Capricology: Week 2: The Soul of a Robot

We’ll be talking about Caprica all season, with new installments every Tuesday. Check here for the complete list of discussions,  or sign up here for the RSS feed.

Here’s an exchange between Salman Hameed, Diane Winston and Henry Jenkins, on episode two.


Salman Hameed______________________

Fellow Capricologists,

Episode two was bit of a let-down for me. Perhaps it was to be expected after watching a finely crafted 2-hour pilot. May be it was because too many themes were crammed into an hour-long slot and not given enough to fully develop any one: the obsession of Daniel Graystone regarding his robotic creation, Amanda Graystone’s further discoveries about her daughter’s life, Zoe’s new life and her communication with Lacy, William Adama’s “education” by his uncle, the lifestyle of Clarice Willow—the High Priestess of Athena. All of this, but perhaps not enough Joseph Adama. C’mon, I could have lived without the drama of the High Priestess in this already busy episode.

That said I enjoyed the visual efforts to humanize a robot. So many times we have seen characters in films that are humans on the outside, but machines inside (for example, the Terminator series). You peel the skin only to find an emotionless machine. Often Sci-Fi (SyFy for the hip crowd) films add “eyes” to make it possible for us to empathize with a protagonist robot (for example, Wall-E). But Caprica uses Zoe interchangeably with the metallic robot to emphasize the humanity of an artificial intelligence (however much—since we know that Zoe is an avatar). We peel the metal of the robot and find an emotional Zoe underneath (or more accurately, an image of an avatar that is an identical copy of Zoe’s avatar). Furthermore, this robot has its own personal identity since its software (soul within the Caprican universe?) can only work with a particular body (though beware, souls can be transferred using the technology of Cold Souls). The robot, however, is also designed to kill—and thus it has another personality that is bound to clash with Zoe’s.

This bit about establishing identities within an artificial life form is fascinating, and I’m looking forward to how this multiple-personality disorder will be addressed in the coming episodes. At the same time, I think a sledgehammer was used where a scalpel was needed, when Lacy’s character, off the bat, called these multiple personalities Trinity (Zoe, Zoe’s avatar, and the robot body). Come on, don’t take short cuts. Develop the plot some more before diving straight into Trinity.

A quick comment about racial stereotypes: Last week, Anthea astutely pointed out (and lamented) that the suicide bomber in the pilot episode, Ben Starks, looked Middle Eastern. I wasn’t sure about it then. But now that we have met his mom, her features reinforces Anthea’s point. However, like BSG, I’m quite sure that this stereotype will be used to play with our expectations (along with, I hope, Tauron’s Italian-styled mafias). I just hope that Gemenon—the home to the Soldiers of the One—doesn’t turn out to be a barren, desert-like planet.

Despite coming down from the high of the pilot episode, the ending of episode 2 throws the future of Daniel Graystone, his contract to build more robots, and the balance of power in his relationship with Joseph Adama, all up in the air.

Until next week…


Diane Winston______________________

Who is Zoe? What is Zoe? Who or What was Zoe?

That’s the trinity (yes, Salman, it was a sledgehammer)—or, more accurately, the trifecta at the heart of “Rebirth,” this week’s episode of Caprica. Zoe’s identity was on many minds as we saw her conjured in the Cylon’s red-tinged memories, Ben Stark’s mementos, Lacy’s home movies, and Amanda’s final, desperate outburst. Even as the Zoe/Avatar/Cylon (ZAC) itself struggled with a new identity (“Do I look male?”) and old/new ways of being in the world (bite enemies, hug friends), she was seen for herself by one whose sight could be trusted. Did you catch the family dog snuggling contentedly at ZAC’s feet? Animals don’t lie; at least not on television. This was a come-to-Lassie moment.

What makes us human? And why do we assume that being human constitutes an intrinsic standard of humaneness, goodness, or authencity? Why in the last ten years, when the evidence of our collective inhumanity—from blowing up planes, to shooting civilians to using rape as a weapon of war—scars our days, has our nighttime entertainment focused on assaying forms of humanness. Was Tony Soprano human? Well maybe, but what about Al Swearengen? Okay, him too, but what about Dexter? Hmm—if he’s inside the tent, what about something that isn’t even a someone? We’ve seen humanoid Cylons, slinky terminators, and programmed “dolls” save our (“real”) butts more than once. Yet we’re ready to debate it all again as we watch a life form shapeshift (within its own consciousness and to our omnipotent gaze) from a clanging metal monster to a winsome teenager. (Did anyone have a problem with this? My 10-year-old deemed it “cool,” but my husband thought it lacked finesse. I liked it, but I’d vote for a new dress.)

Caprica’s landscape is littered with families that aren’t families. The gifted Graystones don’t communicate. Alone in their aerie, Daniel and Amanda jealously guard memories of their daughter. How could Daniel not mention the avatar? Why would Amanda hide her concerns about Zoe’s loyalties? Life is no easier in the Adams’ apartment where the adults pull in different directions. Grandma yearns for the old country; Joe for new beginnings. No wonder young Bill grows up to find community, purpose and identity in the military’s ranks. High Priestess Clarice Willow’s polygamous household looks like it might offer something better: big love and shared purpose. But the profusion of furtive glances and angry accusations give lie to what is heralded as an extended family. Even “found” families are treacherous. Zoe kept secrets from Lacy, Lacy deserts Zoe and Ben when they run away, Ben kills Zoe in his holy holocaust. I can only wonder what kind of family Zoe hoped to find on Gemenon.

I love the details: everything from Mrs. Stark’s frumpy hat to the Adama family candlesticks to the high-flying Buccaneer flag. We know who we are by our things. Daniel seems most relaxed with Serge, the family robot. Zoe can’t stop fingering her gold pin. A recyclable carton brings Lacy’s home life into focus.

