Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Caprica Reviewed

Reviews of the pilot ep of Caprica, available now on DVD:

Mo Ryan, Chicago Tribune:

“Caprica,” even more than “Battlestar,” is an examination of how greed, selfishness, heedlessness and pain prompt people to use technology to avoid difficult situations.

Technology isn’t really the problem; the trouble comes from our belief that we can always control it and use it to keep life from hurting too much or being too hard. Yet anyone who has ever tried to set up a balky new device or felt oppressed by the constant presence of a BlackBerry knows that things that are supposed to make our lives better don’t always do so.

....One reason Sci Fi is making "Caprica" -- and starting a promotional campaign early by releasing the DVD months before the show arrives -- is because the network wants to catch the attention of viewers who may not be regular viewers of sci-fi fare. There are no space ships and no outer-space battles in this new show, which is set 58 years before the events of "Battlestar"; the world of Caprica looks much like our own.

With any luck, "Caprica" won't have to battle the perception problems that "Battlestar Galactica" faced; it took a couple of seasons for the latter show to get people to realize that it was a taut, bold and thought-provoking study of the heights and depths of human nature, not a superficial remake of a '70s show about robots and the swashbuckling heroes who fought them.

Still, hard-core "Battlestar" fans should be aware that these are different shows. Ronald D. Moore, an executive producer and co-creator of the new show, has been upfront about calling "Caprica" a prime-time "soap opera" (for a few more of Moore's "Caprica" comments look here). It's not about life during wartime; it's about the sacrifices, mistakes and fateful decisions made by individuals, corporations and families.

“Battlestar” has “come to an end, and it’s a beautiful end and [fans] should mourn that show,” Malcolmson said in a March interview. “You can’t just come along with another show that’s going to replicate it. That’s not what we want to do, we want to give them something else.”

The good news for "Battlestar" fans is that show's outstanding composer, Bear McCreary, and special-effects wizard, Gary Hutzel, are part of the new venture. And several of that show's writers will be on "Caprica's" creative staff as well.

Jane Espenson, a co-executive producer who is set to become "Caprica's" day-to-day showrunner, said in January that the new show "will certainly be different, but it's like a different garment made from the same fabric. The beating heart of it will be the same -- complex moral situations, high stakes, compelling characters. Robots."

Thomas Rogers for Salon says, "Frak This Prequel":
In an unconventional launch strategy, SyFy has just released the one-and-a-half-hour pilot episode of the show on DVD and digital download (the actual series won't premiere on television until 2010). Described by blogs as "'Dallas' in space," "Caprica" is, indeed, a very different beast from its mother series. Planet-bound, slow-paced and with hardly any action scenes, the series is primarily a melodrama about two families on the planet Caprica (one of the 12 home planets of the human race in the "Battlestar" universe) as they overcome a personal tragedy. It also, of more interest to science fiction fans, tells the story of the birth of the Cylons, the race of robots who, as we learned in "Battlestar," eventually become hell-bent on destroying all human life.

The drama builds slowly, and scenes unfold without much, if any, tension. What little tension it has owes to viewers' knowledge of what will happen 58 years later. There are no hostage crises or food shortages to resolve, since the show's main concern is the emotional state of its two families. In fact, robot subplot and holographic excursions aside, there really isn't much that’s science fiction-y about "Caprica."

...Unfortunately, "Caprica" doesn't make for tremendously engaging melodrama either, largely because it doesn't have any characters as immediately riveting as Katee Sackhoff's Starbuck or Mary McDonnell's President Roslin. Eric Stoltz brings quiet soulfulness to his grieving father, but Esai Morales feels wooden and stilted as Adama, and the rest of the ensemble (especially, it has to be said, the child actors) aren't a particularly inspiring bunch. As for the show's visuals -- unlike "Battlestar," "Caprica" is filmed largely with fixed shots (no hand-held cameras), which robs it of much of its flair and immediacy. Its clean urban setting feels antiseptic and cold and a bit dull. Judging by the pilot, the planet Caprica is Vancouver with a fancier train system.

