A Special DVD “Review“
There is no hiding the fact that the end of Battlestar Galactica was, for me, a cathartic experience, a chance to say goodbye to something that has been a fairly large part of both my critical and academic investigations into the world of television. However, there was always that lingering sense that the journey wasn’t really over: TV Movie “The Plan” is airing this fall, and on April 20th “Caprica,” the backdoor pilot for the upcoming series of the same name, released online and on DVD.
The former project is designed to give more time to characters shafted by the main narrative, and to answer/address some questions that have been lingering but may have proved too tangential for the show’s fourth and final season. In that sense, we know what to anticipate: we know that it will address the Cylon plan to attack Caprica, and that’s pretty well enough to create expectation.
But Caprica is an entirely different monster, primarily because it sits in that odd position somewhere between prequel and spinoff, the communication between it and its predecessor minor in most ways. The decision to release the pilot, always planned as a stand-alone project which could be turned into a series should executives be pleased with the final product, eight months before we have any chance of seeing the series is a calculated risk, and one that feels like a concerted effort to link Galactica and this new series more than may actually be logical, or beneficial.
When you first start watching Battlestar Galactica, one of the things that strikes you is that which wasn’t explained, or wasn’t exposited in some sort of speech. The polytheism of humanity was less a topic of discussion and more a stated fact, and it was less a selling point of the series than it was a sign that this show was going to go beyond the boundaries of traditional science fiction to offer something more nuanced.
In Caprica, however, this is front and center; in many ways, it feels like some of the themes that Galactica took for granted or didn’t often highlight put on display in an effort to provoke the viewer more than actually engaging with the show’s characters…at least on a conceptual level. As executed, I think there’s a lot to like about this project, and in particular there are some really intriguing ideas surrounding the main pairing of Joseph Adama and Daniel Greystone which elevate the show above its lack of subtlety and into a place where I am, more than before, looking forward to seeing what happens when this goes to series.
As for what that series will look like, however, is a question that I don’t know if we can really answer – in the meantime, let’s delve into the series in what I really can’t call a review, since it isn’t particularly objective in its tone, but more of an analysis of sorts. A long one (big surprise, eh?).
To fans of Battlestar Galactica, Caprica is going to stand as what is essentially the origin of the Cylon. This is, I guess, ostensibly true – we see Daniel Greystone, a technological genius, stumble onto his daughter’s computer programming ingenuity after her tragic death and combine it with his existing cybernetic body to create both a new version of his daughter and a fighting machine designed to fulfill his contract with the Ministry of Defence. These are, essentially, the two types of Cylon that we are aware of: those which take on almost human properties, with memories and emotions, and those which are without these things, programmed for a task and, while living organisms, lacking that human touch. In Zoe Greystone’s research we have the building blocks, in other words, for skin jobs and centurions.
However, the show isn’t interested in what eventually happens with this technology: Ronald D. Moore has said that the series won’t be speaking to Galactica that directly, as there won’t be any flash forwards to key moments from The Fall or the ensuing action. The only direct connection the two series really share is the fact that young Willie Adams grows up to become William Adama, and that Joseph Adama will eventually inspire Lee to become a lawyer. Taking place 58 years before The Fall, the miniseries only rarely feels as if it is speaking to the series we all fell in love with: echoes of the Adama theme are subtly placed over the scene as Joseph tells his son of his true family name, and the Defence ministry being willing to overlook the corporate thievery of Greystone indicates why they will eventually trust Gaius Baltar, but for the most part this isn’t the story of how the Cylons developed but rather why they were developed in the first place. And considering that the whole point of the Fall was that the Cylons had evolved beyond their existing purpose, in essence what happens here is all going to be irrelevant once the Cylon War begins.
Okay, perhaps that is more dismissive than it needs to be, but I’m purposefully keeping my expectations low: if they seriously want this show to survive for more than one season, it is imperative that they don’t over do such connections to Galactica, and I don’t say this because of the need to bring in new viewers even though that is a reasonable concern. Rather, I don’t think it does them any good, especially when they’re trying to establish a whole new universe and environment that is ultimately nothing like we saw on Galactica, or at the very least nothing that was given much time on Galactica. As noted above, Caprica is not nearly as subtle with some of its themes, and the comparison is rarely going to turn out in its favour, so it would do well to try to stand on its own.
