NFB Re-Watches Caprica: “Pilot”

You can see your daughter again. Isn’t that worth whatever price you have to pay?

Air Date: 22/01/2010

Director: Jeffrey Reiner

Writers: Remi Aubuchon & Ronald D. Moore

Synopsis: In the aftermath of a bombing orchestrated by monotheistic extremists that kills his daughter Zoe, tech magnate Daniel Graystone discovers that she created a highly complex virtual copy of herself that may be the key to bringing her back to life. Immigrant lawyer Joseph Adams struggles with his own loss from the bombing, which brings him into Graystone’s orbit.

Review

While the 90-minute “Pilot” is sometimes split up into two episodes in syndication, it is reviewed here as it was originally presented.

And away we go on the continuation off the BSG canon in Caprica, a TV show that arrived in 2010 to a lot of fanfare, but then largely failed to launch, its premature demise all but ending any pretensions to form a Star Trek-esque multi-layered mythos. But that doesn’t mean that Caprica was a creative failure, far from it. We begin at the beginning, with the unimaginatively titled “Pilot” setting the scene for a very different kind of story than what we are used to, or maybe expecting.

If nothing else can be said, then we can say that “Pilot” sure is a slow burner. Leaving aside the opening bombing there’s precious little in terms of traditional dramatic beats that so shaped BSG, with Reiner, Aubuchon and Moore instead settling us in for something much more languid, moody and introspective: Moore himself dubbd it a “prime time Dallas“. The first half of the production takes its time in introducing us to the main players, still separate, and their scene, which runs the gambit of character conflict: there’s a rebellious teenage daughter, rich folk finding out money can’t buy you everything, immigrants struggling to get by and in the middle of it all there’s a bomb and a lot of people dead. From the off Caprica attempts to capture the same magic of BSG in presenting very human stories in the midst of larger-than-life narratives, and while it perhaps it doesn’t quite succeed as well as the Miniseries of BSG did, it’s still entrancing enough.

Whittled down to its core, “Pilot”, and I suspect Caprica in general, is about reactions to loss. Our inciting incident sees the teenaged daughters of Daniel Graystone and Joseph Adams killed, and all that follows is framed primarily through their reactions. And of the five traditional reactions to death, “Pilot” focuses in on four of them, forgoing only acceptance: there’s anger from Amanda Graystone, there’s bargaining in the way Daniel tries to use Joseph’s criminal connections to get what he wants, there’s oodles of depression. But the most important is denial. Daniel, once he realises what his daughter accomplished in the virtual world, is not in a position to accept her final and irrevocable passing. Through this slow burn plot, we get an examination of what happens when a father has the very natural reaction of refusing to accept that his daughter is gone forever, when he has the chance to actually make it so.

“Pilot” does its best work from a narrative standpoint in how it draws these two plots together. Graystone discovers the means to make his desire come true, around the same time that he discovers another grieving father. It seems it isn’t enough to fulfil a miracle, Daniel needs something of an audience too, perhaps to serve as an unofficial ethics jury for what he is doing. Joseph is equal-parts intrigued and appalled by what Daniel is doing, but just can’t resist becoming involved himself, even if it means crossing ethical boundaries he shouldn’t cross. The entanglement of the two is irrevocable you expect, even when Joseph storms out of the house towards the conclusion. And what is very noticeable in all of this is how this is not what we are used to. No Viper battles, no do-or-die, no humanity on the line, just yet anyway. Caprica sets itself up as a very different kind of show to BSG in “Pilot”, one that will be more focused on the philosophical implications of AI in terms of its general premise and on a slow-boil examination of grief in its characters.

Looking more closely into the plot of “Pilot”, I appreciated the way it offered a balanced viewpoint of both the Graystone and Adams families before the disaster, and a balanced take after. A very familiar family dynamic plays out in our first glimpse of Zoe’s family, a fractured thing that is coming apart under the weight of Zoe’s unhappiness. This soap opera style plot is rapidly undone by the bombing, but grounds the Graystone’s quite well in realistic surrounds.

From there it’s largely a story of Daniel seeking after the ghost of his daughter, as he comes to realise she left a lot of herself behind in virtual form. What he finds in the virtual world is something he at first dismisses as just a few well crafted lines of code, a sign of his own ego refusing to tolerate the idea that his daughter could have been this good at programming. But when he does fully realise what it is that she has done – little less than finding a means to keep the dead alive in a different space – he acts very decisively in taking this new Zoe for his own, into his own space to be used for his own purposes. Just within this opening 45 or so minutes, we have learned a lot about Daniel to inform on what will be taking place in the future. Much more than we do with his wife Amanda, whose grief is mostly unexplored: I hope that we get more time for that in future episodes.

