Caprica Is New Again: Creator Talks Battlestar, A.I., Cheating Death

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Update: What did you think of the new episode of Caprica? Read our analysis, and weigh in on the debate, right here.

Given the love and passion out there among fans of Battlestar Galactica, I’ve been surprised by the muted response I’ve encountered when it’s come to BSG prequel Caprica. Maybe that’s because the original pilot – which re-aired in a slightly altered form last Friday night – has been around for nine months, via the web and DVD, meaning there wasn’t much reason for an early Caprica fan to tune in again. Until this week, that is. Or maybe it’s because the plot is a significant departure from BSG – yes, a prequel, but a prequel that exudes an entirely different tone and temperament.

Either way: While last weekend marked the debut of Caprica for the uninitiated, this weekend is the real test for the serious BSG fans who have decided to give the prequel a try. We’ll have a full review of this week’s episode, complete with a Caprica discussion thread, posted by Sunday, but for now let me say this: Following the pilot, Caprica taps into a level of emotional intimacy that may just catch some skeptics by surprise. (More at Techland: The 10 best fictional spaceships ever designed)

Last Friday’s pilot was sort of sweeping in the way it lined up and marched through all the various subjects and storylines.

Clearly the creators felt a need to keep reaching back, to pay homage to the BSG universe. But in the transition, from pilot to series, co-creators Ronald D. Moore and David Eick have done an impressive job of getting beyond the plot points and zeroing in on the emotional torment that will be unleashed by these central issues of science, religion, the racism that can simmer in an intergalactic societal melting pot, and the evolving reality of human interactions in a universe populated with sentient machines. In other words: They’ve proven willing to let loose on all those BSG links, willing instead to follow this story wherever the characters take them. It’s a gutsy move, to have a BSG prequel that strays at times from the BSG story arc, but I’ve now seen two additional Caprica episodes and I’m already excited about the third. Think of it as BSG for the non-BSG crowd. Some won’t be okay with such a thing, but I am. (More at Techland: The 10 best sci-fi characters of the decade)

We sat down with Eick himself to talk about the challenges of Caprica/BSG continuity, where the story might be headed next, and what near-death experiences shaped his views on using machines to achieve immortality.

In the lead-up to last Friday night’s premiere, I was surprised about all the various places where I started seeing Caprica ads – mainstream sites where Syfy is likely reaching a whole lot of people who have never even heard of Battlestar Galactica. You’re definitely targeting a whole new audience here…

There was always a sense that Battlestar had an inherent barrier to entry – even if it was just the title. It always kind of cut both ways, opening the floodgates on one end as to what we could do with the show creatively in the distant future, but then it always kept at bay a whole lot of people who might have enjoyed the show but who just won’t watch a space opera or a show called “Battlestar.” It was our intent with Caprica to broaden that base – to get out of that ghetto of space opera.

I’m now three episodes into the show, and I’m surprised by how closely these episodes snap together. Clearly this was an intention, to go deep into these characters and to interweave the episodes – how did you decide that this is the direction you wanted to go after BSG?

It was really an unusual beginning to the process. Both Ron and I had done self-contained series before,  Ron had done the Star Trek shows, and I had done the Hercules universe and it was in about the second season of BSG where we started to decide whether or not there was another story to be derived or hatched from this world that we were deeply immersed in. We knew we didn’t want to have some sort of continuation of the story, where you’d have some paraplegic commander, some speed freak, in command this time. We debated doing another thing entirely, a Buck Rogers show that would take place in contemporary society and have an artificial person coping with reality.

Then we started looking at the big picture of something we had been discussing, about how many of the BSG episodes were self-contained versus ongoing threads. By the end of the series, I think by the beginning of the fourth season, the episodes were all essentially serialized. And they were great. And so we started talking about moving forward with something that was unapologetically a serial sci-fi soap opera, that from the beginning would be designed to be that sort of animal – free from all the responsibilities or obligations to carry through the artifice of having a beginning, middle or an end.

What is it about being more serialized that frees you up?

Well, we both shared this common desire for a serialized series for this reason: When you’re telling a Law & Order story or a Matlock story, you have to service the entire plot in 43 minutes and change. So if your goal is to have a beginning, middle and an end, that’s going to take up most of your 43 minutes right there, getting all those elements out of the way. And that leaves you precious little time to actually delve into the lives. There’s no time to explore the passions that drive these characters or the things that haunt these characters. You can only get so deep as writers and storytellers, and it’s far more fun and satisfying to get more involved and to go deep and complicated. That’s when you get those chewy, nuggety, twisty-turny stories, not stories that end with “not guilty your honor,’ but can take on the events of the day…like all great sc-fi, to ask the bigger questions like: When is torture torture? … (continued on next page)

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So once you knew you wanted to go serialized, how did you decide that Caprica would almost follow the likes of A.I. or Blade Runner, in dealing primarily with these issues of artificial intelligence, and this blurring line between computers and humanity?

