Sunday, November 13, 2011

Cultural Productions: 'Caprica' (2010), a review

Some TV shows you 'can't put down': after you buy the box set of DVDs of a season of the series, you zip through them in lightning speed. One friend told me he watched season one of 'Battlestar Galactica' in two sittings - that is, he watched the whole season (which is around nine hours) in two marathon TV-watching sessions. From what I recall, I did exactly the same. I devoured, too, the box sets of other favourite shows: 'Wallander', 'Mad Men', 'The Tudors', 'Rome', 'Deadwood' and others.

With 'Caprica' (the 2010 prequel to 'Battlestar Galactica'), however, I skimped. Watching the show was a chore. After I bought the pilot (two hours), I found, some months later, the entire series (including seasons one and two), started watching it, grew bored after the first few episodes, and then left it on the shelf. I only recently picked it up again. The show does improve towards the last few episodes - as the story picks up in pace - and has a fairly good denouement in the last few minutes; but, on the whole, it disappoints.

Why? 'Caprica' falls down mostly because the writers and producers hadn't managed to put together a good story and characters.

In 'Battlestar' (both the original and the remade version), the story, and the conflicts, are simple. One recognises the two opposing sides - the Cylons and the humans - straight away. So one knows, at once, that the story will be about a conflict between these two groups. In addition, the plotline - about robot slaves revolting against, and murdering, their human masters - is timeless. The word 'robot' was coined by the Czech playwright, Karl Čapek, in his 1920 play, 'R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)'. Čapek's play is written about a murderous robot uprising against humanity: so the basic story of 'Galactica' was nearly sixty years old when the show debuted in 1978. The advantage of such a plot is that one can really explore all sorts of interpretations on it: are the robots (in this case, the Cylons) the repressed proletariat class of Marxist ideology? Are they Negroes, like the Haitian Negroes who revolted against the French in Haiti in the 18th century, slaughtering every one of them, to the last man, woman or child? Are the Cylons (who occasionally resort to suicide bombing) radical Muslims? In the remade 2003-2009 version, the producers of 'Battlestar' managed, very cleverly, to evoke Bush Jr's War on Terror, the Pacific Theater of WWII, Mormonism and many other things.

In 'Caprica', it is unclear as to who the opposing forces are, and even what the basic story will be. What we want to see is, of course, something simple: we want to see how the human race creates a new species - slave robots who will do their bidding - and how, through hubris, ignorance, cruelty, end up inciting those robots to revolt against them; and how the humans make the fatal error of giving the robots the ideological justification for such a revolt (in 18th century Haiti, it was the new French ideas of liberty and equality which helped justify, ideologically, the slave revolt; in 20th century South Africa, the Marxist ideology of black African national liberation). And, of course, being science fiction fans, we want to see Cylons and humans shooting at one another, or engaging in dogfights and naval battles in outer space. (I've always loved the giant, metal, clanking Centurion Cylons in the remade 'Battlestar' - I enjoy watching them stomp around, and looking at their sinister, flashing Cyclopean red eyes).

The pilot for 'Caprica' was, I thought, brilliant. It touched upon a number of themes: teenage angst and alienation; the pernicious effects of FaceBook, Twitter, IPhones, World of Warcraft and the like, on youth and on modern life; the theme of Faustian Western man, who defies the gods by attempting to create life and resurrect dead people; and, of course, radical Islam. The pilot was so much more modern, sleek and sophisticated than the remade 'Battlestar', and the ruthless scientist and businessman Daniel Graystone (played by the excellent Eric Stolz) is a kind of Steve Jobs character. Both Stolz and Esai Morales (who plays Joseph Adama) deliver great, brooding performances - you can the tension between them with a knife. Overall, the plot had momentum, and the ending left you wanting more.

That was the pilot: but the series itself wasn't as good. Possibly because, after watching the pilot, we (the viewers) wanted the series to get down to the more conventional sci-fi stuff. Instead, we had meandering around three or four groups of characters: the teenagers; Daniel Graystone and his wife Amanda (Paula Malcomson, from 'Deadwood' and 'Sons of Anarchy'), who are the WASP characters; the Monotheists, who adhere to a kind of jumbled Catholicism, Mormonism, and Islam; the Tauronians, who are a kind of Mexican-Hispanic tribe, with Sicilian and Italian values. None of these are opposing forces, in the way that the Cylons and humans were in 'Battlestar'. That is, you don't find one group lined up one side, and another group on the other, like two competing football teams. And that is one of the requisites of good drama.

One of the other great themes of science fiction is race and immigration. So many classic science-fiction stories are about an evil, predatory race of aliens who attempt to conquer, and colonise, the planet Earth - either through military means or, more often than not, through stealth (that is, by becoming immigrants who come in peace and whose presence, on Earth, will lead to splendid benefits - economic, social, political - to Earthmen). The remade sci-fi series, 'V', is one of many examples of this type of show.

In sci-fi, the theme of race is never far away. This is true in 'Caprica', and perhaps one of the reasons why it is so disappointing is the number of non-white actors. 'Battlestar' did have some non-whites (one of the main ones was a token Asian, the whiney Grace Park), but the focus was on whites - even Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos) was a white Mexican (they do exist). The lead actresses were Nordic types: Tricia Helfer, Lucy Lawless, Katee Sackhoff, Mary McDonnell, Nicky Klyne... Out of the the twelve Cylon-humanoid types, only three are non-white. In contrast, in 'Caprica', Joseph Adama is played by a Hispanic, his brother Sam by a very dark and swarthy Sephardi Jew from Israel, Adama's son by an Arab, and there are Indians, Blacks and Asians galore.