What unfolds in the second half of “Pilot” is a look at a somewhat deranged individual. Daniel is first shown as an idealistic dreamer, waxing lyrical on the possibilities allowed by technology, but it rapidly becomes something much darker. Daniel rejects the notion that only the Gods should have power over life and death, and in the process seems to be taking on the mantle of a God himself: he’s not far wrong really, with the implications of his technology spanning beyond the resurrection of the dead and into a form of immortality. He also openly derides quibbles of ethics and morality, insistent that he serves well enough as a final arbiter on such things. One can’t help but think back to Apollo’s pitch on a simpler life in “Daybreak (Part Two)”: “You know, our brains have always outraced our hearts. Our science charges ahead, our souls lag behind”. Where all of this goes with Daniel remains to be seen, but it’s hard to imagine it ending well: even when he thinks that he has lost “Zoe-A”, the next morning he’s calmly going about his business with the advanced Cylon model. Sentiment seems to only be a short-term thing with this guy, and he isn’t going to be fettered by any restraints.

He’s a very different man to Joseph Adams. Everything we see of Daniel indicates a man at total ease with himself and what he is doing, while with Joseph it is the opposite. He’s uncomfortable with everything about himself: his Caprican home, his job, his ties to a criminal underworld that he cannot ignore, that ancient past on a very different world. Adams tries to walk a very tight line between Caprican lawyer and Tauron immigrant, but the difference between those two positions is impossible to reconcile. You can see that in his relationship with his son, “Willy”, an awkward thing, as if Joseph has not fully decided just what kind of person he wants to be to his son. He hasn’t fully figured out just who he is yet. Hence why he perhaps finds it so easy to be drawn further into that Tauron underworld when Daniel pleads for a favour.

Crossing those lines seems a big thing for Joseph, in whom we can already see elements of honour, decency and holding to your word that are very like those in William Adama. But the chance of being with his dead daughter again seems just too big to pass up, at least until he actually gets what he thinks he wants. The scene where he embraces Tamara-A in the digital space is heart-breaking: this entity is uncomfortable in itself to the point of Caprica briefly becoming a horror story, Tamara having a panic attack at the reality that her non-existent heart is not beating. Joseph is suitably mortified at what he has had a hand in creating, a strange other-life that does not seem to actually want to exist.

His reaction to that is to turn back to the person that he used to be, and the culture that he used to be a part of. The Adams name is cast aside, and the more destined name of Adama is taken back up. But we know that this transition will not be an easy one: what we have seen of Taurons in this universe points to a blend of racism and morally dubious activities, and it seems unlikely that someone like Joseph Adama will be able to bring himself and his family easily into that world. He’s trying to deal with his grief the right way, but will he be able to resist the temptation of going back to his virtual daughter?

Zoe – both of them I suppose – dominates proceedings of course. The original leaves behind a highly sophisticated facsimile of herself, showcasing a spark of creation that approaches, well, the divine: through coding and math she has essentially created life, just not as we know it. It’s that debate that dominates “Pilot”, as multiple characters reckon with the question as to whether Zoe-A is a thing or a person: Daniel comes to change his mind from one to the other through the course of the episode. This discourse perhaps masks what we learn about Zoe in the course of “Pilot”, which is largely that rebellious teenaged angst has somehow found a way to transfer from the biological to the artificial, and from the digital out into the “real” world. What a person can do with the kind of power – the power to create a new way beyond death – is frightening to think about it. Zoe’s pure righteousness in terms of creating a better world is palpable, and nothing better than an angry teen to prosecute some manner of crusade.

Behind all of this is the spectre of monotheism, which means different things for the characters in this story and the people watching at home. For the former it’s a strange cult with militant tendencies, but for us it’s essentially the beginning of the Cylon rebellion and a Cycle that will lead all the way to Earth. Within the confines of “Pilot”, worship of the one God is seen through a prism of seduction – in Ben, and more obviously in Sister Clarice, with Polly Walker channelling a bit of Rome in her performance – and violence, in the bombing carried out by the Soldiers of the One. The establishment view is summed up by Agent Duram’s belief that the worship of a single God will too easily lead to moral ambivalence and justifications for terrible acts: you can’t really say that he is wrong. “Pilot” sets up a cult that is already evidently good at infiltration, and at recruiting those who are not especially wowed by the modern world as they see it. The bombing makes them an antagonist, but you can already tell there must be more to it than that. They are a rebellion in many ways, the most obvious resistance to a system with ingrained issues, and not all rebellions are wrong. They appeal to people like Zoe’s friend Lacy because it makes them feel less alone, and who knows where that may lead?

