In 2008 the Sci-Fi Channel announced that it would begin production of Caprica, a prequel series to its dramatically successful reboot of the 1970s cult science fiction show Battlestar Galactica. The rejuvenated Battlestar had covered some interesting, even important, ground in its time and went some way towards proving that contemporary US science fiction television programs could be both popular and intellectually challenging. The series was lauded for tackling the thorny social and political problems of the post-9/11 era, ranging from terrorism and religious extremism to the ethical dilemmas posed by modern science. In its later years, however, the series began to unravel. The taut narrative arcs that characterized the first two seasons had become flabby and nonsensical by the end of the fourth. The series seemed to lose focus as its slow burning plots became slow moving instead. Battlestar ultimately imploded in one of the most calamitous finales that a show has suffered in recent years, committing the cardinal sin of attributing inexplicable narrative contrivances to divine intervention. As Battlestar's final season lumbered along this downward trajectory towards its eventual demise, it was baffling to imagine that even the most optimistic network executive could have believed there to be enough creative and intellectual energy left in the franchise to recapture its earlier successes through a prequel series. From my perspective, Caprica seemed doomed from the start.
Given these negative expectations, it was a welcome surprise to find, when Caprica's pilot episode finally surfaced, that there was much to praise in its tale of racial and religious tension in a world saturated with dehumanizing technologies. To its credit, Caprica seemed able to offer some of the keen political commentary that Battlestar had mishandled in its twilight years. At Caprica's very heart is a provocative uncertainty about the nature of identity and the notion of authenticity that proves as intellectually stimulating as the best of Battlestar. Set on the polytheistic colony world of Caprica fifty-eight years before the apocalyptic nuclear attack with which its parent series began, Caprica tells the story of a society that has become heavily permeated by advanced technologies without questioning the impact that they might have on the nature of humanity. Most notable is the holoband, a device worn across the eyes that allows the user to inhabit a virtual avatar and enter a computer generated environment known as V-World. By its very nature, this device destabilizes the traditional binary of life and death. If one can die in V-World only to wake up unharmed in the real world, then the meaning of death itself is placed in jeopardy. Seeing this shift in perception as a means to construct a conscienceless existence, teenagers hack the holoband technology and create the V-Club, a lawless virtual space where activities considered immoral or inhumane in the real world, such as murder and human sacrifice, are the norm. When the inventor of the holoband, Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz), finds that his daughter, Zoe (Alessandra Torresani), has died during a bombing of Caprica's public transport network by monotheist terrorists, his grief leads him to the V-Club where he discovers that Zoe has left behind her avatar, a virtual being crafted in her likeness. However, thanks to Zoe’s advanced programming skills this is no hollow copy, but is rather a perfect virtual clone of Graystone's daughter that has taken on both her personality and her memories. As the pilot episode of Caprica draws to a close, Zoe's avatar enters the real world, downloaded into the body of a prototype robot, called a Cylon, that Graystone has been producing for the Caprican army. An accident during this process allows Zoe's avatar, unsure of its new relationship to the physical world and the people in it, to pretend that it was accidentally deleted and to hide undetected in the Cylon body. The avatar maintains this subterfuge for much of the first half of the series, but it is clear to the viewer at least that, to all intents and purposes, Zoe has been reborn into the real world to begin a new life after death.
The questions that this pilot raises about the relationship between the virtual and the real, and notions of duplication and artifice are explored as much through the program's design choices as they are through its narrative. Caprica makes the bold decision to depict Zoe's avatar sometimes through images of its Cylon body and sometimes through shots of Torresani. Although the characters in the diegesis only see the machine, the viewer is often presented with the human being inside the metal casing. A further complication is present in these sequences, of course, since this is not a real human at all, but a virtual mimic who only exists as code, yet who behaves like the girl that the camera allows the viewer to see. This stylistic choice serves to highlight the problematic nature of identity and artifice that underpins so much of Caprica's philosophy by disrupting the traditional oppositions between human and machine, and the real and the virtual. This is a project pursued throughout the series, seen again, for example, in the tension between Caprican civilization, where high-tech advances mask a society losing touch with its humanity, and a more spiritual culture, represented by a group of immigrant families from Tauron, another human colony, who struggle to find a place for their traditional way of life on Caprica. The implicit suggestion that the Capricans have sacrificed the essential humanity that they once shared with their Tauron cousins on the altar of technology serves to mirror the concerns about science, identity, and artifice raised when Zoe's virtual clone enters the real world. Caprica constructs its world around a deep-seated apprehension about how much technology humanity can take before it ceases to be human anymore.
