“The Imperfections of Memory”
March 12th, 2010
One of the largest concerns that many seem to be citing when explaining their dislike of SyFy’s Caprica is “poor pacing,” which isn’t an uncommon complaint of any serialized drama. Really, Caprica is trapped between the two most common circumstances where pacing becomes a concern: not only is it a new series that is taking a while to get to the bulk of its story, but it’s also being (unfairly) viewed as a continuation of a previous series, which creates other expectations about how fast the show should (or shouldn’t) be moving. For some it’s starting from scratch, and for others it’s having to contend with concerns over pacing that plagued the final season of Battlestar Galactica.
I don’t intend to repeat my previous argument on why I disapprove of the latter concern, but the former issues are legitimate and, to some degree, quite accurate. “The Imperfections of Memory” reminds us that this is in some ways the story of a group of people stumbling into knowledge that we as an audience (regardless of whether we’ve seen BSG) already know, and watching that unfold can be at times a slow and unsatisfying process.
However, personally, I think there’s something interesting about watching the process of discovery, and the power that yields has thus far been worth the slow build, and worth the sideways momentum, and worth the “poor” pacing so long as it’s building to something as philosophically intriguing as it seems to be.
Cathy Kodama (CCatko on Twitter) responded to a tweet wherein I mentioned an evening involving both Caprica and Curling by suggesting that it was a perfect fit, considering their similar pacing. It was meant as a jest, sure, but I think there’s some truth to it. In some curling ends, the result is a foregone conclusion: if there’s no guards in the front of the house, it means that the chances of scoring two points is slim, so the team with the last rock advantage will try to “blank” the end in order to hope for a better chance to score multiple points in the next end. When I build up a buffer on curling events, I tend to fast-forward these ends: if the conclusion is inevitable, why bother watching?
However, every now and then something goes wrong: a takeout is missed, or a draw sails long, which gives the other team an opportunity to get back in it. In those moments, I find myself pausing and going back to find out what I missed, my perception of the game’s pacing having been broken down by a small mistake or a particularly miraculous shot. If I were to miss that, perhaps it wouldn’t be a big deal, but it’s obviously different with Caprica. In this case, the show tends to see characters moving towards inevitable conclusions (like Daniel discovering that Zoe is inside his robot body, for example, or the broader knowledge that BSG fans have of the show’s universe), so one could argue that the mystery is somehow gone. Why spend an entire episode with Daniel and Philomon trying to solve something when we already know the answer?
The final season of Lost has raised a lot of questions about the balance between character and mythology, and I think that we can find in that conflict an answer to the above query. Caprica, you might notice, doesn’t have mysteries like the identity of the final five Cylons, nor does it even necessarily have any questions that demand answers from the audience. This is not to say that “The Imperfections of Memory” doesn’t have questions: why is Amanda seeing her brother’s ghost, why does Zoe’s avatar want her robot body to go to Geminon, where is Tamara’s avatar, etc. However, rather than being obsessed with teasing out the “why” of these questions, the show is more interested in how the characters are responding to these mysteries. We know how Tamara’s avatar came to exist in the V-World (which puts us one step ahead of Heracles), but we are only now discovering how it is affecting Joseph Adama. Similarly, we still don’t know what Zoe’s avatar wants to do in Geminon, but we know that it has Lacy devoting herself to the STO in order to get it done. And while we might not know why Amanda is seeing her brother’s ghost, we see how it is pushing her further into her friendship with Clarice and the STO beliefs that she holds responsible for her daughter’s death.
While the show might be moving at a slow pace in terms of putting its story on the table, I think the result is creating a lot more interesting questions. It’s not just how the characters are reacting to sudden stimuli, or how they’re responding to the show’s premise as created by the pilot, but rather how their motivations and desires (their dreams, if we follow Daniel’s logic) are adapting in response to the changing tides. The show is capturing something that will eventually change the face of the 12 planets forever, but it’s important to acknowledge that this change would not happen overnight: we’ve had almost a year to come to terms with Zoe being inside the Cylon body, but Daniel has had considerably less time, so jumping to that conclusion isn’t something that would just magically happen. I thought the episode did a good job of letting Zoe, through Philomon, stumble on the discovery that could unlock the potential of the project, opening his eyes without forcibly pushing aside his eyelids.
I remember, when the show was first starting, that Todd VanDerWerff noted that the show kind of just shrugs its shoulders about being a show about robots, which I think is growing more and more fascinating. While we as an audience are asked to just accept the world as it is, mostly told about things through very straightforward exposition that doesn’t make a big deal out of things, other characters have entirely different views: whether it’s Daniel’s speech last week, or Clarice’s quest for eternal life (that forms the basis of Zoe’s avatar project), or Adama’s desire to see his daughter once more, the same technology is being twisted into something which fits their desires. We know, to some degree, that the technology they are relying on is imperfect: Daniel can’t just “copy” the prototype, Clarice doesn’t realize that the avatar’s are distinct from the original entity, and Adama is naive to believe that the Tamara he finds will be anything like the Tamara he once knew. However, how they discover that information, and what they do with it, is what makes the show so thematically rich.
This is a show about robots and virtual worlds, but it is actually quite grounded from a narrative perspective: it knows the stories it wants to tell and the characters it wants to follow, even when those characters don’t quite know what the story is supposed to be. If the show was getting no mileage out of those characters fumbling their way through their lives struggling to discover the key to artificial intelligence or the power of the one true God or the location of their dead but still virtually alive daughter, I’d agree that the show lacks forward momentum. However, every week I find myself more and more fascinated by how this world affects those who live in it, and that demonstrates the effect the show is having on me as a viewer.
It’s like curling, then, except the rocks are replaced by complex philosophical discoveries and the players are replaced by killer robots with unique generative intelligence. And blank or no blank, that’s a game/show I want to watch.
- I don’t entirely understand why people are surprised that Caprica is this slow: I’d argue that this retelling of the Cylon backstory is far more compelling than what we saw in BSG, to be honest, since the consequences are more complex and because they aren’t replacing or stalling in the midst of a more action-packed environment where such ruminations would sometimes seem out of place or disruptive.
- There was a moment late in BSG’s fourth season which really bothered me: I won’t spoil it, but it had to do with the transfer of memories, and indicated that it wasn’t a “big deal;” I’m glad that the role of memory in the Cylon architecture is being delved into more closely, and I think one way that we can view Caprica in relation to BSG is in terms of picking up on those missed opportunities and expanding upon the ideas therein.
- For more thoughts on the episode, you can check out reviews from Noel Murray and Alan Sepinwall, as well as some thoughts at EW from Darren Franich (whose style is somewhat divergent from PopWatch norms).