More than that, this opening episodes of Caprica gives us a glimpse at the height before the fall, before “Cylon” was an understood word and before there even was a united Twelve Colonies. The decadence of a world where the virtual space is utilised for indulgent physical gratification and consequence-free violence couldn’t look more like the stereotypical view of Rome at its height, but a certain strain of arrogance otherwise is evident, not least in the casually racist way that Capricans routinely treat others. This whole show has as one of its main tenants an effort to point the way to a situation where a thoughtless creation of artificial intelligence will lead to catastrophe: “Pilot”, from the Centurion model that Daniel is creating right down to the bigoted terms slung the way of Taurons, shows us a world where such a thing is easily imaginable. Maybe that’s because it doesn’t really look all that different to our world in so many ways, and in such comparisons will Caprica find a way to worm inside your head.

A cybernetic life-form node. A Cylon.

Notes

-This will be Jeffrey Reiner’s only contribution to the canon from behind the camera, he best known for stints on The Division and Friday Night Lights. Remi Aubuchon is credited as the co-creator of the show, but would leave for other things during production.

-The planet we see framed against Caprica in the opening is meant to be Gemenon. While it looks like a moon, it’s apparently meant to form a sort of twin-planet system with Caprica.

-Our first look at the V-Club is an interesting place to start for the show, immediately placing viewers familiar with BSG in a very different environment than they are used to.

-The way that Zoe spots herself across the room seems to be a nod to the Cylons of the “modern” era, in the fact that multiple copies of each model exist. Certainly it’s the first thing that would come to mind.

-The sacrifice of the girl in the V-Club will naturally evoke Apocalypto-style visions of such killings, if we can temporarily put aside the inherent racism of Mel Gibson’s vision. I suppose that is what it is though, bloodthirsty young people replicating a fantasy in a place with no consequences.

-The “Holoband” tech is a little clumsy looking really. What do these flashing green lights actually accomplish?

-The three monotheistic teens say “So Say We All” while putting a finger to their foreheads, a ritual that doesn’t survive into the modern day.

-The Graystone home is all straight lines and sterile feel in its brightness, a marked contrast to the darker, yet warmer, Adams home we see later.

-Ben exhibits a Luddite mindset in terming what happens in the V-Club a consequence of “dirty science”. It’s interesting to frame it like that, given the end of BSG in “Daybreak (Part Two)”.

-The monotheists use the infinity symbol as their sign, which we saw briefly in use by the Cylons in “Islanded In A Stream Of Stars”.

-Zoe’s creation really is remarkable for someone of her age: there are programmers who could work for decades just on the look of Zoe-A you feel, and not get it right.

-I have a feeling I won’t be talking too much about Bear McCreary’s score this time around, as it isn’t easily available commercially and in “Pilot” sets itself up as under-stated, but I was struck by the recurring main theme of this episode, a simple string melody that has a fairy-tale feel to what it is trying to impart.

-Our introduction to the Adams’ family (ha!) couldn’t be more saccharine really. Tamara, in contrast to Zoe especially, seems like the perfect teenage daughter.

-The dread of this scene is quite well created I thought. You know instinctively that something is going to go wrong on that train, just from a slight musical cue change and some tight cinematography.

-Ben’s line as he detonates his explosives is “The one true God will drive out the many”. This marks this brand of monotheism out as quite militant, and very different to how Baltar’s Cult started out.

-The CGI in “Pilot” is generally quite good, and especially for the explosion effect for the bombing.

-It’s noted here that Caprica is led by a “Prime Minister”, as opposed to a President or Governor. We should remember that the federal government of the Twelve Colonies as we know them only came into existence after the First Cylon War started.

-Our designated monotheist group are the “Soldiers of the One” or “STO”. The militant style is clear from the start.

-Joseph’s opinion of mourning customs seems fairly clear as he explains his Tauron gloves with some world weary sighs.

-Sister Clarice makes me think immediately of Cavil, and not just because it is a person obfuscating their purpose behind the robes of the religious. It’s the little bit of snark, the lack of intimidation when faced with authority, the manipulation, it’s all there.

-I don’t think we are meant to take Joseph’s claim that “in about five seconds, I’m jumping off a bridge myself” seriously. He still has his son after all, and he doesn’t demonstrate much in the way of suicidal ideation otherwise.

-Zoe-A being covered in blood seems like something designed for a bit of a jump scare more than anything. Why design her like that?

-Not for the last time in the episode, Lacy spits “You’re a thing” at Zoe-A, but without real conviction.

-Tauron’s as mafioso types is going to take a little bit of getting used to I will admit. Maybe it’s just because Caprica leans in a bit too hard on the vaguely New York-Italian American accents.

-What we can call the very first Centurion is an interesting effect, as is the roving yellow eye.

-I do like that the Centurion’s final wayward shot ends up right between the eyes of Daniel.

-Not sure we really needed the first thing that Daniel sees in the V-Club to be a lesbian kiss, but OK.

-The Adams’ are very much an immigrant family, with a grandmother rooted in the literal old world, and a younger generation more fully part of the new.

-“We think that Zoe might have been one of the terrorists” seems like a pretty blunt thing to say in this moment. Duram doesn’t strike me as especially competent so far.

