Down To Earth: An interview with Caprica Executive Producer Jane Espenson

Image Courtesy of NBC UniversalHERE’S SOMETHING I USED TO WISH ALOUD FOR ALL THE TIME: A SCIENCE FICTION TELEVISION SERIES WHICH, ON THE WHOLE ESCHEWED WEEKLY, EPIC, ACTION-PACKED STORYLINES FULL OF STARSHIP BATTLES OR UNIVERSE-THREATENING TEMPORAL PARADOXES AND FOCUSED MORE CLOSELY ON DAY-IN-THE-LIFE DETAILS AND INDIVIDUAL, DOWN-TO-EARTH (OR WHATEVER) STRUGGLES. Take your latest CGI of an improbably-hued accretion disk and shove it. I wanted to watch future or other-world parents ragging on their conflicted, rebellious teenaged offspring; to explore strange new clothing styles, personal deceptions, and forms of everyday, petty corruption; to seek out new living room layouts and furniture configurations; to boldly go… well, where we all go pretty much every day, except with new (and yet strangely-familiar) shit unfolding on CNNand NPR in the background.

The much-needed reboot of Battlestar Galactica went a long, long way toward fulfilling that wish of mine (with top-shelf writing, effects and acting to boot). But in another admittedly ludicrous, completely finicky sense, it was still too… epic. Too cool and exciting, too space-shippy.

What I suppose I really wanted (though I might have been reluctant to phrase it thusly) was the sci-fi equivalent of an honest- to-Gods soap opera, emo-drama, or culture-poke — a sort of Starfleet Academy 90210, or an off-planet Dallas or some such. I wanted to settle in every week, dent my couch for an hour, tear into some Cheez Fraks and — in a pseudo-sophisticated sci-fi kind of way — watch ma Stories.

Well, hey-presto: Either somebody out there is listening more intently to what I wish for, or I‘m just getting better at it. Either way, my near-future productivity will be dipping again, at least a little bit because the small-but-intrusive number of television shows I actually need to watch is going up by one.

Premiering on SyFy in early 2010, Caprica is more or less exactly what the holographic doctor ordered: A zoomed-down- to-ground-level look at planetside life and strife on the titular colonial homeworld taken from the Battlestar Galactica mythos, Caprica is a “science fiction family saga” that follows the intrigues and entanglements of at least two Caprica City families. (And just incidentally for the BSG crowd, one of them is the family that will come to be known as Adama. And, oh yeah, the other one is responsible for the subsequent rise of the Cylons, who will summarily glass the whole planet within 60 years.)

I spoke via email about Caprica with Jane Espenson, executive producer for the series. She was a co-executive producer of Battlestar Galactica, where she also wrote two episodes. She was a producer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and is the creator of Warehouse 13. Other writing credits include episodes of Firefly, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Dollhouse. She is editor of Serenity Found: More Unauthorized Essays on Joss Whedon‘s Firefly Universe and Finding Serenity: Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon‘s Firefly.

h+: It seems pretty clear that Caprica is intended for a somewhat different audience than was Battlestar Galactica. How would you characterize some of those differences — creatively, demographically, commercially, and otherwise? Beyond the obvious lack (at least for now) of BG‘s ubiquitous, male-oriented war-in-space trappings, what other elements characterize the Caprica series?

JANE ESPENSON: The show is about the brew out of which the war emerged — terrorism, crime, culture clashes, and the people who were either propelling all this stuff or got caught up in it. The main difference is that it‘s set in the middle of a society that (mostly) doesn‘t know it‘s on the road to destruction, while the BSG characters knew very well what their situation was. This is allowing us to take a sort of bigger scope view of a functioning world, and it‘s also letting us play with pop culture and throw a little bit of humor in, here and there.

Image Courtesy of NBC UniversalDemographically, it‘s tempting to say that it could attract more women than BSG did, but I‘m not sure that those templates of what male and female viewers like really hold true anymore. Wasn‘t there a thing earlier this year that said most slasher movie tickets were sold to women? I think our show has lots of stuff to tempt people who want character stories as well as those who are looking for a little more action. So far, not a lot of viper dogfights, but there are other kinds of action.

h+: Throughout Galactica, there ran strong, dramatically critical (and, at times, seemingly unavoidable) thematic echoes of 9/11, the subsequent War on Terror and many of their political/social repercussions. Do you see Caprica highlighting any particular issues? In the pilot alone, we‘ve already got a pretty strong wacko-fundamentalist/decadence of Western society/what-is-wrong-with-the-kids-these-days riptide going on, don‘t we?