I feel that they have, in a sense, accomplished this with the handling of two key themes that were, at least until the very end, downplayed in the grand scheme of things on Galactica. The first of these is the interaction between the different colonies, something that we get in far greater detail with Joseph Adama (or Joseph Adams as he is known). Orphaned after the Tauron Civil War (who knew there was a Tauron Civil War?), he arrives in Caprica with his brother and eventually gets swept up into the Tauron mafia, of sorts, which is operating in the city. He has his way paid through law school, and thus finds himself doing favours for them once he becomes a prominent defence attorney. One of these favours sends Joseph to the Minister of Defence, where the series most blatantly depicts the racism that seems to define this environment. This is a theme that Galactica has occasionally dealt with, such as the much maligned “The Woman King” in its depiction of Gemenese citizens, but here it feels like it is part of Joseph’s identity as he is trapped between the colony where there are flowers and where he has made his life and the colony with no flowers that he calls home but that calls on him for perhaps too much.
There’s nothing all that fascinating here, but it made for some compelling watching. His dynamic with his brother feels not too dissimilar from the dynamic between Jamal and Salim in Slumdog Millionaire, as one is more closely connected with the corruption while the other is kind of involved against his will. It smartly places Joseph at a point of confused identity, as he had been able to claim a typical nuclear family before his wife and daughter are killed in the opening train explosion, leaving him struggling to become the father he had never quite been and reconcile the man he has become. Esai Morales is a great actor, one who did some great work in Jericho’s uneven second season, and I felt he brings the right combination of levity to this role that feels the most traditional in terms of Galactica characters. The death of his wife and daughter was his “Fall,” if you will, and his position trapped between two different worlds (Caprica and Tauron, Family and the Mob, etc.) is a common one in the Galactica universe.
As for where he goes from here, it seems pretty clear that the show views him as its emotional centerpiece, the character with whom we can empathize as they go through a terrible tragedy and are faced with some key ethical and moral questions. Like the Adama we are most familiar with, Joseph has that stoic quality, but the few breaks we saw here indicate that he is capable of making mistakes, such as pretty much knowingly abetting the murder of the Minister of Defence. The picture we had of Joseph Adama, from what Romo Lampkin spoke of him towards the end of Season Three anyways, was that he was a hard man to deal with, and I feel Morales nicely walks the line where you can see that persona but also see how it was a projection, a necessary protection for the world he lived in.
I will get to the other major element of the series, the monotheistic terrorism, in a second, but I can’t really discuss Joseph without discussing his counterpart. Daniel Greystone is the most unique character in the series, and the one which feels the most novel: there’s a reason that the Greystone musical themes sound very little like anything else Bear McCreary has produced in his time working with Moore, for example. Yes, Gaius Baltar was a scientific genius, but there exists in Daniel Greystone a far more calculating understanding of what he is doing and why he is doing it. With Baltar, it always felt like his neuroses were driving one or the other, but with Daniel there is something simultaneously more and less human about him. His starting point was not Baltar’s coldness to all of humanity, lacking the selfish world view almost entirely, but rather someone devoted to his work, appreciative of his family, but complacent in his position in life.
His daughter’s death changes all of this, and drives him mad: as soon as he learns that there is even the potential for some part of his daughter to return, you understand the key theme of the Greystone family is the power of the mind when motivated by belief and purpose. Daniel is a scientific genius, no doubt, but he hadn’t been able to crack the processor necessary to achieve the results they were looking for with their combat A.I. Zoe, meanwhile, was motivated by a desire to take down the V Club culture as part of her belief in a one true God and the terrorist-like organization introduced in the pilot, was able to develop things that even Daniel couldn’t think of because of a “greater purpose.” Once Daniel is given that purpose, he stays up cracking the code, finds a way to recreate it, and even goes so far as to reach out to have technology stolen in order to complete it. When he is standing above the successful test area after the knowledge gained and stolen creates the ultimate fighting robot, the humanity of Daniel Greystone is beginning to disappear, ironically out of his desire to regain the most human of connections with his daughter.
Eric Stoltz is great as Greystone, and this bit of back story is a compelling way of introducing the character and keeping him from feeling like Baltar – whereas one could simply assume Baltar was selfish (until we got a better sense of his back story as seasons went on), we know that Greystone stumbled into this with the best of intentions. It’s just the right level of unsettling, in my book: when he goes to his wife with breakfast in bed and talks about how they’re going to get through this together, or when they make love as the domino effect of his request of Joseph to have the processor stolen gets the Minister of Defence killed, you sense a man who is able to live with his decisions easier than some others while understanding why he would try to do so. He is, of course, operating under the presumption that his daughter is gone (which we know isn’t true thanks to the final sequence in which Zoe, in Cylon form, wakes up and calls Lacy), but how he’ll reconcile her return with his attempts at normalcy isn’t entirely clear.
