IN TWEET: A SOLID CAST AND SOME SHARP WRITING ALMOST SAVES THE SHAMELESSLY DERIVATIVE AND MUDDLED “DEFIANCE,” A NEW SYFY ORIGINAL SERIES.
Every time SyFy launches a new scripted series there’s a tiny ember of hope that reignites inside me. Will this be the show that picks up the mantle of great science fiction television? One that has been laying dormant since BATTLESTAR GALACTICA wrapped in 2009. Keep the dream alive because DEFIANCE is not that show.
Behind the camera, there are some direct connections to the BSG mythos. Executive producers Michael Taylor and Kevin Murphy both worked on the dreadful prequel series CAPRICA and Taylor was a supervising producer and writer on BSG beginning with the third season.
Is DEFIANCE a bad show? Not really, especially considering how much junk fills the SyFy schedule these days. Still, big chunks of the pilot are a slog. Too much convoluted back story and not enough action. You know you’re in for a dry patch when the opening five minutes is a rambling VO that raises more questions than it answers. While it doesn’t make your eyes and ears bleed nearly as much as that interminable Princess Irulan opening in David Lynch’s big screen poo pile DUNE, it is a painful experience nonetheless.
In short: DEFIANCE takes place in the near future. Our planet has been decimated by the “Pale Wars” which were fought between humans and alien visitors. Known as Votans, it’s a seven species collective that now lives on a mostly dry roasted Earth, along with what remains of the human race. The Votans came in ships called Arks which circled the planet until 2030. That’s when the fleet mysteriously went BOOM in the “Arkfall Event.” Massive chunks of these ships rain down on Earth from time to time, creating problems for the unfortunate souls they land on and opportunities for scrap hunters who earn a living by stripping the debris. Blah, blah, blah.
After the opening lecture, we settle in with our two main protagonists: ex-Marine Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler) and Irisa Nyira (Stephanie Leonidas), an annoying, bratty Votan and Nolan’s adopted daughter (don’t ask). During a scrap run, they are intercepted by some baddies that look like rejects from a MAD MAX film. Daddy and daughter eventually end up in the fortified city of Defiance, run by newbie mayor Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz).
There’s a bunch of aliens and humans running around the city but the ones that really matter are Votan big wig Datak Tarr (Tony Curran), his wife Stahma (Jaime Murray) and their human rival Rafe McCawley (the always excellent Graham Greene). Think of the Tarr and the McCawley clans as the Hatfields and McCoys of DEFIANCE.
In fact, quite a bit DEFIANCE seems oddly familiar because it “borrows” so liberally from other sources. The look of the series runs the gamut from steampunk to post-apocalyptic to WILD WILD WEST with a garnish of hybrid plant life courtesy of THE FLINSTONES movies. There’s a ROMEO AND JULIETesque romance between teen members of the Tarr and McCawley families. The wise ass doctors from various entries in the STAR TREK franchise are re-born here in the form of stipple-faced Votan Doc Yewll (nicely played under heavy make-up by Trenna Keating). There’s those aforementioned MAD MAX-like denizens and a whole gaggle of aliens in crappy rubber face masks that resemble cutting room floor toss-offs from the cantina scene in STAR WARS.
The most egregious lift, in fact, comes from STAR WARS. The storyline and relationship between the Joshua Nolan and Amanda Rosewater characters looks and feels very Han Solo/Princess Leia. Bowler and Benz do some nice work here but what starts as a “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” homage to the George Lucas classic, turns into a near constant that ends up flirting with intellectual property theft. There’s even a scene where Nolan is loading his reward money onto a transport while a Death Star-like hoard of baddies is bearing down on Defiance.
There are some spurts of rousing action and moments of smart humor but, they’re few and far between. In fact, the entire pilot is like that; a two hour exercise in fits and starts that arrives at a conclusion you can predict 15 minutes in: Joshua and Irisa will decide to stay in Defiance. Along the way, we get special effects that aren’t much better than a cutscene in an Xbox 360 game. Battle sequences are so dark and muddy it’s difficult to discern what is going on. It also bugged the crap out of me that Defiance is actually what remains of St. Louis but, for some reason, the city now sits in a valley surrounded by very tall, craggy mountains on all sides. Um, have you checked out Google Earth? I can’t find a mountain range ringing The Gateway to the West.
Ultimately, DEFIANCE thinks it’s deeper and more ambitious than it really is. The two-hour pilot feels much longer and, for some reason, SyFy chose to use bumpers in breaks that pretty much give away the outcome of every pre-commercial cliff hanger. Duh! There is a twist at the end that intrigues but, like so much of the rest of the episode, it’s haphazardly presented and feels more like a throwaway.
Perhaps we’ll have to wait until later this year for the next great SyFy original. That’s when HELIX debuts, the new series from BSG creator Ronald D. Moore. You can check out the HELIX teaser trailer below and CLICK HERE to watch the full pilot episode of DEFIANCE online.
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DEFIANCE airs Mondays at 9pm ET/PT on SyFy.