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Caprica: Where Space Opera Meets Soap Opera

  • Alex Wainer theFish.com Contributing Writer
  • 2010 3 Mar
  • COMMENTS
<i>Caprica</i>: Where Space Opera Meets Soap Opera

When the groundbreaking re-make of Battlestar Galactica finished its last season in 2009, producers announced that a prequel series was in the works. The new show would examine life on one of the 12 Colonial worlds, the titular planet Caprica, 58 years before the destruction of those worlds by the robotic Cylons that initiated the first series. The new series promised to address the creation of the Cylons by humans and recount the story of two families whose lives were crucial in spawning the murderous machines. Now, as the series nears the end of its first season, it's time to ask how well the new series has done in its own right.  

Battlestar Galactica reinvented the "space opera," the epic story form of galactic adventures and conflicts coupled with deep human emotion and intimacy set amongst the stars. Creator Ronald Moore wanted to dispense with the tired Star Trek conventions and pat sensibilities of the form. Instead, he favored often-brutal realism, profound inquiries into human nature and the values we risk when a democratic society fights for survival and freedom. Set millions of years before the present, BSG posited that the eons-old conflict it presented was cyclical, with human development repeating itself across vast periods of time. Hence, the universe's past looks a lot like the future—and the present. 

Watching the pilot TV-movie that launched the series, it quickly became obvious that this wasn't a space opera like Galactica. There have been no spaceships, no battles or even many hovercars. In fact, the world of Caprica looks more like the 1950s meets the 21st century.  Men still wear hats, and people drive cars, even recognizable ones.  Though it strains credulity that Citroens and Jaguars are destined to re-appear every so many millions of years, it surely saves on production costs. 

Though the colonies are polytheistic, they are just as materialistic and consumerist as our society. But Caprica is also futuristic. The hottest new device, the Holoband, created by Graystone Industries, is a visor that allows the user to enter a virtual reality, like video gamers becoming part of a game. The device's inventor, Daniel Graystone, doesn't know that his daughter, Zoe, was smart enough to have hacked the device and created a separate avatar of herself that survives in the virtual world after Zoe and two of her friends, part of a monotheistic cult, are blown up when one of them sets off a terrorist bomb. 

This tragedy sets in motion events that allows Joseph Adama, (father of William, the future Admiral Adama of BSG), who lost both his wife and daughter in the explosion, to meet Graystone. Graystone discovers Zoe's avatar and transfers her into one of the robotic prototypes he has heretofore failed to develop into an effective metal soldier for sale to the government. Perhaps you can see where this is going—will the Cylons' operating system be Zoe 2.1, based on a teenage girl estranged from her parents?  While this would explain a lot of their hostility, it's hard to see how this would happen or how it fits into what we already know about the Cylons based on BSG's dense back story. 

If you can buy into Zoe's hidden genius, however, the show's other themes of virtual reality, religious conflict, and inter-ethnic tensions might grab you. There are also weird marriage arrangements among the monotheists where group marriage between several men and women is the norm. But the biggest challenge of the show remains its fundamental departure into a different genre than its predecessor.  

All five Star Trek series stayed within the confines of the basic action/adventure sci-fi form. Caprica, on the other hand, is not a space opera but a self-proclaimed soap opera with science fiction ingredients, making a crossover creation that could potentially appeal to fans of both types of stories. BSG's premise - a ragtag fleet of surviving humanity is chased across the galaxy by robots as they search for Earth - is an easily accessible, high-concept plot. Caprica's premise is murkier, with the inevitable rise of Cylon technology and the eventual colonial apocalypse to come. Thus the series has to be something different, an inquiry into the people and events that led to this cataclysm. 

I doubt the series intends to take viewers the full eighteen years up to the first Cylon war. Instead, it will focus on the dramatic interplay of lives present at the creation of humanity's nemesis. Caprica examines a society not dissimilar to our own, entranced by digital technology, material comforts, religious ideologies and warring corporations. At times it's a clever satire of the media. For instance, Daniel Graystone, played by Eric Stolz, goes on a John Stewart-like comedy talk show to mend bad publicity and explain his daughter's involvement with terrorist acts. Graystone himself seems to be an venal amalgam of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs but even more calculating.   

I found it difficult to get caught up in the ongoing nature of the slowly developing plotlines. By definition, the soap opera is an open-ended story form, meant to go for years of plotlines, deliberately paced so that viewers will stick with the characters while they wait for eventual developments along the way.  Most episodes of Caprica end with no self-contained story arc offering some satisfaction for the hour invested, leaving only the longer storylines to keep you watching.  Other series, such as BSG and Lost, have mastered this juggling act. Caprica needs to give audiences a stronger sense of direction and momentum or they will find it difficult to care where the big story may be going.  Though intriguing and beautifully produced, Caprica needs to give us more than a long slog to destruction.