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Sins of the Children: Caprica

by Calvin W. Johnson

Today I have the pleasure of hosting my friend Calvin W. Johnson, who will give us his thoughts on Battlestar Galactica and Caprica.  Dr. Johnson is Professor of Physics in San Diego State University where he does research in computational quantum mechanics.  He’s also an author with poems and SF stories in many venues, including Analog and Asimov’s.  You can find some of them at his home page, http://www.physics.sdsu.edu/~johnson/writing/.

Galactica Fleet 2One of the earliest and most lasting narrative models in science fiction is Frankenstein.  The recent SciFi channel reboot of Battlestar Galactica owes itself as much to Mary Shelley as to the original 1978 television series. In the original, the robotic Cylons are creations and inheritors of a now-extinct reptilian race; in the 2003 reboot, the Cylons are our own creation. Like Frankenstein’s creature (in the novel), the reimagined Cylons are as capable of tormented philosophical reasoning as they are of homicidal rage.

It is the Cylons’ self-doubt that saves the human race from extinction, which is lucky considering the forty thousand surviving humans are so flawed and back-biting that a brace of ambitious bonobos armed with a bottle of window cleaner and some lead-tainted Mexican candy could have wiped them out. In current parlance Battlestar Galactica was “dark,” a quality currently all the rage  (see also: Christopher Nolan’s two Batman movies).  The first two seasons frequently had brilliakara starbuck thrace1nt writing and acting, but by the final season Battlestar Galactica (or BSG to its friends) deteriorated into a self-parodying soap opera. We were told at the beginning of episodes that the Cylons “have a plan,” but it became increasingly clear that creator Ron Moore was making it up as he went along; by the series finale he had written the reboot’s most compelling creation, Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, into such a corner that he could only end her story by having her melt into the wind like an bad odor.

But Battlestar Galactica was the best thing going on the SciFi channel. Ominously, and not in a good way, the Powers That Be agreed to a prequel, Caprica, set 58 years “before the fall.” Caprica details the story of how the Cylons were created and how humanity sowed the seeds of its own destruction. (Warning: mild spoilers ahead).

Caprica takes us back to a shinier, happier time to meet Zoe Greystone, the 16-year-old scion of a cybernetics corporation. Part genius, part whiny goth girl, part secret religious fanatic (a monotheist in a world of polytheists), she is killed off in the first few minutes. Eventually, she is resurrected cybernetically, much to the regret of everyone, herself included.

If this sounds familiar, why yes it is, even more so than Frankenstein. When one thinks of a prequel written in response to a successful, gritty science fiction phenomenon, one can only invoke…

Star Wars.

The parallels are uncanny.

Recall: in the Star Wars prequels, Lucas takes us back to a shinier, happier time, to meet Anakin Skywalker, a technologically brilliant yet whiny child who secretly falls in with the sinister cult of the Sith, is nearly killed, then resurrected in a cyborg body to terrorize the galaxy.

Wow. I get goosebumps just thinking about the parallels, and not in a good way.

Zoe capricaCaprica is far better than The Phantom Menace, but that is a low bar, and neither is Caprica as compelling as the opening Battlestar Galactica miniseries. We are supposed to sympathize with Zoe’s grieving father, a Bill Gates-like character, but his distance from wife and work also distances him from the audience. Much more intriguing is Joseph Adams, a well-dressed lawyer who lost his wife and daughter in the same bombing that killed Zoe, and who is attempting to reconnect with his young son William, all the while in a dangerous dance with a Mafia-like gang from his Tauron homeworld. Young William, of course, grows up to be Bill Adama, who helps to save the human race 58 years later as captain of the Galactica. The Adama drama is much more compelling than the dull Frankenstein, I mean Greystone, family but is curiously underplayed here despite a few dramatic scenes.

The technology of Caprica is not only flashier but also significantly more advanced than in Battlestar Galactica; I suppose the First Cylon War seriously knocked civilization back on its heels. Among the advance is a kind of virtual reality; I tend to despise virtual reality stories on principle, although here the stupid factor is significantly less than Star Trek holodecks or The Matrix, again low bars (I realize such a statement is hate-mail bait).  Oddly enough, the tech I liked the best was a kind of smart paper; less dramatic but much more realistic.

