Unceremoniously canceled last month, Battlestar Galactica prequel series Caprica dared to offer audiences a truly alien world. That's probably what caused the show's downfall, but could also help it endure as one of the most literary scifi shows ever aired.
By literary, I mean that the series dealt with many themes that until now have largely been the purview of science fiction novels: Multiple, uploadable identities; A.I. psychology; and a human culture where homosexuality and polyamory are socially acceptable. While novelists from Ursula Le Guin to Charles Stross have dealt with these kinds of issues, they have quite simply never been central to a science fiction television show. We might glimpse something like Caprican society from the bridge of the Enterprise, but by the end of the episode we'd be leaving it behind.
On Caprica, that weird alien world full of angry teenage robots and gay gangsters is our world. And it's an unsettlingly realistic place, from its commercials and game shows to its racism and economic uncertainties. It's hard not to see the parallels between the 12 Colonies and Earth. And this made the differences between Caprica and Earth more challenging.
The singularity will be petty and ambiguous
In the last episode aired on Syfy, "False Labor," we saw industrialist Daniel working with the mobsters of the Ha'la'tha on an A.I. technology that would essentially put an end to death by allowing people to restore loved ones from backups. Instead characters speechifying about the ethics of this technology, we see them squabbling over how to market it in commercials. The afterlife tech is given a believably cheesy name: Grace. And Daniel's big issue isn't "OMG the morality" but "hey that CGI rendering of me looks really fake."
Meanwhile, Daniel is perfecting the Grace software by cooking up A.I. versions of his estranged wife in his basement lab, beating and verbally abusing them when they fail to act just like his wife would. This is a brutal and realistic portrait of how people might really behave if they had access to singularity-level technologies. They're having boardroom melodrama over it, and using it to act out hideous personal fantasies.
When I saw the audience numbers dropping on this show, I kept wondering if it was because people were just pissed that they weren't getting an escapist fantasy where A.I. instantly changes the world. Nor were they getting an easily-understood narrative throughline like on Battlestar Galactica (which despite its complexities was in the end your basic "run like hell from the angry robots" story).
The kinds of dirty work A.I. will really do
Another brilliant part of this series, also showcased in "False Labor," was how the cylons are quickly integrated into the Colonies' societies via the black market and the political underground. This worlds-changing technology makes its debut in messy, uneven, and unexpected ways. Sure, the Caprican government is going to get a mega-army full of cylons, but Tauron gangsters are going to get some too. This scene where Sam uses a black market cylon to take out a rival gang strikes the perfect note.
In "Blowback," the episode following "False Labor" (so far aired only on Canada's Space channel) we see even more ways the cylons are escaping from the control of their creators and funders.
STO leader Clarice has sent her wannabe henchman Lacey to Gemenon to get religious terrorist training. Lacey knows that the training will be grueling, but she's still surprised when she finds out that the kids who show fear or waver in their religious conviction are being shot - by cylons the Ha'la'tha are basically selling out the back door of Daniel's factories.
This scene is great on a number of levels, not the least of which is that we're being asked to sympathize with a character who sympathizes with the kinds of people who shoot innocent teens.
Too much of everything?
The more I think about Caprica, the more fascinating it gets. We begin with a show allegedly about cylons, but immediately it turns out that the real technology at stake has less to do with robots and more to do with recreating human-like consciousness using computers. Cylons are just one application for this technology, developed by teen genius Zoe in her bedroom. It can also be used to create "immortality" for people whose personalities are backed up and turned into avatars - and consigned to live in the videogame-esque virtual worlds where people play at being something other than themselves. It can even create multiple versions of one person, as Daniel discovers when he makes copy after copy of the wife who has left him.
But the show isn't really about technology. It's actually about what happens when multiculturalism stretches across 12 worlds, creating problems with racism, immigration, and trade that make the G20 summit look like The Sims. We see this enormous interplantary problem spun out in the evolving relationships between the Tauron Adama family, the Gemenon-based monotheists, and the Caprican Graystones. As a result, we're asked to accept a lot of strangeness as "normal." Clarice is in a polyamorous marriage, and Sam is married to a guy. Meanwhile, everybody worships multiple gods.
But the show isn't really about A.I., or interplantary trade issues, or how gay polyamory is normal. It's about a mad scientist who created a virtual version of herself, implanted it in a cylon, and got revenge on her father. Or a man who lost his family and decided to market crappy afterlife software. Or a woman who wants to convert everyone to the worship of the One True God. Or two angry immortal girls who became the queens of cybertown.
Do you see what I'm saying? Caprica may have gone too far, tried to cover too much. It broke one of the cardinal rules of mainstream science fiction, which is that if you have a strange alternate universe you'd better populate it with recognizable, ordinary characters. But I like the kind of thought-experiment audaciousness that says, Hell yes we are going to give you complicated characters who defy stereotypes, and put them in a world whose rules you'll have to think hard to understand.
It's too late to bring Caprica back. But I hope that this show is the first part of a new wave of science fiction on TV. Like The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Dollhouse, and Fringe, Caprica tackles singularity-level technology as a political and economic phenomenon - not as an escapist fantasy. And that's why it was a show worth watching, even when it stumbled.