Defiance S1: Pilot (SyFy)

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Episodes of the new SciFi sky-high concept series Defiance are airing on UK’s SyFy Channel just 24 hours after they hit their US counterpart, with the broadcaster evidently highly aware of the need to make the show into a simultaneous world-wide phenomenon. It’s an ambitious plan for SyFy, which hasn’t has a sizeable hit since the glory days of their Battlestar Galactica reboot.

defianceI confess, I didn’t think this would be for me: I’m something of a ‘fair weather’ scifi-and-fantasy fan, which means that while I love shows like Doctor Who, Star Trek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and movies like Star Wars, The Matrix and Inception, the minute things get too weird and strange I tend to get alienated (pun intended) and start to think it’s all a bit silly and just for kids. I expected that sensation to kick in while watching this new show just as it was always an impediment to my giving Muppets In Space – sorry, Farscape – a fair crack of the whip. Even Firefly never clicked with me, for all its implicit Joss Whedon-ness.

Sure enough, there were moments in the first 20 minutes of Defiance where I was wondering if I’d make it through the two-hour pilot before giving it up as a bad job. But then somewhere along the way, the show started to click for me after all: not totally, but enough to keep me watching. Enough to sit back at the end and say, “Okay – I’m in for episode 2.” Which is far more than I ever expected.

The series concept is that we’re on Earth some 33 years after a flotilla of alien vessels arrived in orbit. The Votan civilisation (consisting of seven different species of alien, giving the show potential for variety within its framing concept) thought they’d found a new home after their own had been destroyed by a stellar catastrophe, and were dismayed to find the accommodation space already taken. A series of disastrous misunderstandings (not gone into in the pilot but explained in commendably high detail on the show’s Wikipedia page) leads to war between humans and aliens, and the show opens post-conflict in a time of an uneasy truce with events centred on the eponymous city of Defiance situated on the ruins of old St Louis. We follow new arrival Nolan (Grant Bowler) and his adopted alien daughter Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas) as they arrive in town, with a series of events leading Nolan to take over as the town’s sheriff working for Mayor Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz, previously a star of Buffy and Dexter)) – a story beat that just underlines how much of a transplanted Western this show considers itself to be.

There’s been a fad of late for a spate of shows set in some post-apocalyptic scenario featuring a beleaguered community struggling to survive and reestablish civilisation. The Walking Dead has been an example of the best of them, while Tera Nova and Revolution have been painfully tepid, dated and uninspired efforts. Initially Defiance seems little better that those latter examples, and a moment when one character starts a speech containing a large chunk of exposition-dump with the words “As we all know …” feels like just the gratingly bad piece of writing that I criticised the start of Revolution for just a few weeks ago. Add to that a painfully unimaginative Capulet and Montague star-crossed young love affair between the daughter of the town’s leading human businessman and the son of their alien arch rivals and you wonder just how uninspired and generic this will be.

Well, the speech turns out to be a one-off affair that is somewhat redeemed by the character work going on behind it, while the Romeo and Juliet cliché quickly becomes a bridge to a far more interesting piece of nascent Game of Thrones-style dynastic plotting involving the father and mother of the alien family (played with scene-stealing appeal by Britain’s own Tony Curran and Jamie Murray.) There are other aspects of the show which give it unexpectedly convincing depth as well: the reason why such a committed outsider as Nolan should suddenly give up his personal hopes and dreams in order to become town defender is convincingly explained in a well-set-up but still surprising and cathartic visual reveal at the end, while the epilogue revelation of who is behind a plot to destroy the town had me genuinely gasp with a “No way!” laugh of surprise because I hadn’t seen it coming. For that alone, the series has earned my attention for a week or two more.

I’m not entirely convinced yet that I’ll stay with the show in the longer-term, or how much of my warm disposition towards Defiance is down to the fact that it’s not as insipid, generic and poorly-executed as Terra Nova, Revolution and their mainstream channel ilk. Where those shows have pretty people doing things in a romantically idealised back-to-basic rural society that screams of wish-fulfilment from those who just find modern society too complicated, Defiance has a genuine ambition and intelligence to it and presents a post-disaster world that is dangerous, tough, dirty, violent and realistic, for all the exotic aliens passing through shot. It’s supported by some overall impressive FX, with the exception of some inexplicably poorly-executed CGI of a ground car.

It’s a series that has clearly been extensively thought out with a promisingly rich and textured background to its premise. It could do with holding off on some of that a bit – by comparison with the slightly overwhelming flood of weirdness early in Defiance, the TV adaptation of Game of Thrones has been incredibly slow in spooling out its world and its secrets to the audience and is far more effective and immersive for that approach. As it is, Defiance has an awful lot of plates to keep spinning all at once if it’s to be a success. At any moment all the crockery could crash down to earth and this will be a very big and expensive mess (it’s reported that the 13-part series has a budget of $100 million, although up to half of that is for the development and distribution of a companion computer video game); but if it can pull it off, this could be …. interesting. Very interesting indeed.

Defiance airs in the UK on SyFy on Tuesdays at 9pm, with repeats during the following week. A date for DVD and Blu-ray release has yet to be announced. The third-person shooter RPG computer game is already available for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

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