In the spirit of "Battlestar," "Caprica" also references a number of real-world topical issues: Adama is a member of a disliked immigrant group called the Tauron, and during their investigation of the bombing, the authorities become suspicious of a certain religious minority. But while "Battlestar's" space-bound setting was strange and destabilizing enough to make its political allusions seem fresh -- one of the joys of the series was seeing it fragment and rearrange issues like abortion and terrorism to make provocative arguments -- in "Caprica," they merely feel awkward. It's obvious that Tauron is a stand-in for Mexico (there's even a subplot about Tauronese gangs) and monotheism a replacement for Islam -- but there's nothing new to be learned here by renaming things.

When the show premieres on television next year it could take off in some interesting and unexpected directions. The show’s writing is fairly strong (one of the debut episode's co-writers, Jane Espenson, was responsible for many of "Battlestar's" best shows), and SyFy clearly has a lot of faith in creator Ronald Moore. But given the high expectations that "Battlestar" fans have for the series, and the tepidness of this initial offering, I wonder how many will come back to find out what happens in 2010.

Alan Sepinwall Star Ledger:
TV series finales don't get much more polarizing than the end of "Battlestar Galactica." (Spoilers flying at you in 3 ... 2 ... 1 ...) For every fan who found the finale a moving and appropriate capper to a great series, there was at least one who felt betrayed that producer Ronald D. Moore chose to ascribe many key developments in the series to divine intervention, or that he had the surviving colonists decide to throw away all their technology upon arriving on a primitive Earth.

As one commenter on my blog put it, "Ron ruined the last five years of my life ...god, why?"

Today's DVD release of "Caprica," the two-hour pilot episode for a "Galactica" prequel series, might be just as polarizing, even among the people who liked the end of "Galactica."

...It's an attempt to open up the franchise to viewers who would never watch a show with the title "Battlestar Galactica," or one where all the characters live on spaceships. But like Sci Fi Channel's larger attempts to attract new viewers -- starting with the pending name change to the much sillier SyFy (if you're going to change the name, change the name) -- it feels like something that may wind up seeming too foreign for both potential new fans and old ones.

"Caprica" is intriguing, don't get me wrong. The most frustrating part of watching the DVD was knowing that Sci Fi (or SyFy) won't be airing the series until 2010, when this is a show that begs for a second episode to evaluate. But while it's good, it's (deliberately) not "Galactica."

"Caprica" grapples with many of the contemporary dilemmas that "Galactica" handled -- religious strife, terrorism, overreliance on technology -- but, in placing them in a world that looks like the one outside our window, it can be blunter about it. The holo-band nightclub where Zoe and her friends meet in secret -- an online Sodom and Gomorrah, filled with (virtual) sex, drugs and even human sacrifice -- is like every parent's worst nightmare about what his kids are up to on Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the web. And by casting all of the prominent Tauran characters immigrants with Latin actors (and the Capricans with whites), it emphasizes the race and class distinctions in a way that "Galactica" couldn't with its use of Cylons as stand-ins for Muslim extremists.

The performances by Stoltz and Morales - two actors who tend to come across as bland in certain roles - are extremely strong. And the direction by "Friday Night Lights" veteran Jeffrey Reiner, coupled with work by the familiar "Galactica" production team, creates an absolutely gorgeous-looking pilot episode.

Moore initially pitched "Caprica" as "a sci-fi version of 'Dallas,'" and while the show has moved well beyond that initial template -- among other things, it adds an organized crime component -- there's enough soap opera sheen left, coupled with the planet-bound setting, that I wonder how many "Galactica" fans will stick with it.

Science fiction used to be a catch-all term for any kind of story featuring technology or worlds not quite our own, but in recent years, the definition has narrowed until its only meaning for some fans is "outer space action." It's that kind of thinking that led Sci Fi execs to want to change their channel's name, but I fear too many fanboys won't want any part of a show that trades the interplanetary combat of "Galactica" for healthy doses of teen rebellion and legal intrigue. And I also have no idea if people who refused to watch "Galactica" would ever watch a spin-off, even one that looks more soap than space opera.

And because of the huge lag between DVD release and TV premiere, we have a long time to find out how many people might come back for a second episode.

