Thursday, February 24, 2011

Caprica is religiously unrealistic


Jewish date:  20 ’Adhar Ri’shon 5771 (Parashath Wayyaqhel).

Today’s holidays:  Feast Day of St. Huey Newton (Church of the Subgenius), Thursday of the Seventh Week of Ordinary Time (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of Charles Stansfeld Jones (Thelema), 1st and 2nd finding of the Head of the Forerunner (Greek Orthodox Christianity).

Please forgive me for taking forever to post again.  I do not begin working until next Wednesday, and being unemployed while trying to adapt to a new country (including ulpan, which is Hebrew language classes) does not make for the most regular schedule.  I expect to be very busy starting Wednesday, trying to adapt to the new job on top of twice-weekly ’ulpan, but at least I should have a better idea where I can fit things into my schedule.

Another reason for the delay is that I have been working slowly on yet another review, which I present below without delay.



Caprica (TV series)Image via Wikipedia
Caprica ended a while back, with the last episode broadcast in January, and the series being formally cancelled months earlier in October.  Still, considering the popularity of Battlestar Galactica (the reimagined series, its parent show), coupled with its constant religious themes, I feel the need to comment on Caprica one last time, this time as a whole rather than on a per-episode basis.  (Somehow it feels like I am going to be haunted by it if I do not.)  Though I will admit a lot of emphasis on the last episode, in which is the conclusion of most of the major plot threads.  Here goes nothing...

One thing first:  BEWARE OF SPOILERS!

Caprica is religiously unrealistic.

The Twelve Colonies have billions of human inhabitants.  No two humans believe or behave in quite the same way, so one would expect a great deal of religious diversity.  Here on (the real) Earth, with around seven billion humans, we have everything from atheism to deism to monotheism to polytheism with emphases being placed on everything from morality to sexuality to ritual to doing drugs.  Even what are conventionally considered single religions often display considerable internal variation. 

How many different religions are depicted in Caprica?  A mere two or three.  The Capricans and the Taurons seem to believe in variations on a polytheistic religion, and the Soldiers of the One believe in a monotheistic religion.  Obviously in 18 episodes one cannot see the full range of religious diversity of billions of people.  But there are not even hints that there might be more religions in the Twelve Colonies.  Even taking into account non-belief and weak belief, I find this lack of diversity disturbing.

Also disturbing is what two or three religions the writers did depict.  Practically nothing of what Caprican religion is like other than a never-explained polytheism with some of the trappings of the ancient Greek religion is given, period.  The Tauron religion seems to have a mafia-style moral code with notions of retributive vengeance and planned suicide.  Violating this code can also (and in fact do) get a Tauron killed by other Taurons.  Do note that most of the Taurons who appear on screen are part of the Tauron mafia or closely related to those who are.  Whether their beliefs and practices are representative of normal Taurons or just a twisted version adhered to by criminals is anyone’s guess.  Likewise horrible are the Soldiers of the One, which are nothing less than a cult in the pejorative sense of the term.  This terrorist group has a base on Gemenon for training (not always willing) conscripts to be soldiers, and they think nothing of executing those who fall short of their standards.  And these are the nice ones.  Granted, there are religions which have gone down horribly wrong paths, but when the choices presented for religions are something extremely muted to the point of being almost absent or something demanding an intervention (or a prison term or execution), a disaster has occurred in the process of writing.

