Long-awaited Battlestar Galactica prequel Caprica starts on January 22, and we've seen the first few episodes. Here's our spoiler-free assessment of this challenging show that's going to take you in unexpected directions.
After watching the two-hour pilot (currently available on DVD) and first two episodes of Caprica, I was left feeling like I wanted this to be a brand-new series completely released from the Battlestar Galactica universe. The show's speculative worldbuilding is pyrotechic in its awesomeness, but diehard fans of BSG are going to find themselves nitpicking about how this vision of Bill Adama's history doesn't seem to fit with the person he became (or even things he's told us about his past in the original series). My advice is to muzzle the voice in your head that's going to say, "Hey! Adama couldn't have come from that!" and just enjoy this as a mind-bending look at another world.
That said, one way that Caprica works solidly as a prequel to BSG is its explanation for why so many of the cylons are obsessed with monotheism. We see the origins of this aspect of cylon consciousness in the laboratory of cylon inventor Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz) and his computer genius daughter Zoe. It's Zoe's invention of virtual reality AI that allows Graystone to invent his sentient robots, and her troubled relationship with a monotheistic terrorist group is intimately tangled with her high-tech creation.
Yes, I said "monotheistic terrorist group," but don't run away from what sounds like it could be a clunky allegory. Caprica takes place in an urban culture, Caprica City, that's a satisfyingly mutated version of American cities. As we learned in BSG, the humans' dominant religion is polytheistic, similar to that of ancient Greece. Perhaps as a result, Capricans are sexually liberal: Gay marriage is commonplace (one of the main characters, Bill Adama's uncle Sam, is in a sweet, cozy gay marriage); it is also legal for people to form group marriages with many partners, and we see a positive example of this kind of relationship too. At the same time, Caprica City is rife with class and ethnic divisions reminiscent of New York City in the 1940s. Bill's father Joseph (Essai Morales) struggles to achieve professional respectability in a world that looks down on Tauran immigrants like himself. In short, there are vast ghettos between those shiny buildings.
In a place like Caprica City, it's not hard to imagine that disaffected kids might turn to monotheism as a form of rebellion. Think of it as a reversal of what happened in 1960s America, where kids rebelled against their conservative parents with sex and drugs. But in Caprica City, sex isn't forbidden and every kid with an internet connection can go into an immersive virtual reality world of drugs, dancing, deathgames, and even weirder things. So how do kids like Zoe rebel? By embracing a conservative faith: They thumb their noses at authority via Love of the One True God. Oh, and also by blowing up trains.
So far I've mostly talked about the worldbuilding in Caprica, which as I said earlier is its strongest suit. But what about the story itself? Former showrunner Jane Espenson has helped create a world that feels truly original, but as a result the main characters are burdened with carrying us through a lot of complicated politics. It's hard to teach us about a mostly alien culture while also telling a compelling story, and sometimes the pacing of Caprica falters a bit - dialog stretches into meaninglessness; scenes feel like they're coming slightly out-of-order; and some of the subplots come across as forced.
In some ways Caprica is going to remind you of Dollhouse - the premise is incredibly awesome; the worldbuilding is sublime; but the stories sometimes fall flat. Luckily, Caprica has a strong throughline (unlike Dollhouse in its first season) and if the pace picks up a bit I think we're in for one hell of a ride.
Actually I think we're in for a hell of a ride no matter what, and you're going to see the kind of science fiction story that's rarely been told on television. Blending 40s-style noir with the birth of artificial intelligence? It's like a retro singularity story, and damn that's shiny. There are some absolutely stunning scenes in episode 2, "The Reins of a Waterfall," where the feeling of being a sentient robot is captured heartwrenchingly - with a few well-timed shots. I won't spoil it, of course, but I guarantee you'll be talking about it. Caprica may be starting off a little unevenly, but it's packed with such a wealth of great ideas that you won't want to miss a single episode.