With the new series Defiance Sy-Fy tries something unexpected: original science fiction! Kidding aside, Defiance is a promising series that genre fans are going to find a lot in common with. It combines the desperate group of survivors motif of Lost and Battlestar Galactica with the strange new worlds right her on Earth concept of Primeval and Terra Nova, and the high-minded, cross-cultural moralizing of the grandfather of all TV sci-fi, Star Trek.
That’s highly ambitious, right? Fortunately, Defiance might have the pedigree to pull it off. Developed by Rockne S. O’Bannon (Farscape, Cult) and executive produced by O’Bannon, Kevin Murphy (Caprica, Reaper) and Michael Taylor (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Battlestar Galactica), Defiance introduces us to a brave new world called Earth. Forty-three years from now, the planet’s been altered by the arrival of seven alien species collectively called the Votans. Terraforming accidents have introduced new plants and animals into the ecosystem, entire landscapes have been altered with plains being turned into mountain ranges, flowing rivers completely drying up, and entire cities buried under the new Earth.
The series’ namesake is the frontier town of Defiance, named after a group of human and alien heroes of the Pale Wars called the Defiant Ones. Humans and aliens live together side-by-side in Defiance, building a community and maintaining some semblance of human civilization. Into town arrive former Marine Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler), and his adopted daughter Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas), a member of the feral Votan race called the Irathient. The town is governed in a fair-handed but idealistic manner by Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz) though her job is occasionally made politically difficult by Defiance’s two biggest patrons, human mine owner McCawley (Graham Greene) and Datak Tarr (Tony Curran), a member of the noble Castithan race who’s ostensibly the town’s mob boss although he struggles too to be seen as a legitimate businessman.
The pilot episode chronicles Nolan and Irisa’s arrival in Defiance after loosing their ride and their supplies to a group of Irathient bandits called the Spirit Riders. Nolan immediately ingratiates himself with the matron of the local bordello, and gets on the bad side of Datak Tarr. But mysterious forces conspire to destroy Defiance for some mysterious MacGuffin that will alter the destiny of all races – human and alien – on the new Earth. Defiance fans, say ‘hello’ to your mythology. What is this MacGuffin? Why are they after it? How will it change the world? Let’s just say that Fionnula Flanagan is perfectly cast as Defiance’s former mayor Nicky Riordon.
The follow on two episodes settle pretty quickly into the format of a new danger arising weekly in Defiance as its inhabitants struggle with their own personal angels and demons. In “Down In The Ground Where The Dead Men Go” we see how Castithans treat deserters, torturing them to death on a rack like device, and how that affects more moralized members of Defiance, while Nolan and McCawley follow a traitor into the ruins of old St Louis to stop another plot to destroy the town. Then in “The Devil In The Dark,” Irisa discovers some insight into an interesting Irathient ability as some unknown assailant targets certain townspeople with creatures known as “Hell Bugs.”
In these first few episodes of Defiance I see a lot in common with a personal favourite of mine, Babylon 5. Like the beginnings of that show I see it struggles balancing its cultural examinations and its determination to deliver new and interesting stories in a well-worn genre. Fortunately, I think there’s a lot to work with. Like B5, the aliens are instantly and distinctively drawn suggesting a unique and intrinsic culture for each one. Some are better drawn than others in these first three episodes, the bird-like Liberata are barely seen, and the orangutan-resembling Sensoth only stand out as background players, but I expect they’ll each get their day before season’s end.
The actors tasked with bringing this series to life ares certainly a compelling bunch. Julie Benz is a highlight giving Mayor Rosewater a hopey-changey disposition while confidentially playing the realization of the somewhat daunting office she carries. Greene is always solid, even if he has to play straight one of the most contrived storylines as the scorned father who learns that his daughter Christie (Nicole Muñoz) is engaged to Datak’s son Alak (Jesse Rath). Tony Curran is good playing the shifty nature of Datak, a masochist in some ways, but at heart essentially a street kid trying to prove he’s worth a damn, but if there’s a Tarr to watch it is Jaime Murray’s Lady Macbeth interpretation of Datak’s wife, Stahma. My favourite character though has to be the prickly Dr. Yewll (Trenna Keating), a member of the bio-mechanical Indogene race whose delivery is as tart as her medicals skills proficient.
As for the series’ leading man, Grant Bowler, he gets to show off a lot of swagger, and sometimes some deep emotion. Initially Nolan is played as a Han Solo-type, a look-out-for-number-one lone wolf trying to make his way to the beautiful (and somewhat fabled) beaches of Antarctica. He’s also a capable man with a gun, and a jack of all trades so far as the arts of tracking, scavenging and scheming, but he’s initially hesitant to get involved in the affairs of Defiance. We learn that Nolan actually grew-up in St. Louis pre-invasion, but so far that hasn’t been played up much, not that we really need to know more on that end. I think both Bowler and the writers paint enough complexity on Nolan to avoid trying to shoe-horn him into the show’s mythology, and Browler easily proves that he can handle both the action requirements and the emotional beats with equal skill.
Of course, one of the things that will set Defiance apart is the concurrent game that’s part-in-parcel with the show and its canon. I’m not sure how that aspect of the franchise will be handled, but I will say that the climactic battle of the pilot felt a bit too much like a video game for my taste given the faceless, personality-less, and rather omnipresent threat of the apparently terrifying Volge. Like a good video game villain, there are a lot of them, they’re supposedly scary, they can climb walls, and they have a bad ass reputation. The big fight in the pilot’s third act was, I think, the weakest part of the series I’ve seen so far, so hopefully that’s not indicative of the game, or how the series will handle action from now on.
But overall I found Defiance, as a show, engaging enough to return for episode four. Like many sci-fi (and Sy-Fy) predecessors it shows great promise. I’m very interested to learn more about the world and the aliens, but more importantly, I’m very interested to see where these characters are going, and how they’ll interact on a weekly basis. I’m also interested, to a lesser degree, in seeing what the big mystery is. It will undoubtedly be disappointing, but Defiance has enough going on that I (probably) won’t mind.
Defiance airs Mondays at 9 pm on Sy-Fy in the Unites States and at 10 pm on Showcase in Canada.