Maybe you were intrigued by the posters of the squidgy-faced Zooey Deschanel doppelgänger plastered all over the subway and Internet. Or maybe nothing’s come along to replace Battlestar Galactica, a show that refracted the issues of the day (terrorism, nation-building, religious persecution, etc.) through the lens of humans versus robots in outer space. Are those good enough reasons to give this Battlestar prequel series a chance?
The show starts off on the planet Caprica, one of the twelve colonies, 58 years before the coordinated terrorist attack by the Cylons — that super-foxy race of cybernetic humanoids — that launched BSG. On that series, a piddling number of humans zapped around the universe running from said robo-foxes in search of a possibly mythical planet called Earth. On this series, a not-yet-piddling number of humans will create the Cylons who end up masterminding humanity’s destruction. We all know where the singularity gets you.
The narrative revolves around two families. The Graystones take Nora Ephron’s affluence porn to its futuristic extreme. The patriarch, Daniel Graystone (Eric Stolz), made his billions by inventing the holoband (they look like tanning goggles, but can transport your avatar to virtual worlds).
Then there’s the Adamas. Yes, those Adamas. On BSG, Commander Adama (played by Edward James Olmos) is Galactica’s military moral center. Here he looks like the littlest Jonas brother and hangs out with his grandma. The Adamas are from the planet Tauron, which has no flowers, and may or may not have facilitated the rise of a crime syndicate called the Ha’la’tha. Even on Caprica, all Tauron men, criminals or otherwise, dress like Bugsy. We’re meant to draw parallels to immigrants from Mexico, the Middle East, or maybe the Corleones. Like in BSG, the prevailing religion on all the colonies (including Tauron) is polytheistic.
All caught up? Here’s how the hot A.I. action goes down. Scene one: We’re in the orgiastic virtual Club V — which calls to mind sweaty group dance scenes we’ve seen in The Matrix Reloaded, Avatar, etc. Caprican Prodigy is playing, so you know shit’s about to get intense.
There are two Zoe Graystones (the daughter from the posters, played by Alessandra Torresani). In terms of pissing off your parents, hanging out at Club V seems like it would do the trick. But are the Zoes, her boyfriend, and her best girlfriend there for the group sex? The fire play? No. They choose to rebel by forsaking their parents’ pluralism and believing in one all-knowing, all-powerful God. They’re there to sabotage Club V.
Zoe’s avatar, front row for a violent freak show, starts bugging out, glitches for a second, and disappears. We discover Human Zoe in the school bathroom with a hacked version of one of Daddy’s holobands. Cut to the Graystones’ lakeside complex. Stolz and his wife are playing tennis. Tiny robot Mr. Belvedere is officiating. Stolz looks good in his tennis whites. Things are pretty tense at chez Greystone: Zoe’s mom wants to punish Zoe for holobanding at school; Zoe thinks her dad practices dirty science and her mama’s a gold digger.
No matter. Zoe, her boyfriend Ben, and her sidekick Lacy are planning to escape to Gemenon, another colony, where everyone will totes appreciate their monotheism and smug pronouncements. Avatar Zoe is also somehow involved in the plot to save the souls of Caprica’s misguided youth.
On the subway to Gemenon, the runaways end up next to Adama Sr.’s wife and daughter. Lacy bows out at the last minute. Good move, Lace. Ben, who was supposedly responsible for Zoe’s recent indoctrination into this whole one true God business, has strapped himself with explosives (unbeknownst to her). Just started and already there are the parallels to contemporary politics — though the reference doesn’t quite feel earned.
Back on the subway, Ben sets off the trigger and Zoe, Adama’s wife and daughter, and many other passengers are killed. Good thing Avatar Zoe is stowed away in a locked room in Club V. The world won’t be robbed of its ersatz Deschanel for long! The bombing launches an investigation into a monotheist religious group, which has been dormant for ten years.
Distraught, Lacy goes to talk to the headmistress, Sister Clarice Willow, at the tony private Athena School where she, Zoe, and Ben hatched their plan. The camera lingers too long on Willow’s catlike eyes, so something is clearly up with her. (Good God, this freaking thing is an hour and a half and sometimes it really feels like it. Where are the Cylons already?)
