The big deal about SyFy’s new TV series Defiance is that the show cost $100 million to make. Clearly, they spent most of that on the special effects, and not on the script. However, what’s left is a series with a lot more potential than it has problems.
Let’s start with the problems — well, not specifically the problems, the… "challenges to creativity," let’s say. Just so you know what we’re dealing with, here are Defiance’s main characters:
• Good-hearted scoundrel whose good heart transcends his scoundrel-ness and leads him to protect a group of good-hearted townspeople
• Good-hearted but violent, combat-skilled young teenage girl who hangs around with father figure/scoundrel
• Good-hearted but inexperienced new leader (specifically, mayor)
• Good-hearted prostitute
• Romeo and Juliet
• Romeo and Juliet’s dads
• A criminal who’s being a criminal to keep his son (Romeo) from being a criminal
• Lady MacBeth
• A group of townspeople who overcome their differences to fight together and save their town
• The surly doctor
You may have heard of these people before. Honestly, given how basic most of Defiance is, it’s amazing that the show works as well as it does. But let’s start with the recap before I get into the specifics.
Let me set the stage: In 2013, eight alien races came to Earth thinking it was unoccupied. We clearly said “Occupied!”
and our feet were totally visible underneath the stall door and that’s when the fight broke out. Eventually, thanks to a group of brave human and alien soldiers who “defiantly” put down their arms, everybody achieved peace. Unfortunately, the war had 1) destroyed all the aliens’ spaceships and 2) destroyed the humans’ ability to manufacture most 20th century items, meaning it’s basically the Wild West with futuristic doohickeys and random alien tech laying about.
If you’re going to get hung up on the problems with the setting, then you’re probably going to get hung up on the fact that most of the eight races look like humans with a slight bit of prosthetic make-up on (e.g., the Irathient have a weird lower forehead and no eyebrows, the Castithan are really pale and wear novelty contact lenses). I don’t know if this is an homage to the less scientific, more creative scifi shows of yesteryear or a result of SyFy blowing the show’s immense budget solely on the CG, though.
Han Solo Joshua Nolan and his adopted daughter Klingon River Tam Irisa are people who scavenge the hulks of the defunct alien spaceships that break out of orbit and fall to Earth. At their newest site, they discover something called the Terrasphere, which for all intents and purposes is a large, blue-glowing 30-sided die; unfortunately, before they can cash in and go to the beaches of Antarctica (did I mention that Earth had been terra-formed? Earth’s been terra-formed) they’re captured by Spirit Riders, who are motorcycle-driving steampunk aficionados who are also Irathient like Irisa.
Naturally, Irisa’s fighting prowess (and hidden knife) allow Nolan and Irisa to escape, although Irisa is shot. Nolan hides the 1d30 to save it for later in the episode, and is rescued from being eaten by giant bugs — because Earth has those too now, I guess — by the sheriff of Defiance, formerly St. Louis.
Defiance is celebrating their
Independence Day Defiance Day, commemorating all those fine men, women and aliens that did all that defying and inspired St. Louis to not be a hotbed of racial prejudice and violence. Since the Spirit Riders took all their stuff (except the glowy thing, but don’t mention that), Nolan and Irisa need to make some money, which meansthey need to find work, and by work I mean Alien Fight Club.
Alien Fight Club is run by Romeo’s Dad Datak Tarr, the Castithan who controls a great deal of Defiance’s criminal enterprises; he’s married to Lady MacBeth and wants to ensure his son Romeo has a better life. However, he’s not so noble he won’t make Nolan fight a blue, bioengineered hunk of steroids called a BioMan, and then take most of money Nolan wins beating the thing because Nolan “cheated.”
Nolan, in what is actually a refreshingly thoroughly scoundrel thing to do, uses the money to buy a prostitute at the bar/casino/whorehouse the NeedWant named Kenya, who also happens to be the owner. Meanwhile, Irisa sulks and
Romeo and Juliet Datak Tarr’s son Alak and Christie McCawley, daughter of Rafe McCawley (the owner of some mines and the other big mucketymuck in Defiance besides Tarr) share a dance. This is interrupted by Christie’s hotheaded older brother Luke, who is eventually found murdered later that night.
Obviously, Pops McCawley is not happy, and he storms to the NeedWant to kill Romeo. Nolan, sensing a chance to be both good-hearted and completely obnoxious, completely gets himself involved in the situation; shortly, the old sheriff is dead, Romeo is proven innocent, and Nolan has a job as Sherriff to find the killer.
As it turns out, the murderer is none other than Mayor Amanda’s unassuming Indogene assistant Ben, who also blows up the shield protecting the city… while coincidentally, a group on non-nice, warlike and completely CG aliens called the Volge (not the Bulge, as my filthy, filthy mind keeps telling me it is) march towards the town.
As the residents of Defiance get ready to leave, Mayor Amanda gives a stirring speech and everyone decides to fight, including the
Montagues and Capulets Tarrs and McCawleys. This is of course besides Nolan, who takes his reward for finding the killer and decides to leave. “Enjoy your reward,” Princess Leia Amanda calls after Han Solo Nolan.
But can Nolan really leave these people? Of course not. He spies a group of children on his way out of town. Remembering how he used to be a children once himself, Nolan decides to stay and fight — and, more importantly, use the 1d30 to make some sort of bomb that will kill the Volge. Irisa, who seems to genuinely dislike Nolan, freaks out, screaming at him for putting other people in front of his adopted daughter yet again, and drives off.
Eventually, there’s a fight between the residents of Defiance and some kind of videogame. Seriously. For all the money SyFy spent on it, the epic battle that closes the finale appears to take place miles apart from each other, and one in live-action and one on an Xbox. But even the shots that are all CG Volge don’t always look that good; the close-up shots are particularly terrible, reminding me of really, really early PS2 games. But I’ll come back to that in a moment.
