Thursday, July 23, 2015

Defiance S1 Ep2: Down In The Ground Where The Dead Men Go

"Are we ever going to make it to Antarctica?"
-Irisa to Nolan-

Shtako! I can't recall the last time I relished exclaiming a fictional alien swear word. Frak! never did it for me on the reimagined Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009). It all felt just a little too forced and contrived. Farscape's (1999-2003) Frelling was a bit better. Still, there is something about Shtako that really works as a nice stand-in for shit. There's nothing like the exclamation of good old-fashioned alien profanity and Shtako is a winner. I like it.

Thus when it is used in the completely original, robustly constructed world build of Defiance I somehow never tire of hearing it. It feels built-in rather naturally as much as the Klingon language was real to Star Trek. But Frak always rubbed me the wrong way and I have no frakkin' idea why.

But just as language was important to the world of Farscape, Rockne S. O'Bannon and the creators of Defiance have woven some rich, colorful linguistics into a series that is chock full of detailed mythology and alien touches. It's as much a wonder to behold aurally as it is visually.

I really had no intention of writing about Defiance beyond the Pilot here, but I don't think I've quite enjoyed an alien science fiction series this much since Farscape. I'm also experiencing the kind of giddy fun exploring this series that tickled me with such exhilaration witnessing the summer blockbuster Pacific Rim (2013). If you visit Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic you can appreciate my elation with that comparison. I am genuinely loving the hellbug out of the series. It seemed at least one more plug was in order for the underrated series with Defiance, Season 1, Episode 2, Down In The Ground Where The Dead Men Go.

While Defiance may not be perfect, there's an awful lot to love about the series. I love the sincere thought that went into developing its Bible-sized mythos, a believable world in which to fully immerse our imaginations. The series was not taken lightly in the least. It is an intelligent science fiction of epic-sized proportions in which to get lost filled with intimate character play. I love the mythology involving old St. Louis, falling, crashing arks, razor rain and imagining how the Earth became so overrun by alien life forms and terra forming.

I love Lawkeeper Joshua Nolan's law vehicle. It's the latest bit of craft cool in a long line of vehicular cool dating back as far as Mad Max and beyond. I love the Lawkeeper's bad ass sidearm. I love the rich, colorful languages of the Irathients and Castithans that would leave Klingons envious. I even love reading subtitles. I love the alien tech. I love the costume and production design. I love that characters are painted in stunning white and remind me of the alien beauty of Zhaan in Farscape. Stahma Tarr plays like the not-so-nice sister of Zhaan. I love the expert casting of characters like Grant Bowler who actually appeared unrecognizable in red paint for an episode of Farscape (S1, Ep8, That Old Black Magic). See the Before And After entry here. Conversely, I love how Stahma Tarr actress Jamie Murray was once unrecognizable without paint as a villain opposite Julie Benz in Dexter (2007). The associative connections are a blast.

And while getting lost in this massive universe, Defiance is still indeed a grounded series that mirrors are own real world problems and the intimacy of those very human relationships with which we can identify.

With its vast racial make-up Defiance is filled with assimilation conflict. Illegal or not, these aliens brought a good many problems with them to this world. I love that the series echoes the positives and the negatives of a messy Earth reality that is at once united and divided.

There are indeed echoes of Farscape in this fashion. Where American astronaut John Crichton was once our representative into outer space. Where once Crichton was a barometer of American strength and a sounding board to alien cultures, Defiance brings those issues home and back down to Earth. Defiance now portrays the impact of alien culture on America. How we choose to deal with the vast array of differences is very much a reality on the series and in our lives. Defiance has plenty of potential in its alien-infused, new, Earth bound existence with the St. Louis Gateway Arch standing as a pillar and symbol of our past migrations.

Down In The Ground Where The Dead Men Go explores one of those many issues that was brought with the aliens to Defiance. How exactly do we contend with the complex consideration of religious freedom? Where does it cross the line and violate the overarching values of Defiance? This is no longer America as we knew it after all. The tagline is New Earth. New Rules. Sadly we have people breaking the rules every day and making efforts to make new ones some to the detriment of others. Yes. This is a new Earth with new rules and the grand experiment continues. Rules were indeed made to be broken. Who breaks them and who does it affect is the balance within any ethnically-charged and heterogeneous society. Defiance genuinely explores this difficult balance and does so without overtly preaching the issues or presenting easy answers. There are none.

The second episode directly tackles the issue of how far a community will go or is willing to go to allow for freedom of religious expression. When does a belief of a given group within a society infringe upon the rights, health or well-being of others. Would outstanding groups allow for a belief set resulting in death? Will a community intervene when a perceived cultural more goes too far. Would said culture be permitted to wage a culture or religious war to protect a given belief no matter how outlandish to a majority population? If it sounds awful familiar all we need to do is take a look around this big blue planet.

Visuals and cinematography continue to astonish with an allure and sparkle to the eye.

Defiance very early on deftly weaves in new information regarding its large ensemble cast representing a host of alien cultures as much as disparate human agendas. Motives and intentions are revealed as this new world strives to avoid a societal breakdown. Fraying apart at the seams would dissolve civility and inevitably lead to chaos.

There are a number of stellar sequences including Joshuan Nolan's expedition into old St. Louis. This is matched by a terrific Assault On Precinct 13-like homage to the classic western as a number of characters hold up at a jail cell prepared to take on the intimidating Datak Tarr and his posse. Great westerns were always served well by a sterling jail sequence.

But I'm not oblivious to the fact Defiance has its narrative flaws or minor issues relating to flow. Perhaps the writers and show runners are to blame for any deficiencies in that area, but their ambitions and efforts certainly more than compensate for those minor quibbles. Each episode of each of the first two seasons is solid. It's rare to see such a feat succeed. The creators/writers take the frontier mythos into new territory. Rockne O'Bannon's Farscape was essentially a frontier, exploration story among other things by American astronaut Crichton and Defiance establishes a similar framework to explore today's problems. Defiance takes that narrative into new territory but still analyzes the many themes that made Farscape such a wildly unconventional and appealing science fiction success.

Defiance, like Farscape, reassesses the American pathos as affected by an alien universe. Racial discord, converging cultures and alien expansion not unlike the colonial expansion of yesterday. Not unlike the classic, genre-busting Farscape, Defiance tackles identity, gender relations, inter-species relations, female empowerment, sex, romance, language and communication and just good old-fashioned space opera. But instead of an American transplant in space a la John Crichton we have waves of alien transplants relocated here on Earth specifically through the prism of American identity via St. Louis.

The deeper I enter the world of Defiance the more I seem to care about this place and these people within it. Will we one day learn what brought the aliens here? What happened to the Votan homeworld? Each new episode brings new questions, unlocks new mysteries whilst locking the science fiction fan within its intelligent grasp.

As I said in my coverage of the series Pilot, how could science fiction fans not desire to be challenged and entertained by a show with its head and its heart in the right place?

Defiance is a refreshing sci-fi joy to watch.

Down In The Ground Where The Dead Men Go: B+

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