Graystone’s company (think of a ginger Bill Gates) is working on developing killer robots to make a bid for a lucrative Caprican defense contract. He’s developed the Cylon body — not the icy blond model, more like Arnold’s terminator without the flesh coating — but he’s having trouble with the brain.
Dead Human Zoe was something of a chip off the old tech-genius block. Her avatar is more than a simulacrum. She figured out a way to download personality into her virtual double (the one aspect stopping humans from transcending their corporeal limits). Her solution? To collect data from digital records like pysch evals, DNA profiles, brain scans, video, shopping receipts, and traffic tickets. We remain skeptical about how this yields personality. But when Human Zoe dies, her copy lives on. It leads to lots of half-baked dialogue around interesting ideas like ontology and metaphysics, of which we will spare you.
Graystone finds out about the avatar and forces Lacy to introduce him. This leads to scenes of Eric Stolz in Club V, which is a dream we think we had one time. Graystone pretends he’s going to hug the simulacrum, but instead he downloads her into a flash-drive. Yikes. Once he buys into the idea that the avatar is more or less his dead daughter, he plots to bring her out into the real world by transferring her personality code into one of his terminator bots.
Meanwhile, Willow, the school marm, confesses to Lacy that’s she’s part of the group that’s accused of orchestrating the suicide bombing on the train. Lacy asks if that means Ben was a terrorist. Willow replies, “Labels like ‘terrorist’ are what this corrupt and decadent culture call people who are trying to fight evil in this world.” This was always one of BSG’s best tricks: to thwart easy affinities between viewers and a character or cause &8212; to put the views of “the other” in the mouth of a sympathetic figure (or vice versa). But the device is borrowed from BSG, so it’s hard to give Caprica too much credit.
Back to Adama Sr. (played by Esai Morales, who might in the long run prove an ineffectual foil for Graystone, who gets creepier by the minute). He has ties to the Ha’la’tha mafia, who paid his way through law school. Until now, he’s avoided doing anything criminal. But Graystone promises he can bring back Adama’s wife and daughter like he plans to do with Zoe, if only Adama will have the Ha’la’tha steal a device called a meta cognitive processor from a competitor. Desperate to reunite his family, Adama agrees.
Graystone uses the same downloading-from-public-databases technique to show Adama his daughter’s avatar. Unwritten holoband rules clearly state that all the virtual forms of all teenage girls must be wearing a prom dress. Adama meets his daughter in-world, but unlike Avatar Zoe, who’s at ease with all this second-life-after-death, Adama’s daughter can’t adjust, insisting something is off, is sick. When the dads aren’t visiting, the avatars are trapped in an empty virtual box. And it does start to feel like a twisted experiment fueled by grief.
Avatar Zoe is feeling awkward, too. For a second, when her code is downloaded into the machine, we see the Cylon’s eye turn that familiar BSG red. But the file gets corrupted and the robot collapses. Not yet horrified by his creation, but assuming his project has failed, Dr. Stoltzenstein shelves the Zoe-bot in a back room at his headquarters.
Graystone soldiers on, using the stolen processor to fix the problem with the robots. This time, the demo succeeds. The robot kills a number of sacrificial Mr. Belvedere bots swiftly and without mercy. When it’s done, it bleats out, “Program completed at your command.” At your command — cha, right.
After Graystone wins the contract, the Caprican state rep asks him what he calls these killing machines. “Cybernetic lifeform node, or Cylon” — dun-dun-dun-dah! There’s a similar heavy-handed moment for BSG fans when Adama finally tells his son his true last name (he changed it when he immigrated to Caprica).
Meanwhile, the Zoe-bot, lying dormant, suddenly awakens. Is it going to start shooting, too? Should we call the villagers? It walks over to a table with a phone. In Lacy’s bedroom, the call comes through. A girl’s voice comes out of the cylon: “It’s me, Zoe, I’m here and I think I’m going to need your help.”
There you have it. Some brainy brat wanted to get back at her parents, a dad tries to resurrect his dead daughter (and become a defense contractor), and the fate of humanity is in peril. We have never felt so much empathy for Sarah Connor.