamite actors, it was that essential act of destruction that made BSG instantly important. It felt like a complete reboot of the whole science-fiction genre on television. It was like the producers were sending us all a message: No more clichès. No more goofy-named planets with only one climate. No more Naboo.

Caprica is the reverse-twist. Where BSG was shadowy and hushed, Caprica‘s series premiere feels overlit and expansive. Where BSG mostly avoided the specifics of Twelve Colonies culture, Caprica dives right in. In just the first two hours, we’ve already learned that Adama is a Tauron name, and Taurons were a repressed ethnicity (fill in your own metaphorical blank here: the Adama brothers are played by an Hispanic and an Israeli; the Tauron language resembles Ancient Greek; we saw Sam Adama execute a mob hit covered in tattoos that recall the Russian mafia.)

We’ve also seen some real government (not the slapped-together politicizing of BSG‘s Quorum of Twelve), and the kind of computer technology that BSG‘s miniseries specifically destroyed — you’ll remember that the only reason the Cylons couldn’t instantly destroy the Galactica was because it was one of the few ships to not have integrated networks. I never fully understood what this meant, but now, thanks to Caprica, we know: it means that nobody on Caprica had glittery virtual reality sunglasses or paper-thin touch-screen computers. No wonder everyone was so depressed.

What I’m trying to say is that Caprica is — purposefully, I think — trying to be everything BSG was not. That’s a good thing, but also dangerous. It means that maybe the best-case-scenario with Caprica is that it becomes a noble failure: good, even great, but still a shadow of the original. The worst-case scenario, of course, is that it pimps out elements of the original show in nonsensical ways just to get attention, answers questions that didn’t need answering, and ends up cheapening the whole brand. I’m looking at you, The Plan.

But I’m talking too much about Battlestar Galactica, and this is Caprica, and I’d say that this show, wherever it goes from here, had a dynamic, thrilling, addictive series premiere. It was problematic, sure, and there’s one glaring child-sized elephant in the room that we have to address, but as the credits rolled I had the giddy feeling that I had just seen something completely new and different. In the interest of keeping this short, I’m going to limit myself to four main observations about last night.

1. Esai Morales is this show’s MVP

Everyone on the cast had their moments in the premiere: Eric Stoltz managed to convincingly play Daniel Graystone as a grieving father, a tormented genius, and an amoral corporate CEO; Paula Malcomson had a bit less to do as the grieving wife, but she did it well (I can’t wait to see this David Milch muse from Deadwood and John from Cincinnati unleash some invective — something tells me “Frak” and its derivatives will sound like gutter poetry coming out of her mouth.)

Polly Walker played a monotheist in polytheist clothes; she didn’t factor very much into the pilot, but what little we learned about her was intriguing, indeed. And I’m frankly unsure what to make of Alessandra Torresani — she has by far the hardest role, playing both Zoe Graystone and her holo-duplicate. I thought she had a perfect grasp of real-Zoe but seemed a little bit uncertain how to play Avatar-Zoe. Then again, Avatar-Zoe is supposed to be existentially uncertain. Mark this as “Wait and See.”

But Esai Morales, for my money, makes the whole show. Unlike the Graystones, he doesn’t wear his sadness on his sleeve; he represses it. You get the sense that Joe Adams has repressed a whole lot of things in his life: from his Tauron upbringing to his shady dealings to his own last name. The fact that he wears his Don Draper hat very well doesn’t hide the fact that he feels deeply uncomfortable wearing it, and all the trappings of Caprican existence.

Despite his lineage, I’m wondering if Joe isn’t going to be this series’ Kara Thrace — someone who cuts through both the lofty galactic melodrama and the heavier philosophical notions at work. He certainly forms the perfect opposite number for Daniel Graystone — I thought their scenes together crackled with energy, as if both men knew exactly how different they were, but also felt close to each other in a way neither man feels in their respective stratus. There was a ready familiarity in the way that Joe says, “Never seen you smoke on TV,” and the way that Daniel almost smiles when he mumbles, “Company image, and all that.”

But about that lineage. Morales has a harder job than (almost) anyone on Caprica as far as the prequel stuff goes. He has to find some way to believably play the father of Bill Adama, a character whose patriarchal persona was etched in concrete by Edward James Olmos. And for my money, Morales rose to the challenge. He manages to suggest Olmos’ single-minded moral strength — when he says, “They’re dead and they’re not coming back, and we have to honor them by continuing to live as best as we can,” you can see in microcosm how someone could learn to be a savior of humanity.

Yet Morales also makes Joe a more ambiguous, even challenging figure. A man of the law who works for criminals, Joe is also a powerless, invisible working class nobody in the midst of an economic boom. His problems aren’t of galactic importance, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t universal. I’m not saying that Morales is better than Olmos, per se, just that he manages to be very different, with just enough of the same. It’s the two versions of Eric Clapton’s “Layla” — the DNA is the same, but the effect is completely different.