-There is some censorship in Daniel’s visit to the V-Club, with versions existing that feature nudity in the revellers. They have been braaed up in later editions.

-Lacy notes that the sacrifices in the V-Club are to the Goddess Hecate, who is traditionally associated with dark magic, but here is named as a deity of the underworld.

-“Zoe knew God” is a big statement to make: Lacy and Zoe-A essentially treat her as some kind of Messiah figure without even realising it.

-The idea that you can use the tools of mass data and surveillance to create AI sounds much more believable in 2022, doesn’t it?

-Of course all this might lead fans of the canon to the word “resurrection”: after all, this is essentially what Zoe-A is proposing, a form of life eternal through technology.

-“Can I…may I hold you, Zoe?” While it’s a bit of a subterfuge, this line indicates Daniel’s change of thinking regards the status of Zoe-A.

-The cut between the two episodes, when “Pilot” is viewed as such, is painfully awkward at this moment, credits randomly popping up as Daniel leaves his daughters room.

-Clarice makes sure to keep her eyes locked with Duram throughout this semi-interrogation scene. She’s used to this.

-“Know your enemy, love your enemy” seems a very direct nod to Christian teachings.

-We get a glimpse at pyramid as a professional spot here, which seems to be played in a large stadium, very different to what we saw in episodes like “Resistance”.

-I’m not sure how a planet could operate if it was incapable of growing flowers, as Joseph indicates for Tauron in this scene. Perhaps it is an idea not to be taken too literally.

-Daniel’s mantra that “If a difference makes no difference, there is no difference” might as well be engraved on the road to hell paved with good intentions.

-The way that Daniel and Joseph circle each other in the moment where Daniel reveals his deeper intentions is a great manner to introduce some antagonism between them.

-Daniel’s pitch to Joseph is very much like that of a cult, and I suspect that is intentional: a cult where he is God and Messiah all rolled into one really.

-The racism really comes out as the Minister refers to Joseph as a “frakking dirt-eater”. Background info for the universe tells us that desperate Taurons were known to eat dirt to survive hard times.

-It’s an interesting montage that plays over the three-quarters mark: sex, grief and violence mixing between the Graystones, Joseph and the Tauron assassination. Makes me think of “Act Of Contrition”.

-Sister Clarice indicates her own monotheism by tracing the infinity symbol in the water ring from Lacy’s glass, a suitable representation of how malleable such an ideology might prove to be,

-Clarice frames the battle of her beliefs as one that is “fighting evil”, which seems very much in the Head Six line of thinking.

-Daniel casually mentions that Zoe-A’s memory use is only about “300 megabytes worth”, which even for 2010 has to be a mistake in the script.

-The encounter between Joseph and his virtual daughter is enough to get him to make up his mind: “This is wrong”.

-“Only the Gods have power over death?…I reject that notion!” Careful now, or you’ll end up like Orpheus.

-Daniel doesn’t hesitate, inserting Zoe-A’s code into a new body, and the horror elements are back big time as it very slowly starts coming to life.

-The eye of the Centurion turning red is a potent moment, a sign of the greater intelligence that now inhabits the artificial.

-Zoe seems to suffer a second death as the Centurion model can’t handle her data, and Daniel’s reaction is very much that of a man who feels that he has lost his daughter again.

-Joseph has no shame in declaring to his son that his family are descended from “Tauron peasants”, but I suspect he’s the only one to think so.

-As Joseph tells his son that their family names is actually “Adama”, we hear the faint strains of “Wander My Friends”.

-It is a well put together sequence as the Centurion goes on the hunt against the other robots, with they fleeing in something approximating terror. It’s a regular slaughter that follows, the Centurion model hunting them down with no mercy. It’s a chilling sight.

-“By your command”. And the fanboys did rejoice.

-“Deceit is in their DNA” says the Caprican PM regards the Taurons. The racism goes far.

-“Cybernetic Lifeform Node” is the name of his new creation, says Daniel. Thankfully it has a handy abbreviation: “Cylon”.

-Zoe-A in the Centurion body rises up off the table, and it is hard not to think of Universal’s Frankenstein franchise in that moment. I presume it is a deliberate allusion.

-Ala “Scattered”, we close on a zoom-in to that glowing red eye, which is about as foreboding as it gets.

Overall Verdict: “Pilot” is a strong introduction to the kind of show that Caprica will be and the kind of story that it is planning to tell. A lot of plot points are introduced well here, and if there are elements – like Amanda Graystone – that are underwhelming it is made up by our initial glimpses at the Tauron drama, the STO and all that will come from them and the implications of what Zoe-A is. We can already tell that Caprica is going to be a slow burning thing, but the spark that started the fire is a bright one.

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7 Responses to NFB Re-Watches Caprica: “Pilot”

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