Saturday, January 23, 2010

Caprica and Human Target: In the Shadow of BSG

Two new shows reflect the influence of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica in different ways. One is great, the other merely good, but both are surprisingly watchable.  Let's start with the great: Caprica airs on SyFy and is expressly intended as a prequel to Battlestar Galactica.  The action takes place 58 years before the 12 Colonies are nuked.  We see the Cylons' creation and rise through the eyes of two families, the Graystones and the Adamas (yes, those Adamas) who meet under tragic circumstances. 

A terrorist bombing claims the daughter of Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz) and the wife and daughter of Joseph Adama (Esai Morales).  The two men bond through their grief initially, then over love for the game Pyramid, which is the international pastime of Caprica.  But this budding friendship gets nipped when Graystone, the inventor of the Cylons, finds a way to recreate their daughters using the downloading technology the Cylons will eventually use to resurrect themselves. 

At first, Adama is tempted by Graystone's plan and allows a virtual avatar of his daughter to be created.  But he turns against the project upon meeting her in a disturbing scene that's strong sauce thanks to Morales's acting.  His daughter is somehow incomplete -- far less fully realized than Zoe Graystone's avatar (Alessandra Torresani) who was designed by the teen Graystone herself before dying.  It turns out she was an even better programmer than her father, unbeknownst to her folks.

The Graystone's are also shocked to discover that Zoe had ties to the Soldiers of the One, the monotheistic religious cult that mounted the terrorist attack.  I had mixed feelings about the scenes of religious fanaticism by Zoe and her friends.  They struck me as a little over the top, but I suppose that was the point -- teens have a tendency to take things to the extreme.  The revelation of their apparent cell leader was a nice twist, one I saw coming but enjoyed nevertheless. 

The sectarian tension between the monotheistic cultists and the polytheistic Colonials serves as a backdrop for two of creator Ronald D. Moore's favorite things: social commentary and messianic intrigue.  The technologically enhanced decadence of Caprica presents a much wider lens through which to examine our own moral and political conflicts than Battlestar Galactica did.  And I'm fascinated by hints that the monotheists have a plan for Zoe's avatar, who I suspect will emerge as a messiah figure like in Carnivale, another Moore series about avatars.

But Caprica is at its best when confronting the ethical dilemmas raised by Daniel's experiments in resurrection and artificial intelligence.  Questions of mortality have consumed me since I was a child, and the possibility of extending life by downloading one's consciousness preoccupies me as an adult.  I'm also intrigued that Caprica seems to have  taken a page from Robert Sawyer (author of Mindscan, which touches upon similar themes) and linked the development of "strong" artificial intelligence to the copying of human consciousness into electronic form.

All of this adds up to a much different and deeper show than I'd expected.  The previews made Caprica look like a prime time soap opera about warring family dynasties.  (It's the Graystones versus the Adamas, two households both alike in dignity!)  I'm sure the conflict between Daniel and Joseph will undoubtedly be central -- all the moreso when Adama discovers Zoe's terrorist ties.  But at least its source isn't some romantic cliche about star-crossed lovers, like I'd feared.  Let's just hope subsequent episodes live up to the undeniable promise of the Pilot.

Another show that exceeded my expectations, albeit by far less, is Human Target on FOX.  Here again we see the fingerprints of Battestar Galactica, though in the casting rather than the plot.  In the first two episodes, the guest stars have included Tricia Helfer and Alessandro Juliani, both of whom were regulars on Battlestar Galactica.  But that's really where the comparison between the two series end.  Human Target has no philosophical ambitions or pretenses -- it's cartoon action from start to finish.

The protagonist is Christopher Chance (Mark Valley) who offers protection for those whose lives have been threatened.  He invents personae that keep him close to his clients, becoming their human shield until he can neutralize the threat.  In the original DC comic (and short-lived '90s adaptation starring Rick Springfield) Chance actually used makeup to impersonate his clients, raising questions about existence and identity.  The 2010 version understandably dispenses with this cumbersome plot device, but sacrifices intellectual depth in the bargain.

The strength of this Human Target is clearly Chance's "Scooby gang," which includes Winston (Chi McBride) and Guerrero (Jackie Earle Haley).  I've been a fan of McBride since Boston Public.  He has one note -- exasperated -- but it's a good one.  Haley's range as an actor is the real surprise.  He plays a far more nebbishy (but no less dangerous) character than he did as Rorschach in Watchmen.  Both men have nice chemistry with each other and with Valley, who himself exudes a calm, assertive charisma in the role of Chance.

