We've seen the first three episodes of Syfy's biggest gamble to date, the half-futuristic neo-Western, half-MMO game Defiance. Was it worth the risk? Can Syfy resurrect the sci-Western without stepping in a big pile of "Firefly did it better?" Here are our first impressions.
Here's the backstory: On April 14th 2013, the Votanis Collective arrives on Earth after a 5,000 year hypersleep journey. The collective is made up of 5 different alien races who have fled their dying solar system. Earth was supposed to be their new beginning, so imagine their surprise when they wake up and find it well-populated with humans. Humans give the Collective a plot of land in Brazil, but like all good science fiction alien race wars, negotiations fail and the Pale Wars begin. This war over the Earth lasts for 15 years, eventually ending in an uneasy truce but not before blasting away much of the familiar landscape of our home. Defiance takes place 30 years after the Collective first appeared.
Now that the Earth has been forever altered due to war and alien terraforming, humanity goes full Tombstone. Cue the old timey steampunk leathers, aliens in top hats, and dirt roads. Because concrete doesn't exist anymore (seriously the townspeople can build a new Saint Louis Arch but not paved roads).
This neo-West world is centered around two drifters, and our main characters Nolan (played by the forever-stubbled Grant Bowler) and his adopted alien daughter Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas). Together the two get saddled with the local Lawkeeper job in the town of Defiance. Putting them directly in the line of fire for every weekly drama.
This twosome is the heart and soul of the series, so thank goodness they're great. Irisa shines as the rebellious (but not obnoxious) teen counterpart to her dad's Mal Reynolds/Han Solo mashup that hasn't quite gelled yet. On the surface Nolan's character feels like another mediocre copy of great anti-heroes from out past, but by the third episode the relationship between these two brings out a lot of bigger themes that we're interested in. How can a human man raise an alien daughter? What mistakes will he make along the way? How will she respond to his failures coupled with her own adolescence? It's new drama territory that helps Defiance find its own voice. Irisa will win you over from the beginning, Nolan may take some time.
The rest of the Defiance citizens are torn between two warring, local families: The McCawleys, the town titans who own the very lucrative mine; and the Castithan Tarr family (a race from the Votani Collective). Datak Tarr (Tony Curran) is your run-of-the-mill Western Gangster. Think The Quick and The Dead's Herod meets Jabba the Hutt. Datak Tarr runs the gambling rings, fighting arenas and all the other seedy operations inside Defiance. He and his white clan stay fairly distant from the humans in town, until his son falls in love with the McCawley's daughter. Oh, we should mention that the McCawley cast is made up of folks from Native Americans and First Nations heritage, thus creating some kind of tortured metaphor that we're not really sure was truly thought out. Either way, the bad blood is good drama, especially when each weekly mystery slowly unveils more about the secretive world of the Castithan.
- The Cast. While a little cookie cutter (there's Sassy Good Guy, Angry Misunderstood Teen, Starcrossed Teen Lover 1, Starcrossed Teen Lover 2, Lady Macbeth, Idiotic But Well Meaning Town Mayor) sometimes this is a necessary evil for pilots. Especially with a complicated origin story like this. As the show expands into new parts of this podunk alien town it fleshes out the characters. Creepy motives are revealed along with even creepier alien bathing rituals. It's a giant cast of Alpha personalities which (thankfully) yields a lot of unexpected scenarios. Every time we expect Datak to go wild, he goes quiet. These characters are smarter than your average Stargate scientist.
- Weekly Storytelling. Each little pocket of story within each weekly episode is tightly formed. In three episodes there were three perfectly entertaining and engaging side stories that showed us a new side of Defiance. The smaller plots are well thought out and exceptionally clever. Whether or not the larger story will pan out, remains to be seen. But so far we're impressed with the week-to-week drama.
- Quality world building. Defiance the city feels legit. When you get over the initial shock that this is a show basically set in the Mos Eisley Cantina, you then realize, holy cow this a show set in the Mos Eisley Cantina! Look at all the aliens, and wacky weapons, the strange rituals. It takes a minute, but once you see giant Chewbacca creature taking his tiny dog out to poop, you're in. it's truly a vibrant new world.
- Spaceships and aliens on Syfy again.
- Firefly. The large Firefly fan base must disconnect from any sort of similarities that crop up on the new series if they're going to even remotely enjoy Defiance. Good luck with that, Syfy.
- Get a new trope. While we can forgive necessary cliche characters for the sake of a pilot, we can not excuse the hooker with the heart of gold. The big meeting place/restaurant in town is a brothel where people conduct "sex business." It's eye-roll-inducing and hard to watch. We get it — this is the hot new Defiance saloon that Syfy can set up at San Diego Comic-Con. But the whole premise is just so tired it makes us want to beat ourselves unconscious with a steampunk spittoon. This isn't the only Western trope we wish we could mercy kill. Hopefully once this series gets rolling it can shake off the ill-fitting metaphors and tired Western gags and focus on original storytelling.
- Defiance also suffers from a bad case of Phantom Menace. There is just too much CG shit going on at once. SLOW DOWN. For example, the town is surrounded by a gorgeous electric fence. In the big wall reveal scene the character stroll up to the lovely creation while alien bugs scatter all over the road. These creatures were insanely distracting and they're everywhere! Sometimes there's just too much stuff side trickery going on in the corner of your screen it's almost impossible to pay attention to the creations that deserve your applause.
TL;DR: The Verdict
On a Syfy scale of Battlestar Galactica to Piranhaconda, Defiance is in the upper middle. It's got heaps of promise and an amazing cast. Main character Irisa has a chance to become a new favorite round these io9 parts. It's got a lot of heart and so far is a lot of fun. Fingers crossed this series isn't afraid to kills off a few characters wild west style, and we'll stick around for season 2.