On its face, Syfy's "Caprica" is the unlikeliest serial on television. The show was spun off early this year from the dearly departed, tremendously watchable reboot of "Battlestar Galactica," but it contains nearly none of that series' action or simple soulfulness. It has a sprawling and talented cast, a substantial special effects presence, the incredible music of Bear McCreary and the love of critics, but it draws an abysmally small audience, even by cable TV standards.
(To put this in perspective: An episode of "Caprica" averages just a fraction of the viewers that tuned in for the Sept. 21 premiere of FOX's "Lone Star," which was yanked from primetime earlier this week.)
This is all the more reason to celebrate the fact that "Caprica" is returning at all. Because of Syfy's puzzling decision to order 20 episodes for the show's first season -- and then to divide that season into halves separated by seven months of downtime -- "Caprica" will begin airing its back half on Tuesday at 10 p.m., where it likely will find more viewers than it did on Fridays.
But those viewers better be patient, and they hopefully have done their homework, because the next two episodes aren't the series' friendliest. "Caprica," set fifty-odd years before the catastrophe that kicked off "Galactica," is consumed by heady questions about parenthood, sentience, technology and the very different ways people process grief. These elements, coupled with the narrative machinations of corporate espionage and faster-than-light travel, make for a show that is thrillingly complicated but does not lend itself to long absences.
Recap: So, if you aren't up to speed on Sister Clarice's (Polly Walker) efforts to seize command of religious terrorist group Soldiers of the One, or if you've forgotten why Amanda Graystone (Paula Malcomson) jumped off a bridge just before the hiatus, don't expect to be coddled Tuesday.
Before and during the break, wealthy industrialist Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz) lost everything. After he flubbed a government contract to deliver bipedal war robots, longtime rival Tomas Vergis (John Pyper-Ferguson) took over his company. Daniel's wife, upon learning that her husband was involved in a deadly theft of valuable hardware, has left him.
The Graystones' daugher, Zoe (Alessandra Torresani), was killed during a terrorist bombing in the show's pilot, prompting Daniel to upload an electronic duplicate of her consciousness into one of his robots. Zoe shows intelligence and decision-making skills where the other robots do not, but she's unwilling to be a scientific plaything. At the end of the mid-season finale, she broke out of her father's lab and barreled into a security blockade, where the truck she was driving exploded.
Joseph Adama (Esai Morales), father of the man who will lead the shreds of humanity to safety in "Galactica," is similarly grief-stricken. His daughter, Tamara (Genevieve Buechner), died in the same bombing that killed Zoe, but she's been reborn as a goddess in a virtual meta-game where the universe's rich and powerful get creepy. Unfortunately for Joseph, Tamara doesn't want to see him there and, in the mid-season finale, ejected him from the game permanently.
Resolution: It's a lot to remember, but Tuesday's episode, "Unvanquished," resolves most of the finale's dangling strands. You'll learn exactly what happened to Amanda, Zoe and Sister Clarice, who narrowly avoided a car-bombing orchestrated by a rival terror cell, and you'll see how Daniel plans to take his company back. As narrative momentum goes, there's just enough red meat here.
The episode is also a visual showcase, proving conclusively that you don't need to set your science-fiction series in outer space to conjure some striking images. The dazzling neons and art-deco skyscrapers of Caprica City (capital of the planet Caprica) are as impressive as they've ever been, but "Unvanquished" also takes us to the planet Gemenon, the spiritual hub of this particular universe. Though its computer-generated cathedrals and moonscapes are glaringly artificial, they're no less pretty for it.
Unfortunately, the action on Gemenon doesn't come off as well. Of all the ideas "Caprica" is juggling, the struggle between the universe's polytheists and an insurgent sect of monotheists is arguably the least interesting. "Galactica" already has set the record straight on this issue -- a divine hand is at work, but it doesn't like to be named, second-guessed or claimed by any particular faith.
So, when you see Sister Clarice cementing her authority over Caprican monotheists by perforating and electrocuting her competitors, you'll be disgusted. And exhausted. This is petty, mindless, inter-denominational warfare at its worst. The metaphor is too thick and too obvious, and there are so many other, more stimulating ideas to explore. "Caprica" could be setting up Clarice as the season's central villain, but until the show plays its hand, it's hard to know what to make of her.
I'm giving the creators the benefit of the doubt. "Galactica" famously lagged in the latter half of most seasons, struggling to pad 20 episodes with a dozen hours of story before finishing strong, and that could be the case here.
Even with its blemishes, "Caprica" is bold, uncompromising storytelling, and it's the only show of its kind on TV. If you're a devoted fan counting down the hours to Tuesday's premiere, you'll be sated. If you've never seen an episode, don't start here. Begin with the pilot or, better yet, get yourself a $10 Netflix subscription and start at the beginning of "Galactica." The service announced last week that it would begin streaming every episode of the show online soon.
-- Peter Mergenthaler writes about entertainment on Thursdays for The York Dispatch. Reach him by phone at 505-5422 or on Twitter at @Peteybird.