Full Spoilers in the Review Below!
Despite some slight pacing issues, this week's Defiance succeeds by further growing the roots of its world, strengthening the mythos surrounding the series, and introducing to the TV audience some elements that have been confined to the video game. A gripe or two aside, most of this works well in delivering a solid hours' worth of entertainment.
The greatest strength of this episode is in its deeply woven cultural divide. We drank of this cup previously and it's certain to be a recurring theme. The Votans are made up of many very divergent species of aliens and when you sprinkle volatile humans into the mix, the cake batter is liable to explode like Mentos and Coke. Each of the sentient alien races except three have settled in great numbers at Defiance. The villainous Volge (whom you'll recall tried to wipe out the town in the first episode), the pure energy Gulanee, and the rebelliously wild Irathients (Irisa's race) have not put down roots of their own yet in the melting pot of a town.
There's a strong undercurrent of racism direct at the Irathients, some of it grounded in a plague their people accidentally spread to humanity on arrival but more of it centered around their nomad biker lifestyle. In the Irathients there is very much a 60's biker film independent streak, which is a unique flavor to mix into the scifi frontier town formula. Their impending settlement in town at the conclusion of the episode will only introduce more cultural upheaval to the situation, which offers the writers more opportunity to use Defiance as a magnifying glass of our own societal issues (an important cornerstone of the best science fiction in any medium).
The leader of these "Spirit Riders" is Sukar (Noah Danby), whose Steampunk Slash with Kermit the frog overcoat has drawn our attention in every scene he's been a part of. Who could have guessed than under those costume layers of pop culture lies Conan the Irathient. Seriously Danby's built like a frakking freight train. With a mind and the emotional fortitude to match his physique, it's little wonder he's the leader of this nomadic tribe. The reserved, respectful, yet emotionally raw exchange between Sukar and Amanda makes for one of the more poignant conversations in the series thus far.
I'm of two mind regarding the Hellbugs, though they're a net positive to the series. As a frequent enemy in the Defiance game, it was only a matter of time before they were introduced and this serves to bring the two worlds closer together. Functionally the Hellbugs are nightmare fuel: gestating within the body, they eat bone marrow and line their nests with flesh. Using them as a directed weapon for vengeance helps reinforce the burning hatred that often motivates revenge. The bugs also give many of the ensemble characters a chance to show off their martial prowess, demonstrating how lethal each is.
This is especially the case for Datak, who's energy knife blossoms into his very own lightsaber-esk blade (my compliments to Tony Curran on his Jedi technique). Sadly the effect is muted by the poor CGI powering the Hellbugs. Their movement is odd and somehow inorganic. Their surface texture seems too glossy to be real. It's a shame because Datak is exudes awesome facing off against the bugs but they don't hold their own as his foes.
Datak is quickly become my favorite of the lead characters. Curran plays him on several levels simultaneously, at once reminiscent of Brent Spiner as Lore (Data's emotionally capable brother from Star Trek The Next Generation), Mark Sheppard's Badger from Firefly, and Giaus Baltar from Battlestar Galactica. Casting the bold, formidable Jaime Murray as his Lady Macbeth was a brilliant decision. I'm excited to see where they take their ambitions and where their ambitions take the town.
It appears we're adding psychic ability to the stew, combining it with the meat of alien life and the potatoes of advanced technology. The potential for this to cause fan backlash is present, but I personally think it's a welcome addition. The viewpoint that high technology and unexplainable mysticism cannot walk hand in hand seems like hypocrisy to me; just as it did as Battlestar Galactica wound down. In a universe of infinite possibilities were we allow ourselves to assume aliens exist, that they can travel through space and rapidly learn the English language, but we refuse to accept that one of those aliens could possibly develop telepathic powers? I call shenanigans.
The CGI somewhat redeems itself on the mother Hellbug, which is like something out of Lovecraftian lore or Hellboy comics, and looks good. Its anatomy is grotesque and frightening, with any graphical short comings disguised by the shadows. Still if they're to make frequent appearances going forward the the FX department is going to need to step up their computer generated game to match the high standard set by the practical effects folk.
Defiance is trying to play to a number of audiences. Light adventure space western or post civilization cultural and political drama? It's trying to be both which is a dangerous task. So far it's succeeding on both fronts while entertaining the hell out of me. I'll be back again next week for more frontier cultural adventure. Will you?
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Wednesday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famousColonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.