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Caprica January 25, 2010

Posted by ce9999 in Caprica.
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(After much delay, I am finally finished with this…)

In 2003, the Battlestar Galactica miniseries told us “The Cylons were created by man,” and proceeded to delight us over the next several years with a story of war, flight, despair, reconciliation, and rebirth, not only for the human species, but for the Cylons as well. Caprica takes us back to the point of that initial statement, but with a different approach in mind. Yes, the Cylons were created by man, but how did it happen? And why?

One of the things that made the re-visioned Battlestar Galactica series so excellent was that it persistently addressed the question: What does it mean to be human? This is a fundamental philosophical question in science fiction, and in Battlestar Galactica, it’s stated in more than one way. “What kind of people are you?” or “Are you alive?” are questions posed, at different times, by different characters, both clearly pertaining to the core question. In context, the latter is sort of a rephrasing of Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum,” only in question form (the questionee is definitely not being asked whether he is alive in a crude biological sense), and is the very first line uttered in the entire series. The core question is also presented in more extended ways, the first being William Adama’s speech in the miniseries: “When we fought the Cylons, we did it to save ourselves from extinction. But we never answered the question ‘Why?’ Why are we as a people worth saving?” The humans of the colonies fought to save themselves because humans are animals, and that’s what animals always do. Animals always fight to survive. But what about as people? Shouldn’t there be something more? His speech actually provides a good philosophical summation of the series, in less than a minute of screen time.

The question of fundamental human meaning is also directly related to a more practical scientific matter, namely the problem of strong artificial intelligence. The AI of the Cylons is an ideal story mechanism for exploring this relationship. In real life, it is unclear whether we need to truly understand what it means to be human in order to create strong AI, but the position taken by the Battlestar Galactica series is that no, it is not necessary for that understanding to exist beforehand, but on the other hand, humans damn well better start thinking about it soon thereafter, or there’s going to be trouble.

Caprica will also be addressing this, but starting from the beginning of the story, rather than the end. If Battlestar Galactica was the epilogue of the Story of Human and Machine, then Caprica will be Book One. As in the Battlestar Galactica miniseries, there is one key scene which lays it all out: In Galactica, it was William Adama’s speech, in Caprica it is an argument between Joseph Adama (Esai Morales)and Daniel Greystone (played by a longtime favorite actor of mine, Eric Stoltz). Does a perfect, fully intelligent, virtual copy of a human being qualify as a person in its own right? Greystone and Adama fundamentally disagree on this question.

The story of how this copy comes into being begins with two key elements already place. Daniel Greystone, already mentioned, is a Bill Gates type of figure, having made a fortune five years previously from the introduction of a photorealistic, full-immersion virtual reality technology. More currently, he’s working on a very thorny robotics problem for the Caprican military. He’s a computer genius. His teenage daughter Zoe (Alessandra Torresani), turns out to be an even greater genius than her father. She has taken her father’s VR tech and combined it with her own innovations to come up with strong AI itself, the elusive holy grail of artificial intelligence research. The specific strong AI in question is a duplicate of herself.  Rather than create a crude but visually exact avatar of herself, like all the other Caprican teenagers, Zoe has created a copy who thinks and feels, and who has her own, independent motivations. Virtual-reality-Zoe is a fully fledged person, even if her objective form is nothing more than trillions of binary digits flitting back and forth across a computer bus.

The real Zoe is killed early in the story, along with Adama’s daughter Tamara (Genevieve Buechner). This places VR-Zoe much further into the realm of self-determination, with her creator not there to guide her anymore.  It also leaves her as the primary remnant of real-Zoe for father Daniel Greystone to find. Naturally, Greystone is completely bowled over, not just because she is an exact copy of his daughter, but because he knows full well what a startling theoretical breakthrough she represents.

The script actually takes an interesting approach to that aspect of her, hypothesizing that all we are as individuals can be recreated through a meticulous compilation of the traces we have left as we move through the world—emails to friends and family, school transcripts, medical and public records, vital statistics, video rental preferences, and so on. Realistically, I am not sure how to react to that. It seems grossly oversimplistic, except that it might really be almost that simple. Since the dawn of humanity, the self has been placed in the realm of the mystical, but this originally happened because people started thinking about it at a time when they had no hope of finding a better answer. Once established as a core tenant of early religions, the idea has been passed down in that same basic form ever since, complete with an aura of unknowable mystery. It seems to be a virtually universal belief, too—is there any religion that doesn’t postulate some type of life after death? Or some variation of “the ghost in the machine,” an invisible, unknowable spark that makes us people and separates us from mere animals?  But what if “the self” turns out to be something basically simple, that we’ve overlooked for thousands of years because we’ve only recently begun to understand how the brain really works? This appears to be the position taken by the writers of Caprica, although I have to wonder if they go that route more as a matter of script simplicity than due to actually believing it. The previous series took a quite spiritual viewpoint from start to finish, so I’d be pretty surprised if Caprica did a complete about-face in that regard.

