The best science fiction not only stirs our imagination but offers a reflection back to the plain old Earth that we live in today. Bundled in the stories we tell of alien races and futuristic technology are the politics, ethics, culture and religion of the present era, whose problems—depending on where on the spectrum from dystopia (Firefly) to utopia (Star Trek) it falls—are either magnified or solved in the fantastical society on the page or screen. In either instance, they provide a commentary on our own society. And if they’re great, that commentary is subtly wrapped up in believable characters and an engaging story.
At their worst, the commentary is preachy, the characters are cartoons and the story is predictable. Science-fiction television is often at its worst. But I very much want Syfy’s Defiance to be science-fiction at its best.
It’s ambitious, which should be a good thing when it comes to TV shows filled with aliens and spaceships. In addition to the TV series, which debuted last night, Trion World has developed a massively muliplayer online game, released two weeks ago. The game provides a lot of the backstory missing from the pilot.
In the near future, seven alien races collectively known as the Votans traveled thousands of years to Earth, not knowing it was inhabited. While some colonists were allowed to settle, the bulk of the refugees remained in stasis on their ships while humans and Votans negotiated for their settlement. When the ships were mysteriously destroyed, the Pale Wars broke out and alien terraforming technology was chaotically unleashed upon the planet, reshaping the landscape and introducing dangerously altered creatures from the Votans home worlds.
It’s a well-developed backstory, complete with languages developed for the Castithan and Irathiant races by David J. Peterson, the same linguist who created the Dothraki language for Game of Thrones.
Grant Bowles stars as Joshua Nolan, a former marine who makes his living scavenging Arkfalls, the scraps of alien transport ships that periodically drop like meteors into the earth, destroying whatever is in their path but providing technology to the highest bidders. His adopted daughter is a headstrong Irathient named Irisa Nyira, who’s particularly handy with a knife and can sing like June Carter.
The pair find a particularly valuable energy source before being taken captive by a gang of steampunk Irathients. Nyira is shot in the escape and father and daughter are surrounded by mutant hellbugs when they’re saved by the Chief Lawkeeper of Defiance.
The town itself is a futuristic St. Louis, now a small secluded valley with the ruins of the Arch. While Irisa is nursed to health, Nolan learns about the sprawling town, named after a battle in which he fought. After meeting the mayor (Dexter’s Julie Benz) and fighting a Bioman (an engineered superhuman) in the pits, his next stop is an upscale brothel—despite the rough town and brutal Castithan mafia, the brothel is portrayed as a place of warmth, run by the mayor’s sister, a strong, confident woman who handles the smelly miners with a smile.
I’d love to imagine that all it takes is a few decades and an interstellar war to make prostitution the victimless crime we’d all like to imagine it is. But having our protagonist roll into town and pay for a romp in the sack does little but propagate the myth of the charming john and the happy hooker. I don’t doubt that there are prostitutes out there who enjoy their profession, but the vast majority are young girls coerced into turning tricks to line the pockets of their pimps. Many are trafficked slaves. Nolan is painted as a womanizer with a heart of gold, a Han Solo for a new era. But when our science-fiction glosses over our current problems—or worse, glamorizes them—it fails miserably in its mission.
There’s a Romeo and Juliet plot between the town’s two most prominent families, the human McCawleys who run the mines, headed by Rafe McCawley (the Oscar-winning Graham Greene), and the Castithan Tarrs who run the fighter pits. When Rafe’s son is killed, he immediately suspects his daughter’s boyfriend. In the ensuing brawl, the Chief Lawkeeper is accidentally killed. It’s up to Nolan to solve the crime.
It’s a setup that we’ve seen twice recently in sci-fi TV—the protagonists of both Eureka and Terra Nova were similarly thrust into the role of sheriff. It’s a way to essentially turn the shows into police procedurals with a twist, allowing for self-contained episodes where mysteries are solved—and slowing down the overarching epic storyline.
But the pilot’s story is anything but small. The boy’s death is tied up in a conspiracy to wipe the town of its people. The mayor’s assistant sabotages the electronic shield, and an army of Volge—a violent alien race of automatons that was supposed to be left back on the dying home world—is on the march.
Nolan and Irisa take their reward money and run (they could have just cast Harrison Ford), before Nolan has a change of heart and uses his valuable energy source to help Defiance defend itself. The ensuing battle is impressively realized. The Volge are like mechanized Lord of the Rings orcs. Irisa, who’s angry at her father for staying and helping, arrives with reinforcements—those steampunks from earlier. But the real villain is revealed (mystery solved!) to be the former mayor (veteran Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan from Lost), the smoking woman who shows a willingness to put her former followers to death for an unnamed grander scheme.
It’s a promising start for the series and should be a hit with audiences hungry for ambition and scale in a sci-fi show. The characters are more cartoonish than Lost or Battlestar Galactica but less so than Terra Nova or many of Syfy’s sillier shows. The aliens have dominant traits but are mostly three-dimensional, and the mythology of the world is extremely well-developed.
What I hope it can do is keep us intrigued, ask more questions than it answers (did we need to find out this soon that the ex-mayor is behind it all?). And I hope it can create challenging moral situations, power through difficult relationships and give the characters depth. Avoiding the black-and-white is a worthy goal, but when the gray area is just a hero who inspires the local brothelkeeper to offer him a discount, that’s just a lazy way to get there. If you can develop two languages and an unrecognizable earth, develop original humans to inhabit this vast new world. I want to believe Defiance will.