BSG, as does all science fiction, provided a platform to play out current anxieties: terrorism, genocide, abortion, religion. It’s clear that Caprica will touch upon at least two major themes: the tension between heritage and assimilation among immigrants facing bigotry, and religion. Most discussions about religion in science fiction are ill-informed and inane, and have none of the critical depth or insight found in, say, Life of Brian or South Park. In both BSG and Caprica, however, the religion proxy discussion is more intriguing, mostly because the writers allow the characters the sincerity of their beliefs or, better yet, realize the insincerity of all our beliefs and non-beliefs.

06-Caprica-City

Watching Caprica I was struck when one character, questioning the monotheism of another, asks: do you really want to believe in a universe run by a single God who gets to decide what is right and what is wrong, with no recourse, no appeal? In other words: polytheism as the ultimate checks-and-balances for governing the universe. For science fiction, this counts as a deep insight.

The pilot for Caprica was released as a DVD and download in April; it is set to premiere as a series in early 2010. It’s unlikely to be as awful as spinoffs often are — for example, I couldn’t even bear to try the Stargate: Atlantis spinoff from SG-1 — but I am not holding my breath. In fact, I’ll probably wait for the DVD.

18 Responses to “Sins of the Children: Caprica”

  1. r0ck3tsci3ntist says:

    “…do you really want to believe in a universe run by a single God who gets to decide what is right and what is wrong, with no recourse, no appeal?”

    Not only that, but he burns you in hell for eternity if you get it wrong. But that’s because he loves you… ?

    In any case, BSG lost me a few seasons ago when it just went way over the top with the drama. Everything got very shrill, like fingernails on a chalkboard. I did like the cinematography though, and the art direction was quite nice.

    When the day comes that the Scifer channel puts as much effort into content and direction as it does into look and feel, they’ll really have something.

    (i did think human cylons was a good idea though)

  2. CWJ aka Caliban says:

    It’s not clear whether or not monotheism in the Caprica/BSG universe posits a punitive afterlife. (Certainly not all varieties of monotheism in our universe posit it, either.) As I have said elsewhere, and it bears repeating here, a useful tool for analyzing religion is Marcus Borg’s concepts of religions of purity and religions of compassion; I’m sure these aren’t the only useful classifications, but they help to understand the religions of the Levant. Purity and compassion often co-exist and struggle with each other, even among the Cylons — the Cylons in BSG talk about their Loving One God, and then want to purify the universe through genocide of the human race. Very Old Testament, that.

    (But let’s not get into a flamewar over religion, please.)

    Yes, the latter seasons of BSG tended to get so emotionally knotty that it was difficult to slog through the episodes. And then suddenly they’d have a brilliant patch again. Part of the problem was to write compelling, engaging character arcs, instead of the static, unchanging characters of most series. It’s probably not as easy to do well as one might think. I do think Ron Moore, the reboot creator, wrote himself into some difficult corners at times.

  3. Athena says:

    From passing remarks, everyone here knows that I found BSG incredibly disappointing, especially because I was prepared to really like it on the strength of its pilot. In my opinion, the series went off the rails after the Caprica 2 episodes, and simply accelerated in its downhill trajectory from then on. I broke out in hives of annoyance and dismay whenever I watched episodes from the last two seasons and to this day I haven’t seen the series finale. For me, it was like District 9 — except it extended over five excruciating years instead of two hours.

    Someone who shares my allergy is Abigail Nussbaum, who routinely writes reviews for Strange Horizons. She wrote multiple entries on BSG in her blog. Here is her summation of the series: Doomed to Repeat It: Battlestar Galactica, Thoughts at the End.

    It’s long, but worth the reading. She has links to previous entries on the series, you can backtrack if you want. I suspect I’ll have more to say on this, particularly about the views of the series on science and scientists, to say nothing of the lack of logic, the tone-deafness of the characters’ (en)forced emotional palette and (once again) the disproportionate and arbitrary killing of major female protagonists.

  4. CWJ aka Caliban says:

    Thanks for that link, Athena; I’ll want to reread Nussbaum’s blog entires more carefully.

    But you’ve picked up another Star Wars parallel–the distrust of rationality and imbuing intuition with a kind of mythical wisdom. Intuition does often serve us well in many cases; it arose as a way to make quick judgments to keep our ancestors (and ourselves) alive. But intuition is not All Knowing, far wiser than rationality.

    In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is told to ditch the computer and Trust The Force, and saves the galaxy by destroying the Death Star. In Battlestar Galactica, Starbuck saves humanity by entering as coordinates into the nav computer a melody that has been haunting her, and the Final Five, for no good reason except that she can’t think of anything else. Another case of “Trust the Force.”