Another thing gone horribly wrong in the writing is Sister Clarice Willow, the main antagonist.  Clarice is a self-centered psychopath.  If the writers knew what they were doing, they would have made her the center of a personality cult, as then they could have drawn on the behaviors of real-life psychopaths who form personality cults around themselves.  Instead, Clarice is trying to climb her way up through the ranks of the Soldiers of the One.  For someone without a cadre of followers who obey her without question, she behaves openly (so far as her superiors are concerned) very dangerously, pursuing an agenda which many of the Soldiers of the One do not subscribe to.  Clarice displays no real empathy with other humans and behaves with a complete lack of morality (even according to very lenient moral codes) or concern for anyone else.  Add in her propensity towards violence and murder, and it is little wonder that others among the Soldiers of the One try to kill her as an act of self-preservation.  As a long-term villain, she is unappealing; her lack of conscience makes her practically inhuman and something that ordinary people cannot identify with.  As a religious character, she has long-ago crossed into a dangerous fanaticism utterly lacking in self-criticism.  She thinks she knows what God wants (without ever giving any real reason) and will do anything to fulfill it, even murder.  Everyone knows that there are religious people who go horribly wrong like Clarice (Islam these days produces a lot of them), but the writers have created a yawning plot-hole by failing to depict in any way, shape, or form how she became such an abomination.

Making Clarice even worse and driving much of the plot of Caprica is her lack of wisdom.  She is highly intelligent and ambitious, but she somehow lacks the good sense to make sure she can deliver before making promises.  (She is not alone in this.  Daniel Graystone, another important highly intelligent and ambitious character, also makes the same error.  He acts immorally to accomplish his goals, too, come to think of it.  But I digress.)  Clarice intends to create an artificial afterlife so that the faithful may live on digitally after death (incorrectly called “apotheosis”).  Zoe Graystone’s creation of a virtual duplicate of herself proves this is possible, and Clarice spends much of the series working towards creating and promoting her virtual Heaven—and the promotion starts well before she has what she needs to even begin to keep her promises.  To say the least, this is an extremely stupid thing to do.

Putting this blunder aside, as an afterlife, Virtual Heaven is at best a stopgap.  Yes, it may be wonderful and allow a form of survival after biological death.  But it is really only an extension of this life, not the fulfillment of the promise of another life.  Virtual Heaven takes place within a computer system.  Computers are composed of matter, and they are subject to all the weakness of material objects.  If enough goes wrong with the Virtual Heaven system, Virtual Heaven comes to an end.  Computers can be repaired, and Virtual Heaven could be transferred to a different system.  But entropy ensures that everything breaks down in the end.  Even if the chances of things going catastrophically wrong at any step are tiny, let enough chances occur and statistics makes it virtually certain that eventually something will go wrong which will bring Virtual Heaven to a very real end.  Even if Virtual Heaven does beat the odds, sooner or later the Universe as we know it comes to a real or effective end.  As long as life occurs in the Universe, so does death, too.

Noteworthily wrong is the objection given to Virtual Heaven by Zoe II in the last episode (thus ending  Caprica with a major religious blunder, just as the rebooted Battlestar Galactica ended with a major religious blunder).  Much of the action in Caprica takes place in the virtual world (or “V-World” for short).  A big deal is made of the lack of morality in V-World by multiple characters, including Zoe II.  Since V-World is not considered reality (at least in the same way as physical reality), in it people often act in ways that would never be allowed (or should never be allowed) in physical reality.  The pilot episode features a virtual club where anything goes, and a sizable fraction of the rest of the series occurs in the criminally-themed game New Cap City.  Zoe II is worried that Virtual Heaven would turn physical reality into a game.  Since everyone would be guaranteed to go to Heaven, all motivation for good behavior would be removed.  There would thus be nothing to keep people’s behavior in line, and physical reality would degenerate into a game where people behaved as they wished with impunity.  Because of this, Zoe II destroys Virtual Heaven.

Zoe II’s objection is problematic because it assumes that going to Heaven is the major factor behind morality.  There is no question that Heaven and Hell in one form or another have been frequently used as motivation to get people to behave.  But clearly they are not enough, as believers do their fair share of stumbling and being hypocrites.  Furthermore, not believing in Heaven and Hell does not automatically make one an immoral person; atheists have done their fair share of crimes (including oppressive communist governments), but they are not noted for crowding our jails.

