Scene-ic Storytelling: Philosophy and Memorability in SyFy’s Caprica

Scene-ic Storytelling in SyFy’s Caprica

March 25th, 2010

I was listening to last week’s episode of the Firewall and Iceberg podcast, where Alan and Dan were explaining how hard it is to pick your favourite episode of a television show. I concur with their evasion of the question at hand, as picking a favourite episode of a serialized television series seems disadvantageous while picking a favourite episode of a comedy is so highly subjective that it’s a bit dangerous, but I have a followup question: could we pick a favourite scene?

I find this, when I think about it, considerably easier. While picking a single episode of The Wire is impossible, picking a favourite scene seems like it’s possible: sure, there’s still too many to choose from (McNuggets, Chess, FuCSI, Co-Op Meeting, etc.), but we’re more comfortable singling out scenes because there’s an expectation that what we select will capture the quality we most admire in the show being discussed without the baggage that comes with an episode of ensemble, serialized drama which goes in various different directions.

There is a lot of power in scenes to tell a story, or to capture a viewer’s attention. The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds, both nominated for Best Picture this year, are effectively a series of vignettes which rely on being making both collective and individual impressions, building character by creating unforgettable tension and suspense from various circumstances. And on the comic end of the spectrum, Noel Murray’s fantastic A Very Special Episode series at The A.V. Club turned its attention on The Simpsons’ “22 Short Stories About Springfield” episode this week, and the wealth of comments on the post demonstrate that its collection of short vignettes are perhaps amongst the most quotable and memorable scenes in the series’ run precisely because they are part of an episode which admits to being a collection of scenes rather than a cohesive episode.

I raise this question because I want to talk about SyFy’s Caprica, a show that has thus far been more successful at creating memorable scenes than at creating memorable characters or stories. Ending the first half of its first season with a finale of sorts this evening on SyFy and SPACE, the show has used scenes with deep philosophical meaning and implication in order to create a lasting impression that makes me want to see more even when I don’t have as much of a vested interest in what I see in the rest of each episode. These scenes, at times single-handedly, have made Caprica into a show I admire a great deal, but at the same time they are doing nothing to alleviate concerns that some viewers seem to have about plot and character in the show’s universe.

Some thoughts on why this is, and why I think this sort of “scene-ic storytelling” is good for the show in the long run, after the jump.

In last week’s “Ghosts in the Machine,” the Daniel and Zoe storyline was quite legitimately one of the best things I’ve seen on television all year. It was as fascinating as it was horrifying, a father using torture as a method of revealing his daughter’s presence within the robot that he created and a daughter (of sorts) terrified of revealing herself for fear of the ramifications. Utilizing the arresting visual technique of swapping between Alessandra Torresani and the CGI U-87, which we once feared would become gimmicky but which remains enormously effective, the final scene of Daniel ordering the Cylon to murder his beloved dog was edge-of-your-seat entertaining because we legitimately did not know what would happen: there was every chance the show would kill that dog, and while fans of Battlestar Galactica know how this story ends scenes like that one remind us that we don’t know where it begins, and this journey can take many turns as the show moves on.

“Ghosts in the Machine” – I Want You to Shoot the Dog

[Youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CrBls1cDeik]

It’s the latest in a long line of scenes that have built what is unquestionably the show’s most interesting story, at least for me personally. The idea of Zoe being inside the robot body seemed like a bad idea in the “Pilot,” where the cliffhanger ending implies that Zoe would be desperately trying to escape the body or something similar, and early scenes like Lacey talking to the robot never quite clicked. However, once they decided to focus more on abstract scenes which contemplate sentience and anthropomorphization, the entire story started clicking for me. A scene like Daniel’s demonstration to the Board of Directors in “Know Thy Enemy,” where he demonstrates the potential for the Cylons to be built as a form of slave labour, was interesting from a story perspective, but it was a stunning scene when you remember that Daniel is asking his daughter, at least in an abstracted form, to rip off her own arm for the sake of his business pursuits. And yet that scene was only possible due to scenes which preceded it, scenes which established and made us believe that there is a human being of some sort inside that body, like a scene from the previous episode, “Gravedancing,” that drew some criticism.

“Gravedancing” – Dancing Machine

I was in love with this scene the moment I saw it, but there are others who weren’t quite on board: in fact, some reviews don’t mention the scene at all. And yet, in an episode labeled as “slow” or light on plot, this scene (Philomon, Daniel’s lab tech, dancing with the U-87 during a diagnostic test) is integral to establishing an identity for Zoe as a character which has become the core of the show’s philosophy, by far the most important thing to come out of the episode. While I couldn’t tell you the “plot” of many episodes of the show, I can tell you which scenes jumped out at me, and which moments made an impact that has gone beyond that episode and beyond its position within the serialized story to linger over the rest of the series.

