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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

'Caprica' provides intriguing 'Battlestar' backstory

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"Battlestar Galactica" fans should spool up the FTL drive and prepare for a major jump when they visit "Caprica," the prequel series released today on DVD from "BSG" co-creators Ronald D. Moore and David Eick. Based on the pilot movie, "Caprica" offers a dramatically different take on the "Galactica" mythos that's literally and figuratively away from the grim space opera that recently aired its series finale on the Sci Fi channel.

"Caprica" takes place more than 50 years before the events of "Battlestar Galactica," when the robotic Cylons destroyed the population of the 12 human colonies, including the planet Caprica, and sent the survivors on a quest to discover Earth. The new show nods to the continuity of the future series with familiar phrases like "By your command" and "So say we all." Future Admiral Adama has a small supporting role as an 11-year-old boy. The main link between "Caprica" and "Battlestar Galactica" will be tracing the rise of the Cylons from mechanical underclass to murderous rebels. While the pilot shows the coinage of the term "Cylon," the "toasters" prove to be only a subplot.

In "Battlestar Galactica," Moore and Eick used the bang-bang outerspace derring-do of the 1970s Star Wars knock-off as a stunningly effective framework to dramatize post-9/11 ideas and politics. "Caprica" uses an old-fashioned but slickly photographed family saga to similar effect, contrasting the fortunes of the wealthy Graystones and the middle-class Adams. Defense attorney Joe Adams (Esai Morales) changed his name from "Adama" after immigrating to Caprica fom another colony, a detail that touches on present-day immigration tensions. (Presumably the family will eventually change it back.) Meanwhile, Bill Gates-esque Daniel Graystone (the terrific Eric Stoltz) struck it rich by inventing "holobands" high-tech specs that send the wearer into flawless virtual environments that can be accessed by people anywhere. Many scenes in "Caprica's" pilot take place at a kinky holographic nightclub that features flashes of toplessness, probably to be deleted when "Caprica" begins its regular broadcast in early 2010.

Rather than relying heavily on prequel-style foreshadowing ("Anakin Skywalker, meet Obi-Wan Kenobi!"), "Caprica" explores one of the most intriguing treatments of the virtual world ever raised by television or film. The Graystone's rebellious 16-year-old daughter Zoe (Alessandra Toressani) develops an identical online avatar who may amount to be a second self. As Daniel marvels, "She took a search engine and turned it into a way to cheat death!" When a tragedy brings the Graystone and Adams families together (and touches on more homeland security matters), "Caprica" cunningly uses sci-fi metaphors to explore the nature of humanity and interpersonal relationships.

One observation frequently made of the Star Wars prequels was, "How come the films set a generation earlier show such higher, slicker levels of technology?" In that case, cinematic special effects had advanced beyond the original films. "Caprica's" holoband and other sci-fi frills raise a similar question that's less easily answered. If memory serves me right, "Battlestar Galactica" never revealed such a high-tech gimmick, but its absence may be logically explained depending on how long it takes the prequel series to run its course.

"Caprica's" pilot sets plenty of seeds for future conflicts, including the monotheistic plot point that became a major detail on "Battlestar Galactica." At one point, a detective expresses skepticism about the whole idea of monotheism as an absolutist moral structure -- a dig at real-world fundamentalists of all faiths. Overall, "Caprica" as a series may rise and fall depending on how much its episodes rely on mobsters and religious fanatics instead of the possibilities of killer robots and virtual ghosts in the machine. The "Caprica" pilot features such snappy performances and clever ideas that I almost wish it were a stand-alone prologue to the show, but "Battlestar Galactica's" creators have always proved to be resourceful at creating new models, Cylon or otherwise.

(Photo courtesy Universal Home Entertainment)

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