This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
What’s fascinating about sci-fi shows is that they’re invariably influenced by others in the genre. Right from the start of Defiance we’re bombarded with references to many things, like a buffet where the host couldn’t decide if they wanted to serve Chinese or pizza, and so threw it, along with curry and sushi all on the same plate. Defiance gives us Mad Max over Firefly, with a side order of Shakespeare and the general ambience of a thousand cowboy movies rolled into one.
As with any overly ambitious cuisine there are parts that work well, and others you’d push to the edge of the plate. But, it all starts well enough. After watching the whole thing, the strongest part for me was the introduction of the main characters, Nolan and Irisa. There is a definite chemistry here, and the way that their relationship isn’t initially revealed gives them an element of mystery and dynamism.
After being ambushed scavenging a crashed ship, the pair is rescued by the good people of Defiance, a town with a complete range of misplaced aliens and hapless humans. At this point the writers start throwing new characters at the screen at a rate of one every thirty seconds or so, with little time offered to absorb their personas or allegiances. That’s a shame because some of the acting talent there is decent, and very few of the characters get much scene space to inhabit for long.
Of these the strongest are Datak and Stahma Tarr, played by Tony Curran and the lovely Jaime Murray respectively. They’re presented as Machiavellian aliens plotting their revenge on those that have slighted them. They’re the Montagues in this reworking of Romeo & Juliet, and the Capulet house is the numerous McCawley clan.
That’s one part, and another involves referencing town hall politics, with Julie Benz’s Major Amanda Rosewater, the soccer mom she does so well. In watching her, I was trying to forget her role in No Ordinary Family, but it was difficult because this isn’t a radical departure.
The problem that the pilot wrestles with is that for all the characters to be introduced – and there are at least ten – they’re forced to be firmly caricatures, with quickly identifiable traits and personalities. In some cases the characters are obvious clichés, like the whore with a heart, the doctor with no bedside manner, the son living in the shadow of his father, and the manipulative mother. The hope is that they’ll get more interesting, but they’re pretty much blank sheets from the outset, and possibly intentionally so.
The plot is the same cowboy classic that sci-fi used themselves with Eureka, where the stranger comes to town, the Sheriff is killed, and he takes the job because he’s the only person who can. This is always a story about redemption, where he’s not trusted, and even people are working against him until they realise his real worth.
Exactly who the alien creatures are that intend to occupy Defiance are is kept pretty vague, as is exactly what it is that they wanted to acquire there, but they do look pretty threatening even in CGI.
I need to comment about effects in Defiance, because in this show they range from being really quite excellent to diabolically bad. The city scenes are the most impressive, and give a strong impression of the sprawling and labyrinthine nature of the environment. I’m still not sure how the St. Louis Gateway Arch could have survived geological upheavals that put five hundred foot hills on what was once a flat plain, but it all looks rather impressive.
When the effects were used for back-projection in vehicles however, it just didn’t work at all. Some of the final battle also looked remarkably false, and their choice to stage it in the dark seemed creatively tactical. This pilot was effects-heavy, possibly too much so, and I hope they don’t expose their limited budget the same extent in normal running episodes. As with all opening episode, resolution is never what it seems, it’s only the opening gambit in a wider game.
My overall reaction is that I liked some characters, and relationships, but that Defiance has some work to do in convincing us that this isn’t another genre dressed up as science-fiction. What we’ve been presented so far is unashamedly Deadwood set in the future, where aliens replace the dregs of society, and everyone has their own special imperative.
It’s far too early to call Defiance. I’ve seen some great pilot episodes that then spawned abysmal shows, and conversely poor starts that eventually delivered. Unless they blew the show’s whole budget on the first episode, it has promise. Let’s leave it there for the time being.
Read our interview with Defiance producer and director, Michael Nankin, here.
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