Capricology: Television, Tech, and the Sacred

Religion. Robots. Immigration. Race.

The first episode of Caprica, the new Battlestar Gallactica (BSG) spinoff series, takes science and religion, layers on family drama in full Greek-tragic mode, and throws in a dose of dystopic anthropology. And where better to engage all of these themes than in televised science fiction? Margaret Atwood once wrote that “within the frequently messy sandbox of sci-fi fantasy, some of the most accomplished and suggestive intellectual play of the last century has taken place.” In that spirit, we’ve convened a club of media and religion experts (Diane Winston, Henry Jenkins, Salman Hameed, and Anthea Butler) to take the pulse of the show every week, and to share their readings with us. 

So Say We All.

[Warning: Spoilers, spoilers, and more spoilers, follow. If you haven’t yet, you can watch the full-length first episode here.]

See here for the full list of discussions so far, or sign up here for the RSS feed.

 

Diane Winston ___________________________

Comrades, Capricsters, Y’all (or simply Anthea, Henry and Salman):

If there had just been the BSG miniseriesDayeinu

If there had been the miniseries and four seasons of BSGDayeinu

If there had been the miniseries, the four seasons, and the Caprica pilot – Dayeinu

But The Caprican? At the very moment when journalists wonder what and if they have a future, Ron Moore reveals we have a very deep past (Did you catch the New York Times’ bungling of the timeline?) Since none of you, as I do, teach journalism, this may seem incidental—but it goes to the heart of what made BSG a knockout series and may do the same for Caprica: the shows’ embedded humanism.

Whereas most TV dramas are good guys versus bad guys, BSG and Caprica probe the passions that enliven us. The pull of temptation, the cost of obsession, the slog to redemption (yes, yes, and yes) and then the biggest question of all: Do you need to be a carbon-based life form to own and feel these? Teetering between “must-see TV” and bloated soap opera, BSG worked because the melodrama was grounded in the quotidian: model ships, dog tags, and toothbrushes. Now with all the imaginable artifacts that could draw us into Caprica’s odd collision of machines, mobsters, and monotheists, a newspaper—with ball scores, stock prices, and local weather makes it all so mundane, masking (as our own newspapers tend to do) the real stakes behind the stories.

So, besides reading The Caprican, here’s what I look forward to as the season unfolds:

The pull of temptation: How far will Daniel Graystone go to see his daughter again? Watching Eric Stolz is so enjoyable that I almost missed his small steps into monomania. But when he sanctioned a mob hit to obtain the technology that could restore Zoe to the “real” world, the truth of his fall was undeniable. What’s Graystone’s real temptation? It’s too early to tell whether it’s scientific hubris, parental love, or the intrinsic entitlement of a super-rich genius. But the impact of Graystone’s fall on his wife, daughter, and society is the stuff of myth.

The cost of obsession: Ben Starks’ obsession with the one true God caused the death of hundreds. If Clarice Willow’s veiled glances reflect the same commitment we can expect lots of righteous appeals for a rectitudinous monotheism in place of a dithering polytheism. But at what cost? The slinky headmistress is less concerned with the morality of Ben’s suicide bombing than the timing. I’d vote for less talk and more action on this score. I’m all for the enactment of religious extremism, but the debating seems heavy-handed.

The slog to redemption: Hello Joseph Adams. Esai Morales’ portrayal of a man torn between doing right and doing well is a lot closer to where most of us live than Eric Stolz’s law-unto-himself role. Adams feels stolid, close to the ground yet caught between Tauron tradition and Caprican possibility. Disgusted by Graystone’s bid to cheat death, he reaffirms his commitment to his son. Where will that lead? On BSG, Adama spoke of his father’s law practice with respect and reverence. That’s not what Adams was about this week.

We loved BSG because in the post-9/11 moment, it captured our consternation and confusion. Why do they hate us? Can we justify torture? What makes us human? When can we stop fighting? Moreover, it lodged these questions in the space between human passion and species survival, mediating the religious quest for meaning with the political will to win.

