Extra-Terrestrial Kitsch: Capricology #4

Our favorite show of the current TV season takes its time to draw out themes of artificial life, the soul, the perils of monotheism, terrorism… and interplanetary futuristic souvenir-shopping.

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Henry Jenkins ___________________________

Jane Espenson, who is the head writer on Caprica, wrote one of my all-time favorite episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer—“Gingerbread,” which my son and I discussed in an essay published in my book, Fans, Bloggers and Gamers. Basically, “Gingerbread” depicted the cultural logic of moral panic—how the desire of parents to “protect” their children at “all costs,” becomes increasingly more destructive.

A key sequence in “Gingerbread” centered on a locker search, where our sympathies were clearly aligned with the students, as normal aspects of youth culture are looked at through a magnifying class and distorted into symptoms of various pathologies. We see surprisingly few representations of mass locker searches or other abuses of power by American schools on television, so the moment in this week’s episode involving the locker search stood out to me. (It especially stood out given the news coverage this weekend of the Pennsylvania school which put spyware on computers issued to their students and which snooped on them outside school, without parental permission.)

While “Gingerbread” in important ways prefigured the culture’s response to the Columbine shootings, this film reflects the ways that the legal system has sometimes used the war on terror (or for that matter, the war on drugs) as a pretext for encroaching on civil liberties. (In truth, the series has told us very little about what Capricans see as the limits of appropriate policing authority, except for Amanda’s outrage over their manhandling of her daughter’s stuff; but then, the show wasn’t designed to be watched by Capricans.) Just as “Gingerbread” explored what adults understood and misunderstood in youth culture (seeing “Slayers” as simply another kind of “monster” that threatened Sunnyvale’s youth), this week’s episode, “Grave Dancing,” shows the ways that the adult world tries to make sense of Caprican young people’s digital practices, no doubt in the process confusing causes and symptoms.

Caprica seems to walk a thin line between trying to deal with the alienness of its various cultures in a matter-of-fact way—dropping casual references to the legalization of drugs, the corporate ownership of the Internet, the Tauron’s moral obligation to seek revenge, or the sleeping and sexual habits of polyamorous couples—and touching on hot button issues which are very much of our time and place, such as the recurring exploration of how societies respond to the persistent threat of terrorism, the tendency to blame social problems on teens’ relations to new technology and popular culture, or the media strategies by which public figures seek to extract themselves from scandals (hard to watch those scenes without comparing them with Tiger Woods’ press conference this week).

The first invites us to read science fiction as speculative fiction—asking what if questions, considering alternative social norms and cultural practices, and imagining how these differences would impact other aspects of our everyday lives. The second invites us to read science fiction as allegory—with the characters and situations reflecting more or less directly our culture and its values. The first teaches us what it would be like to live in another world while the second can teach us something about what it is like to live in our own. The temptation is to overstate one side or the other: to go for radical difference which is not recognizable to a contemporary Terran viewer or to go for such clear match-ups between characters and their real world referents that it becomes a kind of agit-prop. So far, Caprica is walking that line pretty well.

My favorite background detail this week was the bobble-headed bull which sits on the dashboard of Uncle Sam’s car—which seems like such a banal marker of cultural identity compared to the mystique being created week by week around his tattoos. Here, I am reminded of Erica Rand’s The Ellis Island Snow Globe, which describes the commodification of history of immigration to the United States.


Diane Winston ___________________________

Henry: I saw that bobble-headed bull too. I saw it and stared, surprised (disappointed? relieved?) that Capricans liked kitsch as much as 21st-century earthlings do. Watching “Gravedancing,” I also wondered why so many Capricans smoke. Is one of the twelve colonies a tobacco plantation? What about the health risks? (Or do they puff on something different than we do?) And when can we see the cigarette packaging? Caprica must have its own Mad Men designing all those great looking signs, ads, and interiors.

