In the midst of all its programming woes, NBC has managed to achieve something close to the impossible — a prequel series that should not only please all comers but may expand the demographic of science fiction fans everywhere. Debuting on SyFy (though it could just as easily be moved to that barren 10 p.m. slot on NBC), “ Caprica” is set 58 years before the Cylon wars that propel “ Battlestar Galactica” and tells how the Cylons came to be.
The shows may share the same DNA — that of creator Ronald D. Moore — but they are different in tone and intent, offering solace to those jonesing for “Galactic” and a whole new world to contemplate for those who aren’t.
Using a mythology that both mirrors and mocks American culture, Moore gives us a planet too drunk on technology to notice that the digital revolution has done nothing to solve the cultural divides that can lead to actual revolution. At the center of the storm is Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz), inventor of the holo-band, a system that takes virtual technology to a whole new empty level — and Graystone has the sprawling lakeside compound to prove it. So it seems only right that his teenage daughter Zoe (Alessandra Torresani) would be a member of the resistance, longing to flee the spiritually dead world of Caprica for another one that believes in the one true God.
The citizens of Caprica are, as they were in “Battlestar,” polytheists, worshiping the Greek gods — to them, monotheists are dangerous extremists who believe in a world of absolutes. Matters are not helped when, in a mind-widening if not mind-blowing moment, a follower of the One God turns suicide bomber, killing Zoe and more than a few others.
Among them is the wife and daughter of Joseph Adams (Esai Morales), leaving him and his young son, William, bereft. That the name Adams is an assimilated version of Adama and William the boy who will become Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos) is no spoiler — it is one of the bones Moore throws “Battlestar” fans throughout.
Graystone and Adams bond, and when Graystone discovers that Zoe, a computer genius, has created a digital avatar of herself that may be able to exist in the real world, it is Adama he tells, thereby setting up the meta-tension that underlies the series: How much science is too much science?
It is the conflict on which most science fiction is based and no less interesting because we know the answer — the Cylons may eventually help save the world but not before they destroy most of it.
Despite its central tragedy, “Caprica” is far less grim than “Battlestar,” with an emphasis on user-friendly relationships — between parents and children, husbands and wives, school-age friends — designed to cast a wider net than the typical science fiction fan base. Beautifully shot and marvelously acted, “Caprica” is infused with all manner of intriguing bits of business, including a terrifically complicated teacher (Sister Clarice, played by the wonderful Polly Walker) and Joseph’s brother Sam (Sasha Roiz), a happily married gay gangster with excellent tattoos. It’s details like this, as much as the rantings against monotheism and the idea of interplanetary travel, that form yet another fascinating vision of the future. Here nostalgia — many men wear fedoras and retro overcoats — blends easily with an oddly modern pantheon of gods and endless robotic possibility.
Unfortunately, it’s a vision Moore and his writers seem a bit too taken with. After the two-hour pilot, available on DVD last year, early episodes move with an often creaky slowness that seems at odds with its spry and comely cast. One can only hope that as the Cylons get up and running, so will the show, because it would be a shame if “Caprica” fell victim to its own rich imaginings.
— Mary McNamara
CHECK OUT THE “CAPRICA” COVERAGE AT SHOW TRACKER
PHOTOS: Top, “Caprica” stars Esai Morales and Eric Stolz (Carol Segal/Syfy). Center, a poster for “Caprica” shows Paula Malcomson with Morales and Stolz. Bottom, Magda Apanowicz as Lucy Rand on “Caprica” (Syfy)