Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Defiance S1 Ep1: Pilot

"New Earth. New Rules."

"There are good people here. If you try to assimilate they will meet you half way."
...and if you don't Defiance offers us a window into the consequences.
Defiance---you had me at Jackson!

The opening sing-along between characters Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler) and Irisa Nyira (Stephanie Leonidas) to Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash's Jackson was pretty much instant genius. The song is an allusion to their destination---Defiance. The scene also makes a bold pronouncement regarding the future of Defiance as a series and how pop music (Hole, Elvis Costello) and Bear McCreary's scoring would play a big role in infusing the vibe that is Defiance. What is old is new again and our social, political and sexual issues of yesterday continue to resonate into the future with music as a powerful propellant.

How the music coalesces around this new alien American culture and its universal story is a chapter for another entry.

I wish I could say I've been watching the series since that unforgettable Jackson duet. When Defiance (2013-present) arrived I did what I regularly do with any new series---I shelved it, held off investing my time, because that's unfortunately how I roll with the time I have. So now with Defiance in its third season as of this writing, I'm here to attempt to belatedly right some wrongs, because I love Defiance. There isn't a better science fiction alternative to this one right now.

Back in March 2013 it was noted here when Defiance (2013) was released as a fifteen minute teaser that it just had to be good based on that opening duet. There was something in the eyes of its principals that assured me it was in good hands. There was the cinematic quality of the alien terrain juxtaposed with the sweet melodies of an American classic that all seemed at once fantastically strange yet beautiful. But this strange foreign beauty of science fiction was precisely what was needed. Defiance was teasing sci-fi catnip for the science fiction aficionado. Additionally, how the scene was executed spoke volumes about the dynamic and relationship between these two important lead characters, a duo, married to a musical duet of an American original. This was still Earth, but things were different now.

Having watched the entirety of Season One and Season Two, there are aspects about it that remind me why we loved the western motif of Firefly (2002). Defiance offers the kind of quality writing and characters that were invested in the aforementioned Joss Whedon series. Currently at three seasons, Defiance is at a place where it has become what Firefly truly aspired and had the potential to be long term---involving, smart science fiction. Defiance is heading toward Farscape longevity, another bright star on the science fiction timeline and a series that echoes the strengths of Defiance for a reason. To be greedy---I want more. I'm hungry for more Defiance. And I pray we're not too late to sing its praises from atop the St. Louis Gateway Arch, because this series needs to endure further.

But yes, Defiance is very good for a reason. Most notably writer/developer Rockne S. O'Bannon had done it again creating yet another well-designed, pensive, fully-realized science fiction universe laced with Shakesperean-inspired tragedy like touches of Romeo And Juliet. O'Bannon is one of the best at developing intelligent science fiction.

He has waxed poetic with variations on a successful theme often thrusting humans to work with aliens on Earth (Alien Nation; 1988) or in outer space (Farscape; 1999-2003) and done so with aplomb. Like his Sequest DSV (1993-1996), these series are masterfully written and expertly executed interpersonal dramas filled with topical storylines immersed in colorful, creative science fiction wardrobes. The artful production designs are nothing short of stunning. These are meticulously detailed alien realities not half-assed window-dressings. The strong writing feeds the story and character and it is what propels these sci-fi dramas elevating them in quality. It's rare in television to be treated to such an original, vibrant and fascinating work.

The colorful foreign terra-formed flora and fauna is rich and thoughtful, composed with both digital and practical effects work, like the world once created so vividly for Farscape. And Defiance channels the kind of passion found in O'Bannon and Brian Henson's classic world. Defiance is endowed with its own wonderful, extended world-building and mythology and is supported by an equally creative and committed group. O'Bannon fearlessly brings his human interest stories back down to Earth and populates a story both intimate and epic with amazing human and alien characters.

Not to be discounted is O'Bannon's coup of collaborating with executive producer Kevin Murphy (Caprica) who expertly weaves in the kind of complex, dramatic underpinnings required for great science fiction. Defiance mirrors the kind of intensity found in a series like Stargate Universe (2009-2011) or Murphy's own charged work on Caprica (2010). Defiance is a defiant sci-fi production in a TV landscape generally unkind to such creativity.