JE: That‘s the great and wonderful thing about science fiction. It allows you to take these issues on directly and yet maintain a little distance at the same time, because you‘re talking about other worlds, other religions, other politics. And it‘s only with that distance that you can really get something like an objective take on the situation. So, yeah, we‘re definitely not shying away from stories about terrorism and cultural prejudice and revolution and the reach of governments and the power of the rich and the technological divide between rich and poor. Our characters are hugely invested in these issues in very personal ways; I don‘t think we could avoid them if we wanted to.

h+: How creatively challenging or restrictive (or perhaps downright distressing) can it get, fleshing out a setting, society and cast of characters that both you and the greater chunk of your intended audience know, in a sense, to be already doomed? I mean, this isn‘t exactly the typical end of the halcyon days of high school TV. This is the fucking Beginning of the End with Genocidal Nuclear Holocaust and Intragalactic Exodus to Follow after the Break, isn‘t it?

JE: Well, everyone knows about the fall of Rome, but we all still invested in the characters and events of Rome. These characters are alive now in our story, and they feel and yearn and have losses and wins and you feel for them. I feel that knowing what happens 58 years later perhaps adds poignancy, but you won‘t emotionally check out. We won‘t let you.

h+: Imminent doom by our own technological hubris aside for the moment, how would you say we are doing, societally, compared to Caprica? Is the portrayed state of “The clubs” and Caprica City‘s teen populace, for instance, even that much of an exaggeration for effect?

JE: One of Caprica‘s underlying assumptions —which I adore — is that not every culture undergoes the same steps in the same order. There are ways in which Caprica is more advanced than our current world and ways in which it is very much behind us. And others in which it is just different. The V-world, as depicted, is more technically advanced than our internet, but fills the same role… and our internet certainly creates a lot of those same illusions of lack of moral consequences.

Image Courtesy of NBC Universal

h+: Even for the arguably mature, sophisticated BG fanbase, those opening scenes in The club were certainly attention getting — immediate, compressed sex and violence and rock ‘n‘ roll (in a scene portrayed, in no uncertain terms, as teen populated) to a degree that made some of us early viewers look at each other in front of our TVs… like “Did you just see that too? ”Wasn‘t any of that an issue for the Sci-Fi (excuse me, SyFy) network?

JE: I don‘t think there was any problem with it from the network side — certainly nothing that I heard about!

h+: Please talk a little about the casting. Were these roles written with one or several of the principals already in mind? Did you have any casting surprises along the way? Had Stoltz [Eric Stoltz stars as Daniel Graystone] or any of the other actors expressed previous interest in Galactica, or in other potential science-fiction/drama projects?

Photo courtesy of janeespenson.comJE: All of this happened before I came on board. But new roles have been created since the pilot — some of them written with certain actors in mind, others altered after casting to accommodate the actor who was cast. We write a lot of our roles with no gender assigned — or rather, we pick one but tell casting to bring in everyone, and then rewrite if needed to fit the performer. I love doing that, since it ensures that you‘re not writing to any subconscious gender expectations. I know that Scott Porter (Friday Night Lights), who plays a role in the series, is a huge Battlestar fan. He is very pleased to be involved in the show. And James Marsters, of course, is someone I have a previous — and delightful — working relationship with. We have an amazing core cast and we‘ve been lucky to be able to augment it with some really strong additional casting.

h+: It seems that, on the personal level, the technology in everyday caprican life seems higher, slicker and cleaner than most of that in BSG. Is this a deliberate reference to the need for low-tech later on to thwart the Cylons, or just a consequence of escaping en masse from a nuclear holocaust in whatever ships come to hand? Both? Neither?

JE: I think you‘re seeing the tech in the world of Daniel Graystone, the Bill Gates of Caprica. If you look at the tech that ordinary people have access to in the shows, you‘ll see rotary phones, console radios, big CRT monitors, clunky answering machines… one of the things that‘s happening on Caprica is this inequity of access to the latest advancements. And yes, Galactica was also a very old ship. But a good ‘un.

Caprica premiers Friday, January 22 9 PM, 8 PM CST.

Chris Hudak (gametheory@mindspring.com) is a former San Francisco Zoo penguin recorder, a marginal Japanese-language student, and protagonist of the Harlan Ellison short story ‘Keyboard‘ — no, really.

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