This weekend, Syfy premiered Caprica, their new spinoff/prequel to (the incredible, fascinating, philosophical, mythological, much-missed) Battlestar Galactica. While Battlestar was a space opera, focusing on the last remnants of humanity and their search for a new home, Caprica rewinds several decades in the past, a time before Cylons were independently intelligent and looked like blonde Canadian super models.
As with most spinoffs, Caprica starts off burdened by its predecessor, and it’s difficult to separate the experience of this first episode from its resonances with what we already know about the Battlestar universe. Visual and verbal cues constantly recall the earlier show. The robots that guard buildings have scanning red eyes, characters swear by shouting “Gods!” and “frak,” and we even get a very young William Adama, tying us to the story’s known future. Also like Battlestar, Caprica instantly tackles contemporary problems, especially focusing on terrorism, religious extremism, and virtual worlds.
It’s a double-edged sword. Every adaptation must cope with its original, bringing something new without completely erasing whatever was attractive enough to warrant an adaptation in the first place. Sequels and prequels have it a little easier – they can assume the original’s thematic and atmospheric content without needing to tell the same story, which gives the writers room for more experimentation and development. Still, the pleasure and frustration of returning to a fiction that is both familiar and new is as problematic for Caprica as it is any adaptation.
Someone grunts “frak” under his breath and you thrill with recognition, but even the basic move from militaristic space ships to planet-based, urban settings changes the whole tone. I’m hoping this will shift a little as the series develops out of this first episode, but the fact that many of the main characters are teenagers is surprisingly disorienting. It’s also an essentially different type of story – where Battlestar started from a very science fiction, distant-future foundation and then become something much more recognizable, Caprica begins in a place very close to our reality. Virtual worlds and artificial intelligences are developing but nascent technologies. (Kids these days, they get into all sorts of crazy technology.) Religion and race are powerful political entities, but they get shushed out of polite conversation.
Part of what made Battlestar Galactica so remarkable is that it was an adaptation itself, and it was forced to take on the cornball, pulp science fiction of its original. Battlestar dealt with the silliness head on by reinterpreting the premise with deep seriousness and completely rethinking the show’s themes, storylines, and dramatic possibilities. I certainly want Caprica to succeed, but it has yet to fully articulate itself outside the shadow of its original, and its ratings indicate its appeal as a prequel isn’t an obvious sell. If it’s going to work, Caprica needs to have moments where the audience forgets it’s watching a prequel to Battlestar and accepts it as a show for its own sake. I really want this show to work, but so far all I see is the impending robot apocalypse. C’mon, Caprica. Make me forget.