We begin with Defiance, Season One, Pilot. The Year is 2046, a not-so-distant future, roughly fifteen years after the Pale Wars. Earth has been terra-formed by arriving aliens from the Votan system. Castithans, Irathients, Indogenes, Sensoth, the Galactus-like, planet-destroying Volge and others have woven themselves into the fabric of this new world order established in a delicate, western-styled frontier land dubbed Defiance. The foundation of which followed the resulting terra formation and the bloody Pale Wars that culminated in a major event called Arkfall.

Defiance offers us a glimpse of a world in flux. Change is almost constant as a result of various ethnic and alien migrations. Sound familiar? O'Bannon artfully poses a plethora of issues that influence this multi-cultural society. For example, will diversity of religious belief work in a relatively small community? Or will the weight of implacability and an atmosphere of distrust cause a place like Defiance to implode?

Visually, there is so much to love about Defiance. There are moments of homage like the spindly legged bat creatures that tip a cap to Henson's Dark Crystal (1982). Creature designs are wholly imaginative from the ape-like Sensoth to fierce beast creations like the Volge.

The production design is impeccable with Castithan dress that offers a nice allusion to the new world of old. Aliens have become the colonists. In Defiance we have a country at birth like those who settled America and established a Declaration Of Independence (July 4, 1776).

In Defiance, there is a tenuous, uneasy civility between humans and alien races. These fragile alliances or relationships tackle race, religion, politics, identity, ethnic cleansing and female empowerment to name just a few of the overarching challenges in play. This is some of the most topical science fiction and dramatic subtext between characters within an involving story of aliens and humans since Farscape.

Nearly eight years of Obama have left certain places within our society in a fragile state whether between law enforcement and urban communities or race relations nastily and cleverly fractured and stoked by the media and the very words of our political leaders. It is indeed a delicate time fueled by political correctness of epic proportions. The handling of pressures from outside the borders of our nations by growing threats and those within are marred by competing philosophies. Defiance offers a depiction of those competing groups and agendas and offers no easy answers.

How fitting the settlement of Defiance should be established under the magnificent arch and backdrop of St. Louis. What an original series idea. St. Louis holds a particularly significant political and cultural meaning that infuses the spirit of the show. The spirit of St. Louis is quite historic. The city along the Mississippi had been impacted by a significant Native American culture. Inevitably the French explored the area and recorded it in 1673 as a French settlement. Once France lost the Seven Years War (1754-1763) the area became what would be known as St. Louis, but lands to the east were ceded to Great Britain and the west to Spain. By the 1800s immigrants arrived from Ireland and Germany. So St. Louis has always had a rich history as a crossroads of commerce and as an intersection of settlement from a variety of different ethnic origins a la Defiance. It's no accident O'Bannon wisely depicts his Defiance story utilizing St. Louis as his backdrop, a melting pot of human and alien races.

In fact, not unlike the writing for the series, there were indeed many a divided loyalties and political sympathies that were quite polarized during the Civil War (1861-1865) that affected the area. And that symbol of the city, the famous, familiar St. Louis Gateway Arch began construction in 1963. So should it come as a surprise more immigrants and aliens would move there by 2030? Are aliens from outer space illegal?

With Defiance we have high drama and intrigue associated with the many political players and associative families that cultivate the fabric of this world as a result of migration.

Defiance defiantly delivers another science fiction classic. In one short 90 minute Pilot fascinating characters are introduced and a well-paced introduction lays the ground work and foundation for an exciting science fiction series called Defiance.

Grant Bowler, as Joshua Nolan, one of the legendary Defiant Few, is a fine leading man---a kind of swashbuckling Mal Reynolds (Firefly) or Han Solo-type, an opportunist who is not quite as a flip as the iconic hero. Like Solo who stuck around to aid the rebels, Nolan, too, opts not to simply take the money and run but rather fight alongside the denizens of Defiance. Here, too, Bowler proves to be more than a mercenary. Like the Nolan character, Defiance has conscience and heart.