2. Monotheism vs. Polytheism

Asks Agent Duram, “It doesn’t concern you, sister? That kind of absolutist view of the universe? Right and wrong determined solely by a single all-knowing, all-powerful being, whose judgment cannot be questioned? And in whose names the most horrendous of acts can be sanctioned without apple?”

You gotta love a show that takes a chainsaw to half the global population’s belief system! Even more, you have to love Caprica for lifting the old monotheistic/polytheistic divide of BSG and exploring it from a completely different perspective. On BSG, the humans were polytheists and the Cylons had one true God; on Caprica, we learn that monotheism is a fringe religion that has inspired at least one possible terrorist organization, the Soldiers of the One.

The series premiere laid in a host of other religious side notes which indicate that the polytheism of the Twelve Colonies seems to have variations from planet to planet (like the black gloves Joe wears as funeral attire, said to be a Tauron tradition), but the central fascination for me was the intelligent debate between the polytheistic mainstream and the monotheistic fringe. When you listen to Agent Duram, what he says makes sense: sure, it seems wrong to judge the world in some singular right/wrong divide.

But then, we got Lacy’s flashback, in which Zoe almost seemed to answer Duram’s argument with a corollary: “There is truth in the world, Lace. There is a right and there is a wrong. And there is a God. A God who knows the difference.” Call me a total geek for tormented agnosticism, but I’m excited by the uncommon intelligence with which the show is handling the usually-avoided topic of religion.

3. Avatar ZoeI took a class about Shakespeare movies once, and for half the semester we literally watched nothing but Hamlet. There was Laurence Oliver’s Hamlet, and Mel Gibson’s, and Kenneth Branagh’s. There was a Russian Hamlet with Soviet imagery, a silent German Hamlet where Hamlet was secretly a woman, and Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet, which is a classic that will hopefully always be overlooked.

Anyhow, one thing our teacher wanted us to take away from all the Hamlet was a simple understanding of what Shakespeare was getting at: the complete dichotomy between who we are and how people see us. Because we get to see Hamlet the tragic hero, the thoughtful and endlessly quotable guy who talks straight to the audience in lengthy soliloquies and seems existentially uncertain about how to live his life. But the other characters in the play don’t see that Hamlet: all they see is a manic, possibly insane rich kid who mourns for his dead dad by going on a killing spree and totally freaking out his mom.

The question being, then: Who is Hamlet, really? Does it matter if he’s secretly the most fascinating human being in fictional history, if all the people around him see someone very different? Are we who we are, or are we what everyone else thinks we are?

This is heavy stuff for a TV show, and I’m not sure how well Caprica can pull it off, but by the gods, it’s trying. The Zoe Avatar, if I understand correctly, is a composite personality of every piece of available information about Zoe:

“Medical scans, DNA profiles, psych evaluations, school records, email, recordings, video, audio, CAT scans, Genetic typing, synaptic records, security cameras, test results, shopping records, talent shows, ball games, traffic tickets, restaurant bills, phone records, music lists, movie tickets, tv habits… even prescriptions for birth control.”

I find this whole notion fascinating, a brain teaser that goes deeper than the old “I’m a robot who thinks, does that mean I’m alive” plotline. Can you perfectly clone someone’s whole being just by observing everything about them in the physical world? Does that mean you’re missing the soul? Or is it possible that one’s “soul” is not some inner mystery, but rather, is present in every interaction with the outside world?

A more basic question you’re probably all asking: is it completely ridiculous that a high schooler would figure out a way to make artificial intelligence when no one else in twelve worlds has? Yes, it is. It’s just as ridiculous as a high school student creating a wrist mechanism that fires an adhesive substance that’s strong as steel but dissolves after one hour. But you know what? I always like it better when Spider-Man had web shooters. And I’m willing to accept that Zoe Graystone was a super genius, especially now that she’s dead. Belief: Suspended!

4. Willie Adama

I’m not sure if the choice to have an adolescent version of William Adama in this show is a very brave or very stupid story choice. Certainly, having him on Caprica adds a weird note of ancestral melodrama: We learned that his mother and sister were killed on his eleventh birthday, and that his father was present for the creation of the Cylons, who would become his enemy.

I mean no offense to the actor portraying young William, Sina Najafi (if nothing else, he’s much better than Jake Lloyd), but I’m just not sure to what extent his presence in the show will ever be more than a concrete reminder of just how much Caprica has to live up to. But then again, I have to admit that I teared up a little bit when Joe told his son their real name — “Adama. A-DA-ma!” — and Bear McCreary’s score dipped into just a little of the old Bill-and-Lee-Adama theme, “Admiral and Commander.”

What did you think of the beginning of Caprica, viewers? Do you like that this show is more realistic, or do you miss zooming through space with Galactica? How good would Caprica have to be to measure up? And do you agree with me that Esai Morales could make the phone book sound like an existential quandary?