January 29th, 2010
I was warned ahead of time that Caprica’s pilot was not necessarily representative of the series, and that the two additional episodes sent to critics seemed to offer something very different. However, all of those people who had seen the episodes seemed excited but in a way that was at the same time quite cautious: when I chatted about the episodes with Todd over at Media Elites, he indicated that, while he was quite taken with the episodes, not everyone is going to fall head over heels in love with the show that Caprica has become.
I, however, have. What surprised me about Caprica was that it managed to resist diving straight into melodrama, despite a premise that lends itself to that sort of interaction. After a pilot that felt steeped in the complexities of holo-bands and avatars, “Rebirth” takes that scenario and investigates the human consequences: stories that are big philosophically, like the fate of Zoe Graystone’s Avatar, are small in the context of the story, while the stories which go public are those which are more personal and thus more devastating. Rather than focus on creating conflict between characters, the episode allows the characters to start developing independent of that conflict, discovering new ways to adapt to a world without a daughter or a family shattered by tragedy.
It’s an episode that manages to subtly investigate the show’s premise while also triumphantly proclaiming that Caprica is a place of great complexity, and a place that has no idea the changes that the next decade or two will bring; in short, it’s a damn fine start for the series at hand.
From the moment we start the episode inside her head, seeing an amalgamation of Zoe’s memories, her experiences within the virtual world, and the killing spree the robot body committed once imprinted with her personality, it becomes very clear that Zoe Graystone is no more. What’s left is, as Lacy diagnoses later in the episode, a trinity: she is Robot, Daughter and the Virtual Spirit, come to life in a mechanical body with real emotions and real human responses. It’s a fascinating position for a character to be in: she refers to herself as Zoe, but she also refer’s to “Zoe’s memories,” and Lacey (when she eventually meets the robot) has trouble managing to reconcile any of it. She’s a monster to her mother, a tool to a tool who works in Daniel’s lab, and something special to another employee. She is so many different things to other people that reconciling that with who she knows she is, which is already complex considering that it’s an avatar “copy” (but not a copy) of Zoe, is nearly impossible, which makes it one of the central tensions of the series.
But the show isn’t interested in blowing it out of proportion, creating a chain reaction as Zoe’s parents and everyone else discovers the truth. Rather, her identity remains a mystery, and her humanity becomes a scientific mystery to Daniel and his team (albeit an important one considering the defence contract in question). What it allows the show to do is handle these complex questions with some subtlety, since there’s no need to force the issue into the public eye. Although eventually her mother and father will come to know the truth, Zoe’s story remains how people perceive her, and through the perhaps overused but continually effective technique of having the CGI Centurion switch with Allesandra Torresani we get to experience “Zoe” and her identity crisis before it becomes a plot point. It’s a psychological/philosophical part of the premise, so making it quite isolated (with only Lacy knowing the truth) helped drive that point home and delivered some really compelling scenes even when disconnected from the “plot.”
There really isn’t much plot in the episode: yes, Daniel has a defence contract to live up to, and there’s a large memorial that serves as the climax of the story, but “Rebirth” is about how individual characters are dealing with the plot of the Pilot as opposed to creating something new. We get glimpses of potential plots moving forward with Lacey’s visit with Sister Clarice, but even then that story felt more like a chance to get to know Clarice better, and to investigate part of Caprican society (Group Marriages are legal, it appears). I don’t only say this because of Scott Porter’s presence in the episode (as Clarice’s young husband Nestor), but it had that feeling of Friday Night Lights: sometimes, the episode is just about characters navigating their way through life in a small town in the wake of a particular event, and here we saw Caprica and the post-bombing situation through the eyes of a wide range of characters.
I was particularly taken with the Willie/Sam story, in that it seems entirely tangential until you see it converge with Joseph Adama’s grief. I don’t find the young actor playing Willie (who apparently doesn’t have an IMDB page for me to link to) to be a particularly strong child actor, sometimes rushing through his lines in a way that’s not entirely unrealistic but nonetheless feels a bit forced, but that moment where he uses his uncle’s post-prison advice in order to change the subject with his father is a dark portrait into the young mind of Bill Adama and a sign that the show doesn’t intend to play Willie as a non-character. The pilot seemed overbearing in terms of establishing the Tauron mafia, but the idea of Sam as a subtle role model for Willie was a nice bit of character work, and the tour around Little Tauron was a good way to get a sense of the urban culture without necessarily showing that it is particularly dark or dangerous (in other words, resisting melodramatic or explosive occurrences).
I found this especially appealing in terms of how they handled the Graystone marriage. In my mind, and from my recollection of the pilot, their relationship felt strained and distant, as if Zoe’s death would be the last straw. Perhaps it is just that I’ve watched most of Deadwood since first watching the pilot, but Paul Malcolmson is really dialing into this character a lot better now, and the writers were smart to resist turning this into something that divides the family (at least initially). They have different ways of dealing with their grief, Daniel becoming prone to distraction and Amanda searching through images of Zoe in search of answers to a question she wishes was never asked, but instead of coming between them those differences help them get on the same page, at least initially. Sure, after Amanda announced to the whole city that her daughter was a terrorist with the STO, I’m guessing their marriage might go through a bit more struggle, but by limiting the melodrama within their relationship, it made that moment stand out rather than seeming like one more drop in the bucket in terms of her reckless behaviour.
Maybe it’s just that it’s so rare to see a show’s premise shoved to the background after the pilot, and for the show to investigate its world (pyramid matches, newscasts, family units, drug subcultures) through its characters rather than nodding towards where things are going next. Yes, we can draw some lines to where stories are head (certainly Sister Clarice has more on her mind with Nestor and Lacy’s interactions than she’d otherwise admit), but where the pilot felt occasionally claustrophobic and insular “Rebirth” felt expansive. The story has its subtle moments, but in its control over that subtlety and by building to its payoffs it underscores the potential that exists for a dramatic television series within this world, and manages to do it all without a single explosion.
And that’s a show I want to watch.
- Notice how they don’t actually show us any Pyramid – frankly, the game is illogical and silly, but I like the idea of seeing the culture surrounding it.
- Gary Hutzel and the Visual Effects team are doing some great work here: they’re selling me on their CGI Caprica, first and foremost, but the nice subtle work making the Centurion seem more human-like is nicely building on their work on BSG.
- It’s seriously weird hearing Paula Malcolmson talk without cursing – wholly unnatural, I say. Same goes for Scott Porter walking.
- I like the human characters, and all, but Serge really is stealing the show: between Daniel forcing him to commentate his paper pyramid game (which was clever) and his illicit love affair with another robot, he’s quite the character.
- I don’t have a fully formed opinion on the opening credits, and Bear McCreary’s title music (which you can read about in his great blog post about the episode) is really intriguing, but I do think that I could have done without the clearly CGI’d character. I think it sells the show pretty well, these different worlds converging around Zoe and this technology, but I tend to prefer openings that make thematic rather than plot observations. I could LISTEN to the credits all day, but I don’t know about watching them.
- I didn’t say too much about the performances above, but I thought everyone (Torresani, Stoltz, Morales, Walker, etc.) was quite strong – it’s a great cast, and I look forward to watching them grow.