To paraphrase the great John Hammond from Jurassic Park, SyFy “spared no expense” when putting together their latest TV series, Defiance. There is a massive video game tie-in that supposedly will affect certain outcomes on the show, a massive marketing campaign launched all the way back to July of 2012 at San Diego Comic-Con that has since come to a fever pitch, not to mention the enormous scale of the visual effects needed to pull off their extremely ambitious Pilot episode. So how did it all come together?
Pretty damn well. Defiance is an absolute blast that feels not quite like anything else currently on television. The show takes heavy influence from many different places, most noticeably Star Trek: DS9, Firefly and Farscape (Rockne O’Bannon helped develop the show!), but also carves out its own niche in this corner of the genre. There’s an old west aesthetic of lawmen, border towns and brothels that will certainly speak to the Firefly crowd, but in addition you have inspired prosthetic makeup designs and cutting edge CG effects that bring to life all seven species of the Votan (the overall name of all the alien species).
Speaking of the Votans, this story takes in the year 2046, thirty years after an entire star system of aliens showed up on Earth’s door step looking for a home after their star system was destroyed in a stellar collision. Following decades of failed diplomacy, a war erupted between the humans and the Votan that resulted in most of the Votan’s fleets being destroyed and crashing to Earth. But unexpectedly, terraforming equipment on the ships became activated in the crashes and transformed the very Earth itself, making Earth a new, almost unrecognizable alien planet.
Whew, there’s a lot of back story to take in just get to our heroes, but Defiance is epic in its scope and the world it creates is very important to the storytelling. Joshua Nolan is a former Marine with a badass resume that makes his living with his adopted Irathient daughter Irisa by salvaging Arkfalls (crashing debris of the Votan fleet that still orbit) and selling the pieces so they can save enough to get to the fabled beaches of Antarctica. But when Irisa is badly injured after they find an Arkfall haul that will let them retire, the two find themselves caught up in the affairs of the city that once was known as St. Louis but is now called “Defiance”.
Defiance, the show itself, is a big world and the amount of information that is thrown out at the audience is staggering. Figuring out all the different species names alone and their status in this current society is almost too overwhelming in the two-hour Pilot. Thankfully, none of it is too dependent on following the overall plot and they use the necessary exposition often but the two-hour episode gives the story time to breathe so you don’t feel like there’s too much info dumping.
Joshua Nolan is very much your typical Captain Mal/Han Solo lovable roguish type played by Grant Bowler (True Blood), and while he may not have the level of gravitas as the aforementioned actors in those roles, he’s still quite solid and likable with a lot of potential to grow. His adopted daughter Irisa is played with steely angst by Stephanie Leonidas who thankfully balances out the angst with some funny but cold one liners. Oh, and she’s a kind of a badass. Julie Benz (Dexter, Buffy) is Amanda Rosewater, the new inexperienced mayor of Defiance and sister to Kenya, the lead mistress at the local brothel, played by Mia Kirshner (The L-word, Vampire Diaries).
The rest of the lead cast consists of rival families the Tarrs, who are Castithans, and the McCawleys, a wealthy human family whom own the town’s profitable mine. While the Tarrs are a deliciously scheming family, they are thrown into the weakest element of the early episodes with their son involved in a star-crossed romance with Rafe McCawley’s daughter. The Tarrs are complex and even their inner dynamics and politics are layered and interesting, and hopefully have better in store for them than feuding with the boring McCawleys, who seem to fight with each other as much as other people.
One thing to really point out about this show is that Defiance is beautifully colorful, with dazzling visuals not only for a television show, but for any live action media. The designs are breathtaking and the action effects, especially in the big finale battle, are extremely impressive for a small screen budget. In almost every scene throughout the episode a new and interesting alien race is introduced, almost all with practical effects, and are distinct and visually cool, avoiding immediately just looking like a human in prosthetics.
But who wants a beautiful show with no substance right? The companionship between Nolan and Irisa is the center of the show and you truly root for them right from their first scene. There are lots of lovable minor characters spread throughout as well, and the Indogene doctor may just be the standout character from Pilot. You also get swept up into the scheming of the different alien species and you get the feeling there is an enormous amount of interesting stories open to tell in this vast world Defiance has created.
I had begun to wonder if all the money and marketing sunk into Defiance was going to end up dooming a flawed project, because my initial impressions of the show and game were less than optimistic. But I can honestly say I had a ball with the Pilot – it’s tons of goofy fun and I think the show fills a much-needed void for this type of science fiction on current television. Defiance is as entertaining as anything currently on TV and you’d be hard pressed to find a new show more fun in this season.