The episode was slow, but I like it more with each passing day. Some of the shots were gorgeous, but I’m not sure about that opening montage. It felt like Six Feet Under meets The Addams Family.


Henry Jenkins______________________

I continue to be intrigued by Caprica’s ongoing exploration of media and the effects of mediation. I don’t just mean the central representations of artificial consciousness and virtual worlds, but also more mundane forms of media practices which show how information gets recorded and transmitted. This week, for example, we have some throwaway lines about Uncle Sam Adama’s tattoos, which we are told signal to others in his community who he is and what he has done. His “tats” are a kind of information appliance which has been inked directly onto his body—and indeed, this is often the way tattoos function in contemporary criminal societies—as markers of affiliation, as statements of fidelity, and as records of accomplishments. Is there any parallels to be drawn here between how memories are imprinted through Sam’s tatoos and the ways that Zoe’s memories are imprinted onto computer chips for example?

Or consider the moment when Amanda Graystone is watching Zoe’s home videos on her wall-size television, suggesting the persistence of “home movies” as a way of recovering personal memories in this hypermediated society. This moment reminded me of Strange Days, the Kathleen Bigelow cyberpunk film which has been shadowing my experience of Caprica. In that film, people are able to record all of the sense impressions of people’s lived experiences and transmit them to someone else. They record not only the visual aspects of our experiences but also what they “felt” like both in the tactile and emotional sense. Strange Days’ protagonist is locked in a loop of reliving and mourning the loss of a particularly intense romantic relationship and he is told by a friend that this kind of mediation damages the normal grieving process because mourning requires an act of forgetting and media restores access to the beloved with fresh intensity, reinscribing it in our memories. So, here, we are watching the mother in the process of refusing to let go of her daughter, just as the father has signaled his desire to forget.

Yet, we need to recognize that the mother looks upon these recorded images with a particular kind of gaze—she’s still trapped inside her own perception of who the daughter was, a perception which is challenged both by the police investigator and by the mother of the daughter’s previously unknown boyfriend. The other mother brings Amanda a photograph of Zoe and her son which forces her to confront another perspective on the daughter’s life, despite her not totally convincing earlier denials that the Zoe was even old enough to have a boyfriend. We do not know yet how this shift in her perception of the recorded images—both the videos and the still photographs—impacted her very public acceptance of the idea that her daughter was a terrorist, another claim about the meaning of Zoe’s life that the mother has previously rejected. I still don’t understand what motivated Amanda’s speech at the rally, a speech apt to have devastating impact on her family and on her husband’s professional life as someone who has government contracts, and I’m not sure that what we saw in the episode fully prepared us for such an abrupt shift in her perceptions and actions.

The episode’s opening shots already hint at the relationship between media, memory, and self-perception as we get flickering glimpses of multiple consciousnesses being reborn in the new mechanical body, as we burst from static into images which are memories of Zoe’s life, of the virtual world her avatar inhabits, and even the memories of the robot as a war machine blasting away in the laboratory. Throughout the episode, it is suggested that these three kinds of memories coexist uneasily within this same body. Interestingly, Zoe sees herself as if she still occupied her old flesh even as the outside observer sees her as all tech. Her father doesn’t seem to care enough to even probe more deeply whether the machine carries any of his daughter’s memories, having pushed so hard last week to try to keep them alive. This inability to see the human memories and consciousness inside the machine body prefigures the human prejudice against the “toasters,” the Cylon war against humanity, and the new mutual understanding reached between at least some humans and Cylons over the course of Battlestar Galactica.

“Rebirth” shows the capacity of science fiction as a genre to challenge easy assumptions about the connections between beliefs, actions, and identities. For example, consider the tossed-off line which implies that Sam Adama has openly experienced same-sex desires. I am trying hard here not to label the nature of these desires, because the episode has not yet told us enough to know what if any ways he acted on these desires or how these desires and actions might connect with his identity (as understood by him or the world around him). Historically, as writers like David Halperin (100 Years of Homosexuality) have shown us, there are many different ways that these ideas have been configured in relation to each other with our current categories of “homosexuality” being a relatively recent discursive formation. If we read that statement in a contemporary drama about criminals, we might read it in relation to the sexual identities which emerge within prisons, where it is accepted that having a same-sex relationship may or may not speak to who you are in the outside world. But in other cultural contexts, the intense brotherhood which exist between gangsters or warriors lead to intense homosocial and homoerotic desires which become part of the norms of those communities. I have the feeling we will learn more about this before the series is over. Similarly, the introduction of Clarice Willow’s extended family challenges our assumptions about the relationship between monotheism and monogamy, depicting a teacher/spiritual leader who lives in a polygamous family structure and who uses drugs. We can not yet make many assumptions about how wide spread or normative either practice is in this world, since the series is asking us to suspend stereotypes we might use to make sense of our own everyday realities.

One last theme struck me as interesting in this episode: the ways victims of terrorism are expected to be participate in public rites of mourning, which may or may not align comfortably with their private experience of grief. This is very much an issue of our time. Check out Alissa Torres’ fascinating graphic novel, American Widow, which describes her experiences as the partner of a man who is killed in the collapse of the twin towers, and who struggles with the various institutional forces which seek to appraise and evaluate her experiences of grief, judging whether she has acted appropriately in response to her lover’s loss. Some seek to mobilize their victimhood as a resource for political action, while others seek to escape from the public view to suffer in silence and heal in private. Again and again, the series uses the “bond” which exists between the families who experienced loss around the train explosion as a means of connecting these characters together and shaping their actions.