PASADENA, Calif. -- It's getting eerie how closely these sci-fi shows so accurately reflect our current American culture. "Battlestar Galactica" created a world where a cataclysmic event destroyed a civilization and sent survivors fleeing into space. After 9/11, that story had a particular resonance.
Now its prequel series, "Caprica" (9 tonight, Syfy), depicts a high-on-the-hog society of mid-century modern styling, xenophobia and technological innovation that's threatened by religious extremists who resort to terrorism in the name of "the one true God."
After last month's attempted bombing of a jetliner over Detroit, the concept again hits close to home.
Although "Caprica" is a spin-off, because it's set in time before the events of "BSG," you don't need to have watched "BSG" to follow what's happening in "Caprica." Tonight's two-hour pilot, an edited and slightly altered form of the pilot movie released on DVD in April 2009, sets up the story.
Unlike "BSG," "Caprica" is a planet-set drama -- no spaceships in the first four hours and just a few robots -- about two families. Tonally, it's closer to a more literate "Dallas" than it is to traditional science fiction.
Set 58 years before the events in "Galactica," "Caprica" is occasionally set in a virtual-reality world where teenager Zoe Graystone (Alessandra Torresani) hangs with friends Lacy (Magda Apanowicz) and Ben (Avan Jogia). They're toying with the notion of believing in a monotheistic deity, which runs contrary to conventional Caprican religious belief in polytheism.
In the VR world of Club V, Zoe creates a virtual copy of herself. She gets her programming skills from her father, Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz), inventor of a robotic warrior for Caprica's military. He's destined to have a hand in advancing the role of the robotic Cybernetic Lifeform Nodes -- Cylons, for short -- that so bedeviled the crew in "Galactica."
Other characters include Graystone's wife, Amanda (Paula Malcomson, "Deadwood"), and the initially mysterious Sister Clarice Willow (Polly Walker, "Rome"), an administrator at the school Zoe and her friends attend.
A terrorist attack takes a devastating personal toll that brings Joseph Adama (Esai Morales, "NYPD Blue") into contact with Daniel Graystone, which also lays the groundwork for a rivalry between the pair over Graystone's attempts to import a virtual reality soul into a robotic body. (Adama is the father of young William Adama, who will grow up to captain the Battlestar Galactica.)
In episodes two and three, airing in the show's regular 10 p.m. time slot Jan. 29 and Feb. 5, "Caprica" continues to eschew space drama in favor of human drama as the avatar of a terror victim comes to life inside a Cylon robot and a mother grieves her dead child while fearing that she was involved with the terrorists.
"It's our job, we create life," the mother says, "and then one day we have to face who they are, what they become and what they do."
Executive producer Jane Espenson, a writer whose credits include "Battlestar Galactica," "Gilmore Girls" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," said the greatest trait "Caprica" shares with "BSG" is a penchant for "moral complexity."
"There's no stark bad guys and good guys," she said at a press conference earlier this month. "This is a world that is perceived by some of its residents as sort of sliding over the edge. There's a whole bunch of people who think they've got the answer, and it's not at all clear that any of them have the answer."
Some "Caprica" characters believe technology will be their salvations; for others it's religion.
"Everybody has moral shadings," Espenson said, "and we can tell very complex stories as a result."
The show's first season order comprises 18 episodes; about half will air in the coming weeks and then the show will take a break before airing the balance of its episodes later this year.
" 'Caprica,' like 'Battlestar,' doesn't treat the genre as the toy department," said executive producer David Eick. "We really do take it seriously, and we really do try to involve depth of character, realism, grounded terrestrial naturalism to a science fiction world. That sort of came from what we always admired about the greats and classics from [authors such as Isaac] Asimov, [Robert A.] Heinlein and Philip K. Dick. This idea that science fiction is not just fun and games. We wanted to go in the opposite direction of George Lucas, if you will. We wanted to make it less about escapism and more about moral complexity and great characters."
In its early episodes, "Caprica" certainly succeeds in achieving those goals.
Former KDKA anchor/reporter John Cater passed away Tuesday in Atlanta at age 32. Cater left KDKA in late 2007 after a three-year stint at the station. He had been freelancing in Atlanta and won a regional Emmy for a story he reported for station WSB, according to WPXI reporter Kimberly Easton, a friend from before they both worked in Pittsburgh.
"We pushed each other a lot in our work," Easton said of their time competing head-to-head on rival Pittsburgh stations. "We were very competitive, but it was a healthy competitive. He was the brother I never had."
Cater's mother, Gloria Randolph, said John had gone to Johannesburg, South Africa, around Christmas and took ill after returning home.
"He came back and had a high fever and couldn't really shake it," Randolph said. "The doctors seemed to believe it was some kind of infection that they couldn't locate."
A wake will be held tomorrow at 10 a.m. with the funeral at 11 a.m. at New Faith Baptist Church, 25 South Central Ave., Matteson, IL 60443. Condolences can be sent to Gloria Randolph, 2906 Buttonwood Walk, Hazel Crest, IL 60429.
For the debut of WQED's "Filmmaker's Corner" (10 p.m. Saturday), the station will broadcast portions of Chris Ivey's "East of Liberty," about urban redevelopment in East Liberty, including residents' concerns about displacement and gentrification.
A public screening with Ivey will also be held at 10 p.m. Saturday at Lawrenceville's Round Corner Cantina, 3720 Butler St. A $20 donation is requested with proceeds going to Ivey's film work and Haiti relief. Ivey plans to show footage from his next film, "The Big Gamble," about the neighborhood impact of the Rivers Casino and the new Penguins hockey arena.
The Los Angeles Times reports Hulu is considering charging users $4.99 per month to watch episodes of TV programs older than a show's five most recent episodes. ... Nickelodeon's built-from-scratch boy band show "Big Time Rush" debuted to big-time ratings Monday, drawing 6.8 million viewers. ... Broadcasting & Cable reports ratings for My Network TV are up 28 percent in viewers from a year ago. MNT switched from original programming to a mostly syndication model last fall. ... Rob Estes will leave the cast of "90210" at the end of the current season, according to The Los Angeles Times. ... Adult Swim has ordered seasons five and six (40 episodes) of comedy series "Robot Chicken." ... Variety reports Steve Harvey will take over as host of the syndicated "Family Feud" (4 a.m. weekdays, WPXI) this fall, replacing John O'Hurley. ... Beginning Monday, TV One adds reruns of "A Different World" (10 and 10:30 p.m.) and family drama "Lincoln Heights" (11 p.m.) to its weekday lineup. ... Now we know why David Hasselhoff quit as the host of "America's Got Talent": He's getting his own celebreality show on A&E, slated to air later this year. ... Fox News Channel's Megyn Kelly will host a daily 1-3 p.m. news block on the network beginning Feb. 1. Martha MacCallum will join Bill Hemmer on "America's Newsroom" (9-11 a.m. weekdays). ... Roberta Casper of Pittsburgh will appear on CBS's "The Price Is Right" (11 a.m. weekdays, KDKA-TV) on Feb. 1.
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In today's online TV Q&A, there are responses to questions about new shows, network changes and a missing digital sub-channel. Tuned In Journal includes posts on an Alyssa Milano series set in Pittsburgh, press tour parties and a Pittsburgher on "American Idol." Read online TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.
In this week's Tuned In podcast, online features editor Sharon Eberson and I discuss the Jay Leno-Conan O'Brien story, the TV critics winter press tour and "24." Listen or subscribe at post-gazette.com/podcast.
Contact TV editor Rob Owen at email@example.com or 412-263-1112. First Published January 22, 2010 5:00 AM