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'Caprica' Recap: My brain hurts so good

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Caprica-Memory

Image Credit: Eike Schroter/SyfyI try not to talk too much about Battlestar Galactica in these recaps. I feel that I’d be doing Caprica a bit of a disservice; this new show is still barely half a season old, while BSG exists now as a complete story, in 75 chapters (plus webisodes.) Moreover, since Caprica is a spin-off and a prequel, there’s always the danger that a comparison would just lead us down rhetorical dead ends. I like Caprica for what it is: the weirdest, smartest, and most consistently surprising show on TV.

How surprising? Last night’s episode was titled “The Imperfections of Memory,” which sounds like a college textbook for Psych 101, or maybe a fake textbook in a Borges short story. Viewers, I thought the first half of last night’s episode was the worst we’ve seen of Caprica yet. There was the arrival of an imaginary dead brother, and the counterbalancing descent of Amanda Graystone into a depressive ennui that’s beginning to feel like self-parody. There was Tad Thorean, overexplaining everything about New Cap City in case we didn’t get it the first five times. There was Zoe on a Viper date with her darling Philo, in a special-effects sequence so non sequitur and awful that I could swear the writers overheard some BSG fans who were missing all those old Viper fights and decided, in a fit of pique, to throw a couple of Vipers in their faces.

But the second half of the episode was incredible. Something shifted in the editing style: we began crosscutting between scenes without any time passing. We’d leave Philomon and Zoe in mid-kiss, cut to a scene between Amanda and Daniel, and then return in the middle of the same kiss. The tension was palpable by the end, even though the different plotlines were all zipping away in very different directions. It felt like the episode wandered for twenty minutes, and then suddenly found itself.

In the interest of keeping this short, I want to sidestep doing a plot description (honestly, not that much happened), and focus instead on three of the big topics brought up last night:

The Creation of Evolution

Note to computer geeks: Virtual Viper Flying is not something you spring on them before your first kiss. After a crashdown landing, Zoe and Philomon sat by the lake in V-World. Out of nowhere, they had a dialogue so good that it seemed to be a secret code for understanding all of Caprica.

Zoe was describing why she doesn’t like how humans are treating V-world: “People see this place as an excuse to cut corners, drop out of life, or do things that they know are wrong.” (I forget sometimes that Zoe is something of a moral elitist.) And she hated the fakeness: how one tree looked like any other. “Maybe,” Philomon said, “someone didn’t want to program a million different trees.” I want to quote the complete dialogue that followed, just because it’s so dense and so smart and seems like a line of dialogue David Milch would write if he could borrow Stephen Hawking’s brain:

“Living systems use generative algorithms. With a generative model, the system would use a basic generative kernel of a tree. And pow! And infinite variety of tree-like trees.”

Pause. Longing looks between Philomon and his girlcrush.

“I work with top secret military robots.”

“That’s Really Hot.”

Viewers, it was! What Zoe was saying, if I understand this correctly, suggests a different sort of creation: not making everything, but rather, designing a pattern by which everything makes itself. It’s as if, instead of creating the universe, some higher power created a system that would lead to the universe’s creation. This is all rather heavy stuff, and Alessandra Torresani has never looked so beautiful as when she said that. It makes me wish that more TV shows featured two smart people falling in love.

Digital and Analog

Viewers, I’ve watched the rest of the Zoe/Philomon scene a few times now and I’m still not quite sure I quite understand what they saying, but let’s try to unpack this a little bit. I’m working off Wikipedia, Google, and about two hours of sleep here, so please tell me everything I get wrong in the Comments section.

Zoe: “If you could program a robot using a generative model, like something in nature, it could benefit from a modulatory input. Like living in the real world.”

Translation: “If you could program a robot using a system that could develop and evolve, rather than a system with a finite series of parameters, that would be a good thing.” Good god, my description is more confusing than Zoe’s! Okay, let’s simplify: “It’s better to have a robot that can adapt than a robot that can’t, and to help the robot evolve, you should let it outside.” (I found a paper called “The Importance of Modulatory Input for V1 Activity and Perception.” After attempting to understand it, I’m reminded of something my mother told me after I got a B- in Chemistry: “Darren, there are no scientists in this family.”)

