Battlestar Baggage: SyFy’s Caprica
February 23rd, 2010
Early on in a show’s run, there is always room for improvement. Every show will take time to find its feet, and whether it’s a rough pilot or a case of pilot repetition or a character that feels underdeveloped, all freshman series will have points of contention.
This doesn’t mean that, from a critical perspective, we forgive the show these problems, but it also means that we don’t rake a series over the coals for them. The critic’s job becomes almost like a meteorologist’s, analyzing the storm patterns (the cast, the plot’s general direction, the world-building, etc.) that could eventually develop into a great series or fizzle out quickly. It’s still very much a personal analysis of the situation: Starz’ Spartacus: Blood and Sand was written off by many critics (myself included) as something which would never evolve into anything worthwhile, but I’m hearing from a lot of fans that the show (so long as you lowered your expectations based on the quality of the pilot) is surprising them, so this (like meteorology) is not a precise science in the least.
It’s not often that I’ll outright question negative responses to particular series I enjoy, but I’ll come right out and say it: I don’t get the tepid response to SyFy’s Caprica. Judged as a new series, Caprica has overcome a weak pilot with a series of episodes that demonstrate a clear sense of the world being depicted, offer a complicated moral tightrope for the characters to walk, and take their time in order to let the show’s fantastic sense of atmosphere sink in rather than be thrown in our faces. While it is not perfect in any way, it is subtle when it needs to be subtle, and doesn’t allow its more large-scale developments to deliver only large-scale consequences, making significant progress from its pilot even while taking the time to ruminate on key themes and ideas.
In short, it’s in pretty fantastic shape for a new series, so I really wish that everyone would start judging it as one.
After watching this past week’s episode, “Gravedancing,” I read a variety of reviews of the episode. Most telling, I thought, were the comments on The A.V. Club’s review of the episode from Noel Murray (he gave it an A-). Some were discussing the intricacies of the episode, quibbling over particular points, but then there was the following response from an Anonymous commenter:
“In short, it seems like Caprica maintains the worst qualities of BSG (things that happen for no reason, melodrama, over acting, pretentious plot lines that are clearly way out of the cognitive league of the writers) while maintaining none of its strengths (Tricia Helfer, beautiful shots of missiles streaking through space).”
Now, as the A.V. Club readership manages to nicely balance the trolls with some intelligent folk, there were some who replied in order to both defend Caprica itself and to criticize the practice of bringing Battlestar Galactica into the discussion. It’s one thing if people don’t like Caprica because they don’t believe it’s quite working: Header Leader, another commenter, admits that “it’s hard for a show to have everything cranking smoothly right off the bat, but we’re getting a few episodes deep now, and I just don’t see things jelling.” I may not see the show in the same light, but he or she isjudging the show on the right merits.
And yes, I believe that the anonymous commenter above is judging the show on the wrong merits. Battlestar Galactica is the elephant in the room with Caprica, there’s no question about it: I get that people didn’t like the finale, and I get that some people have decided to entirely write off Ronald D. Moore and this universe as a result. And I know that since this was positioned as a prequel to that series, there is this sense that the problems with Galactica will somehow transfer over. This is not without some logic (although as someone who thought the finale was fine, I don’t entirely “get it”), and it certainly creates baggage for viewers who were not pleased with how Galactica ended its run.
But those viewers are doing this series, and television in general, a disservice if they are willing to let that baggage define a show early in its run. While spinoffs are generally considered a pretty safe television gambit (economically if not creatively), it’s pretty clear that prequels are more dangerous, especially when they start after the original series has ended in divisive fashion. Some viewers seem to expect that Caprica is faced with the task of redeeming Battlestar Galactica, or is somehow forced to answer for its sins. While these viewers are undoubtedly the minority, there are more who perhaps believed that Caprica would be more space than opera, expecting the show to be more recognizably similar to its predecessor, and are subconsciously caught up on that to the point that they aren’t seeing Caprica’s merits beyond the series which came before it.