    In The Phantom Menace, we find that the force is mediated by midichlorians, something in our blood akin to mitochondria. I’m willing to bet there is some similar bad pseudo-science explanation that arises in the Caprica series. Any takers?

  5. Walden2 says:

    Whatever happened to science fiction that took place on truly
    alien worlds with truly alien beings? Or at least they tried to be
    alien enough?

    I know one reason the reimaged BSG had characters and settings
    that seemed so much like modern-day Western Earth was to capture
    viewers who normally wouldn’t touch science fiction with a ten-meter
    Denebian slime devil (whoops, wrong universe!). And I know I read
    enough early reviews where the writers kept insisting that BSG was
    not that yucky, geeky old SF of yore so be sure to tune in.

    But personally I have enough “reality” forced on me every day. If
    I want more of it I will watch the news or tune to just about any other
    channel with their presentations of mundane reality.

    I want my little old brain expaned and challenged once in a while,
    ya know? Yes I was caught up in the way BSG was written and
    how the actors played it out in the early seasons (and it had nothing
    to do with Number 6, either, I swear!). But then things got too
    tangled and soap opery, and then the major letdown ending, oy.

    My other complaint is how everyone wants to be so “real” these
    days in general. Look at the comic books – excuse me, graphic
    novels – these days. Most of them are so real and so gritty they
    just aren’t any fun any more, to say nothing of often not being
    terribly appropriate for the market they are supposed to be aimed
    at, children (well, Archie still exists as it has always been).

    It might be easy to make fun of the comics from the Silver Age,
    which is apparently from the 1950s to just before the Watchmen
    appeared in 1986, but at least they were enjoyable and even
    inventive on several levels, whereas today everybody in the
    graphic novel era wants to be oh so cool, and by cool I mean
    dark and realistic.

    So screw reality! I want people in shiny silver spacesuits flying
    impossible starcraft to meet with giant tentacled aliens with one
    giant eye attacking them on some strange desolate planet that
    looks a lot like the Moon but with jagged, rocky mountains! And
    all the characters are either brave or cowardly, except the guy
    who is the professor who is cooly logical and has a beard and
    smokes a pipe and wants to reason with the aliens who are trying
    to kill them all.

  6. CWJ aka Caliban says:

    Right now the dark, pseudo-documentary jittery-camera style is all the rage.
    I rather like it, but I agree that a diet of just that and nothing else gets tiresome.

    But fads fade, and trends come and go in cycles. When a particular vein gets played out, artists rebel against the trend. Given how relentlessly dark and “realistic” today’s trends are, I suspect before too long we’ll be seeing exactly the shiny, silvery sf that you long for… and critics will call it “new” and “refreshing.”

  7. Athena says:

    I think that having everything in one style is a problem, no matter what the style is. in the last few years, all SF in media has been earthbound dystopia. The other disturbing thing is that because of its perceived new “gravitas” it has attained political and scientific influence: Olmos was invited to the UN, the Bush czar of Homeland Security was quoting 24 interrogation procedures to the Canadians, and of course the transhumanists quote The Matrix and Dollhouse as gospels (in both meanings of the word). It’s about as interesting and enjoyable as watching a herd of lemmings.

  8. ZarPaulus says:

    I should not have to point out that dystopian and apocalyptic fiction in general has greatly increased in popularity over the past decade (I blame 9/11 shattering our sense of security). Not to mention that Cyberpunk is generally considered to be the “hardest” sub-genre of sci-fi and that has been around since at least the ’80s (Neuromancer).

  9. Athena says:

    Well, it’s a well-known fact that sf reflects the preoccupations of its era, rather than projecting the future. Cyberpunk is earth-centered and near-future — which means it’s not space opera — but that doesn’t make it the hardest sf subgenre.

    But I shouldn’t be stealing Calvin’s thunder!

  10. CWJ aka Caliban says:

    Oh, you can steal my thunder anytime, Athena, and probably do it better. 🙂

    Yes, some of the current dark trends can be attributed to post 9/11 anxiety. The first, and possibly best, BSG episode, “33,” ends with a dramatic showdown between military pilots and a civilian ship that may have been compromised by terrorists, er, Cylons.

    Abigail Nussbaum, whom Athena references above, argues persuasively that in fact, BSG failed precisely because it did not speak adequately to post-9/11 anxieties.