Greystone, being a genius, immediately realizes the applicability of his daughter’s invention to his own research. He proceeds to capture VR-Zoe and plug her into his malfunctioning robot prototype, in a move strongly reminiscent of his almost-namesake, Dr. Frankenstein. As in that other story, something goes wrong and it appears that VR-Zoe has been erased. Greystone eventually proceeds with his original project, though, and thanks to a very special stolen computer chip, his prototype now becomes the fulfillment of the wildest dreams of his military contract partners. The very first Cylon has been born.  Unknown to him, however, Zoe is still there, stuck inside the Cylon prototype. What is she going to do? That’s where the story ends, in a clear tease to us Galactica fans, who know full well how much havoc that one human spark will wreak, decades down the line.

Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that. The Adama family begins as innocent bystanders, fellow victims of the bombing which kills Zoe. Joseph Adama, father of the speech-giving William Adama character in Battlestar Galactica, just happens to meet Daniel Greystone shortly after their daughters’ deaths.  Sharing their grief together, they become fast friends. But Adama isn’t in this story to act as a cheerleader to Greystone’s inventions, nor is he there simply because the producers wanted a marketable connection to the previous series. The disagreement between him and Greystone is not only the key to this whole pilot, but will probably prove to be the key to the entire series. Is the copy of Zoe real, or not? What does that even mean, anyway? Does she have a soul? Can a soul be copied? If not, does a person without a soul qualify as a person? Is there such a thing as a soul at all? Adama’s position is clear: an AI is not a person, regardless of how realistic it is. Greystone disagrees.

Their disagreement continues: Greystone not only wants to help his grieving friend, but to win him over to his point of view. He constructs a VR/AI version of Adama’s lost daughter Tamara, using the same techniques that Zoe used to make the duplicate of herself. He then introduces Adama to the “recovered” version of his daughter.  Unlike VR-Zoe, though, VR-Tamara knows nothing of her nature. She is terrified of being all alone in a very dark place (an empty VR universe), she feels no heartbeat in her chest and has no comprehension whatsoever of what has happened to her and the real world she remembers. Her entire existence is a state of confusion and panic. Metaphorically, it’s as if Greystone had captured her soul and cast it into hell, but realistically what it suggests is that a key element of successful AI construction is missing in her.  Adama, however, is too angry to even consider that. His offense makes it clear, perhaps, that the two men are poised to become antagonists as the series progresses.

All of this causes an interesting dilemma for those of us who have watched the entire Battlestar Galactica series, because we know how this issue is resolved in the end: Greystone’s view is eventually borne out, but only after incalculable loss for the human race. This suggests that, in the short term, Adama’s viewpoint will hold sway. This is also consistent with backstory presented in Battlestar Galactica itself—the Cylons were created to help humans, but they rebelled. Why did they rebel? Because they resented their enslavement.  And that is not characteristic of anything which fails to qualify as a full-fledged sentient being.

Since the ending of the series is already known, the joy is going to be getting there. This is a good thing—the very best stories often turn out to be the ones where you already know the ending.

There are a few other notable people involved who I haven’t mentioned yet:  Paula Malcomson and Polly Walker, who have both been fabulous in other series (Deadwood and Rome respectively).  They play Zoe’s mother Amanda Greystone and Sister Clarice Willow, a faculty member at the school attended by the daughters.  There is also Magda Apanowicz as Zoe’s friend, Lacy Rand, who, while unfamiliar to me, was quite delightful in the pilot.  We’re also being treated to musical scores by the magnificent Bear McCreary once again—that I am greatly looking forward to, and indeed, he’s already gotten off to a great start in this pilot.  Ron Moore, is also involved, thank the gods. ;)  I’ve also noticed on the Caprica Wikipedia page that James Marsters is listed under guest stars.  He’s apparently going to be doing what he does best, that is playing a very bad, bad boy in some future episodes. ;)

The regular broadcast schedule of Caprica began last Friday, January 22. I’m guessing, though, that the most rabid fans of Battlestar Galactica either own the uncut, uncensored DVD version already (complete with dancing naked people), or have at least watched the free version available on the official Caprica website. Thus, Friday’s opening was a bit of an anti-climax for us. What I am really looking forward to is the first regular episode, on the 29th. I predict I will be frustrated at an all-too-short running length (only 42 minutes when all the non-programmatic material is removed), but what can you do—that’s par for the course on TV these days.

(Note: This piece references the DVD released last year, rather than the pilot that was shown last Friday. I had originally assumed that the differences between the two would be minor, basically amounting to no more than replacement of the nude scenes with equivalent non-nude scenes, but apparently it’s more than that: I came across a datum stating that the broadcast version is about 4 1/2 minutes shorter than the DVD version. That’s fairly substantial, but whether it’s true or not is hard to say.)