In the US: Mondays, 9/8c, SyFy. Starts April 15th
In the UK: Tuesdays, 9pm, SyFy UK. Starts April 16th
In Canada: Mondays, 10pm, Showcase. Starts April 15th
When a new show hits the airwaves and becomes a cultural phenomenon, it can take a little time for the copy-cats to appear. Case in point is HBO’s Game of Thrones, now starting its third season, which until now has had few imitators. Now comes SyFy’s Defiance, which although limited by its basic cable licence and family audience, features all the culture- and world-building, tribes, fights and weird sex of Game of Thrones, albeit in a sci-fi rather than fantasy setting.
Developed by Farscape, seaQuest DSV, Cult and Alien Nation creator Rockne S O’Bannon, Defiance is set a few decades from now on a radically transformed Earth that has seen the arrival of not just one but seven alien races who had come to what they thought was the uninhabited Earth in order to settle on it. Initially willing to co-exist, things go a bit pear-shaped and a war breaks out. The terra-reformer technology the aliens were going to use in a controlled manner gets unleashed accidentally and haphazardly, remaking the Earth in unpredictable ways. After the war winds down, both sides exhausted, the world becomes more like the wild west, with gangs of humans and aliens roaming around in a relatively lawless society.
Against this backdrop, we follow two scavengers – Nolan (Grant Bowler) and his adopted alien daughter Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas) – as they try to get rich by selling parts of old spaceships that they find, broken bits of which continue to fall from orbit. Eventually, they find themselves in St Louis, now a frontier town that has been renamed Defiance. There they have to get to grips with all the different alien communities, the tensions, the politics and more – including this Earth-thing called love.
And while the show is certainly ambitious, surprising and involves plenty of hard SF – even simultaneously having a tie-in online multi-user game that you can play set in the same world – it’s also depressingly conventional in exactly the same way Terra Nova was.
Here’s a trailer.
In the year 2046, it’s a new Earth – with new rules. Over thirty years after various alien races arrived on Earth, the landscape is completely altered, terraformed nearly beyond recognition. To the town of Defiance, on what used to be St. Louis, comes the mysterious Nolan (Grant Bowler) and his charge, Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas). As they settle into town – overseen by the mayor, Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz) and filled with residents like the powerful Rafe McCawley (Graham Greene), enterprising lounge owner Kenya (Mia Kirshner) and the ambitious, alien Tarrs (Tony Curran and Jaime Murray) – events begin to unfold that threaten the fragile peace this border town has fought for.
As the events of Defiance unfold weekly on your TV screen, you can see how the residents’ struggles impact the game of Defiance, a high-octane, multi-platform experience from Trion Worlds! For the first time in history, a TV show and a game will exist concurrently in a shared universe, influencing and impacting the other!
In the game of Defiance, players take on the role of Ark Hunters, specialists in survival, combat and tracking who brave dangerous frontiers to retrieve lost relics of advanced or alien origin in return for great financial rewards (The Arks are the ships that brought the aliens to Earth). Players can search for Arks on their own, simultaneously join tens of thousands of other players for missions or just explore the fully realized, future world of Defiance (it’s really, really big). Custom character creation allows players to adopt a human or alien appearance for their Ark Hunter. With weapons, armor and special abilities that evolve with experience, Defiance is a gaming experience that must be played to be believed.
Is it any good?
It certainly has a lot going for and I imagine that with the associated game and the huge wodges of sci-fi in it, it’ll pick up a cult audience before you can say “cancelled like Firefly“. But it’s also exceedingly conventional in terms of plotting and characterisation.
This first episode starts off a little dully, with our morally grey hero and heroine running around singing country and western songs to each other while facing off against not especially nasty other aliens while scavenger hunting. We then have quite an extended guided tour of the town of Defiance that gives us a fight club, Julie Benz (yay!) as mayor, Jaime Murray (boo! Although, actually, even though she’s blonded up and is faking a US accent – as is the hero, Australian actor Grant Bowler – she’s not half bad for once) as an ethereal, occasionally partially naked alien, Graham Greene as a crotchy old native American type, Mia Kirshner as a bar owner, and a load of other people, aliens and things, particularly teenagers.
When someone’s killed, it gradually becomes a murder-mystery, with Bowler showing off his tracking skills, before eventually it becomes a war movie that ties into the online game, with correspondingly poor CGI.
All well and good. The show does have some good effects to compensate for the poor CGI, and variable quality make-up. There’s humour, although not much, and the political manoeuvring is at least a stab at Game of Thrones, even if it doesn’t hit that intellectual level.
Certainly, you have to admire the imagination that’s gone into it. There’s a huge amount of world-building gone into all the alien races – cast your mind back to Babylon 5 and in some ways, Defiance not only matches but exceeds that show’s culture-building (there’s even a Vorlon-esque race hidden in there). There are complete alien languages for characters to speak and they speak a lot of it, some of those words becoming borrowed terms in English. There is little explanation for lots of this, with the expectation that the viewer will gradually learn who’s what, who does what, what that thing is and why those people do that. Even as the show becomes more of a criminal procedural later on, the hero makes deductions based on facts that he knows about these cultures but the audience doesn’t yet. It’s nice to not have everything spoon-fed to you or for people from a different culture to be constantly explaining it to one another.
The show also does have more than a few ‘sexy moments’, with +100 points for being practically the first space opera to have a man go down on a woman in a sex scene. However, despite Jaime Murray showing up in a bikini at one point, some of the aliens being quite open sexually and there being a brothel, there’s no actual nudity involved. Curiously, it makes me wonder who the show is aimed at: the sex isn’t graphic but it’s more than you’re used to in sci-fi, yet the overwhelming number of kids and teenagers, and the somewhat unsophisticated writing make it seem aimed more at a younger demographic – Defiance has the potential to fall between two stools here.
Yet, for all that, as in Terra Nova, set decades in the future, everything is depressingly, conservatively American. Benz is the nervous female leader, Nolan is the manly man sticking up for his female daughter; relationships, even despite the aliens’ open sexuality, are heteronormative and largely follow traditional male-female patriarchal lines; the one black character in the line-up was ‘on a bad path’ at one point. As with Alien Nation, attempts to show that the aliens, although alien, are ‘just like you and me’ only result in an assertion of what is the conventional now, rather than the consideration of what might be normal then (unless Defiance is positing that in a post-apocalyptic world, gender relations will return to more primitive states).
The plotting is also quite conventional, with our rogue hero swiftly turning good, the nervy Benz learning how to give a rousing speech, and everyone ganging up to preserve Defiance against those who would attack her. There’s practically Ewok-dancing at the end. Even the fight club works out exactly as you think it will and there are almost no surprises at all in terms of plot developments.
Ultimately, though the question of should you watch it or not comes down to whether you find this kind of world-building interesting and whether the characters are interesting. Only you can answer the first and while it was intellectually interesting for me at least, I’m not entirely sure it’s enough to keep me watching. On the latter score, there’s not a lot going on either. The characters are cookie-cutter types, the inter-character dynamics even among the aliens follow entirely known paths, there’s no one with much charisma. Everyone’s basically okay – there’s no real stand-outs.
Yet there’s a lot of potential in the show. There are so many ingredients in there, it could be a recipe for something interesting. My suspicion is that it’ll basically be Terra Nova with aliens instead of dinosaurs every week, with dads trying to stop their daughters having sex, girls wanting the boys to like them, boys saving girls and some tiresome Moonlighting-esque flirting among the adults. But I’d like to be surprised and maybe I will be.