    I agree with Athena that cyberpunk is far from the “hardest” of SF. Some of the practitioners, such as Bruce Sterling, do have an insightful view into technology and it’s effects on us. But much of cyberpunk relies heavily upon atmosphere and kitchen-sink plots and dark wish-fulfillment. Neuromancer itself already embodies the best and the worst of the movement, so it was already dying by the time you reach the last page of that first novel. One of the main reasons cyberpunk lurches on is that it relies heavily upon postmodernist tropes — so that it is eagerly seized upon and dissected in English departments.

    Now, cyberpunk has split into 2 branches: steampunk, which is nonsensical but at least more fun; and “mundane” SF, which is rigorously near-future and generally dystopian. As a reaction, space opera has seen a resurgence as well, with dynamic writers such as Iain Banks, Alastair Reynolds, and Stephen Baxter taking the lead.

  11. CWJ aka Caliban says:

    I have been remiss in thanking Athena for graciously asking me to write this review and then hosting it on her website. She is a dauntingly impressive essayist, in addition to her other equally daunting accomplishments, so I hope my effort falls only a little short of the high standard her posts have set.

    Thanks!

  12. Athena says:

    You are very welcome, Calvin! I will be happy to host essays from you any time.

    As you know, I thought of writing a BSG retrospective. But between Nussbaum’s blog entries, the half-dozen articles in Strange Horizons and my own increasing allergy to the show, I realized I might not have a lot to add to the discussion. However, your comparison of the two series is both enjoyable and thought-provoking.

  13. Walden2 says:

    ‘Battlestar’ sci-fi celebrated

    [Alan Boyle on Cosmic Log here calls it sci-fi, not me.]

    “Battlestar Galactica,” the ’70s sci-fi show that was updated to reflect 21st-century social issues, is being celebrated for its science as well as its fiction.

    On the science front, a book titled “The Science of Battlestar Galactica” delves into the real-life research in robotics, genetics and physics that parallels the plots in the “reimagined” TV series. One big bonus is that the authors, Patrick di Justo and Kevin Grazier, untangle the labyrinthine twists in the story that came into play during its final season, which wrapped up last year on the Syfy cable network. (Syfy is a subsidiary of NBC Universal, which is also a partner with Microsoft in the msnbc.com joint venture.)

    On the fiction front, some of the coolest props from the show — including two Colonial Viper fighter mockups and an evil-looking Cylon Raider as well as Tricia Helfer’s slinky red Cylon dress — are going on exhibit this weekend at Seattle’s Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum.

    The book as well as the exhibit show that “Battlestar Galactica” is no mere space opera, but a cultural phenomenon worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as “Star Wars” and “Star Trek.”

    Full article here:

    http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2010/10/22/5334887-battlestar-sci-fi-celebrated

    To quote:

    Moore told journalists that he aimed to keep the focus on the characters and their struggles rather than cool gadgetry and strange aliens — in part because of his previous experience as a writer and producer for “Star Trek” shows. “The technobabble in ‘Trek’ just got completely out of control,” Moore said.

    That aversion to sci-fi cliches extended to Olmos, who played the patriarchal (but flawed) Admiral Bill Adama on the reimagined “Battlestar.” Olmos said an anti-alien clause was written into his contract for the series … and it didn’t sound as if he was joking.

    “The first four-eyed monster that I see, I’m going to faint on camera — then I’m going to get up, and you’re going to write me out of the show,” he said.

  14. Athena says:

    The Battlestar Galactica reboot was actually hostile to science, both in its portrayal of scientists (the single example was Gaius Baltar — enough said) and in its own scientific precepts. The absence of aliens and suchlike does not automatically make for good science. As for characters, in the final season especially they became puppets for arbitrary plot twists. More here.

  15. Walden2 says:

    What Killed Caprica?

    http://io9.com/5687723/what-killed-caprica

    I have to admit I did not watch this series for several reasons: I was disappointed with the ending to BSG and I thought Caprica was going to be another series that was barely SF. Now I wonder if I missed something at least interesting and different?

  16. Athena says:

    I increasingly detected BSG after the Caprica 2 episodes — so much that I never watched the ending. Between that and lack of access to SyFy, I didn’t see Caprica at all. So I don’t know if it was as unique and interesting as io9 claims.

  17. Walden2 says:

    The original BSG remake bible online:

    http://io9.com/5743142/the-original-battlestar-galactica-series-bible-is-ron-moores-rebuke-to-star-trek

    Sounds like they had some interesting ideas that either didn’t make it to the final product or got muddled along the way.