Wednesday, January 27, 2010

'Caprica' - SyFy Channel Asks the Right Questions

Santiago Ramos thinks a new series on the SyFy Channel does a better job of considering “the relationship between personal identity and software avatars” than the “Biggest Movie of All Time”. From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key:


Fridays 9/8 Central on SyFy

Reviewed by Santiago Ramos

The new science fiction series “Caprica” is more evidence to back up what has become conventional wisdom: in our time, the quality of television drama outmatches that of mainstream Hollywood cinema. One gets the sense that some filmmakers believe their audience to be just as two-dimensional as the images they summon to the screen. Television drama, on the other hand, is the kingdom of writers, who deal with dialogue more than with imagery, and assume an audience with fully-formed frontal lobes. The most famous avatars in the world right now are on the big screen, yet the first two episodes of “Caprica” deal with the relationship between personal identity and software avatars with a deeper poignancy than is found in Biggest Movie of All Time.

“Caprica” is a city and a planet, the capital of a 12-planet system surrounding a distant star. Its shiny civilization is advanced and wealthy and decadent. Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz) is a brilliant scientist who was made a millionaire by his invention of a virtual reality simulator, and currently designs artificially-intelligent robots for the Ministry of Defense. The foreboding is obvious, of course, but the show is far from cliche.

Graystone’s daughter, Zoe (Alessandra Torressani), high school-aged but just as intelligent as her father, spends much time within the virtual reality night clubs that have become a popular craze among the youth of “Caprica” — they are loud, violent, full of sex and drugs and random killing (when you’re living through an avatar, you can explore the full range of your animalian urges and wake up unscathed — well, physically unscathed, anyway). But Zoe doesn’t indulge in those things. She is a follower of the true god, and she visits the night clubs to cast judgment and to plan for a day of deliverance. The religion of “Caprica” is polytheistic — everyone believes, or sort of believes, in the full pantheon of Greek gods. Monotheists are seen as dangerous absolutists. Zoe is one of them.

The plot-trigger moment for the two-hour pilot — and, most likely, for the entire series — is the terrorist attack wherein Zoe dies. Travelling with one other member of her religious sect, she was escaping “Caprica” for the more religious planet of Gemenon; she didn’t plan on her friend’s excess of zeal. Her friend blows himself up and the train they were travelling in is torn to bits. Government authorities quickly pin the blame for the attacks on a terrorist group called “Soldiers of the One.” Daniel Graystone—who had become alienated from his daughter and was on bad terms with her at the time of her death — is disconsolate. But he finds hope in the free-standing avatar that Zoe had created of herself before she died — an avatar that can “think” for itself.

Graystone wants to implant that avatar into a robot, and “resurrect” Zoe. He explains his plan to a friend who also suffered the loss of his daughter in the same attack: “Do you know what your brain is, Joseph? It’s a database and a processor, that’s all. Information and a way to use it … [Zoe] took a search engine and turned it into a way to cheat death.”

But Zoe, while a technological genius, would not have been so sanguine about her mad-scientist father’s plans — she judged him with a standard that put her at odds with his society: “There is truth in the world,” she tells a friend. “There is a right and there is a wrong. And there is a god, a god who knows the difference.”

Lines like that make me feel the way Virginia Woolf felt when she discovered the great Russian novelists who were writing about far more interesting characters than her bland Victorian compatriots. Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy were writing about faith, violence and ideology, with stories set in places almost as alien to Virginia as “Caprica” is to us. Yet the writers of “Caprica” risk a lot in crafting such obvious parallels to the world we live in here on Earth. They risk becoming too allegorical, or worse, they risk becoming moralistic. But the picture they set up has enough ambiguity built-in that they will be able to avoid sounding sanctimonious: on the one hand, Zoe is right about Caprica’s decadence and violent excesses; on the other hand, terrorism is evil.

The most interesting dimension to the show, I think, has to do with the relationship between science and religion — that is, between Graystone and his daughter’s avatar. If indeed we are nothing by a database and a processor, as Graystone maintains — why is it that we refuse to accept this simple fact? Why do we refuse to accept that death is the end?

And why is it that the SyFy Channel is becoming one of the few places where we can ask these questions in a story?

Santiago Ramos is a graduate of Rockhurst University in Kansas City and has written for First Things (online), Commonweal, The Pitch, Traces, Image Journal and various blogs. He is currently studying toward a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Boston College.