Christopher Schwartz:
Taut, introspective, and very, very adult; much more mature than its predecessor series, which is saying a lot — Caprica is brimming with potential. Where Battlestar Galactica, quite controversially, seemed to return to its Mormon theological roots, Caprica, although set 58 years prior to the events of the original show, seems to be reaching forward toward the Techological Singularity prophecied by futurists since the 1950s. Questions about morality and belief, the value (and undermining) of family and multicultural democracy, and the nature of humanity and transhumanity, abound in a dense hour and thirty minutes.

Lewis Wallace, Wired:
In the “uncut and unrated” Caprica pilot, there are no nuclear explosions, no grimy spaceships, no sexy or deadly encounters with robotic Cylons.

Aside from a bloody assassination and some gratuitous topless shots, the show almost completely lacks the action and hard-edged sci-fi eye candy that helped give Galactica its gritty appeal.

Instead, Caprica delivers a broad, deliberately paced introduction to the themes that will presumably drive the show: the tension between science and religion, the dangers of religious zealotry, the racism that can simmer in a societal melting pot, the nature of humanity in a world filled with sentient machines.

...Set 58 years before the Cylons’ sneak attack on humanity, the Caprica pilot does not deliver the kind of explosive action that turned Galactica into a nail-biting sensation. Instead, it is a little like the “begat”-riddled genealogical sequence that opens the New Testament: It draws much of its tension from the knowledge of what lies ahead.

The characters are richly drawn and ripe for further exploration. And the show’s willingness to tackle religion, immigration, corporate espionage and racism right out of the gate indicates that Moore is framing up another thoughtful sci-fi series.

Caprica could become another sacred text for sci-fi fans yearning for brainy television.

Other reviews and observations from: The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, NBC LA, Winnipeg Sun, Monsters and Critics, Complex Blog, Deseret News, Airlock Alpha, Philadelphia Daily News, The Jackson Sun, IGN, io9, Jimmy Akin, Motion Pictures Comics.Com, the Vancouver Sun, The Boston Herald, TrulyObscure, TrekWeb, and The House Next Door.

Televisionary talked to Caprica showrunner Jane Espenson. Ron Moore talked to The Insider. The Futon Critic reports on the Caprica Paley Fest event. Sci-Fi Wire has cast arrivals at that event. Actress Magda Apanowicz of Caprica spoke with The Ampersand and Hello Magazine.

Reuters examines killer robots.


Logan Gawain said...

I should probably note, that I haven't yet seen Caprica, so I can't offer up my own views yet.

Mark Sonntag said...

I enjoyed Caprica more than I thought I would coming from BSG. But this is where the events of BSG begin. There is a lot of irony when you consider the destinies of some of the characters and with all the racism and political unrest that lies under the surface you can almost see how the Cylons will end up turning on the humans.

This show will evolve I'm sure, but it has to be different, after all the holocaust hasn't happened yet and humanity is seemingly in control for now and not on the run.

Christopher Schwartz said...

Logan, thank you for including my review!

Anonymous said...

I was shocked by how good Caprica was. After Razor and hearing that Moore is leaving as the showrunner, I was expecting Caprica to be the worst of BSGs soap opera episodes.

There were a few problems, but overall it greatly exceeded my expectations and made me feel good about the series as a whole.

Now instead of a feeling of impending dream for the 2010 TV season it has changed to anticipation.

Anonymous said...

I liked it, but I was really hoping to love it as I did the BSG miniseries. This just felt a bit more conventional in storytelling and none of the characters were as exceptionally wonderful as Baltar or Lee Adama. Also, the motivations behind the suicide bomber felt poorly explained and uneven on an emotional basis and perhaps he was not the best actor for the role.

Eric Stoltz is super cool, though his wife felt terribly under-developed, adopting a pretty cliche role of simply mourning.

The sci fi stuff about virtual reality and compiling info to create a replica of oneself feels distancing.

I also thought the racism was heavy-handed and didn't feel much like our world. It felt more like American attitudes to Italian Americans in the 1920s or something. Very over-the-top. I'd like them to do this more subtly, as most racism is.

They really should have done a better job at making sure plot elements worked before filming it and then having to cut tons of stuff. I was also terribly disappointed the deleted scene with the Adams family was cut out and not put back in.

Very shoddy work for a DVD a lot of us are paying disproportionately for, even if it's early.

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