Caprica, going back to how this came to be, meets us in the present. This is what we face, too: religious extremism, economic inequality, anti-immigrant fervor, a military increasingly dependent upon drones, the lure of the virtual worlds, and the comfort of slick surfaces. Like BSG, Caprica asks, “What makes us human?” But this time, the answers seem a lot closer to home.

-DW 1/24/10

 

Henry Jenkins ___________________________

The opening sequences of Caprica already pose some interesting questions from my point of view. What constitutes temptation and transgression on Caprica? The virtual world is depicted as a kind of carnival space where one is permitted to act out upon one’s inner fantasies and desires, to experiment with identities, to test social boundaries and personal limits, because what goes on there isn’t “real.” Throughout the episode, the space is shown to be one where violence and sexuality are explored in all of their dimensions—including, say, fantasies of human sacrifice which are not that common in virtual worlds on this planet, but reflect the particular ways that Caprica’s religious conflicts have deformed the imagination of their children.

The scene where Zoe is caught tapping into the virtual world hidden away in a bathroom clearly connect this space with masturbation: it is obscene, off-scene, hidden from view, a source of shame, even though it is also something most teens do at one time or another. We get hints that teens have constructed this space for themselves, exploiting technologies that adults have created for their own pornographic entertainment, and thus, it acts as an odd mirror of the adult world as it is imagined by the teens; at once, what they anticipate adults desire and fantasize about and what adults prohibit and sanction against. This association of the carnival world with adolescence hints at this as a kind of rite of passage—a time betwixt and between childhood and full adult responsibilities. Much like game worlds, it occurs within a space where actions have been stripped of real-world consequences, though from the first, we discover that Zoe has discovered ways to make what happens in this space count: she’s turned to it as a space of religious conversion and political activism.

One of the recurring images in this virtual world is the sight of two women kissing, perhaps reflecting the perceived discomfort of a contemporary Tauran spectator, yet oddly situated in the world of Caprica since we have certainly seen that homosexuality is accepted in a pretty matter-of-fact way in the world depicted in Battlestar Galactica. Did the values change so dramatically over the years between the two series? Did they shift as Caprica came into contact with other worlds? In response to the destruction the Cylons brought about? Or do the two series have different conceptions about the range of what constitutes normal human sexuality? Or does this image simply seem shocking to adolescence in this culture?

Another element which fascinated me in the pilot episodes were the black gloves which the Adams/Adama family wears as a marker of their mourning and loss. This came to mind because I had a conversation recently with a new convert to Battlestar Galactica who was rattling through the minority characters on the series and didn’t mention Admiral Adama. When I pointed out that he was marked as Chicano (at least through the casting of Edward James Olmos) in the part, there was a moment of honest surprise. Despite Olmos’ history as an actor and director who has consistently called attention to the Chicano experience through his work, his ethnicity is scarcely noted in the series and indeed, seems even more tenuous when we take the family to the next generation and look at Apollo, who follows in his grandfather’s footsteps to become a lawyer, but comes across as totally white bread in the context of the series.

Yet, the ethnicity of the Adama family is marked over and over again in the course of the Caprica pilot. They are “dirt eaters,” who escaped from harsh positions on their home world, and are struggling to gain acceptance in Caprica. They struggle with the taint of ties with organized crime and with the distrust of their new government. It is a classic immigrant story, made all the more poignant by the contrast between the two brothers: one tattooed in ways which make it impossible for him to deny his own identity, while the other seeks to mask his identity, having adopted an assimilating name and demeanor. He refuses his mother-in-law’s suggestion that he take his son back to the world they came from, yet he’s continuing to maintain the wearing of the glove; which is seen here as at once a religious and a cultural practice. It has lost much of its religious significance for him. He has trouble explaining what it means or why he does it. It marks him and his son off from others around them as different. Yet he holds steadfastly to this practice. Will the series further explore the ways this family moves from the periphery to the center of Caprican culture?