All that’s left is for
Han Solo to fly out of nowhere, shoot Darth Vader’s TIE fighter, sending it spiraling out of control, allowing Luke time to fire the photon torpedo down the Death Star’s thermal exhaust port Irisa to come back in the nick of time with the Spirit Riders from the very beginning of the episode, who have suddenly decided to become good guys. It all ends with the doohickey bomb somehow killing every single member of the Volge while not killing any of the Defiancians (Defiancites? Defianceers?) or the Spirit Riders.
The Mayor offers Nolan the sheriff job full-time, and, while he ponders that, there's a well-shot but completely unsurprising reveal that young Nolan grew up in St. Louis, and thus has an unrevealed attachment to the place. Oh! And apparently the former, universally beloved mayor Amanda has taken over for is the one who had Ben blow up the
shield generator shield generator and sent the Volge marching towards Defiance, all as part of some scheme to get some artifact she apparently forgot to pick up during her eight years in office.
So I understand this recap may not make Defiance sound like a hotbed of originality, and it most certainly isn’t. The whole warring families/Romeo and Juliet/Tarrs and McCawleys is especially rote. But even if it doesn’t navigate these time-honored characters, plot devices and tropes deftly, it still does so solidly, and, as I mentioned earlier, there’s just enough actual quality — especially in the second act — to make me genuinely hopeful about Defiance moving forward.
For instance: Apparently, the reason Irisa hangs out with Nolan is because he murdered her parents…. which was a good thing. The character of the deputy is great, and his relationship with Irisa is pretty much instantly interesting. The reveal that the mayor and the Good-hearted Prostitute are sisters is a neat idea, especially since no one, and I mean no one, seems to find the Prostitute’s job any less valid than the Mayor’s, which is awesomely progressive. Lady MacBeth talks Romeo’s Dad into letting Romeo marry Juliet so they can kill Juliet’s Dad and get control of all his mines (sorry, I’m not looking up all these goddamn names again), which is a cool twist on the otherwise extremely standard story. Defiance’s shield generator gets destroyed, immediately raising the stakes for every character in a very smart way. And while I couldn’t understand why Irisa hung out with Nolan, since she seems to hate him, there’s a scene at the end where the characters express such happiness to be reunited that it (mostly) takes care of it.
Think of it this way: Defiance is a set of Lego bricks. Right now, Syfy is generally following the instructions that came in the box, with a few instances of inspired creativity. So the building blocks are all there; the only limit is the show’s imagination. If they can stop themselves from following the damn instructions of every scifi TV series ever, they could make some really, really cool shit.
I can envision a Defiance that is must-watch TV each week, with characters we’ve come to love (or hate) clashing against each other among the greenscreen and the Vancouver sets. I can see a Defiance whose mythology keeps us riveted to learn everything about its world, the aliens that suddenly inhabit it, and what happened between 2013 and 2046. I can imagine a Defiance with depth and drama, that throws away the basics and takes all these familiar characters in weird, fascinating new places.
But I can also see a Defiance that churns out cookie cutter scifi plot after plot, using a variety of standard characters, that does nothing but trot out things we’ve seen before but with (occasionally) better CG.
The potential is there. All SyFy has to do build it.
A Note on SyFy’s $10 Million:
Defiance looks like a SyFy show that cost $100 million… meaning it looks like a SyFy show, with its many less-than-perfect greenscreen and CG shots, but with bafflingly beautiful instances of CG thrown in. It seems like some really good VFX company got the far away shots of the city, of the battle, and the broken spaceships orbiting Earth, but then SyFy had their regular team do everything else. All the vehicle scenes are especially terrible (again, think early PS2). It’s really jarring to see the two side-by-side.
However, I think the money helps more than it hurts — those establishing shots do wonders to make the world feel real, even as the world is filled with aliens that are only barely different from humans — but it can be kind of jarring. The real question is whether SyFy spent that $10 mil across the entire season, or did they blow their wad on the pilot. I don’t think the show needs to have that insane budget to work going forward, but I can see a lot of people tuning out if future episodes don’t live up to the visual standard of the pilot.
• Grant Bowler as Nolan is not nearly as smooth as Nolan, Bowler, or SyFy wants to pretend he is.
• I actually find the incredibly simple, scifi throwback aliens charming, although it does make those few moments of awesome CG stand out even more.
• When the characters have to deliver exposition — and between it being the pilot and all the weird setting shit they had to explain, there was a lot of exposition — it’s terrible. People using very basic words to explain exactly who they are, what they’re doing, and what they want. But then there’s the other scenes, the smaller character moments, and those are pretty good. It’s that sort of stuff that makes me hopeful going forward, since at a certain point Defiance shouldn’t need to set its stage anymore, right?
• Phrase I hope becomes part of the nerd lexicon: “Sex business.”
• People have energy blades, because it’s the future! Also, aliens!
• People dance all weird, because aliens! And it’s the future!
• There are socially accepted whorehouses now, because it’s the future! And probably aliens! Also, definitely Firefly!
• The BioMen, who are Prometheus’ Engineers on steroids, have their off switches located in their asses. This seems like a design flaw to me.
• Did anyone think when the doc was doing the Terrasphere thing she was playing a really terrible Kinect game?
• Seriously: Why did the apparently evil Riordan work as the mayor for eight years, incur no one’s wrath, did no apparently evil things, then quit and immediately had evil aliens march on the town to kill everybody? What the hell does she want that possibly requires everyone in town to die first? Why wasn’t she working on this all the time she was mayor? I’d love to think Defiance has an answer for the questions besides “We needed a twist for the end of the pilot,” but I’m not sure. Crossing my fingers, though.