Irisa is Nolan's beautiful adopted alien daughter. She has a presence forehead and all. Julie Benz is cast as the inexperienced mayor and proves to be a more than formidable, complicated player in the series beyond her Dexter (2006-2010) contributions.

Meanwhile, despite my own personal raging enthusiasm for this series, some writers have been particularly harsh on Defiance. Because Defiance speaks to both the inner geek and political animal in me.

Blu-Ray.com's Kenneth Brown called it "familiar" and wondered if it would be remembered in twenty years. Hey, I still remember Tales Of The Gold Monkey (1982-1983) and The Greatest American Hero (1981-1983). Have heart people. Brown essentially called the show unoriginal, uninspired and adored by geeks who find such series "impossible to resist" even when "flawed." Guilty, but I'm missing any glaring issues Ken. Brown busily undercuts the series and ties it to its accompanying video game that was simultaneously released, of which is wholly unnecessary and not required to enjoy this series. I know nothing of the video game. You can enjoy Defiance, the series, entirely on its own terms.

Brown and I do agree on one point, Defiance bests Falling Skies, but I disagree with Brown vehemently regarding the series strengths or lack thereof. This is a far better series than people have given it credit. It pays homage and offers bits and pieces of science fiction legacy (Firefly, Farscape), but its also a flavorful original in its execution unfairly targeted as some kind of copy. That's simply not true. Brown couldn't be more wrong about the series in this way. Each episode is a thrill and a thoughtful display of humanity through science fiction with heaps of pensive originality by people who care about science fiction.

Writer John Kenneth Muir (John Kenneth Muir's Reflections On Cult Movies And Classic TV) connected with the intelligence of Defiance too calling it a "straight-forward (though intelligent) 'frontier town' story, one where diverse people must work together against outside threats, and succeed in building a new community on the ruins of the old." This is the basic idea and it's an important message that seems often missing from the political discourse of today's leaders. The idea of uniting for a common goal has given way to racial dissent and discord, battles with law enforcement and each other. What is happening? Though the complexity of that basic aforementioned premise also gives way to significant strife and the realities of ulterior motives by significantly bad people or aliens. No one said it was easy.

In fact, I'd go so far to say that Defiance isn't necessarily demonstrating a town that is united at all. It rarely coalesces around a positive Kumbayah melting pot story either. Defiance is rife with division and sedition. Utopia is but a pipe dream. Sure, on occasion small victories give us a sense of hope, perhaps even false optimism, but those victories keep us believing we're stronger together. Underneath it all though, there are plenty of disparate groups working for their own self interests. Babylon 5 (1993-1998) and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999) played out such conflicts and battled within their own space stations. Defiance fights that fight on a reimagined Earth and extends the playing field. United we stand---I think not. And this is telling.

This post itself speaks volumes about the fact that Defiance has given us a good deal to consider as a reflections of our times and cultures. There are different opinions on this series across the board and I'm offering you yet another to consider. Perhaps we're not as united as we'd like to think. Defiance paints that picture quite articulately. Civilization isn't necessarily about order, but perhaps a conglomeration of motives and agendas pushing us toward the brink of chaos. It certainly seems so at times in Defiance. It also seems to be an increasingly pessimistic place to mirror our own human struggles and turmoil.

Certainly the prevailing idea is that we could live together somewhat harmoniously---one would think. Most logical, clear thinking people would indeed want that. Most don't want war, but rather peace. Don't we? Unfortunately all it takes are a few that, to borrow a phrase, want to see the world burn. Some would take your peace away, force you to fight and ultimately wage war even as many refuse to believe it a necessary evil. After all, there are plenty of people now living within our very borders (and please I'm not talking about Mexicans) who don't want order and the rule of law at all. Some have a very different world view.

Pie in the sky idealism is a nice thing, and aliens and humans joining hands in the face of adversity for such things like the Volge is a good thing. It speaks to the kind of unity we found after 9/11, but Defiance wonders if we can find it on a sustained, harmonic basis. Can we meet each other half way? The many stories ahead in Defiance seem to explore that idea. No doubt there's a fight on our hands thanks to a good number of competing interests like those living in Defiance.