While I may be a proponent of this form of storytelling, others might disagree, and I don’t entirely blame them. When the show spent time with Tamara in New Cap City in “There is Another Sky,” it felt atmospheric and tragic, a lost girl wandering through a virtual world and discovering that her death in reality has made this “game” her afterlife; however, when the show sent Joseph Adama into the same environment, things sort of slowed down, the sense of atmosphere lost outside of a riddler of an MC. While Caprica might be able to create these arresting images and these compelling stories, we have yet to see considerable evidence that the drama the show creates with them is able to live up to their greatness, and some could argue that they have their priorities mixed up: you should focus on creating a plot that creates great scenes, rather than creating great scenes which don’t necessarily amount to great stories. While I’d argue that the Zoe story is an example of the former, I would tend to agree that the show hasn’t really had any great success beyond that.

There are two reasons, however, that I think this “scene-ic” strategy is sound. First, I think it’s no coincidence that the stories that are working the best overall are those which lean heavily on this sort of storytelling, and I also think it’s no coincidence that other stories are thus far unconnected to it. One of the show’s key themes is integration, as characters struggle to adapt different ideas of religion, mortality, and technology into their every day lives. Eventually, the show may become like Battlestar Galactica in that everyone is caught up in the long-term mythology and philosophical concerns, but right now the characters are logically dealing with their own isolated stories. By introducing these kinds of concerns early, the show is laying the groundwork for bigger steps down the road, a time when the show’s plots will, in fact, grow more organically from scenes of this nature. However, characters like Amanda are just not ready for that quite yet, and I think admitting that by drawing attention to the disparity will help eventual unification.

Furthermore, I think it helps the show move on from its Battlestar Galactica origins, proving that it intends on creating its own memorable moments rather than simply tipping the hat or gesturing in the direction of the big scenes from that series. Caprica is a show that wants to be able to build its own mythology rather than simply building towards BSG’s, and I think scenes like this establish its own unique style of addressing issues that, while played with on Galactica, were never contemplated to this degree. The show has a slower pace than Galactica, which means it has the ability to stop and ask “What does this mean?” without feeling rushed on by a Cylon invasion or an epic space battle. This series was inevitably going to be slower-paced than Galactica, and by using that in order to create scenes which work towards the level of philosophical complexity that Galactica achieved with a clarity that it never quite mastered Caprica is making a name for itself.

Just to be clear, a show cannot survive on scenes like these alone; Caprica is not a perfect show, and some of its plotting has been slower than necessary, or has remained tangential for too long. However, if we view these nine episodes (the finale airing tonight at 9 Eastern on SyFy and Space) as a foundation on which the show is going to build a series, then these scenes are proof of its potential, and with this cast and creative team in charge behind the scenes I will gladly spend my summer replaying and thinking over their ramifications to the point where I will be worked into a fervor by the time it returns in the fall.

Cultural Observations

  • My one issue with “Ghosts in the Machine” and its series of Daniel and Zoe stories is that the episode doesn’t end on that terrified look on Zoe’s face as she realizes they were blanks – while I liked the idea that the robot knew they were blanks, and that Zoe would have considered shooting her father had they not been, it laid out the meaning of the scene too plainly, and I sort of like the element of abstraction to the scenes.
  • I didn’t entirely get into it above, but just how much we can call Zoe’s Avatar “Zoe” is really intriguing: note how Daniel used Zoe’s childhood memory, and her fear of fire, against her, which does frighten the Avatar but perhaps not to the degree that it would have Zoe. One wonders how much of a “copy” Zoe made with the Avatar, and whether there are certain qualities she changed or adapted in the process.
  • If the YouTube links above end up dying, I’ll be sad: while I could cut Hulu clips if I was in the States, it still blocks out anyone who isn’t, and that just isn’t fair with scenes of this quality.
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3 Comments

Filed under Caprica

3 responses to “Scene-ic Storytelling: Philosophy and Memorability in SyFy’s Caprica

  1. Thais Afonso

    If I had to choose one scene, I’d choose the interview at Sarno. The discussions, the moral implications, Eric and Paula’s great chemistry… It’s all there, everything I love about the show.

  2. Tausif Khan

    “I didn’t entirely get into it above, but just how much we can call Zoe’s Avatar “Zoe” is really intriguing: note how Daniel used Zoe’s childhood memory, and her fear of fire, against her, which does frighten the Avatar but perhaps not to the degree that it would have Zoe. One wonders how much of a “copy” Zoe made with the Avatar, and whether there are certain qualities she changed or adapted in the process.”

    I think this is a brilliant point. I see this happening in a different direction as well, specifically in Zoe’s interactions with Lacy. They demonstrate how thin her understanding of social relations are in that she is basing her understanding off of Lacy based on Lacy’s decision not to get on the train. Moreover she is too blindly trusting of whoever is on Gemenon. “Avatar” Zoe noted earlier that human Zoe was skeptical of Sister Clarice. I am sure by now real Zoe would have become more skeptical of those on Gemenon.

  3. Pingback: Return to Rubicon: A Cultural Catchup Project « Cultural Learnings

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