'Battlestar' prequel brings back the doom

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / April 21, 2009
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'Battlestar Galactica," the bleak and beautiful SciFi series, ended its run last month with an uncharacteristic shift in tone. After years of watching anguish and despair, we were treated to a largely happy ending, a meditation on life with the look and feel of a National Geographic special. Die-hard fans were understandably unsettled: We expected a lot more doom.

Perhaps we forgot that there was going to be "Caprica," the prequel series from "Battlestar" creators Ronald D. Moore and David Eick, teamed up with "24" producer Remi Aubuchon. The new series isn't set to air on television - on the rebranded SyFy channel - until early 2010. But Universal Studios Home Entertainment is releasing an uncut version of the pilot on DVD today. And if this episode is any indication, "Caprica" will be sinister, compelling, and strangely reassuring. It proves that the writers and producers haven't gone soft. Not a bit.

Compared to "Battlestar Galactica," "Caprica" peddles a different sort of darkness. If the former was mired in fear and desperation, this new series is steeped in foreboding. Set some 50 years before the nuclear attacks that set "Battlestar" in motion, it centers on Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz), a brilliant and wealthy scientist on the Earthlike planet of Caprica, who has established himself as a sort of Steve Jobs of cybernetics.

Among his lucrative products is a "holoband," which allows people to turn themselves into three-dimensional avatars and roam in visceral virtual worlds. (The concept owes something to the holodecks of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," and even more to "The Matrix.") He's also pursuing a military contract for an artificial intelligence project he's been struggling to develop: a cybernetic fighting machine he calls a Cylon.

Daniel has a sullen 16-year-old daughter, Zoe, who, like many her age, hacks into the holobands to visit hedonistic virtual nightclubs. She's also a computer genius in her own right, who has figured out a way to merge personal data - from medical records, school records, shopping records, you name it - to create a downloadable form of consciousness. She has secretly created her own digital twin, who exists only in the virtual world. When Zoe is killed in a terrorist attack, the digital version lives on.

Also killed in the attack are the wife and daughter of Joseph Adama (Esai Morales), a morally-compromised lawyer who's eager to shed his ties to a shady benefactor. (He's the father of 11-year-old Willie Adama, who will grow up to command the Galactica.) The two men bond over grief, then tussle over possibilities: How far would they be willing to go to bring their daughters back to life?

Like "Battlestar Galactica," this series promises to be rich with allegory. The pilot raises the specter of racial tension - the Adamas are Taurons, a disrespected minority group from a planet that apparently has no flowers - and the consequences of religious extremism. More overtly, "Caprica" will be a cautionary tale about the risks of artificial intelligence. "Battlestar Galactica" closed with a surprisingly cute montage of dancing robots. But the robots here are uniformly creepy, from the clunky proto-Cylons to the fleet of short, complaint machines that work as servants in the Graystones' palatial home, and look like streamlined versions of R2-D2.

Everything here looks menacing, from the swirling tattoos on Tauron mobsters to the scenes within the crowded virtual nightclub, some of them likely too edgy to air on TV. The music comes from visionary composer Bear McCreary, who did much to create the rich atmosphere of "Battlestar." And while the technology is inventive, human emotion still drives the plot. The pilot speeds us through some plot points - mob machinations rush by in a blur, and feel a little tacked-on - but it also takes its time with slow, quiet scenes about teenagers' frustration and fathers' anguish.

Fear, frustration, anguish; we're back in "Battlestar" territory, and that feels good. And because we know precisely where this story is headed, there's no risk of a happy ending.

Joanna Weiss can be reached