Saturday, January 08, 2011

Five Comments on Caprica

  • A few months ago, io9's Annalee Newitz called Caprica "one of the most literary scifi shows ever aired," and this strikes me as right, not necessarily because of the show's themes, as Newitz claims, but because the type of world Caprica was set in, and the story it told in that world.  It's a rather rich irony that the spin-off to a series whose core failure was its writers' lack of interest in worldbuilding, and their willingness to sublimate their SFnal world to a present-day allegory, had some of the best SFnal worldbuilding ever seen on TV, and the fact that Battelstar Galactica gained not only fannish but critical acclaim while Caprica received neither (a few blips notwithstanding, such as New York Magazine's Emily Nussbaum (no relation, alas), who seems both nonplussed and excited by the show's use of virtual reality) probably says everything that needs to be said about the current state of televised SF.  Caprica is set in a world in which the implications of technology--political, social, commercial--are not only thought out but are the crux of the story.  And those implications are often crushingly mundane.  Daniel Graystone stumbles on a way to upload human consciousness onto a computer, and immediately comes up with the idea of monetizing it in the most mawkish, and unprincipled, way possible (meanwhile, Clarice Willow decides to build heaven in a computer, then complains that her programmers have failed to capture the necessary awe and grandeur).  The avatars of Zoe Graystone and Tamra Adams decide to strike a blow against the depravity that runs rampant in the virtual worlds (a technology that, like television itself, was originally envisioned by Daniel as an educational tool), but find themselves turned into pop culture icons and plastered on hipster t-shirts.

    Just as interesting as the show's SFnal worldbuilding, however, is its non-SFnal variety--the ways in which Caprica is like modern Western culture but also unlike it.  Some things are familiar--talk shows, sports arenas, colonialism--but given a slightly foreign twist that keeps the show from descending into the kind of allegory that scuttled Galactica.  And then there are the aspects of the world that don't exist in ours--polytheistic religion (though this is glossed over too often; see the next point), gay marriage for mob enforcers, a schoolteacher in a polyamorous marriage, interplanetary travel that is as demystified as air travel--and which the show matter-of-factly inserts into a familiar setting.  Together they create a sense that Caprica is a real world, and that there are many other stories that could be told about it.  I was never entirely won over by Caprica's plotting, which also strikes me as literary, in the sense that the pacing, tenor, and tone of the show changed dramatically over the course of its single season, just as a novel might start with exposition and move towards a tense climax.  I'm not convinced that this style is a good fit for television in general (though it's become increasingly popular--Dexter uses is almost exclusively), but it certainly doesn't work in a twenty episode season broken up into two chunks which are aired months apart.  The five post-cancellation episodes, which aired on Syfy in a single chunk a few days ago, feel like a completely different show from the beginning of the season, and this gap (as well as the chronological one) makes it difficult to figure out how, or whether, the characters have grown and changed.  Still, whenever the story, or even the characters, let me down, there was Caprica's world, and its writers' obvious joy in exploring its complexity and depth.

  • Caprica's handling of religion is simultaneously fantastic and horrible.  Fantastic because religion on the show is not a monolith, and people can share religious faith without sharing values, or even an understanding of what that faith means.  The depiction of the monotheistic church on Geminon, with its competing streams, militant and less militant factions, and political infighting, carries a definite and fascinating whiff of Medieval and Renaissance Catholicism, and though it's rather dubious that a marginalized sect in a democratic, secular society would develop these sorts of structures--why fight for power if there's no power to be fought over?--the implicit recognition that religion can become bound up with the quest for power without being the same thing as that quest is an unusually sophisticated one.  On the other hand, Caprica never answers the core question raised by its religious plotline, a question without whose answer none of the show's handling of religion can truly be trusted: why are the monotheists blowing themselves up in public?  What do they hope to accomplish by doing so?  Clarice's plan to use a terrorist bombing as a sort of lethal ad campaign for her virtual heaven is mustache-twirlngly absurd, and anyway isn't formulated until rather late in the season, at which point Barnabas has already carried out several bombings.  Zoe embraces monotheistic religion because she thinks that Caprican society is corrupt and degraded, which might have worked as a reason to commit mass murder, but no monotheist other than her expresses these feelings--not even Lacy, who is largely under Zoe's spell--and Zoe herself isn't a terrorist.  It's very hard to escape the conclusion that the monotheists on the show blow people up because Caprica's writers think that this is what people who believe in God do.