The complexity of this material makes Caprica's early episodes fascinating viewing indeed. Sadly, however, the program soon falls into the same trap that its parent series once did and loses its focus, introducing a range of disparate plot elements that fail to gel together into a cohesive whole. As subsequent episodes set up ever more narrative threads without returning to pick up on those that have gone before, it rapidly becomes apparent that Caprica has already presented its most provocative material and has no clear sense of how to develop its central ideas during the remainder of the season. By the fifth episode, titled "There is Another Sky," the program's various plots begin to feel more like they are filling screen time than establishing compelling narrative arcs. This episode is dominated by the adventures of Tamara Adama (Genevieve Buechner), another V-World avatar with the identity of a teenage victim of the train bombing, as she makes her way through a virtual environment known as New Cap City. She hunts for hidden codes scattered across the urban landscape, unlocks special prizes hidden in bank vaults behind puzzle locks and defeats a crime lord who appears to be a type of end-of-sequence gatekeeper. This section of the story is clearly embedded in the logic and style of video games, but these elements of the episode seem out of place in the context of the remainder of its content. Elsewhere, Joseph Adama (Esai Morales), Tamara's father, is struggling to protect his other child, William (Sina Najafi), from the prevalent mobster culture within the immigrant Tauron community. Meanwhile, Daniel Graystone is struggling to convince the board of his company that he is the right man to take them forward, introducing them to an obedient Cylon in the process. While each of these narrative strands has its merits, there seems to have been little consideration given to the ways in which they might speak to one another. There is no sense of how these stories interlock or what direction the series as a whole might be moving in.
This issue recurs throughout the series. For example, when the show took a mid-series break from transmission after its ninth episode, "End of the Line," the audience was left with not one but three distinct cliffhangers, each largely unconnected to the others. Religious leader Clarice Willow's (Polly Walker) car was bombed; Daniel Graystone's wife, Amanda (Paula Malcomson), attempted suicide; and Zoe took her Cylon body on the run, resulting in a car crash. The only direct connection between these events was geography, with them all occurring within sight of each other. It seemed quite fitting for a series that lacked cohesion to end the first half of its run incapable of providing anything more than a passing connection between its different plots. This problem became more acute when the season's remaining installments were broadcast, with the various stories diverging even further as the episodes went by. The overall impression given was of a series that, despite an impressive start, lacked purpose and narrative drive.
This increasing lack of focus in the episodes makes it increasingly difficult to discern any clear position that the series adopts on the issues raised at its outset. References are still made to the problems of technology and virtuality, sometimes in an explicit manner, but these themes never come under the same sort of scrutiny as they did in the early episodes. In retrospect, the series seems to have employed strategies to avoid engaging with these issues while still being seen to raise them. A notable example of this came during "Ghosts in the Machine," an episode that saw Daniel Graystone trying to force Zoe's avatar to admit that she was inhabiting the Cylon body by playing on her fear of fire and setting the robot ablaze. Using Torresani to stand in for the Cylon at this point, the series presents the audience with images of a teenage girl trapped in a gasoline fire. This is certainly a disturbing moment in which the relationship between technology and identity is at stake, but its impact is lessened dramatically because this sequence is remarkably similar to one that appeared only three episodes previously. In "There is Another Sky," Daniel commands the Cylon, not knowing that Zoe is inside it, to tear off its own arm to prove its obedience to humanity. The order is given in the belief that the robot will feel no pain, but the viewer is presented with an image of a young woman preparing to rip a limb from her own body. Essentially, both sequences see Zoe's avatar, depicted as a human girl, risking serious physical and psychological harm at the command of her father. The repetition of this motif lessens its impact and, consequently, its ability to provoke its audience to reconsider the issues at stake. While the first of these sequences might develop the program's negotiation of the limits of the virtual, its reappearance later in the series raises the issue but does little to advance this debate and leaves the viewer with the impression that the show has simply run out of ideas.
All this having been said, the principal problem with Caprica is not that it truly lacks ideas or purpose, but rather that the serious mishandling of plotting that dogs the show makes it appear to have less to say than it actually does. Despite the significant drop in quality that occurs early in the season, moments that fundamentally challenge the viewer are present throughout, for example in Clarice's plan in the finale, "Apotheosis," to murder civilians in an act of terrorism so that their avatars can live forever in V-World, thereby allowing them entry into a sort of virtual heaven. Genuinely provocative ideas such as this appear all the more striking given that the majority of Caprica’s runtime is so mundane. It is this duality that makes watching Caprica extraordinarily frustrating; at every turn it displays its potential without ever fulfilling it. The poor handling of the narrative dampens the series's ability to grapple robustly with the strong ideas that remain visible at its core throughout. While the tantalizing but brief glimpses that the viewer is afforded of the program's deeper concerns make watching Caprica a not entirely unrewarding process, wading through the rest of the material is ultimately a task rather than a pleasure. Just like Battlestar Galactica, Caprica initially displays a keen intelligence and a strong range of engaging, perhaps even important, themes and ideas. However, while my powerful sense of disappointment at Battlestar's finale suggests that I still felt invested in the series to some extent, by the time that Caprica bowed out I was left largely apathetic.
Matthew Jones (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a PhD candidate in The University of Manchester's Centre for Screen Studies. His thesis focuses on 1950s science fiction cinema and he has published work on Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica.