Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Idiot Box: Defiance 1x01 - "Pilot" Review

What's this now? An actual science fiction show? On the SyFy Channel? I could have sworn that the whole reason this channel was called Syfy now instead of just SciFi was because they just plum ran out of original science fiction programming. At least that's what I assumed what with the last decade or so of high fantasy shows, reality shows, and professional wrestling re-broadcasts polluting the network at the expense of the real stuff. So, four years after their last great sci fi epic Battlestar Galactica ended with a whimper, we finally get another potentially good one, and those are the two best words I can use to describe the opening pilot movie of Defiance, good in its own right, and just positively brimming with potential.

The plot is simple to understand in practice, but if you try to go deeper into it like I did, the background is pretty vast. These guys clearly did a lot more than most do for a pilot, with some impressive world building that sets up a counter-future Earth filled with interesting alien races, each with their own complicated back stories and connections, all mingled together in a massive patchwork of Straczynskian proportions. The result is on its face basically a scifi western in the mold of Firefly crossed with, to continue the comparison, something like Babylon Five.

The story begins in another galaxy when a convoy of Arkships carrying seven alien species comes to what they think is an uninhabited Earth after their homes are destroyed by an exploding sun (I think). At first the aliens try to co-exist with humans, slowly settling on the planet, but eventually war breaks out, which is only stopped by the Arkships in orbit mysteriously exploding, sending terraforming technology to Earth that radically re-shapes the planet into a world that is as aliens for the native humans as it is for the new coming races. Now all forced to live and work together to survive, humans and aliens unite on a new frontier fraught with danger, adventure, and lots of prosthetics and make-up.

All that stuff happens before the credits even roll, and the real story is how a human bounty hunter becomes the sheriff of the titular town, but it is a testament to the writing of the show as displayed in this pilot that it never comes off as too big or all over the place. The show is co-created by Rockne S. O'Bannon, creator of one of my all time favorite scifi shows Farscape, as well as the classic film and television series Alien Nation, and his influence clearly shines through. It definitely seems more planned out than Farscape ever was, but while the loose structure of that series and the resulting anarchy was its greatest strength, that same energy wouldn't work for this show, and I value the more disciplined approach.

In addition to being interesting and complex in their own right, the aliens generally serve as thematic stand-ins for various western tropes. Humans are the typical rough and tumble cowboys, while the albino Castithan are the wealthy white aristocracy, the spiritual Irathients are the Native Americans, and the technologically minded builder class Indogenes are the migrant Chinese. We even get a band of marauding Black Hats who are literally black armored monsters called The Volge. Throw in an interspecies Romeo and Juliet subplot and a sinister conspiracy or two and you get a wonderful mix of entertaining genre television and the kind of symbolism-rich thought provoking stuff science fiction is meant for.

If I didn't know pretty much for a fact that Defiance will suffer the same fate as every quality show on the SyFy Channel, namely cancellation far before its time, I'd say it had the potential to be to television science fiction what Game Of Thrones is to television medieval fantasy. There's easily enough set up here that I can't imagine they would go to so much trouble just to turn around and make it a by the numbers police procedural in a scifi setting (though now that I've said that, I've probably jinxed it). Its rare anymore that I actually find more than one show a season that I commit to watching every week, but what do ya know, life's full of surprises. If you're at all a fan of the kind of great TV science fiction typified by any of the other shows I've referenced in this review, there's a pretty good chance you'll find more than enough in this new one to enjoy.

Oh, and two quick things before I go, there's apparently a videogame that ties into this series, but I didn't mention it because I haven't played it. From what I gather it fleshes out a lot of the world, but isn't necessary to enjoy the show. Can't speak for it one way or the other. And point in the show's favor, five minutes in and we already get our newest alien curse word, in this case Schtako, meaning "Shit." Not quite as good as Frell, Dren, Mivonks, or half the slang on O'Bannon's last great show, but not bad.

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