Caprica and the Science Fiction Future

26Jan10

Yesterday I watched the pilot for Caprica, the spin-off series which is supposed to show the final years of a prosperous civilization before the cylons show up and blast everyone to hell (as seen in Battlestar Galactica). I don’t think I’ll be watching the series, and I’m not here to discuss much about plot or characters, so I’ll keep this pretty spoiler-light.

What I want to talk about is how they construct a science fiction “future”, compared to how other science fiction shows and movies have depicted the future.

Setting a show in the future is always problematic, in the way that the Jetsons version of the future is now so dated. It’s what people in the 1960s thought the future would be like, and aw, isn’t that cute. Whereas the people of the 1980s seemed to think the future involved a lot of spiky-hair, apocalypse and cyborgs.

There are a lot of signifiers that we, as a culture, use to indicate something set in the “future.” Flying cars and AI computers are pretty high on the list. But at the same time, most of our shows about the future end up telling more about our current culture than anything else.

With Caprica, I have a major problem with how much the future–thousands of years from now, on another planet–looks like the present. Actually, it’s pretty identical to the present.

In Battlestar Galactica, I thought they usually handled this pretty well–sure, you were still looking at a culture very, very much like our own, but I felt like they’d really put some thought into the differences. It helped that most of the fashion we saw was uniforms, so that cut down on their clothes looking just like ours, and most of it was set on spaceships, so that their architecture didn’t have to look just like ours, and they even had a polytheistic religion, which was a pretty cool theme to be explored.

The trouble is that apparently the producers of Caprica forgot they needed to maintain that space between society in U.S.A. 2010 and Caprica Whenever. Their clothes look like our clothes. Exactly like our clothes, in fact. Their houses look like our houses. Again–exactly like our houses. The very first scene is set in a rave, which might as well be footage from a rave of any movie set in the present. (Some brief research on wikipedia and the official website tells me that “the production design references 1950s America to reinforce the sense of viewing the past”, and… yeah, sorry, that wasn’t successful, either.)

The first point where I thought the science fiction worldbuilding went from “poorly thought-out” to “laughably bad” was when, early in the episode, a teenage female character is grounded, and her mother tells her she can’t use “car”, “phone” or “holoband”. Okay, so the car’s a flying car or something? Which is otherwise used… just like modern cars and even fills the same place in society? Okay, sure. And “holoband”, sure, that’s a pretty awful choice at trying to make it sound like cool tech, when it’s shown as literally a funny looking headband that lives in front of your eyes and has flashing green LEDs, as the science fiction version of our internet, but I’ll give that a pass for futuristic. But phone? Really, you just gave them cell phones and had them function just like cell phones and they kind of look just like cell phones… Come on, the Jetsons tried harder. The only thing in the whole scene that even vaguely tries to remind you that this isn’t a modern show is that one word, “holoband.”

This seems like a pretty major problem to me. Sure, there are some things that are all futuristic, and they’re pretty cool, but the vast majority of those things were thought up and given to them by the Battlestar Galactica writers, so, uh, no bonus points there. But when this show is trying to capitalize on how it’s “television’s first science fiction family saga” (like Rome, but in space), and they don’t actually have any science fiction points going for them, that seems like a bad sign.

See, I like science fiction as a genre. I watch–and enjoy–shows all the time that would be a lot less appealing if they didn’t have the exciting and exotic world for the characters to interact with. I love world-building, and I absolutely appreciate when books and movies put real thought into the universe where there characters live–even if it’s just a change like “vampires are real!” I expect the writers to put real thought into what that means, how that works, and the impact it has upon society and politics.

To bring this back to the point, I watched–and loved–Rome because it was a back-stabbing dramatic saga set in Rome, and even when it made me think “okay, NOT historically accurate right there”, I still felt like it was true to the world which they had created for the show. If the show had been lifted out of Rome and set in the modern day with all the same characters and plot, I would not have watched it. Because if it’s just another back-stabbing dramatic saga, I really don’t care. There are enough of those on television.

So why would I want to watch just another back-stabbing dramatic saga where occasionally they throw in some holobands with their cell phones, if that’s all the effort they’re going to put in to make this “science fiction”? Screw that. I’ll watch Mad Men or the Sopranos, instead, where they don’t try to use science fiction as a crutch to cover up a sucky show.

Maybe I’m judging it harsh, from just the pilot. My intent here isn’t really to discuss whether characters and plot are any good–I didn’t watch enough to be able to know. But I think their worldbuilding is crap.

If you’ve seen the pilot, what do you think of their worldbuilding? Am I too harsh on their science fiction world? If you haven’t seen the pilot, what do you think about science fiction worldbuilding in general? What makes a good sci-fi universe, and what doesn’t?



3 Responses to “Caprica and the Science Fiction Future”

  1. 1 Fallon

    I don’t think you’re too harsh. It’s not…good. Granted, I’ve only seen the pilot, but it was mind-numbingly dull for the subject matter.

    You do have to remember, though, the Caprica show is set some 50 years before Battlestar. So, they try to throw nods to that with the clothes, etc. So, my thinking in the craptacular tech is that it’s like if we were looking at us 50 years from now. Sure, our tech is amazing now, but 50 years ahead? Not so much. So, the Caprica writers are trying to relate it to us in our present, but also make it the past for the Battlestar folks, (which is technically our past). They’re just failing at it a bit. And making it incredibly confusing for no reason.

  2. 2 margaret

    If we’re following canon here, Caprica isn’t even set in the future, it’s set in the distant, distant past. Which makes the wearing of modern clothes seem all the more ridiculous. Since they are supposed to follow the Greek pantheon, it might be cool if they had some kind of futuristic ancient-Greek derived culture, but I’m having trouble picturing them being able to pull it off without it being terribly cheesy.

    • I did know the distant past thing, but since it still seems to be aiming for a level of technology that is higher than ours, futuristic seemed like a fair label. I love the idea of a futuristic ancient-Greek Caprica. That’d be awesome.


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