And that’s good, because the monotheistic terrorism that drives the “plot” of the pilot is, perhaps, a little bit lacking in such confusion. Don’t get me wrong, there is still plenty of potential in the idea of monotheists as terrorists infiltrating the education system in an effort to engage with youth, but something about it just feels too simple. By the time that Galactica delved into terrorism, it had two full seasons to create a scenario where they upended traditional notions of terrorism by making our heroes the insurgency – in this instance, we don’t know these people, so empathy isn’t easy, and Polly Walker’s Sister Clarice is going down a path into really stereotypical territory. Galactica’s resident terrorist, Tom Zarek, was always at his best when we understood what he was fighting for and it was only his method which was problematic. However, here that isn’t the case: Walker is so good at playing evil, and the “evils of society” are so ill-defined in the pilot, that we can’t help but see the death of innocent people close to our lead characters as needless and “wrong” by some sort of definition.
I think there’s some more room to make that work, because the ethical dilemma of the technology Daniel uses to create a new Zoe is filled with questions of that nature. The more of that conflict that gets picked up as the series goes along, the better, primarily because it is what’s elevating what is otherwise a fairly standard family drama series. It’s not too dissimilar, in some ways, from NBC’s doomed Kings, in that it takes traditional soap opera or dramatic trappings and places them within a different sort of universe. Here, the holobands and the V-Clubs and everything else really help populate this world to give it that extra level of interest, and it will be interesting to see how Jane Espenson handles combining all of these elements into a weekly series.
I remain concerned about Espenson as a showrunner, primarily because her “Deadlock” was my least favourite episode in Season 4 and showed an inability to integrate soap opera into a science fiction setting. I think she’ll be closer to home here considering that the show is more inherently soap operatic, but at the same time you always worry about those balance issues (at least from my perspective). She’s been given a lot to work with in Remi Aubuchon and Ronald D. Moore’s script here, especially at a character and conceptual level, so a lot of it will be how she builds on that foundation as it relates to the Tauron mafia, or the ancillary characters who aren’t given quite as much time (Lacy comes to mind, although she’s obviously very important as we move forward) or those which feel tangential (See: Amanda Greystone).
Both as a singular piece of filmmaking and as a pilot, Caprica ultimately works: it has some strong performances (I was particularly impressed with the strength of work coming from the teens involved), a solid balance of callbacks to Galactica and newer material, and a central premise that captures the kind of power struggles which made BSG so captivating. That comparison is always going to hurt Caprica, as it isn’t aiming as high in terms of science fiction nor does it have the benefit of slowly revealing the complexity of this world (considering that we already know how this story ends), but by giving it a compelling human face they’ve convinced me the series should prove an intriguing extension of the BSG legacy.
- One thing that is missing right now: the comedy. Espenson loves to utilize comic tone in her scripts, and it will be interesting to see how she brings some levity to what is essentially a very depressing and dark universe at the end of the day.
- There’s some great set design in the series, all of it leading to that dark and depressing element: whether it’s the coldness of Greystone Manor, or even Amanda’s office, the entire Greystone existence from the sets to the music to their costuming is placed within that dark mode. Adama by comparison has the patterned and coloured suits, the charming apartment, the glow of the light, etc., so there’s some great work by the creative team.
- Jeffrey Reiner is best known to me as the creative force behind the look of the television version of Friday Night Lights, the most prominent directing producer on the series, and you could see the influence here with a lot of close-up handheld shots, and a gritty realism in some sequences. It was a bit off-putting when the special effects were so comparatively clean (Reiner is not an FX director), but at the same time I liked the duality and it fits with the existing Galactica style of providing a more realistic view of a futuristic world.
- Gary Hutzel and his visual effects team, meanwhile, got to have a lot of fun with this one: the original Cylon models were extremely well rendered, especially in the final test shot with the various droids, and Greystone Manor as a set was extremely well realized with the visual effects wide shots. Combine with the train sequence, the “biggest” special effect, and this is sure to garner them the Miniseries Visual Effects Emmy in 2010 (although I have no clue how eligibility will work).