Review: 'Battlestar Galactica' prequel 'Caprica' is quieter, more subdued, but stands on its own merit
Editor's note: "Caprica" will be available on DVD and as a digital download April 21.
What it's all about: "Caprica" is a prequel to the Emmy Award-winning 2004 series "Battlestar Galactica," which followed the remnants of humanity after their robotic Cylon creations rebelled and destroyed their civilization. "Galactica" was noted for mixing in several weighty elements of our time, including themes involving 9/11-style decimation, military vs. civilian regimes and religious intolerance.
"Caprica" rewinds the clock 60 years to focus on the creation of the intelligent robots that will one day rise to overthrow humanity. It, too, tries to tackle similar serious themes, including the nature of what makes us human and how we tolerate those unlike us.
Is it just for fans of the original? "Galactica" featured an intensely deep mythology and bleak, circuitous plot arcs that made it difficult for new viewers to jump in. "Caprica" can be watched completely without the benefit of seeing "Galactica." In fact, viewers who didn't follow "Galactica" will enjoy the prequel more, as they'll have fewer expectations going in.
The setting: "Caprica" abandons the larger-than-life story of "Galactica," and brings it down to a more personal level. The series is set in Caprica City, a place which, conveniently enough, looks just like New York. The fictional city is used to show a society at its pinnacle of both development and excess.
Technologically, the series creators have worked hard to make the show resonate with non-science fiction fans -- the cars don't float, the sidewalks don't move, and rubbery aliens don't exist. The only real nods to futurism come in the form of more advanced computers, and the "holoband," a virtual reality which is largely used as an escape to explore baser passions of sex and violence.
The story: The show follows two families and how a tragedy in the capitol forever twins their lives together.
The Adamas are a fairly recent addition to Caprica City, having immigrated from a farm world most socialites label as the home of "dirt eaters." Joseph Adama (played by a stoic Esai Morales) is a lawyer trying to escape his rustic roots, but he has family ties to an old crime family (handled in an overly Sicilian-mafia sort of way). Fans will note that Billy Adama, Joe's son, will one day grow up to command the titular "Galactica" in the core series.
The other side of the story involves the Greystones, a wealthy family at the epicenter of Caprican culture. Daniel Graystone (played in a Bill Gates-ian way by Eric Stoltz), is a geeky technology mogul, inventor of the holoband, and unwitting future creator of the Cylons that will destroy civilization. (Watching the prototype Cylons in action is one of the few bones the show throws to fans, and also one of the few times the show manages to come up with a different, more menacing tone.)
When an act of terrorism by a monotheistic cult (most Capricans worship a Grecian-patterned pantheon of Gods) brings both families together, we see how two stalwart men at opposing ends of the spectrum deal with their losses, and how each embrace separate tactics to resolve their pain.
And this brings us to the core narrative of "Caprica": What is life? What if you could bring back those taken from you? As the story moves along, Daniel Graystone delves into the realms of artificial intelligence, robotics and what constitutes a person's soul, as Adama follows, somewhat blindly, before determining that artificial life is an abomination.
Is it any good? Caprica sets up a compelling enough question, but it's also one that's been played out in speculative fiction for decades. Do we have a soul, or is the brain just "300 megabytes of information," as one of the characters claims?
As you might guess, the answers to these questions aren't rooted in space battles and action sequences, but rather monologues and pensive dramatic conversations. The show's pace is slow and borders on flatlining at a few points. This is not "Galactica," which mixed the same amount of drama with high-budget action.
In fact, it's really a mistake to compare "Galactica" with "Caprica." The latter holds much more in common with the prime-time soap operas of the 80s ("Dynasty," "Falcon Crest," and others) than it does with "Galactica."
This would work more effectively if the actors had a little more to work with. Morales' portrayal of Joe Adama comes off as not so much stoic, but wooden; he commands far less attention than Edward James Olmos' Bill Adama in Galactica. Eric Stoltz's Daniel Greystone comes off as a little too one-dimensional, as well. If the ongoing drama shows that this is only the beginning of Stoltz's downward spiral though, there's potential for range and character in Greystone. Zoe, Greystone's genius daughter (Alessandra Toreson), plays a huge part in the series, but whether her bratty, entitled style of delivery is just poor writing or inspired delivery is yet to be seen.
In an effort to broaden their audience, the Sci-Fi Channel has created a show with a low barrier of entry: it's not really science fiction -- when channel surfing, you might mistake it for an episode of "CSI" or "Law & Order." The flip side of that is that fans who helped boost "Galactica" to solid ratings will likely find the show boring and catering to a lower common denominator.
Still, the network has already picked "Caprica" as a winner: the show has been greenlit for a full first season, even before the DVD hits stores and the miniseries airs on television. It seems preferable to watch it as a one-shot DVD, since the pacing of the show is fairly monochromatic, and doesn't really get a lift until the end, which might make spanning across multiple nights a cumbersome challenge.
In the end, "Caprica" stands on its own as an intriguing foray into a new range of questions not asked by its parent series. Just don't judge it by the same standards as "Galactica," though; it's a unique entry into the genre, and a quieter, more subdued example of speculative fiction.