The backdoor pilot for Battlestar Galactica prequel Caprica is available today at a retailer near you or your web browser, but a few hundred of us were lucky enough to see it last night at the Paley Festival in Los Angeles. Co-executive producer David Eick held a ceremonial christening of the show by pulling out a flask and doing a tequila shot on stage (he persuaded producing partner Ron Moore to do the same, and even let host Seth Green in on the swigging action, although in fairness he seemed reluctant to share quality tequila). Did this little bit of protective magic help create television magic?
I think it might have. This was a pilot, and as such has some of the weird little quirks pilots tend to have. There are some dangling questions that may or may not ever be addressed and some points where the suspension of disbelief required to get the exposition in means you’re going to have to squint a bit (a 16-year-old cracks the code of how the human brain works. Of course she does). But on this level, Caprica actually fares better than many pilots, introducing the main players with an emotional economy and setting up a world oozing with gorgeous design work and knotty problems.
Those problems might be the crux of the issue when it comes to where Caprica is going. One of the things Moore, Eick, and (the wonderful) Jane Espenson were emphatic about in the post-screening panel was the need to “destroy” Battlestar Galactica–to make Caprica its own entity (Moore even pointed out that in doing so, they expected to lose some of the BSG audience while gaining new fans). In many ways, they’re successful in doing this–the look of the show is intentionally different from BSG, saturated with light and bright colors and sparkly things (director Jeffrey Reimer of Friday Night Lights fame is freed of the faux-documentary conceit that worked so well on BSG but would be awkward here). Has Bear McCreary added a prominent English horn to his orchestra of doom?*** Have the writers actually created a Tauron language? The pilot lacks the urgency Battlestar‘s had, but that’s purposeful as well–this is both the beginning and the culmination of a decades-long decline rather than the first breathless race for survival after apocalypse. There’s obvious room to grow and explore here, and that’s exciting.
On the other hand, while I like the pilot a lot, the things I was most excited about exploring were all laced into the parent show’s mythology. The idea of BSG as a post-9/11 response to tragedy is almost canon now, but Caprica is really that idea as it played out in our society, with an opening terrorist bombing that raises questions about religion and protest and corruption. The grotesque virtual nightclub that serves both as the meeting place for the genius teenage maybe-not-terrorists and as their catalyst for wanting to clean up the world has as its descendent the icky strip club where Bill Adama and the Tighs worried about retirement. A big, juicy part of the fun is the fleshing out of the Colonial worlds, with Tauron mourning rituals and Caprican classism. I can’t stop being fascinated by the idea that no flowers grow on Tauron–why on…Caprica would you settle a planet where no flowers grow? Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that such a place grows a complicated system of organized crime instead (Esai Morales is pretty terrific juggling all of those worlds as he loses most of his own).
Caprica‘s underlying philosophical approach is straight out of the Cylon lore we’ve just spent half a decade watching, as well. Daniel Greystone’s (Eric Stoltz) attempt to reconstitute the monotheistic daughter who was killed in the bombing by recapturing the best avatar ever and downloading her into a cybernetic body just makes him Frankenstein by way of Steve Jobs, but it loops us back around to every question we ever had about the Eights and the Sixes and everyone else who downloaded–what makes a soul? Does having the ability to create and destroy life also confer the right to do so? If consciousness exists after bodies quit, what is death in the end? Caprica takes these questions head on, and it’s a lot of fun–but it’s fun they’ve been preparing us for for five years on another show, and for all they want the prequel to stand on its own, I wonder if it does–if it’s nearly as engaging without the framework already in place to build those questions on. We can’t unring that bell, of course, so it will be interesting to see if Caprica draws people new to the universe with similar levels of appeal it will have for the already-converted.
While I hope newbies will give it a try, I’m going to continue swimming around in the set-up fun. Watching Greystone download his daughter’s consciousness and then realize he’s downloading it into a Centurion induces goosebumps, but watching said Centurion’s visual scanner turn red as the robot becomes Zoe brings all of the big questions this universe engages crashing into one swirling horror show, but one that’s hard to look away from. Heck, a mean Caprican bigwig even has octogonal lenses in his glasses. I miss BSG for its world and its characters, but I also miss it for what it had to say and what it had to ask. While I wonder whether Caprica is a perfect candidate for the BBC approach we’ve mentioned before (two 13-episode seasons, maybe), I’ll be looking forward to taking another ride on the carousel.
***Edited on 04/27/2009 to add: Has Bear McCreary added an English horn to his orchestra of doom? Yes, indeedy, he has. Ha! Most excellent, as is his blog entry concerning Caprica’s new themes–check it out.