Brooding and weird, the long-awaited Battlestar Galactica prequel series Caprica is about two families whose fates are tied to the birth of the deadly cylons. And it's surprisingly engrossing. Spoilers ahead!

I wasn't sure what to expect from Caprica, which tells the story of how the Cylons were created when Galactica Captain Adama's father Joseph becomes accidentally entangled with millionaire inventor Daniel Graystone. Series creator Ron Moore and showrunner Jane Espenson had talked about how the show would have a film noir look, as well as a focus on noir-ish plots related to crime and family secrets. They also insisted that it wouldn't be space opera, but more like a traditional melodrama that just happens to be set in a futuristic, Pagan culture on another planet.

A premise like that could fall over easily, but instead it absolutely sails. Caprica works incredibly well, despite a few hiccups, helped along by some brilliant worldbuilding and terrific acting from stars Esai Morales (as Joseph) and Eric Stoltz (as Daniel). The 90-minute pilot of the show is available today on DVD and for download, and it contains some scenes that you won't be able to see on TV when it airs next year on SyFy Channel.

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On the planet Caprica, 58 years before the Cylons nuke everything, everybody hangs out in virtual online worlds via holobands, a brain-computer interface technology that Daniel invented (before he started working on military robots called cylons). Like Earth's internet, the holo world is packed with violence, casual sex, and weird religious rituals like human sacrifice to the Capricans' Pagan gods. Though this sounds a little cheesy, the actual holo world scenes are fairly interesting depictions of what a virtual nightclub might be like - and the e-paper that people use to access it is nothing but cool. It's in holospace where we meet Zoe, the computer genius daughter of Daniel, who spends most of her time hacking. She's figured out a way to create a near-exact copy of her consciousness in an AI called Zoe-A who exists solely in her secret holo world hideaway.

Unfortunately Zoe is never able to show her creation to the world because she's gotten involved with a group of monotheistic terrorists. She's hoping to use Zoe-A as a way to disrupt the "trash" and evil she sees in the Pagan holo world, but her boyfriend has other plans. While on a train with Zoe, he suicide-bombs, killing Zoe as well as Joseph's daughter and wife.

As the police try to unravel the terrorist attack, Joseph and Daniel enter each other's orbits and become friends unified by their shared grief. This whole section of the 90-minute pilot, where we are asked to imagine a Pagan world where teen monotheists are the terrorists, is definitely intriguing. You'll want to dig deeper into this universe, especially when we start getting backstory on Joseph.

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Joseph is from Tauron, a planet riddled with poverty and whose inhabitants are treated with racist disdain by the Capricans. We hear several people talking about how Taurons are "untrustworthy," and Joseph has changed his name from the Tauron "Adama" to "Adams" in order to assimilate and maintain his job as a fancy lawyer. Still, he's haunted by his past. His family is part of a Tauron crime syndicate, and Joseph knows more than he's wants to about the dirty dealings of his brother Sam (yes, Sam Adams, I know) and the rest of the clan. During the pilot, the Godfather figure of the family asks Joseph to use his reputable position to bargain with the Minister of Defense, who has been cracking down on the Tauron crime syndicate.

Trapped between his old-world family and assimilation into the decadent Caprican society, Joseph doesn't know what to do. Especially when his new friend Daniel reveals that he has the technology to bring their dead daughters and Joseph's wife back from the grave in the holo world. Crazed with sadness, Joseph winds up striking several bargains that he'll regret for the rest of his life. He has to work his crime family connections to get some tech that will help Daniel put Zoe-A into a cylon body. The compromises he makes - doing favors for the "family," and for Daniel - are the crimes of conscience that set the series in motion. And that indirectly lead to the downfall of the entire 12 Colonies.

Showrunner Espenson has compared Caprica to the series Rome, which focuses on a decadent society right before its fall. Still, the Caprican civilization doesn't feel as if its about to become extinct. Our characters seem as if they're merely trapped in the kinds of compromises we all make in an imperfect world. What makes this series compelling is not a sense of impending doom. Instead it's the fact that the conspiracies and prejudices that hobble our characters are refreshingly unfamiliar, though vividly reflective of ones that we face every day too.

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Ultimately what I thought made this pilot so promising was the relationship between Daniel and Zoe, whose brilliant, monotheistic mind is now encased in the body of a Centurion killer. It feels a little bit like the best parts of Sarah Connor Chronicles, where teenage girls are murderous machines and the future is a nuclear wasteland. As I said earlier, Stolz does an amazing job as Daniel, and he manages to pull off a character whose greed and grief have merged into a dark alloy that fuels his inventive fury.

Those of us who watched Battlestar Galactica know exactly how dangerous it was to put that monotheistic little terrorist into the body of a killer robot. But those who never watched can enjoy this show entirely on its own, as the chronicle of a sophisticated civilization teetering on the brink of savagery.

You'll definitely want to check out Caprica - buy it on DVD via Amazon, or download it.

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