‘Defiance,’ headed somewhere in space
Just where is the issue facing the creators of this Syfy drama
April 12, 2013
A good series premiere should leave us thinking that the creators have assembled the right ingredients for at least a few stories. But then they have to prove it in the following episodes.
The two-hour premiere of Syfy’s new drama “Defiance” is a promising blend of science-fiction staples. Unfortunately, the next two episodes suggest that the creators don’t know how to keep those staples from going stale. The narrative energy flags, and the characters become less interesting.
The current paucity of classic sci-fi on TV might keep fans of the genre tuned in, but most viewers will eventually beam out.
Premiering next Monday, April 15, at 9 p.m., “Defiance” is set in the relatively near future, after the invasion of earth by seven mostly humanoid alien races. A long war for planetary dominance ended 15 years ago in an armistice, and members of most of the species are attempting to live in peace in a mining town called Defiance, which is built over the ruins of St. Louis.
Nolan (Grant Bowler), a former soldier traveling through the wilderness with his adopted daughter, a sulky teen Irathian named Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas), shows up in town after being robbed by motorcycle-riding members of Irisa’s species. The new mayor, Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz), senses that Nolan is trouble and takes away his weapons.
The town is dominated by two rival males: Rafe McCawley (Graham Greene), a human who controls the mining, and Datak Tarr (Tony Curran), a Castithan who seems to be behind the shadier businesses. Naturally, Rafe’s daughter, Christie (Nicole Muñoz), and Datak’s son, Alak (Jesse Rath), are having a secret romance.
Datak’s scheming wife, Stahma (Jaime Murray), thinks that they can use this situation to eventually gain possession of the mines. Unfortunately, the romance causes a beef between the families that could turn murderous.
Like many post-“Star Wars” sci-fi projects, “Defiance” draws on tropes from westerns. Nolan is the typical loner who arrives in a small town just when it needs help keeping the peace. Like many post-“Star Wars” sci-fi heroes, his character draws heavily on Han Solo.
At one tense moment, Mayor Amanda says to Nolan, “Did you just call me ‘sweetheart’?”
“It was my second choice,” he replies.
Since Harrison Ford drew heavily on previous western heroes when he played Han, he can’t complain about being ripped off. But maybe it’s time for actors and screenwriters to freshen up this shtick by going back to the original sources.
Mutually suspicious races trying to build a new society out of chaos is a theme that has excellent plot potential — as well as arguable relevance to our increasingly multicultural world — but the premiere episode ends with the introduction of a MacGuffin that is still unexplained at the end of the second episode and is completely ignored in the third.
Viewers will gradually come to suspect that the show’s creators haven’t thought things through, even those details that sci-fi geeks are likely to care about. The devastated postwar society apparently lacks computers but still has mobile phones, not to mention hand-held devices that can sniff out the pheromones of a monster arthropod known as a hellbug.
The aliens, even the ones born on their home planets, mostly speak unaccented North American English. And a nuclear reactor — buried underground by a vaguely described process called terra-forming, which seems to have been thrown into the mix simply to explain why the terrain around Defiance looks nothing like Missouri — has been left untended for years without either exploding or melting down.
Early on, it seems Nolan is going to be at the fulcrum of a love triangle that includes Mayor Amanda and Kenya (Mia Kirshner), the madam of the town brothel, who immediately takes such a shine to Nolan that she offers him a 50 percent discount. This situation turns out to be creepier than expected, but then it sort of fades away.
The cast, mostly familiar TV journeymen from Canada and other Commonwealth nations, proves that even in our multi-channel world, there’s more acting talent than there are good jobs.
In either a nod to or a rip-off of the censor-proofed obscenity “frak” from “Battlestar Galactica” — and to “shazbot” from “Mork & Mindy” — the characters frequently shout “shtako!” In case the meaning isn’t clear, in the third episode, they encounter a big pile of hellbug shtako.
Some of the computer-generated wide shots aren’t up to modern TV standards, although they would look fine on a computer screen. In fact, according to press materials, the series is being launched in conjunction with a “multi-platform video game” that has its own related story line.
It’s possible, as the press materials say, that the two versions of “Defiance” will “evolve together” into a powerful and coherent story. But what we’re seeing on TV seems to be devolving into an average serial drama. For the sake of sci-fi fans, we hope it doesn’t turn to shtako.
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