'Caprica': "Pilot"

Enh. What a middling start to a series. Weird plotting, weird editing, bad acting — it was just weird. Not quite bad but not great either.

When the episode began, I was convinced that I had accidentally selected the wrong option on the DVD. I thought I must be watching some preview for one of those crappy, exploitative procedural shows. Surely, this isn't Caprica.

But it was.

Caprica and I got off to a bad start with the all the gratuitous topless women – I could only pick out one topless man in the sex room for certain – and the use of "lesbian" sexuality as shorthand for debauchery. Avan Jogia and Magda Apanowicz's weak performances did nothing to ameliorate the situation. The episode did improve eventually but never really seemed to hit its stride. While a few interesting moments were sprinkled throughout, I found the episode as a whole rather unfocused and, sadly, pretty forgettable.

Personally, I think I would have started the episode with the Graystones at home rather than in V Club. Zoe and her mother argue, Mom drops Zoe off at school the next day, she runs away to Gemenon, Ben blows up the train. Credits. The "2 Weeks Later" card didn't do much to let the impact of the explosion really set in, while a nice credits sequence could have created a more meaningful pause. I don't think that we should have seen Zoe's avatar until Daniel first visits V Club after she has died. I suspect that most of the audience is looking for pieces of how the Cylons came to be, so why give them one of the pieces in the first scene? Plus, the audience, like Daniel, would be surprised to see her if she hadn't been seen previously. I just don't understand the logic behind that decision. Also, notice how my version cuts Avan and Magda's screen time practically in half. That's not a coincidence.

I have to admit that I might be a little biased against Caprica because something about Eric Stoltz just bugs me, though I couldn't tell you what. In general, he seems to be a solid actor, and I actually think he's kinda sexy. But he bothers me for some reason. I can't point to anything wrong with his performance here, but I must say that I found his character rather confusing. I never bought him as a grieving parent. Never. And it probably didn't help that Stoltz and Alessandra Torresani had a strange, almost sexual chemistry, which made the thought of them being father and daughter quite icky. When Daniel hugs AvatarZoe and scans her, I thought his only motivation was that he wanted to know how his daughter had created the avatar and how he might use that technology in his work, which is a perfectly fine and interesting motivation for his character to have. However, the writers then seemed to want us to believe that he grabbed the code so that he could have a copy of his daughter, and then it seemed like a purely profit-motivated action, and then he was sad that he lost her avatar to a system failure... I don't know. If he was supposed to be both a grieving parent and an unscrupulous scientist, the former felt false to me.

Esai Morales, though also kinda sexy, was less interesting and had some weak spots in his performance. I'm not sure if I like that the father/grandfather of characters from Battlestar Galactica is a main character here just so that the BsG audience can hear a familiar name. I'm curious to see if he will actually feel involved in the main narrative of the series because the connection made between Joseph and Daniel seemed arbitrary and tenuous at best, so Joseph seems destined to be relegated to the B-plot.

Now, the moments that did grab my attention:
  • AvatarZoe telling Daniel all the places one can find information about people
  • Daniel telling Joseph that in his business "a difference that makes no difference is no difference"
  • The Inspector telling the Sister why he doesn't trust monotheism
I also found it interesting that some of the discussion around AvatarZoe and whether she was Zoe, whether a person's soul can be copied, sounded very similar to discussions I've heard on Dollhouse. It might be a Battle of the Series to see who addresses the topic "better" or in a more interesting way.

Even though I found this pilot a little lackluster, I think my money would still be on Caprica in that fight.

Gabrielle Baur's 'Venus Boyz' (2002)

Using a New York drag show as a starting point, Venus Boyz offers portraits of several drag kings in effort to explore performances of female masculinity. Each performer approaches drag from a unique perspective and situation. While all of them are queer, each would define their sexuality and their gender identity in different ways. Several of them are lesbians, one is transgender, one intersex, and another says she fancies women but prefers men because they turn her on more. Some of them only put on men's clothes for performances, but others maintain a more masculine appearance or gender identity all the time. Many of them think of their drag performances as social commentary, but some of them just have fun dressing up.

The film includes bits of interesting conversation around ideas of gender and gender performance, but not enough to really satisfy me. In particular, I would have loved some discussion around the misandry and misogyny I've often noticed from drag kings and transmen respectively. I was especially fascinated by the comments offered by the intersex individual in regards to how doctors determine sex and the differences zhe* has noticed in how people behave toward zhim now that zhe appears more masculine than feminine.

Gaining the trust of subjects is always the most important part of making an effective documentary. While Venus Boyz director Gabrielle Baur obviously accomplished that objective, her documentary falls short of being completely successful. The film feels like a collection of snapshots of individuals rather than a cohesive portrayal of a subculture.

*Confused by the strange 'Z' words in that sentence? Read about them here.

'Dollhouse': "Echo" (Unaired Pilot)

When I heard that the original Dollhouse pilot was not going to be aired as the first episode of the series, I groaned a little on the inside. I worried the switch foretold the recurrence of what happened to Firefly, despite Joss' insistence that he, rather than the network, chose to rework the pilot. But I admit that "Ghost" wasn't a "Train Job," and I can now say that "Echo" definitely isn't a "Serenity."