The action sequences are a little over the top, though no moreso than a Bond film.  But they do underscore one potential source of concern: the formulaic character of the show.  The first two episodes featured action sequences on a train and plane, respectively.  If a third climaxes in some showdown aboard an automobile -- e.g., a speeding bus -- we'll know we're in trouble.  Until then, however, I'll be watching.  Sometimes, even bigmouths need a little mindless fun.

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Thunderstorm said...

It was Ron Moore, I believe who described this show as more 'Dallas' than science fiction but I believe he has misled us just a little bit. I didn't think it was too melodramatic or soapy, any more than a lot of other TV drama.

Maybe that was just his way of saying "it's not 100% geeky sci-fi" but since when is his stuff in that vein? Not since Trek anyway.

I thoroughly enjoyed it and while I expected it to be good, I think it exceeded my expectations. It was the best pilot I've seen in a while, probably since I saw Moore's 'Virtuality', which shares some themes (these virtual worlds appearing to possibly bleed into reality) but that series ultimately wasn't picked up.

The thing I'm wondering is if these virtual worlds/technology have anything to do with the Head-characters. Or even the "projections".

The resurrection/download thing is apparent for creating the "avatars" but I am wondering about the worlds themselves becoming 'alive' in a sense. And Head Six, for one example being an avatar from one of those worlds who could (one day after the tech evolves) just appear to Baltar in 'our' world. And these virtual worlds themselves are the "projections" that cylons could show each other. Like the one Sharon and Tyrol shared near the end of the series. That may have made no sense, I am not an expert on all the BSG geekery.

Bigmouth said...

Yeah, the Dallas analogy was really whack. But maybe Moore was preparing us sci-fi fans for when the show slows down, as I hear it does for the next few episodes.

I missed Virtuality. What was the premise? The idea of virtual and real worlds bleeding together also reminds me of the anime Serial Experiments Lain.

I share your instinct that the virtual avatars on Caprica are somehow connected to "angels" like Head Baltar and Head Six and the Cylon ability to "project" virtual worlds. I'm optimistic this show will serve as an opportunity to explain such mysterious phenomena on BSG.

Thunderstorm said...

Fox aired Virtuality as a 2 hr. TV movie over last summer but I am sure it's available for free online somewhere.

I thought it was clever. The rough synopsis (I only saw it once) was that this crew was on a long space mission, which was being filmed and broadcast back to Earth. They filmed these little confessional type things (a la reality TV) and these were edited into the narrative.

The crew uses these virtual reality machines to entertain themselves and such. Two of the crew members engage in a virtual 'affair'. There's more to the plot but I can't recall.

But this strange dude begins showing up in all of the various crew members simulations, killing a few of them. And then the ending is strange, but I got the feeling that the man from the simulations wasn't exactly a simulation or something...

Might have owed a little to Solaris? Films that I loved, both the original and remake.

Capcom said...

Thanks for this post Big, I only half-watched the first ep of Caprica and needed a primer to get me up to speed for the next ep. I've always liked Esai Morales and it's neat that he's in a show like this, he's still looking good. Eric Stoltz is no slouch either for a lead actor in scifi, he's great at playing good and bad guys.

So far I've enjoyed Human Target as well, it's pretty fun tech-wise and I like the snarcastic humor.

Fringe was interesting this week, but I wish that they'd get back to connecting the weekly monsters and maniacs to The Pattern, are we not supposed to care about that anymore?

Anonymous said...

My question about caprica: i have not seen bsg yet. Should i wait to watch caprica until after i see BSG, or can i go ahead and watch caprica live (or live+2-3d)?

I have BSG on dvd, and plan on watching it eventually.

Greg Tramel said...

you can watch Caprica without watching BSG

i don't think the episode stood up to the premeire which had alot more intrigue (the smoking man cameo helped too bad he got stabbed) but i'm still watching

i'm not watching Human Target but i may give this new show which starts tomorrow Tues 2/9 a shot

Past Life

Anonymous said...

SO far we have seen the crossover from Battelstar to Human Touch Guest start by: Tricia Helfer, Donnelly Rhodes, Alessandro Juliani, And now Grace Park. Or for BSG geeks like me, #6, Doc Cottle, Gaeta, And (Sharon/Boomer/Athena/#8). Also Bear McCreary is responsible for the theme music of Human Target.