Philomon: “And those inputs would be different every time. Each robot would be unique. Uncopyable.”

Translation: “Every robot would experience very different things. Even a tiny fluctuation, Butterfly-Effect style, would make for a different robot.”

Zoe: “That’s not really my point. My point is that a robot could benefit from being in the real world. Let it out. Explore. GET IT OUT OF THE LAB.”

Translation: “My attempt to seduce you is predictably backfiring! Why have I allowed my self to fall for you, Cute Lab Boy?”

Philomon: “Uncopyable. Because it’s analog! Thank you, thank you!”

Translation: I refer you to howstuffworks.com for a description of the difference between analog and digital. From what I can understand, attempting to copy Zoe’s avatar (which is what Graystone Industries has been trying to do since episode 2) is like trying to fit an 8-track tape into a CD burner and wondering why the music isn’t coming through.

At this point, Daniel Graystone walked in on his daughter making out with his lab assistant, except that the lab assistant was making smoochy faces with his holoband and his daughter is a dead corpse spirit inhabiting a robot.

Science Fiction AND Fantasy

Without a doubt, the most controversy-beckoning plotline of last night’s episode was Amanda’s Imaginary Ghost Brother. Part of me dislikes this plotline just because it knocks Amanda back into her depressive chrysalis: afternoons of drinking, smoking cigarettes on the sofa, generally just moping around. Imaginary Visions are usually never a good thing in TV shows, but they seem to pop up quite a bit in the shared universe of BSG and Caprica.

And that’s why I’m going to break my code and cross-analyze what we saw last night with what we’ve seen before, later, in BSG. (In fairness, Caprica opened the door to this a little bit: Amanda mentioned the old phrase, “All this has happened before, all this will happen again,” the recurring meta-thesis of BSG.)

“She sees people who aren’t there,” said Clarice, who pointed out that Amanda is, in some ways, the grandmother of a new species. “God is using these women to speak to me.” That led Clarice to buy an expensive bottle of Scorpion Marsh Genuine Ambrosia, which in turn led to Amanda Graystone having an exciting day: really good prescription drugs, really good alcohol (“Only 11 bottles of that in the 12 worlds”), and then a dash of Purple for that light evening brain haze.

But let’s stick back on this point: that Clarice believes there to be some hidden reality to Amanda’s visions. We tend to get caught up in the science-fiction of Caprica and BSG, and the particular realism in the twin shows’ take on the genre. There are no teleportation systems, no lasers; the few magnificently unreal machines (like faster-than-light engines or virtual worlds) are treated with a Philip K. Dickian sense of nonchalance – no Young Anakin-style “Yippee!” here.

I’m beginning to think that the Science Fiction aspect of these shows is a minor feint, a red herring to throw us off the real track. Because if Caprica approaches science-fiction like realistic drama, it approaches elements of fantasy from the opposite direction: it wants us to believe that there is some higher power at work. (Certainly, that was true of a couple of particularly ambiguous plot points from the series finale of BSG.) Just look at the Zoe Avatar: it’s firmly rooted in a densely scientific foundation of generative systems and digital/analog hybrids and stolen Tauron AI, but somehow, the fundamental truth is that the Zoe Avatar has a soul.

In a very strange way, Caprica (and BSG before it, although maybe we didn’t recognize it at the time) is bridging a fascinating gap between faith and reason; it seems to be suggesting that divinity has an internal science, and that science is the method for touching God.

Viewers, like Amanda, I’m having trouble coping with this reality. What did you think about the episode? I didn’t even get to touch on Joe Adama, looking ill at ease in New Cap City (“Look for the cube wandering all alone.”) Nor did I have time to ponder the quiet empty space growing in the Graystone’s marriage – you get the sense that they’re two people who have so much love for each other that they barely have any friends, so when one of them is working too hard and the other one is depressed, their worlds shrink to tiny black dots. And, worst of all, I didn’t find any space to note my favorite line of the night, from Amanda: “They say surviving is the punishment for leaving things unsaid. I dunno who said it. Maybe I made it up. But it’s true.”