There will be a time, once Caprica gets further into its first season, when we can start comparing the two series, but at this early stage in its run the only important question pertaining to Battlestar Galactica is whether or not Caprica is leaning too heavily on that series’ legacy. And while the show has its nods towards its predecessor, including the use of Frak and the presence of William Adama in a younger form, it has never once used the connection as a crutch, consistently resisting the built-in story in favour of drawing characters that stand on their own. There are no gratuitous nods to what Zoe’s creation might make possible in the future, no treacly scenes of Joseph Adama telling his son that some day he might grow up to be Admiral of the Colonial fleet, and no signs that the worship of a one true God could one day become something far more dangerous.
Instead, the show has very much set itself up as the anti-Galactica, telling the types of stories that show was never able to tell due to the sense of urgency and desperation that defined the human population. While Galactica never quite delved into the cultural beyond conflicts which would logically arise in difficult situations, Caprica is able to have Sam take William on a tour of Little Tauron for no other purpose than to consider the characters and their place within that culture. While human melodrama (the opera in “space opera”) had a place aboard Galactica, it is the lifeblood of Caprica, and is being handled with greater subtlety as a result. The show knows what it owes to the series that came before it, but it also knows that it has the potential to go in different directions, and Jane Espenson and Co. have shown a really strong understanding of what makes the series unique.
My concern is that people aren’t seeing that, or that they don’t want to see it. I understand that some people watched Battlestar Galactica for the space battles (I was one of them for a brief period in Season Three – I blame New Caprica for creating expectations the show would never reach again), and that they wouldn’t enjoy Caprica. I also get that some people just don’t like the kind of series that Caprica is becoming, an adult drama series with a sentient robot, WWII-era cultural details, group marriage, and a focus on how humans respond to loss in a world where belief and technology offer unique avenues for our grief. But the fact that the show is willing to go in that direction, willing to step away from Galactica’s shadow and become a show that is fundamentally different from everything else on television, is the type of start which should earn our patience rather than our judgment.
I understand that the show is a tough sell, and I certainly don’t believe that everyone who watches the show has to love it. But the show deserves a shot on its own merits with both potential viewers and, thinking ahead, with SyFy, who has yet to renew the show for a second season (a decision that will likely wait until the show returns for the second half of its season in the Summer) based on ratings lower than they would have hoped. I just hate the idea that I spent years convincing skeptical viewers that Battlestar Galactica was more than just science fiction only to have its prequel series be overlooked based on criteria that, to my mind, is just as arbitrary and just as problematic. Caprica deserves a fair chance at success, and thus far the creative side of things is showing signs of promise that most young series would kill for: let’s not let all that go to waste based on what came before.
This show deserves better than that.
- These bullets will probably be more specific to certain episodes (mainly “Gravedancing”), so if you’ve read to this point and are interested in the series I’d suggest watching instead of reading.
- This past week’s episode, “Gravedancing,” was (as Alan Sepinwall points out) slower than those which came before, but I consider this a good thing. At this stage in a show’s run, there’s pressure to “keep things moving,” but although we got Amanda crashing the Sarno show and getting abducted by Sam (which, in combination with the Memorial outburst, perhaps connect Amanda too much with these sorts of big displays), the show was more interested in the scenes which followed those big moments. Amanda walking out was followed by a complex and civilized interview that revealed important parts of Daniel’s character (and showed Amanda as capable of remaining under control in those types of situations), while Sam’s abduction was more important for the scene at Joseph’s apartment soon thereafter where Sam diagnoses Joseph as a Caprican in a Tauron body. The show could have made these moments seem sudden or shocking, but it let them play out, and I really liked its effect on those stories.
- I’ll admit right now that I was sort of in love with the dancing sequence in “Gravedancing,” which I understand were somewhat divisive. It was such a simple sequence of scenes, played out like the start of an awkward flirtation that showed us (without any words from Zoe, keeping it in Philomon’s perspective) how much the robot senses and understands, able to both take offence and perhaps feel flattered at his awkward comments about her chest and able to adapt her dancing to in some way meet his. It demonstrates that Zoe, while able to escape into the virtual world, finds her real world existence more compelling, more “real,” which tied in nicely with Daniel’s comments about how Zoe’s abhorrence of the virtual world was what drove her into the STO.
- While Sam Adama (played with great subtlety by Sasha Roiz) has been “scary” in the sense that he’s willing to take dark actions, there is no question that Joseph’s mother-in-law is far more terrifying.