So many science-fiction stories depicted the act of producing artificial life as an act of creation: the desire to create a “new Adam” in our own image. And Zoe’s act of creating her avatar and imprinting it with her own memory comes close to that thematic. Much as her God, we are told, has a higher purpose for her, she has created this avatar to serve a higher purpose for her. It’s striking here that the default seems to be to produce an avatar which looks as much as possible like us, while in our world, we know people have complex relations with their avatar, somethings seeking photorealism, sometimes seeking to amplify their favorite aspects of themselves, and sometimes becoming someone profoundly different from who they are in everyday life. Yet here, creating an avatar is replicating oneself—perhaps because it intensifies the other thematic around creating virtual life here: the act of bringing someone back from the dead. Here, it is not so much an act of creation as re-creation. This is also a theme in science fiction (think about A.I. and Astroboy as two examples) where a sense of profound loss—in all three cases, that of the father of a dead child—leads them to technological breakthroughs and the creation of alternative life forms.

I was most taken though by the plight of Adama’s daughter, who is brought back from the dead not through an act of self-creation but against her will; who is inserted into an empty world, a purgatory space, which she doesn’t recognize and understand, and is abandoned there, treated as an unnatural abomination, as a monster, by her own father and forgotten by the man who created her. (Shades of Frankenstein, but also some suggestions here of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the series Jane Espenson worked for before Caprica, where Buffy’s friends bring her back from the dead, like Lazarus, and she finds herself experiencing deep pain and trauma at being ripped from paradise and plunged back into our imperfect world. In fact, Espenson wrote “After Life,” a key episode in the exploration of this theme in Buffy. I hope the series will explore more fully what happens to this girl and how her experiences differ from Zoe’s.)

Battlestar Galactica feels much more like a science-fiction series than this one (if only because it follows the space-opera conventions so fully), even as it drew so much inspiration from our own culture. Caprica by contrast creates a world which looks and feels very much like our present society. Did anyone notice the battered microwave oven in the Adama kitchen which looks, if anything, out of date even today? They have stripped away the science fiction trappings as much as possible to give this story greater immediacy. The producers have talked about appealing to folks who don’t normally like sci-fi. But what that does is make the few explicitly science-fiction elements stand out that much more: the recurring focus on new media (from the virtual world to the digital paper), A.I./robotics, and alternative religious/cultural institutions.

It is striking that the series in many ways is treating polytheism as the norm in the culture while depicting monotheism as the radical other. It’s a safe bet that more monotheists are watching the series than polytheists. So, there is a certain kind of estrangement which must take place when the film consistently links monotheism with radical practices and even terrorism. In the past, we’ve seen the Cylons consistently depicted as monotheistic, but the series worked over time to break down the walls between man and machine, suggesting common identities, experiences, emotions, beliefs, and desires between them because they are so implicated in each other’s histories.

Lots more to say but it will have to wait until next time.

-HJ 1/24/10

 

Anthea Butler ___________________________

I can exhale. Ron Moore & Co. are back in my life to give my Friday nights meaning! With the premier of Caprica (which I must admit I paid to watch back in May ’09) I can continue to bond not with humanity, but with the Cylons. Yeah, I know, I am a geek.

What I believe will be compelling about the backstory of how the Cylons came to be is the emphasis on morals, ethics, ethnicity, and the search for meaning. Caprica, a society of privilege and wealth, obviously has problems. Rich white kids from Caprica like Zoe hate their accomplished selfish parents, while nice ethnic middle-class families from Tauron have obedient children trying to assimilate into the broader culture. Stereotypes blow into oblivion however, when a terrorist bombing by Zoe’s handsome young friend Ben—anxious, but looking very Middle Eastern in appearance—blows the train Zoe and Tamara are riding on, and both girls “die” in the crash.

Although I am a bit perturbed by the racial stereotyping (damn it, can’t a bomber just be other than Middle Eastern? Swedish, maybe?) What I believe is Caprica’s genius is to use the stereotypes and add another type of hybrid life form into the mix.

Daniel Greystone’s nefarious capture of his daughter’s essence in her “second life” world and downloading it to the Cylon is sick and brilliant. Enlisting Tamara’s father, Joseph Adama (yes, Commander Adama’s father) to steal the metacognitive processes part he needs to complete the transfer of Zoe’s personality into his Cylon prototype, he implicates his own family in the future destruction of humanity.

