For the duration of Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, two constants propelled the narrative forward: the fleet was always looking for something, being chased, or both. The show was sometimes overstuffed, but never stagnant. Battlestar spinoff Caprica–premering January 22 on SyFy, available now on Hulu–is set fifty-eight years before the near-obliteration of the human species that inaugurated BSG. It promises to trace the rise of the Cylons, humanoid machines that did the chasing in BSG, and as such, Caprica is unavoidably the beginning of a story we already know the ending to. Caprica‘s premiere hints at what might give the show momentum, but also where it might stall.
Like Battlestar before it, Caprica starts with an act of war, this time a suicide bombing. But the culprits are radicalized teens, not killer robots, setting the scene for a very different kind of conflict. Two of the people to lose family in the attack are Joseph Adama and Daniel Graystone. Adama [Esai Morales] is an attorney and father to BSG‘s William Adama (here, a preteen). Graystone [Eric Stoltz] is a captain of industry, and creator of the first Cylon by pilot’s end–thanks largely to technology his precocious daughter Zoe (taken by and implicated in the bombing) leaves behind.
As Adama, Morales lacks Edward James Olmos’ prickly gravitas, but Alessandra Torresani is effective as Zoe, a girl bright enough to be infuriating. Stoltz, meanwhile, makes Graystone threatening and sympathetic by turns. (It will still be a while before I can see him without thinking of Pulp Fiction‘s overdose scene. Not his fault.)
Much of BSG‘s tension came from placing well-intentioned people in a boundless moral gray zone. The basic nobility of the Adamas or Laura Roslin wasn’t in doubt throughout the series. The wisdom of the decisions they made usually was. If the pilot’s any indication, themes of compromise and consequence won’t be absent from Caprica. Graystone is driven by ambition as much as grief, and Adama, one of this series’ reliably “good” people, is not a very good person. But the premiere spends as much time in more Dickian territory.
Zoe, it turns out, is survived by a virtual duplicate of herself. Her father quickly discovers this, which gives Graystone a chance to see his daughter once again, as well as a facsimile of human consciousness to place in the body of one of his company’s robot soldiers. The premiere mostly breezes through the fake science behind Zoe’s death-cheating, and I’m not sure whether to criticize the choice or be grateful for it. There’s talk of “synaptic recording” and the traces of oneself that one leaves throughout life, all of it unconvincing, but also less important than what comes next: scenes like one where Graystone and the virtual copy of his daughter realize that even beyond death, they can’t really stand one another.
Caprica‘s high concepts sometimes give way to high camp, as in scenes where characters visit “virtual nightclubs” using their “holobands.” (The Caprica pilot veers closest to the Matrix trilogy not when characters question reality’s parameters but during moments of embarrassing sci-fi debauchery.) Even so, the switch from war in space to family melodrama gives the Cylons a renewed creepiness. And so far, Capria is convincing as a series about family. The pilot succeeds in the best way a show of its kind can–by making it clear that it has depth and potential distinct from the series that preceded it.