Defiance TV pilot: spoiler-free review

This month sees the premiere of Syfy's major new series, Defiance. Here's our spoiler-free review of the pilot episode...

Note: although free from spoilers, this review does touch on minor plot points from the pilot’s first 45 minutes or so. 

Launching a new television series can’t be an easy task. And when that show happens to be in the science fiction genre, you’re adding another tricky proposition into the mix: setting up an entire new world as well as introducing compelling characters and conflicts, all within a 60-to-90 minute package tidy and eye-catching enough to attract a healthy audience.

Syfy’s Defiance has a sterling pedigree, having sprung from the mind of Rockne S O’Bannon (he of Alien Nation and SeaQuest DSV fame), while its executive producer and sometime director Michael Taylor previously wrote episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Battlestar Galactica.

Defiance is an ambitious venture for Syfy, with its launch timed to coincide with a videogame of the same name, which allows players to delve into the show’s post-apocalyptic world for themselves, as events in both series and game cross over to create a sprawling, audience-driven sci-fi saga. Defiance is set 33 years after the arrival of a group of aliens known as the Voltans. Materialising in their vast glowing ships, the visitors transform our planet into a depressing wilderness of brown foliage and bare trees. But after a long conflict known as the Pale War, humans and several factions of aliens have come to an uneasy truce, and it’s here, among the ravaged landscape of weird foliage and resentful communities, that the pilot begins.

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Jeb Nolan (Grant Bowler) is a rugged war veteran turned roaming scavenger with a fondness for country music. With his alien adoptive daughter Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas) in tow, Nolan scratches out a living by recovering valuable artefacts from crashed alien ships, and when we first meet him at the start of the pilot, he’s just found a mysterious spherical object.

Unfortunately, fate transpires against him, and after an encounter with a race of aliens known as the Spirit Riders, Nolan ends up in the titular community of Defiance. A thrown-together enclave of old cargo containers protected by a force field, Defiance is like a town in America’s Old West; it has a bustling populace of humans and aliens which has a tendency to drink and get into fights, a crusty old lawman, and a mayor named Amanda (Julie Benz) who tries her best to hold everything together.

Nolan provides a way into this busy dramatic microcosm, with all its teen love triangles and political intrigues. The pilot’s first half hour serves as a dizzying introduction to its characters, from the scheming white-haired Datak Tarr (Tony Curran) to Kenya (Mia Kirshner), a bar owner and town madam. Attempting to cram all of this into such a small space could be described as a mistake – the arrival of the aliens is outlined so briefly that it’s not initially obvious that ‘Voltan’ is a collective word for several races of aliens, who all arrived en masse when their home world was destroyed. This particular detail isn’t clearly laid out, so you might be left wondering exactly why there are so many different sorts of aliens, some pale and smooth-skinned, others tall and hairy. Had the pilot spent a little more time on explaining this point, and cut down on the number of intertwining plot threads, the first section of the show could have been more coherent than it is.

Although Defiance is undeniably grand in its scale, it doesn’t appear to have been given a budget to match. Its special effects vary from the surprisingly good (some wolf-turtle hybrids seen early on are impressive enough) to the merely serviceable, and its script (written by Kevin Murphy, Michael Taylor and Anupam Nigam) is sometimes rather too on-the-nose.

Defiance’s alien-human central pairing and themes of societal disharmony echoes O’Bannon’s Alien Nation, while its humanoid extraterrestrial make-up jobs are variations on stuff we’ve seen in everything from Star Trek to Mass Effect. What’s unusual (and for this writer, unexpected) about Defiance, though, is its delightfully playful sense of fun.

Bowler and Leonidas approach their roles with enthusiasm, and it’s hard not to warm to a show that features the line, “I don’t like the look of that scaffolding.”

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When compared to the opening episodes of such sci-fi or fantasy shows as Battlestar or Game Of Thrones, Defiance isn’t what you’d call knock-out television. But there’s something about its quirky cast of characters and its sense of fun that is entirely endearing. A full series of 12 episodes has already been shot, and with the opening instalment establishing numerous threads to follow and unpick, the pilot leaves plenty of scope for new adventures to come.

Defiance airs on Syfy at 9pm on the 16th April.

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