The strange thing is that each of the twelve colonies represent planets, like Earth, with different racial groups. Adama and his family come from Tauron, and the Tauronians are discriminated against by the wealthier and more powerful planets in the colonies (this isn't racism, but planetism). They are called 'dirt-eaters', a perjorative term, like 'wetback'. Adama is affiliated with a kind of Tauronian mafia, who seem to be primarily Mexican in their racial make-up, and the Tauronian language is a kind of Portugese-Italian-Spanish. The Tauronian mafia types (including Adama's annoying brother) behave more or less like every stereotype in every crime film there is; the brother is the dumb macho wog type, a cliché straight out of Coppola, Scorsese and 'The Sopranos' TV series. The implication is that the Tauronians - at least the ones involved in crime - are Mexicans; but, at the same time, they are a lot like American-Italians. (Does this mean that the producers want viewers to regard Mexican and Hispanic immigrants to the US as being more or less the same as American-Italians?). This was a mistake, I feel, on the part of the writers, and the inclusion of bizarre, retro-style clothing (often characters wear fedoras) was a mistake too.

(Interestingly, in a few sequences, we see flashbacks to the planet Tauron, during a time of civil war between revolutionary guerrillas and the army. Obviously, these sequences are meant to invoke the brutal wars in Central America in the 1980s - in Guatemala and El Salvador. This only reinforces the perception that Tauronians are Hispanic, even though a few prominent Tauronians are played by white, Nordic actors).

Also annoying were the teenagers in the show - especially the ones in New Cap City, another big mistake. Too much of the show relies on CGI, which is one of the banes of modern film-making: CGI is everywhere in 'Caprica', even in the credits, and makes everything (especially the virtual reality world of New Cap City) look horribly fake. Towards the end, the Cylons are all badly-done CGI, which makes them look unreal. Whereas 'Battlestar' really strove to be as realistic as possible: the clock on the command deck of the Battlestar had an old piece of sticking tape stuck to it, all the phones had cords, computers were left over models from the 1990s. (The approach, which I call science fiction realism, was taken from 'Blade Runner', 'Alien' and the Terminator films). Live action and models were used, as much as possible. The theme of virtual reality looms large in 'Battlestar': the Cylons have the ability to project themselves into virtual-reality dream worlds, for instance. But these sequences are, obviously, filmed in real places. In 'Caprica', however, it's all CGI.

Realism is important, especially in sci-fi. Part of the reason why 'Battlestar' was such an artistic success was that it mirrored modern Earth reality, and particularly modern-day Canada, as much as possible. It was the opposite of a 'Star Trek' or 'Star Wars', and really did convince you, almost, that this is what Earth, in the future (maybe a hundred years from now?) would look like. The characters behaved, and lived, just like modern-day Canadians or Americans. In 'Caprica', though, the producers went a little crazy: 'Let's show a world where all drugs are legalised! And so is polygamous marriage! And gay marriage!', etc., etc. On top of that, there are the environments: the planet Geminon, which is ruled by a kind of Catholic nun-Mother Superior (in outer space) looks like something out of a fantasy novel - more in keeping with the George R. Martin 'Game of Thrones' series more than anything else - and New Cap City is just woeful. Everyone there dresses in a horrible goth/retro 1920s gangster style. It's a combination of clichés from 'Dark City', 'The Crow' and other films of that genre.

Good TV drama tries to recreate a distinctive milieu as closely as possible: 'Rome' and 'Deadwood' were revisionist sword-and-sandal, and Western, shows respectively, which aimed to portray ancient Rome, and Dakota in the 1870s'; 'Mad Men', Manhattan in the early 1960s. TV shows are all lies, of course, but is the verisimilitude which gives a show the ring of authenticity. The producers of 'Caprica' should have stuck to modern-day Canada, and they should have stayed well away from CGI (but then, many filmmakers are making the same mistake).

In general, though, the faults were ones of structure, in the story itself, but in the characterisation. 'Battlestar' had a very large ensemble (mostly white) cast - six female characters, six males - and the really successful, long-running American soap shows also have a large (mostly white) cast, with an equal ratio of males and females. With such a large number of characters, there is bound to be someone that a viewer - male or female - can latch onto, like and sympathise with. But the cast of 'Caprica' wasn't big enough. It was this, and the lack of a strong plot, which brought it down. In soaps, of course, the plot meanders all over the place: characters cheat on one another, or get married (only to cheat again soon after), and hatch schemes for destroying each other; occasionally there will be a murder or a kidnapping to liven things up. 'Caprica' could have been a sci-fi soap (and one producer compared it to 'Dallas'), and possibly the first in a new genre. But the dictates of the 'Battlestar' backstory meant that 'Caprica' would have only succeeded, artistically and commercially, if it stuck to the old science-fiction formula of Čapek's play.

All of this explains, I think, why 'Caprica' never caught on, and was cancelled after two seasons.

Despite all this, I have high hopes for the next 'Battlestar Galactica' prequel, 'Blood and Chrome' (scheduled to be shown in 2011): maybe this will have a little more Cylon and human conflict, space battles, things blowing up, etc., and should be more meat-and-potatoes science-fiction (for those of us who like these things). But 'Caprica' is only to be recommended for hardcore fans of 'Battlestar'.

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