    An obvious response to this might be that killing dozens of innocent strangers in what is likely to be a futile and self-defeating attempt to advance your agenda is an inherently irrational act, and since characters like Barnabas and Clarice are, if not irrational, then at least intellectually dishonest, there doesn't need to be a reason for their terrorist activities.  But there's a difference between an irrational act and a motiveless one.  The terrorist who blows themselves up in Iraq or Tel Aviv may not have a particularly sensible plan towards achieving their political goals, may not be acting out of anything more thought out than anger and hate, may not even be particularly smart, but they do have a motive, even if it's just to strike out at the people they think are responsible for their suffering, or to make themselves feel, if only for a moment, less helpless and downtrodden.  At no point does Caprica establish the monotheists' motives.  They're not persecuted (at least not until they start their terror campaign), nor is there, as far as we can see, any systemic oppression or prejudice arrayed against them, and the notion of using terror tactics as a recruiting tactic is laughable.  If Taurons were blowing themselves up in the streets of Caprica City it would make sense (and in episodes like "Dirteaters" it's revealed that guerrilla and terror tactics were used on Tauron), and every episode in which characters like Joe and Sam Adama recal their persecuted past while apparently privileged characters like Clarice plann mass murder and send teenagers to paramilitary training camps only drives home the irrationality at the very heart of the show.  Given how central religion, and the issue of terrorism, are to Caprica, this unwillingness to even acknowledge the question of why the two are linked is a very nearly fatal flaw.

  • By the same token, Caprica's female characters are alternately magnificent and disappointing.  Women's status on Caprica and its colonies is one of the points on which the show's worldbuilding flounders.  On the one hand, the show features the same kind of male dominance with increasing female presence that we recognize from our world--in the boardrooms of Graystone industries, in the offices of the GDD, and in the ranks of the Ha'latha.  But on the other hand, characters like the Guatrau's daughter Fidelia, who takes over the Ha'latha from him, or the soldier who kills Joe and Sam's parents, are accepted without comment in traditionally masculine, traditionally misogynistic environments (this is the same approach the writers took with non-heteronormative relationships, but it works less well, in part because despite their best efforts the show's background is still dominated by men).  But when the show stops trying to depict social change and just portrays complicated, strong, adult women who live in and navigate the real world, play by its rules and nevertheless manage to exert control over it, Caprica gives the current title-holder in the category, The Good Wife, a run for its money (which is even more impressive when one considers that Caprica comes from the genre that gave us the ass-kicking female character that shows like The Good Wife could be called a response to, and that Galactica gave us Starbuck, a character who both epitomized and exploded the action girl trope).  As central as men like Daniel and Joe are to the first season's plot, it ultimately boils down to a battle of wits and wills between Amanda and Clarice, and in the background there are other women with power and influence--Clarice's wife Marbeth, Fidelia, Joe's second wife Evelyn, the monotheist mother superior.  Most of them have several roles, both domestic and professional, and they derive strength and authority from both spheres--just like the male characters.

    On the other hand, the show's young women are woefully underserved despite being, initially, more central to its plot.  Zoe fares the best, but mainly because her arc connects her with the series's two best characters, Daniel and Amanda--the season, for her, is largely about her teenage rebellion, and coming to some sort of peace and understanding with her parents.  The only Zoe-centered storyline that doesn't revolve around that relationship, and treats her as a woman rather than a child, is her romance with Philomon, which is bearable only because of the way its tragic and ugly ending explodes the romantic expectations the show had encouraged us to develop.  Meanwhile, Lacy, for all of Magda Apanowicz's best efforts, is the most inconsistently written character on the show, simultaneously determined and tough-minded, and utterly subservient to the will of others--Zoe, Clarice, or whatever cult she happens to have joined this week.  There's a story to be told here, obviously--of a capable, strong person who nevertheless needs someone else to follow--but Lacy's devotion to Zoe and Clarice (and the degree to which the latter is feigned) are never explained, nor does the show reconcile the lengths to which she goes to help Zoe--which include participating in murders and terrorist bombings--with its insistence that Lacy is a moral, sympathetic character.  And the less said of Tamra, who appears and disappears, is made central to the plot and then ignored, according to the writers' convenience, the better.