"Echo" does feel like more of a pilot to me than "Ghost" did, mostly because it focuses on the Dollhouse, rather than a client, and Ballard's investigation getting too close for Adelle's comfort. However, "Ghost" does a much better job of showing how the actives function rather than telling. "Echo" has a lot of exposition, but it also raises more of the moral and ethical debates regarding the concept of the Dollhouse. I kinda like this speech Topher gives:

You wear the tie because it never occurred to you not to. You eat eggs in the morning but never at night. You feel excitement and companionship when rich men you've never met put a ball through a net. You feel guilty, maybe a little suspicious every time you see that Salvation Army Santa. You look down for at least half-a-second if a woman leans forward. And your stomach rumbles every time you drive by a big golden arch, even if you weren't hungry before. Everybody's programmed, Boyd.

The pilot also affords Eliza Dushku better opportunity to play multiple characters, and she does really well. I enjoy her performance of practically all her personas, especially "Shauna Vickers," and each of them feels very distinct from one another. She even speaks Spanish, and her accent doesn't sound half-bad. I appreciate that none of the engagements in which she participates are particularly salacious, unlike the motorcycle-riding, shirt-dress-wearing persona in "Ghost." I also like that Echo's increasing self-awareness is specifically addressed in the pilot. Since all of the articles I read about Dollhouse mentioned that the plot of the series would be driven by Echo gaining a sense of self, I was surprised that "Ghost" didn't prominently feature a glitch.

I think I agree with Joss' decision to create a new first episode. While I'm usually yelling at him to hurry up and do something, here I felt like I needed to jerk back on Joss' reins. Especially in regards to Ballard, "Echo" jumps into plotlines and introduces ideas really quickly. Most of the first twenty-five minutes of the episode were cannibalized and used in other episodes throughout the season, and those scenes work as well if not better in their new contexts as they do here. The arguable A-story of the episode concerning Ballard and Echo was replaced by the slow-burning Ballard/Mellie storyline, which I prefer. The concept of Echo's first engagement as a Scared Straight-type, and some of the ideas it presents ("I am you, dumb-ass. I'm the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come."), also seems to have been morphed into the pro bono engagement in "Briar Rose."

In addition, Joss decided to hold out on revealing that Lubov is really an active. Even though the Whedonesque community wasn't surprised by the reveal, I think it was a good decision to sit on revealing that Lubov and Mellie are actives because it created a greater sense of paranoia that anyone could be a doll. Because of Tahmoh Penikett's presence, I can't help but compare the revelation of the "undercover" dolls to the divulgement of the 12 cylon models on Battlestar Galactica. Of course, revealing who are dolls isn't near as suspenseful as revealing cylons because an antagonism doesn't exist between actives and non-actives as it does between cylons and humans. But I do think that Joss manages to make the reveals of November and Whiskey interesting and significant, each in their own way. If Joss has any more doll reveals planned for season two, hopefully they won't be ruined.

I think what I find most interesting about pilots is seeing how/if any of the personalities of the main characters had been tweaked for the series proper. For example, in the C.S.I. pilot Gil Grissom is much more outgoing and personable, and in the Wonderfalls pilot, Aaron's disinterest and disconnection from Jaye belies the close relationship they have later on. In the case of this pilot, Boyd is much less fatherly and protective of Echo, sitting casually in the surveillance van reading a newspaper while she has a gun pointed at her heart. Adelle seems more human and less austere, though she still terrifies me with the small smile she gives to Topher and Boyd during their conversation about the mishap with Ballard. And Dr. Saunders seems much more self-conscious about her scars, literally hiding in the shadows for the bulk of a scene.

While Topher doesn't seem all that different, his characterization feels rocky. He has his three major personality traits on display – arrogance, questionable morality, and immaturity – but he seems a lot less nonchalant than usual. He says that he doesn't care about the moral questions surrounding what he does in the Dollhouse, but he becomes pretty intense in the (boring) argument he has with Dr. Saunders. Maybe Joss intentionally wanted to hint that Topher doesn't feel as detached as he seems, but having both his conversation with Boyd and discussion with Dr. Saunders in the same episode feels heavy-handed. Justifying that the imprinting isn't morally wrong, Topher tells both of them that the dolls fall in love, suggesting that maybe Topher envies that aspect of the dolls' engagements because he thinks that he can't or won't fall in love. But again, having him say the same thing twice in one episode feels clumsy. Topher says to Boyd that they are dolls and their bosses are like children who break their toys, which feels out of character. He is too full of himself and his abilities to ever compare himself to one of the actives.

Favorite lines:
  • "Eddie, she lacks ambition." (Echo)
  • "You are a dead woman." "Then how can you possibly hurt me?" (Eddie & Echo)
  • "Yeah. People are mostly crap." (Lubov)
  • "Was that flirting?" "I think so." (Loomis & Ballard)

Random thoughts:

  • What's with the anti-woman sentiment? Echo says, "Did you see him crying like a tiny woman?" and, "I'm trying so hard not to be such a girl." She makes both of those statements while she is imprinted, so maybe it's a comment on how society "programs" a certain amount of self-loathing in women? I don't know.
  • Ashley Johnson from "Omega" appears here, and she is just as good. Johnson has come a long way from being the baby on Growing Pains.
  • I don't know if it's the lighting or imperfect make-up, but Dr. Saunders' skin looks almost reptilian-like when she peeks through the files at Topher.