Zoe’s life is like that web site FMylife, instead on Caprica, it’s frak my life. Imagine: you’re a teenager thinking about blowing up a virtual reality club, your parents find out you are in trouble at school and ground you. In the process of running away from home you “die”. Your dad pretends to love your virtual reality self, but instead, captures you and sticks you into a giant metal body. That’s a new one in the annals of grounding. Instead of wearing cute uniforms to school, Zoe is stuck in a grown-up war game, shooting at robots and trying to come to terms with an new roving red eye, and metal fingers no manicure could ever soften. Yeah. Sounds like Dr. Spock childrearing 101 to me. Nothing like a sick helicopter parent.

The real genius of Caprica will be the weekly mind game Ron Moore and his crew are going to play with us about when life begins, and ends. Does life continue after physical “death,” and if life is not in a human body, is it really “human” after all? How does a new religious movement gain followers? What are the moral and ethical implications of a society that has lost its moral center and stokes its fear by creating the ultimate “protection force” that will eventually obliterate its creators? Most importantly, what does it mean to have a body? And how do you use it?

These questions, I believe, will be uppermost in my mind as I watch the rest of the season. I have to admit though, what was most compelling to me was not the “affluence porn” that New York Magazine referred to in their recap of the show, but Club V itself. The virtual reality club where you could literally “get your freak on” was the most interesting part of the show for me. Sex rooms, fight clubs, killing games and human sacrifice suggest to me that Moore and the writers are interested, given the end of Battlestar Galactica, in positioning humanity as “less than” evolved in a polytheistic world of hedonism and wealth—and that “monotheism” provides the way to enlightenment, discipline, and a higher evolutionary level.

I agree with Diane that the question of “what does it mean to be human” is core to BSG and Caprica. I still can’t help but wonder though, is being a part Cylon/part human better? Or is pure machine the epitome of creation? Hopefully, Caprica will help to answer some of those questions this season.  

-AB 1/25/10

 

Salman Hameed___________________________

The pilot of Caprica brought about the same level of messiness (and a definite promise of more) that made Battlestar Galactica such a captivating series. Whereas BSG dealt with the survival of humanity and the instincts that make us do good and bad, Caprica delves into the question of what makes us human in the first place. Here are two things (among many) that captured my attention in the pilot and I’m looking forward to how they are dealt with in the series:

a) Personhood: At a time when we are seeing the growing effectiveness of prosthetic limbs and artificial organs, it is fascinating to explore the limits (if any) of these body part replacements. At what point do we say that this is a different “person” than the original? Should we draw the line at the brain (a la the jar heads in Futurama)? Should it even matter? Perhaps the best twist in the pilot was the fact that Zoe’s virtual creation (not her own avatar, but a copy of her avatar) knows that she has all the memories and life-experiences of her creator, and yet, that she is different. She is now also aware that her “real-world” creator is dead, and she is on her own. Will the knowledge of her creator’s death drive her “personality” in a particular direction? This self-awareness of a virtual creation also reminded me of issues raised in Solaris (also the Soderbergh version) and in last year’s fantastic Moon.

b) Afterlife: A belief in some sort of afterlife is central to many religions and it may have been pivotal in the origins of religions in the first place. How will this play out on Caprica, where the boundaries between what is alive and what is not are already getting quite blurry? Does it shape monotheism or polytheism in a particular direction? In addition to all this, we have the monomania (as Diane calls it) of Daniel Greystone that is leading him to create his own version of life-after-death—and the cost that humans will eventually end up paying 58 years later. As Henry pointed out with a comparison with Buffy, the issue of life after death is a fertile area of exploration for this series, alongside the psyche of suicide bombers.

More to say later. In the mean time, Fridays are locked for Caprica.  

-SH 1/25/10

dianewin@usc.edu'

Diane Winston is RD's director. She holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at USC's Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, and has worked as a reporter for several of the nation’s leading newspapers, including the Baltimore Sun, Dallas Times Herald and The News and Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is the author of Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army (1999) and co-editor of Faith in the Market: Religion and the Rise of Urban Commercial Culture (2002).