But what Zoe II is really missing is what would likely happen if there were a Virtual Heaven.  Do note that in the real world there is a constant struggle for free and open systems to remain free and open.  Under ideal circumstances, a Virtual Heaven would be made available to everyone unconditionally.  But whenever there is a new technology, someone inevitable wants to make money from it or gain power from it.  The real threat is actually the situation in the last episode of Caprica.  Claire Willow stands as the gatekeeper to Virtual Heaven; to get in, one has to satisfy her.  The people who get to go to Virtual Heaven in the final episode are suicide bombers, carrying out Claire’s plan.  Clarie has discovered a new form of blackmail:  people often hate death, and if they want to continue living after a fashion, they have to do what she wants—no matter what she wants.  In effect Claire threatens to usurp the divine prerogative of dictating how people should behave.  Now, one might object that since Claire proves that a virtual afterlife is feasible, other characters will be inspired to reinvent it—and such an objection would indeed be valid.  But the threat would still exist; unless it were mandated that everyone gets a virtual afterlife or there were virtual afterlife providers who let everyone in, one would still have to satisfy gatekeepers.  Considering that businesses are conventionally profit-driven, the possibilities for abuse are huge, not just in overcharging the living but even in forcing the quasi-dead to do one’s bidding.  After all, if one can easily deactivate a simulated person or turn Virtual Heaven into Virtual Hell, one has the power of blackmail over him/her.  The writers should be ashamed that they did not deal with this at all.

Another topic which gets insufficient attention is the status of artificial people, whether simulated people or robots.  Zoe II and Tamara Amanda II are by default treated as equals to physical people.  They act independently and answer to no one, not to mention they look and act human.  Not to mention that Zoe I and Tamara I are both dead, allowing their virtual copies to be treated as their continuations.  But Daniel Graystone, during a period of separation, creates a simulation of his wife Amanda.  (He has issues and problems.)  While the goal of Amanda II is to replicate the original, he never truly treats her as his equal.  (And to be explicit, your humble blogger does think husbands and wives should be equals.)  Even worse is the treatment of the Cylons, who never get treated as anything more than glorified tools, even though they save the day in the final episode.  Even though Cylons are (supposed to be) intelligent beings, why Zoe II is eventually treated by Daniel and Amanda as practically their own daughter while Cylons have to be slaves is never explained, even illogically, by anyone.  Though this failure may simply be due to the series being cancelled.

The last episode ends with a series of previews of an intended second season.  (Or perhaps these “previews” are meant to stir up enough interest and demand so that Syfy changes its mind about the cancellation.)  Daniel is giving an interview, talking about the quick adoption of Cylons in the Twelve Colonies, but emphasizing that Cylons are tools and nothing more.  Contrasted with Daniel is Clarice, who is in a vast chapel preaching to Cylons.  Not only does she recognize them as the equals of humans and children of God, but she prophesies that they will one day rebel against humanity.  Whether or not Clairice has any communication from angels or is just fooling herself, she may well give the Cylons the idea of genocide.   Clarice also visits Gemenon to see the Blessed Mother (the head of the Soldiers of the One), only to find the position usurped by Lacy Rand, a friend of Zoe I who joined the Soldiers of the One to help Zoe II and got shipped off to Gemenon; this clears up a plot thread left hanging in the final episode.  Finally, Daniel and his wife Amanada succeed in giving Zoe II an apparently flesh-and-blood body—resurrection of the dead, after a fashion.  Arguably Daniel Graystone is appropriately named, since resurrection in some fashion is mentioned in Daniel 12:2.

In summary, the writers screwed up royally with respect to religion.  Out of the vast multitude of religions that would be believed in and practiced by billions of humans, the only ones that get much attention are a religion of gangsters and a cult of terrorists.  The chief antagonist belongs to the terrorist cult and is probably the most psychopathic and quite possibly insane member thereof, working on a scheme which is not what she purports it to be and which is objected to for the wrong reason.  Your humble blogger is disappointed with this series and relieved that it has come to and end.

WARNING:  All this has happened before, and all this will happen again!  Reportedly yet another series, Battlestar Galactica:  Blood and Chrome is in the works.  I pray that the writers handle religion better this time.
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