  • For the life of me, I can't understand the choice to make Zoe ignorant of the mag-train bombing.  With the exception of the Clarice and Lacy, who tell no one else and don't seem inclined to do so, everyone assumes that Zoe was a terrorist, and it is an integral part of Daniel and Amanda's journey over the course of the season that they have to deal with this colossal failure as parents and citizens.  On the other hand, a great deal of effort is expended to stress that the Zoe avatar is not Zoe, and isn't responsible for her choices and crimes, thus absolving us of the crime of sympathy for a suicide bomber.  So why not make Zoe a terrorist?  She could hardly be any more self-involved and megalomaniacal, and while it's true that there's no reason for her to have wanted to commit mass murder, as discussed above there's really no reason for anyone, including Ben, to have wanted this.  As the show doesn't really explain why Zoe, rather than Ben, is seized upon as the mag-train bomber, she might as well have been the one. 

  • I've been trying to decide whether the show's connection with Battlestar Galactica helped it or hindered it.  Not in terms of survival--it's pretty clear that Caprica failed because it was too different from its parent show to draw in that show's fans (while hewing too close to Galactica's mythology for the comfort of people who hated it, like me), but at the same time I doubt that it would ever have been made if it hadn't been folded into the Galactica mythology--but in terms of its story.  The connection with Galactica, and our constant awareness of where the story is going, and the fact that characters like Daniel and Zoe are the architects of their own civilization's destruction, inevitably colors our reactions to both story and characters.  It creates a frisson, an ever-present sense of impending doom, that constantly elevates the story's level of tension and its grandeur.  It's an importance that the show doesn't quite earn, but more importantly, it changes the nature of the story that Caprica tells.  Without knowing where the creation of the Cylons, of machine sentience, and of personality upload, was leading Caprican society and the twelve colonies, we could watch Caprica as a story about the effects of technology, both positive and negative, and about the universal human tendency to exploit the weak and rush forward without understanding the consequences of our actions.  Knowing that the story has a tragic ending, however, not only forces the show into a wholly negative stance towards technology that isn't entirely supported by its scripts or characters, but turns Caprica into a morality tale, the kind of story about technological hubris leading to the apocalypse that SF TV loves to tell (see Dollhouse), which does something to negate the literary quality that is Caprica's strongest point.

2 comments:

kaffyr said...

Your comments about the poorly-rationalized monotheism are spot-on. I adored Caprica for its dense world-building, and for its complicated characters, but when some of the structural reasons for those characters' actions were weak or, sometimes, almost non-existent, I found myself frustrated. You're also right about Lacey's character; the actress did admirably with what she was given, but the writers did her no favors. The sad thing is that it felt as if the writers themselves were just getting a handle on how to deal with, explore, and explain the monotheism with which they were playing. Too late, unfortunately. The loss of the show makes me sad, but it wasn't a complete surprise.

Anonymous said...

Spot-on indeed. I suspect (but of course don't know) that it's a symptom of the terrorism element existing first when the series was developed and the rationalisation for it essentially being a retcon added later in the writing process. That's why I'm not sure I'd call Caprica "literary", precisely because I never got the sense the characters motivations and actions flowed organically from their situation and background (you point out some excellent examples of this problem). It's more of an admittedly rich collage of pieces which might have grown together with time (or might have fallen apart, cf Battlestar itself). But I gave up on Caprica two-thirds of the way in for just this reason, so maybe it got better towards the end.

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