Packaging plays out as a theme throughout the episode. No one is what she seems to be. There’s a gleaming Cylon that is also a beautiful young girl, a gray-haired granny with the heart of a stone-cold killer, and a tattooed gangster who is more psychologically astute than his lawyer brother. And then there are the Graystones. I loved when Amanda stormed onto Baxter’s set as Fierce Mama. Blonde curls aquiver, she sought to protect the reputation of the daughter whom she herself outed as a terrorist. Now, says Mama, Zoe was just a typical angry teenager. And Daniel, who I previously pegged as a monomaniac, morphed into a socially conscious businessman. Barely blinking, he swears off profits from virtual world licensing and holobands. Faced with bankrupting his company, he’s going to need those Cylon warriors more than ever.

After several slam-bang shows, “Gravedancing” felt more like a placeholder than a bold move forward. Yet it deepened my understanding of several secondary characters. I was relieved to see Lacy relaxed and showing some competency (who knew she could repair a bike better than a boy), and I felt equivocal about Duram, whom I previously liked, exhibiting a nasty political streak. It was shocking to see Sister Clarice lolling in the family bed (talk about misleading packaging; her clothes had me convinced she was a virgin priestess). And, as many others have noted, it was revelatory to watch Granny cutting up chicken.

We’ve touched on Caprica’s mash-up of sci-fi and soap opera—which speaks to Henry’s observations about worlds we can learn from versus the world we live in—but I like that about the series. I like being disoriented by the bobble-headed bull, first because it comes from my world and then because it means something different on Caprica. I felt similarly when Baxter chided the “destructo God” in the sky. The distance/no-distance between Caprica’s God and our own gave me pause.


Anthea Butler _________________________

This week, the most titillation I received from Caprica was the foursome at Sister’s house waking up in the morning and flipping over to switch to other partners! That was my last moment of fun, unfortunately. I’m tempted to quote a phrase from BSG: “Everything has happened before and will happen again.” Why? Because I’ve have seen this show in composites of other shows. I am not quite sure about the “film noir” feel of Caprica. It’s a cross between a 1930s pre-code movie and Metropolis. The cops, the smoking, the old-fashioned cars; I thought Caprica was supposed to be technologically savvy, not a cross between the future and the past. What does this say about its inhabitants—and the show’s creator?

I agree with Diane, this week seems to be a placeholder for something to come, but in the process, I did not learn much. To be fair though, this week’s plot revolved around moral themes: love, unforgiveness, and forgiveness. What struck me as especially poignant was the scene with Zoe and her “admirer” having a dance together. The idea of her seeing herself as lithe and rhythmic, and the juxtaposition of the Robot doing moves that looked a bit like Tai Chi were funny and touching. The scene for me evoked the unsettledness of seeing Zoe as a tripartite being, one that is very engaging as a human, but as a robot, unwieldy and foreign.

I can’t count on the Adamas to alleviate me of the pain that is Amanda Greystone either. Granny seems to be the only true Tauron in the bunch, remarking to Joseph that “I could kill her (Amanda) with my bare hands and sleep well tonight.” The scene with her wielding the meat cleaver, was, well, frightening to say the least. She reminds me of Olivia on the Sopranos—a conniving mother who only pretends to be nice. I cannot wait for her to start showing her darker side.

So here’s what my takeaway is for the show this week, my fellow bloggers. Women and people of ethnic descent on Caprica are the real keepers of Religion. Whether it’s Sister, the Adamas, or Zoe, females and persons of color know how to handle “that religion thing.” White men like Daniel Greystone do technology, and when they can’t articulate a moral code, they just throw money at “do-gooding,” like Daniel’s promise to give away holoband profits and start a foundation. Yes, these are stereotypes, but are the stereotypes in service of helping the story along? So far, I am not certain. But if we don’t see more from the Soldiers of the One soon, or Zoe doesn’t make it to Gemenon, my gnat-like attention span will begin to wane, and I will have to watch BSG from the beginning again!