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Man Before the Fall: An Advance Review of Sci Fi's "Caprica"

“While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand; / When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall; / And when Rome falls - the World.” - Lord Byron

While the mourning period for the end of Sci Fi's Battlestar Galactica has just begun, following the recent two-hour finale, there are more than a few Battlestar-related things to look forward to on the horizon, one being the Jane Espenson-scripted, Edward James Olmos-directed two-hour telepic "The Plan" (set to air this fall on Sci Fi) and the other being the Battlestar Galactica prequel series Caprica, which is set roughly fifty years before the start of the Battlestar Galactica mini-series.

Sci Fi plans to release Caprica's two-hour pilot, shot last year and written by Ronald D. Moore and Remi Aubuchon, as a DVD and a digital download next month. I had the opportunity to see a rough cut of the pilot episode for Caprica a few weeks back and was captivated by the pilot's tantalizing glimpse into a civilization sliding out of control.

Set before The Fall, the plot of Caprica might be a foregone conclusion: we know that, like Rome, this society will be obliterated in fifty years' time by the nuclear holocaust unleashed by the Cylons. However, that's part and parcel of the dark beauty that the series offers, as it holds up a ticking clock to the depravities and excesses of a society on the brink of annihilation. It's only a matter of time before these privileged individuals self-destruct, erased by the instruments of their own making: a slave race of robots, designed to serve their every whim, who rise up and massacre their masters.

But that time is still five decades away. In Caprica, we're seeing the seeds of that destruction as we witness the birth of the Centurions, a military project overseen by defense contractor Daniel Greystone (Eric Stoltz), a brilliant inventor responsible for the creation of holoband technology, a virtual reality module that allows the users to escape their mundane lives to experience, well, anything they desire. It's a technology that, like most things, has been corrupted by its users, which include Caprica's jaded teenage population, including Daniel's genius daughter Zoe (Alessandra Toreson) and her friends Lacy Rand (Magda Apanowicz) and Ben Stark (Avan Jogia).

They use the technology to access a virtual club that's teaming with subversive and stomach-wrenching excesses; everything goes here from group sex and Fight Club brutality to human sacrifice. In the midst of this depravity, Zoe and her friends are conducting their own experiment. Bored of the sin and perversion they experience and see around them, Zoe and her friends have turned to the One True God and are attempting to give life to a virtual reproduction of herself, a fully functioning avatar that lives and breathes in the reality of the nightclub. A perfect copy that shares its memories and experiences with another but who might be tormented by the thought of free will? Sound like anything we've seen before?

(Beware: SPOILERS ahead!) For Zoe, it's an effort to use her considerable gifts by playing creator before she and her friends run away from home to find a new life on the distant planet of Gemenon. But it's a journey that none are destined to take. Lacy, at the last second, decides not to go with them. Ben, acting on the orders of an unknown employer or employers, detonates a bomb aboard the train, killing everyone on board. That includes Zoe Greystone as well as the wife and daughter of lawyer Joseph Adama (Esai Morales).

The terrorist attack is blamed on a radical monotheistic cult and two families attempt to move past their grief. Joseph Adama is left a single father, forced to care for his young son William (who will later grow up to be Admiral Adama himself), even as he tries to find his way among a morass of corruption and intrigue. Adama might be a lawyer, but he's a crooked one, with ties to Tauron organized crime and a tendency to bribe judges to get the criminal scum he defends acquitted. Daniel Greystone is left an embittered wreck and his wife Amanda (Paula Malcomson) withdraws into herself, blaming herself for her daughter's death as the last moments they shared together they were locked in a vicious argument.

So what happens next? Lacy goes to the Greystone's house and uses Zoe's computer paper (I can't even describe how frakking awesome this technology would be) to access the club, where she sees that the avatar Zoe is still alive, despite her creator's death. Daniel and Joseph bond over their shared losses and Daniel hatches an insidious plan to use his technology to bring their daughters back to life... in a way. (However, he needs Joseph to use his mafia connections to steal a piece of vital technology from his competitor, Thomas Vergis.) The investigation of the bombing on the train leads to Zoe and Sister Clarice Willow (Polly Walker), Zoe's teacher at the private academy, who isn't quite what she seems.

And that's all I'll say about the pilot's plot without giving too much more away than I already have. Like Battlestar Galactica before it, Caprica explores the themes of free will, identity, and what it means to be truly human. Using both Zoe and Daniel's experiments, the writers create a rubric for understanding the building blocks of creation, of humanity, of artificial intelligence. Through their actions, the audience sees the birth of a new race and how that very creation spells the end for the human race as we know it.

Caprica is very much a different series than Battlestar Galactica. Unlike BSG, which took place in the dark recesses of space, Caprica is much more grounded. There are no Viper dog fights, no Battlestars jumping to coordinates. It's set in a world that's very much like ours, with characters that are hauntingly similar to you or me. The design work is absolutely breathtaking, with modern sets daringly juxtaposed to vintage suits. Both Joseph and Daniel wear clothing that would be right at home in the confines of AMC's Mad Men, with beautifully tailored suits and fedoras, while the Greystones' home is all sleek, clean lines, glass and steel, and robot attendants.

Likewise, Caprica feels much more grounded in reality as well, promising more a drama about the "extraordinary" than a just strict space opera. Personally, I think it's a narrative approach that works; by placing the plot in a more "real" setting (literally grounding it on a planet), the dramatic uses of technology stand out more as surprising and innovative than they would in a full-blown sci-fi action piece.

