LOS ANGELES - When Capt. James T. Kirk vowed to boldly go where no man had gone before, he wasn't just talking about beaming down to the planet Dimorus. In between cosmic shootouts, the USS Enterprise subtly but surely set out to explore the subjects of civil rights, class warfare and an escalating war in Vietnam.
Nearly half a century after "Star Trek" was launched comes the debut of "Caprica," and while special effects and action sequences have advanced at warp speed, the Syfy Channel series is still using a futuristic setting to reflect the very real issues of the modern world, specifically terrorism, greed, discrimination and two continuing wars.
"I think science fiction has historically been a genre that reflected the times that they were in," said co-executive producer David Eick.
"Caprica" is certain to receive a lot of initial attention as it is the prequel to "Battlestar Galactica," a cult favorite that chronicled the adventures of a band of space-hurtling renegades searching for a rumored paradise called Earth while being hunted by the Cylons, an army of robots they created.
The new series, set 58 years earlier, focuses on genius inventor Daniel Graystone, hellbent on creating the ultimate fighting machine, even as he mourns the murder of his child. Through a series of accidents, he unknowingly sucks the soul of his dead daughter's avatar into the first Cylon.
It's a chilling scenario, made all the more so by the fact that the trapped girl, played by Alessandra Torresani, a 22-year-old actress with a cherubic face and wet eyes, looks like a tweener whose only worry should be trying to get a ride to the mall.
The cruel irony furthers the franchise's most prominent theme: Technology overload can lead to catastrophes much greater than eyestrain.
"I think what's interesting about this show is that it shows how men and women are not always motivated by the best of intentions," said Eric Stoltz, who plays Graystone and directed one of the season's 18 episodes. "There are things happening in our world that are staggering. I think about the atom collider in Geneva and even the H1N1 vaccine. No long-term testing. Billions of dollars. We buy it. We hope it's good for us, but who knows what's going to happen in 10 years?"
"Caprica," like its predecessor, is not satisfied just addressing the perils of advanced science. Early episodes give clear nods to current headlines on Mexican immigration and the plummeting stock market. Then there's the two-hour premiere's centerpiece: a terrorism attack, seemingly perpetrated by an underground group that believes there is only one God, a creator with the path to true happiness. The conventional wisdom on this distant planet is that it's more appropriate to worship multiple spirits.
Taking up the topic of religion on TV can be more daunting than the wrath of Khan, but Eick insists that SyFy executives have never put up any roadblocks.
"We were actually encouraged to embrace the idea," he said. "The only note we got about religion was from an executive, who's no longer at the company, who read the line from the 'Battlestar' miniseries -- 'God is love' -- and said, 'That's great. More of that.'"
Of course, in this sci-fi world, religion is not as cut-and-dried and comforting as it was in, say, "Seventh Heaven." For example, it's actually the robots that are more inclined to embrace a kissing cousin of Christianity.
Eick said it's impossible to mirror today's wars without examining the complications and contradictions of religion. He and his cast hope that the audience will also be willing to take that journey.
"It's an amazing time for this," said Paula Malcomson, who plays Graystone's wife. "It couldn't be more timely."
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