And while I agree with some aspects of the idealized premise of Muir's take on the series concerning immigration, illegal or otherwise, living together and seeking harmony as individuals in the "same boat," it doesn't mean that everyone is working together in that boat.

It is the blatant disregard for the law that troubles this writer today and I see it in Defiance. Even Mayor Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz) cites law as a requirement for the just and lawkeeper Nolan at least recognizes Defiance lives by the rule of law. It is not bigotry or fear of the break with "traditional" values that fuels some opinion, but perhaps fear that there is no regard for law or order by those who have tried to make their way in this world honestly. It is the blatant disregard for law enforcement and order in parts of America and the respect for law (not of the Earth Republic martial law variety) that troubles many, not the embrace of differing creeds and colors who work to the benefit of society or in Defiance as a good community should.

As executive producer/show runner Kevin Murphy noted too, "It's not an alien invasion show. It's really more of an immigrant exodus story where you have one group of people that want to live in the same place and another group of people, and they don't always agree. So there is conflict, but there is also cooperation and places where they work together and places they disagree. It's really a melting pot story" (SciFiNow #79, p.47). And like any melting pot there are problems and there are no easy solutions. It's a melting pot mess and other times it's a delicious little stew. But, one thing the writers urge that seems to be missing in much of today's political and cultural discourse is the freedom to disagree and have alternate opinions and views. Defiance explores this sensitive arena like poetry.

So just as those who have settled St. Louis in past centuries, and like those who settle St. Louis in Defiance, people are looking to partake in the rules of the game. Truth be told, and it may be undercutting my hope, but rules are made to be broken. Nolan himself likes to play fast and loose with the rules himself while his deputy plays it straight. But yes, the rules are being broken all the time in Defiance and they are in America too. It speaks to the grand experiment of America.

Just as politicians want to transform and some villains want to see the world burn, here Defiance echoes those realities. In Defiance, amidst a delicate balance of civility, we have those who ideologically believe "we're trying to change the world," declares the former mayor. I've heard those words before. If anything the Defiance Pilot suggests many can work together as one for a common cause or goal, but will they?

Like America, Defiance is an experiment. Civilization has never been an exact science. We live by the imperfect laws of humanity. We inform those laws and they are always changing by our hands. How they change us, for better or worse, is part of that grand experiment.

Given such deliberation, it's safe to say Defiance has something substantial going for it and shouldn't be quickly discarded as it has been by some.

Subtexts and intensive plot threading aside, Defiance looks splendid. The production values and effects are exceptional as the budget on hand makes for an outstanding cinematic-sized Pilot yet filled with intimacy. The world in play is also visually more interesting and immersive than a series like Falling Skies, with real detail attended to like the many worlds created for Farscape. The well-scripted Defiance easily rivals TNT's Falling Skies in that department. Falling Skies is a fair series, but Defiance is a very good one with each installment.

Defiance is a cut above propelling its drama through sharp writing and complex character interplay. Datak Tarr, as an example, is exceptionally played by Tony Curran and wife Stahma Tarr, beautifully embodied by Jamie Murray (Dexter), are both infused with terrific verbal conflict.  The dramatic exchanges fall somewhere between Farscape and Michael J. Straczynski's best Babylon 5 dialogue as highlighted between such memorable characters as Londo Mollinari and G'Kar. At times, it's that good!

The detail delineated for the series gives it a real world, lived-in vibe of a new science fiction frontier. With its own built-in languages this is SyFy's version of HBO's Deadwood (2004-2006), an Earth bound Firefly that Klingons would be proud of. Defiance is a story about survival and about how we reach into the future either together or apart.


The briskly paced Defiance is a fascinating entry in serialized science fiction television with grand, Farscape-like ambitions examining the social, sexual and political realms with a rich, colorful universe. It's all seeded here in the Pilot for sci-fi fans to explore for a long, rewarding and blossoming run. What science fiction fan doesn't need Defiance right now? Pilot: A

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