Eric Stolz, Esai Morales, and Polly Walker are all absolutely phenomenal here and bring a gravitas and range to the series that is definitely similar to the quality of acting on Battlestar Galactica. Paula Malcomson is also equally fantastic as Amanda Greystone but doesn't have much to do in the two-hour installment. (A subplot involving her and Thomas Vergis was removed entirely from the rough cut I saw.) Still, I have every hope that subsequent installments will move Malcomson's Amanda more front and center.

Given the fact that the teenagers play such a huge role in the pilot, especially in the first half-hour or so, I was pretty disappointed by their performances, particularly Alessandra Toreson, who plays Zoe Greystone and her avatar. Toreson seems to deliver all of her lines with the same sort of bratty bite and she doesn't seem to demonstrate much range here, which is a shame as Zoe is a rather pivotal character in the Caprica mythos. It's also especially difficult to quite accept her as the daughter of the pale Eric Stoltz and Paula Malcomson and the scenes they share together shine an especially strong light at their disparate acting strengths as well. (Likewise, Avan Jogia's turn as Ben Stark isn't particularly memorable, though I did have to question the producers' decision to cast a vaguely Middle Eastern-looking guy as the suicide bomber.) However, Magda Apanowicz's Lacy seems a non-entity at first but she shows considerable grit in her scenes within the virtual club, where her Lacy transforms from meek schoolgirl mouse to strong, confident woman, and in a revealing scene with Polly Walker's Sister Clarice Willow.

Ultimately, Caprica is a very different beast than its predecessor Battlestar Galactica, but the two-hour pilot is absolutely gripping and offers a haunting exploration about the complicated nature of humanity and the notion of identity, faith, and free will. It's more than a worthy successor to Battlestar Galactica and I cannot wait for 2010 to reenter its dark universe.

The two-hour pilot of Caprica will be released by Sci Fi as a DVD and digital download on April 21st.


Anonymous said…
Was on the fence about this until I read your review. Now I'm really looking forward to seeing this. Will be getting the DVD next month.
Anonymous said…
Drools on keyboard....

Like Eric said before I wasn't sure that this would really work as it sounded pretty dull from the concept that was floating around but glad to see that you enjoyed the pilot overall as I tend to agree with your opinions most of the time.

Do you think they would recast the girl if she is as bad as you say?
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the fantastic review. I am totally revved up to see this now. Counting down the days until the release! Esai Morales seems like the perfect casting to be Bill Adama's dad. Any chance the Final Five will show up in this?
Jace Lacob said…

It's doubtful as this takes place a while before Tigh was sent down to Caprica with a false memory and met an adult Bill. This takes place before the First Cylon War, where Adama was a teenager/early 20-something so the timeframes don't match up. No Final Five, no Cylon skinjobs (sorry, guys, Daniel Greystone is NOT Cylon Model Seven, a.k.a. Daniel), and just the first prototype for the Centurion so far.
Shaun said…
After the way Battlestar Galactica fell apart and completely disappointed, I do not trust Ronald Moore to deliver. The concepts seem interesting, but it is a lot of time to invest and that requires a bit of trust that it will be worth it. Sorry RDM, but your lack of concern for the BSG plot ruined what was once my favorite show on tv.
Anonymous said…
Sounds intriguing. Thanks for the sneak peek Jace.

I've always found Stoltz rather flat - hope he brought his game this time as you indicate he has.

Esai Morales has been a favourite since La Bamba so seeing him in this will be a real treat.
Anonymous said…
Looks interesting. Never watched BSG. It has a stellar cast and Esai Morales is one of my favorite actors.
galveston said…
So Zoe is an avatar in a virtual reality matrix? I get it. That makes sense. She's more of a prototype wannabe skin job that Daniel's desperate to download into a body. That fact that she's monotheistic intrigues. I can buy that this type of technology would be abandoned/suppressed, definitely hidden from public knowledge, because of the ethics involved in recreating real people. So Daniel goes a different way and creates the centurions.....who become sentient and are monotheistic just like his daughter? The centurion rebellion the unintended manifestation of a teen's desire for free will run amok in apocalyptic fashion? That's frightening. Neither Zoe nor her father can comprehend the implications. Something haunting about people heading towards their doom.
The Eulogizer said…
I watched an "uncut" and "unrated" version from a download, and in it, "skin job" takes on an entirely different meaning. There is lots of stuff that will never make it onto the small screen - unless SyFy - boy, I hate that name - is as uncut as HBO - so, if you want a "hot" set of scenes in the beginning, watch the "unrated" version.

Other than that, Morales is an excellent choice as the father of Adm. Adama. He even has a hint of Olmos' deadly whisper... (consciously? I imagine so.).

Stoltz is weaker - both emotionally and acting-wise. And the reviewer's point about him and his wife being too blond and pale for their dark-haired daughter makes sense. Stoltz looks too much like another Eric - Clapton! - for me to get connected to him.

I will definitely want to see more of the Tauron underworld. The scene where the Defense Minister is killed (sorry for the spoiler) is terrific.

Note: Bill Adama is about 11 in this series, not 20-something as mentioned above.
Jace Lacob said…

I didn't say young Bill Adama was in his 20s in "Caprica," I said he was in his teens/early 20s DURING THE FIRST CYLON WAR, as we saw in BSG: Razor.

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