Right out of the gate Defiance is an ambitious undertaking. Never before has anyone so thoroughly thrown themselves into cross development this heedlessly. Mergining a malleable MMO world with a scripted television show is a dangerous proposition, which is almost destined for disaster. We can't know how successful the interaction between the platforms will be yet, but I can now confidently state that the television side of the equation is great. Defiance is the kind of grand science fiction that's been noticeably absent for too long from TV. It's the type of show that old heads still demand and expect from the SyFy channel but never thought they would get again.
Players of the video game will come in to Monday's episode having already gotten the gist of Defiance's backstory. The two hour pilot does a decent job painting the landscape, but is torn between establishing the setting, introducing the ensemble cast, and creating factional drama right from the outset. It may benefit viewers to know that a collective of alien species known as the Votans arrived at Earth in 2013 in "Ark ships". Fleeing their destroyed planet in cryosleep, they expected to find our planet uninhibited so they could settle it. Small amounts of the Votans were allowed colonies while fierce negotiations raged regarding their millions of frozen space bound followers. A brutal war broke out before piece could be established, and raged for almost seven years before the "Arkfall" event occurred. All of the orbiting Ark ships exploded, some raining down on Earth, chaotically introducing terraforming technology which knocked our biosphere into a cocked hat.
Most of this was hinted at during the pilot, though it isn't fully rendered for the new audience. I'm familiar with it solely from following the game's production, but some sort of short intro narrative would have gone quite a long way toward welcoming new folks aboard. Still, without this extra knowledge Defiance succeeds in making the case that it be added to your DVR schedule. It does this by taking tried and true elements from around sci-fi, adding cool and interesting new elements of it's own, then sewing it together into a warm patchwork quilt of familiar.
Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler) is a pastiche of a number of science fictions rogues we know and love. Predominantly he's a more serious Mal Reynolds of Firefly fame. As a former soldier who fought in the most brutal battle of a long gone war, he only wants to keep on moving from place to place, seeking his fortune while retaining his freedom (familiar, no?). The writers try a little too earnestly to make him feel like Han Solo, shoehorning in unnatural feeling instances of Nolan calling Amanda (Julie Benz) "Sweetheart". Easily forgivable when it's one of the only two weak spots of an otherwise strong debut.
Nolan travels the wastes searching for technology to scavenge with his adopted daughter Irisa, who is of the Irathient race (one of the most human looking aliens; resembling bronze skinned people with broad, alien noses). After being attacked by Irathient marauders, Nolan and Irisa flee into a forest where they are nearly overrun by mutated wildlife. Lawmen from the nearby town of Defiance come to their rescue, serving to converge our heroes with the show's titular local. As you probably know from the show's promotional material, the town itself is situated in the ruins of St. Louis, beneath the shadow of the Gateway Arch. It's protected by an energy net shielding system and by the natural bottleneck of a canyon approach (more strange effects from the uncontrolled terraforming).
Defiance most closely resembles an old west border town, complete with mines and badge adorned lawmen. Factions draw lines in blood on the dirt, divided by both economics and species' prejudices against each other. Despite that, there's a burgeoning Romeo and Juliet situation threatening to explode between the son of Castithan underworld boss Datak Tarr (Tony Curran) and the daughter of Rafe McCawley (Graham Greene), head of the family which controls Defiance's mines. Datak Tarr is one of the more interesting characters we're introduced to, as he'll doubtlessly be the engine behind seedy change on the series. He's a far more lethal version of Quark from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and I can easily envision Nolan sliding into Datak's own Odo. I didn't even recognize Jaime Murray as Datak's wife Stahma, the politically cunning behind Datak's ambition. She may have had a little too much of Lady Macbeth's Cool-Aid, and is definitely going to be trouble; Murray plays her disarmingly dangerously.
Perhaps the biggest strength of this show is its wide variety of alien races played in concert with its broken down, high tech western setting. Science Fiction has long mixed splendidly with old west motifs, and it's again great to see it succeed here. If they can continue to get the textured feel of the setting so dead on delicious, the writers should have no problems keeping the show fantastic.
Speaking of interesting aliens, Doc Yewll has got to be my favorite scifi medical professional since McCoy, Leonard H. She's of the Indogene race, who are mostly synthetic. Rather than simply be content with a flat skin look, notable for it's lack of detail, the producers of Defiance gave the Indogenes a bumpy skin texture that's a cross between reptilian and Under Armor workout wear. Trenna Keating portrays Doc Yewll with all the fire and indigestion of a down home country doctor, which should seem weird on her alien visage but comes across as so disaffected that you can't help but be drawn to her. It's certainly very early but she's already become my favorite character.
One last inclusion at the very end of the episode sent chills down my calloused gaming thumbs. I sometimes wonder if 30's Doo-wop/blues group The Ink Spots could have possibly comprehended their impact on the video game world. Their song Maybe set the tone for Fallout (1997) in a way orchestral music simply wouldn't have been able to (not to short change Ron Pearlman's unforgettable intro narration). Their song I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire was used for the intro when the franchise was relaunched with Fallout 3. More important to this discussion, it was used in the promotional commercial, which started out focused on the beat up future radio of the hulk of a bus. It blinks to life and the soothing tones of The Ink Spots follow the camera as it pans backward, first revealing a hula dashboard ornament (which is also featured in Defiance), before backing completely out of the bus to showcase the hollow wasteland beyond. The ending of Defiance's pilot is the same shot, worked in reverse. We start outside of a repurposed train car (similar in shape and size to Fallout 3's bus), moving in with The Ink Spots tune If I Didn't Care playing. Well played Defiance producers and writers, well played.
I purposefully avoided detailed spoilers since this is the first episode and some Maniacs may want to find out if the show is worth their time before committing. It is. This is, in this reviewer's humble opinion, exactly what's been sorely missing from science fiction on television. It even includes cursing in alien languages! Though it doesn't have the smack of impact that a hearty "FRAK!" offers, or the comedic timing of Firefly's Cantonese, it's one more detail adding a realistic feel to the setting. I'm anxious to see Defiance settle in to it's weekly hour long format, and you should not be missing this.
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Saturday'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.