Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Capricology: The Pilot (First) Episode

If you liked the recently concluded Battlestar Galactica (BSG), you may want to follow its prequel series, Caprica. Instead of humans in flight, the prequel is set on the home planet 58 years before the Cylon attack that set the stage for BSG. I saw Caprica pilot last Friday (you can still see it here), and if that is any indication, the series will be a fascinating ride. Perhaps of more relevance here, there is ample material on the theme of science & religion.

If you decide to follow the series, I want to draw your attention to a weekly online discussion at Religion Dispatches about Caprica. I'm participating in it alongside Diane Winston, Henry Jenkins, and Anthea Butler. It promises to be a lot of fun. Here are some of the details, and then a short taste of the discussion of the pilot (yes, there are lots of spoilers. So please watch the pilot episode before reading the discussion):

Capricology: Television, Tech, and the Sacred
Welcome to the first installment of our ongoing coverage of television's latest contribution to the cultural intersection of science and religion — with bonus themes to include: the body, artificial intelligence, paganism, original sin, immigration, and race. Join Diane Winston, Anthea Butler, Salman Hameed and Henry Jenkins every week as they delve into deep exegesis of Caprica.

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Pilot (First) Episode Discussion

Religion. Robots. Immigration. Race.

The first episode of TV's Caprica takes science and religion, layers on family drama in full Greek tragic mode, and throws in a dose of dystopic anthropology. And where better to engage all of these themes than in televised science fiction? Margaret Atwood once wrote that "within the frequently messy sandbox of sci-fi fantasy, some of the most accomplished and suggestive intellectual play of the last century has taken place." In that spirit, we've convened a club of media and religion experts —Diane Winston, Henry Jenkins, Salman Hameed, and Anthea Butler—to take the pulse of the show every week, and to share their readings with us. Tune in every Tuesday morning for a roundup of the discussion of the previous Friday's episode.

So Say We All.

[Warning: Spoilers, spoilers, and more spoilers, follow. If you haven't yet, you can watch the full-length first episode here.]

Here is a sampling of comments from the four contributors. See Religion Dispatches for the full discussion:

Diane Winston:

We loved BSG because In the post 9/11 moment, it captured our consternation and confusion. Why do they hate us? Can we justify torture? What makes us human? When can we stop fighting? Moreover, it lodged these questions in the space between human passion and species survival, mediating the religious quest for meaning with the political will to win.

Caprica, going back to how this came to be, meets us in the present. This is what we face, too: religious extremism, economic inequality, anti-immigrant fervor, a military increasingly dependent upon drones, the lure of the virtual worlds, and the comfort of slick surfaces. Like BSG, Caprica asks, “What makes us human.” But this time, the answers seem a lot closer to home.

Henry Jenkins:

I was most taken though by the plight of Adama's daughter — who is brought back from the dead not through an act of self-creation but against her will, who is inserted into an empty world, a purgatory space, which she doesn't recognize and understand, and is abandoned there, treated as an unnatural abomination, as a monster, by her own father and forgotten by the man who created her. (Shades of Frankenstein, but also some suggestions here of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the series Jane Espenson worked for before Caprica, where Buffy's friends bring her back from the dead, like Lazarus, and she finds herself experiencing deep pain and trauma at being ripped from paradise and plunged back into our imperfect world. In fact, Espenson wrote "After Life," a key episode in the exploration of this theme in Buffy. I hope the series will explore more fully what happens to this girl and how her experiences differ from Zoe's.

Anthea Butler:

What I believe will be compelling about the back story of how the Cylons came to be is the emphasis on morals, ethics, ethnicity, and the search for meaning. Caprica, a society of privilege and wealth, obviously has problems. Rich white kids from Caprica like Zoe hate their accomplished selfish parents, while nice ethnic middle class families from Tauron have obedient children trying to assimilate into the broader culture. Stereotypes blow into oblivion however, when a terrorist bombing by Zoe’s handsome young friend Ben—anxious, but looking very Middle Eastern in appearance—blows the train Zoe and Tamara are riding on, and both girls “die” in the crash.

Although I am a bit perturbed by the racial stereotyping (damn it, can’t a bomber just be other than Middle Eastern? Swedish, maybe?) What I believe is Caprica’s genius is to use the stereotypes and add another type of hybrid life form into the mix.

Salman Hameed:

The pilot of Caprica brought about the same level of messiness (and a definite promise of more) that made Battlestar Galactica such a captivating series. Whereas BSG dealt with the survival of humanity and the instincts that make us do good and the bad, Caprica delves into the question of what makes us human in the first place. ...
At a time when we are seeing the growing effectiveness of prosthetic limbs and artificial organs, it is fascinating to explore the limits (if any) of these body part replacements. At what point do we say that this is a different "person" than the original? Should we draw the line at the brain (a la the jar heads in Futurama)? Should it even matter? Perhaps, the best twist I liked in the pilot was the fact that Zoe's virtual creation (not her own avatar, but a copy of her avatar) knows that she has all the memories and life-experiences of her creator, and yet, that she is different. She is now also aware that her "real" world creator is dead, and she is on her own. Will the knowledge of her creator's death drive her "personality" in a particular direction? This self-awareness of a virtual creation also reminded me of issues raised in Solaris (also the Soderbergh version) and in last year's fantastic Moon.

Read the full discussion here.

2 comments:

emre said...

The absence of a clear demarcation between man and machine has pushed us on the slope of cybernetic creep. Every year, some new medical advance augments human capabilities. I think the key transition will occur when we can reliably manipulate memory.

On a related note, the IEEE has just released a new journal devoted to emotions, Transactions on Affective Computing: http://www.computer.org/portal/web/tac

Salman Hameed said...

Emre,

Thanks for the link. The journal looks quite interesting.

I guess time to see Blade Runner and AI (minus the last 15 minutes) again...