Well we wanted to go broader, beyond Battlestar, and we thought wouldn’t it be great if we went backwards and if we did a prequel that didn’t in any way require knowledge of Battlestar. If it had no baggage. And you could still trade on those mythological strands, but now explore and tell stories in a completely different way. What was so unorthodox is that we pitched this to the studio in general terms and they said, ‘Wow, that’s really interesting,’ and then Remi Aubuchon, this successful television writer, approached them separately with this idea that was dealing with artificial intelligence and the creation of a sentient life. And they said, ‘ Wow, you should call Ron and David and put your heads together, you’re all smoking out the same crack pipe.’ And we met with him and it was this rare occasion where we had the foresight to put this all together.

It’s interesting, though, how you use the notion of artificial intelligence here. It’s not just for the sake of something flashy or high-tech, but there’s a lot of emotional turmoil that’s unleashed by this…

Well, we had thought of Caprica as replacing what oil is in our time with artificial intelligence – this resource that changes everything. And what we actually had a lot of discussions about was Frankenstein, about this need of one man to create life at any expense. And in that story, you have a brilliant man who goes mad with the implications of what he’s done. Now imagine that taken to  whole new level of moral questioning, when you’re talking about the man’s own daughter. That level of moral questioning almost runs the risk of a potential break with your own sanity, when you face what you’re really trying to do, to bring back a replica of your daughter.

There’s actually a moment in the pilot when Daniel goes into the virtual world and can’t find Zoe and we snap back to reality and he pulls the device off his head and messes up his hair, and we linger there for just a second on that shot as he stares off into space. And I think that right there, we’re looking for just an instant at the face of a mad man. He’s no longer Bill Gates, he’s Dr. Frankenstein. And there’s a very subtle undercurrent there that flows right into the long history of great sci-fi stories of Asimov and Philip K. Dick of what does it mean to he human.

But right there, that was also a big focus of BSG

Yeah, we didn’t shy away from that issue  with BSG, and we are indeed playing with some of the same themes and subject matter. But we can do it in a different way here. BSG used Blackhawk Down as more of a stylistic point of reference that any sci-fi film. It was more about the realities of war. But here, we’re tapping directly into the history of sci-fi, and instead we’ve set all this in something that looks closer to pre-‘30s Munich, where the culture is trending towards the military and where technology is running rampant and there’s this sense of hedonism about the place. I think there’s a strong analogue between Caprica and all that, where things went from being so fun and upwardly-mobile to a place that was so dangerous and scary. There’s this sense of foreboding, but it’s all grounded very firmly in the sci-fi realm.

I was interested how quickly in the pilot you stepped away from Zoe’s virtual world…

Well, we’ll be going back there. We just wanted to keep this balance in check, between the drama in the real world and the drama in the virtual world. It’s definitely a tricky thing to do too, because by episode 5 there’s this whole other layer about a game within the virtual world, and the whole idea is that you can create a different persona and it almost becomes a world within the world, and there’s even the question of what happens if you get killed in that world, could you die then in the real world? The challenge, though, with this kind of storytelling is that the stakes because far more ambiguous and more intellectual in that context. So the stakes become more: You don’t want to get shot in the video game because then you could never play the game again. You have to readjust the goals. In the pilot, yes, we were careful about things, but we found a way to set up the stakes so that it becomes a major part of the series.

The pilot left us in a place where we were really debating: Is this right to do or not, to try and cheat death? And I think the episode people are going to see this Friday only complicates matters even further, as one parent seems unwilling to mourn the loss of his real daughter because he’s still chasing after the artificial avatar of his daughter. Have you ever experienced anything like this – have you wanted to cheat death? I’m interested if you have personal experiences here that are guiding the show…

I know when we were talking about the pilot that I started to remember that when I was 11 years old, I had just recently gotten a golden retriever named Ranger and we were doing some home improvements and the dog got loose and the truck backed up, and mom made the conscious decision to get another golden retriever and say, ‘Let’s press on like nothing ever happened.’ And I don’t know, if that was a good decision or bad decision, that I never had the chance to mourn the loss of this puppy I had barely known.

It’s like the monkey’s paw and you can either try to cheat it or confront it. But it does seem like eventually the circle of life comes home to roost, and none of us gets out so easy. That’s really part of Graystone’s story. He’s trying to have it all.

Come back Sunday for a full review of Caprica’s second episode, and a full discussion.

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