Friday's episode of Caprica, "Gravedancing," began with secret monotheist terrorist Clarice waking up with her wife and two husbands all snuggled in bed. And this SF soap has more than just polyamory in common with HBO's Big Love.
Caprica's great experiment has been to wed the naturalist melodrama of nighttime soap opera with the posthuman preoccupations of contemporary science fiction. Which is why you have odd mashup plots featuring, for example, the mafia from another planet, and a dissolute rich family whose daughter turns into a cyborg. Ratings for Caprica so far have been low, so it's possible television audiences don't want to see Big Love in space. But frankly I don't care about that - TV audiences aren't always the best judges of what's good. The real question is: Can the genres of SF and nighttime soap be merged successfully? So far, Caprica has convinced me that the answer is a resounding yes.
Let's look at the major plot elements in Friday's episode, and tease apart where the SF ends and melodrama begins.
Friday's episode focused on the fallout from Amanda Graystone's public admission that he daughter Zoe was involved with the monotheistic group STO, who blew up the train that killed Zoe, as well as Joseph Adama's wife and daughter. An enraged Joseph has asked his gangster brother Sam to kill Amanda because he wants to "balance things out" in the Tauran way. Meanwhile, Daniel Graystone has been so humbled and worn down by the public backlash against his holoband company that he's finally agreed to go on Baxter Sarno's late night talk show (a scary combination of Leno and The Daily Show).
Clarice is also working with a mysterious person to protect the STO agents hidden at Lacy and Zoe's high school. The schoolmistress gets a tipoff from some guy in a suit, and then secretly passes her students a message that the cops, led by Jordan, are going to search school lockers for explosives. Jordan also gets a warrant to seize all of Zoe's stuff from the Graystone manse.
SF elements: Clarice's pagan group marriage; monotheistic terrorists
Soap elements: The Tauran family melodrama is pure Sopranos or Big Love. Also, things are personal even for the cops. They have to cover their asses because they detained bomber Ben a year before and let him go, despite finding detonators in his backpack.
As Sam gets closer and closer to killing Amanda, we see Joseph having second thoughts. Does he really want Tauran justice, the way his bloodthirsty mother-in-law does? (There are some great scenes of her viciously chopping up chicken while watching Amanda on TV.) Will making another man endure his loss really make him feel better? Plus, he must be thinking in the back of his mind that he still doesn't really know what happened to his virtual daughter Tamara, who has disappeared into the nightmarish V-club. Just as Sam is about to kill Amanda, Joseph chokes and starts sending text messages saying "don't."
SF elements: Virtual Tamara in the V-club
Soap elements: The vengeful patriarch and the mafia family
And that means Amanda is free to continue her public crusade to deal with Zoe's death and terrorist connections. She makes a surprise appearance on Sarno, running on stage when Daniel starts choking on the PR script he's been given. Together, the two of them publicly condemn the way the holoband has encouraged hacking, and the creation of places like the V-club, by refusing to license the technology. In a great PR coup - but a seriously bad business move - the Graystones win back the public's heart, and Sarno's blessings, by pledging to make the holoband software free for everyone. And to start a nonprofit with all proceeds made from license fees paid into the holoband technology. All this tech-and-politics talk becomes another way the couple rekindles their love for each other.
From a business perspective, it also means that Daniel is going to have to focus all his energies on the cylon technology. Now the holoband stuff is going to be free, Graystone Industries is either going to have to sell Google ads in V space, or get those killer robots up and running.
SF elements: I know this sounds weird, but I'm going to call Baxter Sarno scifi because SF movies from Gamer to Starship Troopers have talk show sequences and melodramas rarely do. Holobands and cylons are obviously SF too.
Soap elements: Rich man brought low by hubris; crazy wife who spouts wisdom that makes the PR team happy. Rich couple in love who share the tragic loss of a daughter.
Unfortunately for Graystone Industries, the only functioning cylon is still the Zoe model. There's a weird/awesome/crawly scene where the kindly geek who works on Zoe's robot body teaches her to dance as a diagnostic. Then he works on her torso, and says rather leeringly, "That's a nice chest." All along, we are seeing a shift between Zoe's point of view, where she's wearing a sparkly dress and giving the nice geek a wide-eyed "I lurve you" look, and the tech's point of view as he sees her giant robot body. It's confusing when boys only like you for your body . . . especially when your body is an 8-foot-tall killer cylon with one red eye.
Geek and cylon won't have much time together, though, if Lacy gets her way. She's about to meet with some STO heavies to see if she can ship Zoe the cylon to Gemenon, which is where Zoe was going when the train exploded.
SF elements: Teen girl trapped in a cylon's body. The STO conspiracy.
Soap elements: Teen girl confused by the changes in her body falls for a nice boy who wants to dance with her.
No matter how deftly the show hybridizes these two genres, however, I think Caprica may fail to garner a big audience for a simple reason. By combining science fiction with soap opera, you wind up with an otherworldy setting and a weird set of social relationships. After all, SF specializes in strange worlds, while soap operas specialize in strange people. Perhaps it's all too much strangeness, even for Syfy watchers?
SF writer Karl Schroeder once explained that good science fiction has to be a combination of the familiar and unfamiliar: If you create a completely different world, like Caprica and its sister planets, then you need to have characters who are recognizable from our world. Or, if you are creating unrecognizable characters like the polygamous entrepreneurs in Big Love, you have to locate them in the mundane everyday of PTA meetings, work annoyances, and politics that we all recognize.
Combining Battlestar Galactica with Big Love to create Caprica may be a stroke of genius, but I fear it may be lost on a TV audience seeking "relatability" over all else.
Still, I was left as I am every week, wanting to see more. I can't wait to find out what happened to Tamara in the V-club - previews make it look pretty insane and awesome.