This preview contains minor spoilers for “Defiance.”
Science-fiction writers sure like to talk about alien invasions, from life before the invasion right up to the event itself. And of course, you have your very human heroes who step in to save the day just in time.
But what about life after the invasion? What was life on Earth like once Will Smith and Bill Pullman defeated the invaders in “Independence Day”? What happened after the human triumph of “Battle: Los Angeles”? Umm, “V” anyone?
Syfy’s newest series “Defiance” is by far not your typical alien invasion fare. It takes everything we know about old Westerns — strong characters, hard-hitting stories and plenty of action — and adds a new twist: diversity. It’s not just discovering a new continent. No, these humans are discovering a new planet, one where probably the only remaining vestige of the past is the St. Louis Gateway Arch.
It’s more than 30 years into the future, and Earth is recovering from a long occupation by an alien race known as the Votans. They brought with them a number of other alien species as well, and once the Votans were defeated, there is nothing left but a partially terraformed planet, where a number of races have to learn how to get along with each other.
That brings us to Defiance. It’s a true frontier town on the site where St. Louis once stood. The most technology you’ll see here is the elaborate security system that protects the town from hostile outsiders. Otherwise, it’s simply people trying to make better lives for themselves, and finding ways to work with each other — humans, Indogene, Liberata, Irathient, Castithan or Gulanee.
And that’s just scratching the surface.
It’s a sleepy town where not much happens, except when we join the people of Defiance welcoming their new mayor, Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz of “Dexter” and “No Ordinary Family” fame). She is taking over for long-time mayor Nicky Riordon, played by “Lost” and “The Others” star Fionnula Flanagan, who has decided to spend more time with her family.
Rosewater has her hands full, especially when a scavenger and his adopted Votan daughter arrive in town. Jeb Nolan isn’t just any scavenger, however. Grant Bowler portrays a human that has seen his fair share of battle, and would rather go quietly off in the sunset than look for any more. His “daughter” is Irisa Nyira, played by Stephanie Leonidas (“The Bible”) who is quick with a blade, but still has a singing voice that can rival June Carter Cash. Votans aren’t too popular, especially in Defiance where a lot of Pale War veterans have settled — but that’s what makes the town interesting.
And just as the title of the series suggests, Defiance is itself a major character in this overall story. Syfy spent millions of dollars constructing a small city behind an old office building in Toronto. It covers the length of a football field, and with a little bit of CGI enhancement, becomes an amazing place to see — begging for you not just to visit, but to move in as well.
So many races, such a small place, and really, where else are you going to get good pow — a cross-breed of pig and cow? If you have a little bit of money to spend, and need some social interaction (both the free kind, and the more intimate type for the right price), you want to head to the Need/Want, a local bar run by courtesan Kenya, played by Mia Kirshner (“The Vampire Diaries”).
If you’re trying to make money, then you should get to know one of two people — but not both, since they don’t really like each other. Rafe McCawley is the richest man in town, a human played by Graham Greene (“Wolf Lake”), who runs a local mine. Then there’s the less savory element with Datak Tarr at the helm — a Castithan who hates to be crossed, and who thinks is in control of his cunning wife, Stahma Tarr. Datak is played by Tony Curran, who played Vincent van Gogh in “Doctor Who” a couple years back, while his wife is the very popular Jaime Murray, who is probably best known to genre fans for her work as H.G. Wells in “Warehouse 13.”
And that’s just scratching the surface. There hasn’t been a cast of characters this diverse (and this large) probably since “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” But “Defiance” has a disadvantage: At least in Star Trek, we had a general idea of who the alien races were. Here, it’s all new ground — but these races are so unique, by the time the pilot is over, you feel quite familiar with everyone.
That, of course, is tough to accomplish. Yet writers Kevin Murphy (“Caprica”), Rockne S. O’Bannon (“Farscape”) and Michael Taylor (“Battlestar Galactica”) pull it off. And don’t forget the haunting percussion sounds of composer Bear McCreary, who is back on Syfy for the first time since the end of “Eureka.”
It’s tough not to watch “Defiance” and not think about the video game Syfy and its partners Trion are producing to complement the series. And if you’re into games, then this should be a perfect fit. But believe it or not, there is very little in the pilot of “Defiance” that panders to the game audience. There are no pod races, no massive battles (there are battles, but they are more of the frontier type), and not even any annoying catchphrases.
This is a show that does not lose sight of the need for strong characters, even stronger visuals, and powerful stories to bring everyone together. Yes, the twist at the end of the pilot is something a little too obvious for discriminating eyes, but if Murphy and his team can keep “Defiance” at least near the level it is in the pilot, then I honestly think there is a future for “Defiance” that could very much rival the days of “Battlestar Galactica.”
But to get that, “Defiance” needs to stay ahead of the societal curve, remain smart in its writing and in its stories, and avoid going down the path of superfluous B stories. Also, while violence is a part of the frontier, it should be kept to a minimum, and used with some actual realism — like we saw in the pilot. “Revolution” on NBC could’ve had some great things to talk about, but its level of violence belongs in the 1980s.
Almost always, exterior sets are just that — exterior sets. While you might see an exterior and think you can just walk inside to see more, usually, it’s a bunch of nothing, because the interior sets are on a soundstage somewhere.
That’s not true in “Defiance.” Places like the police station and the medical office are exactly where they are supposed to be — part of the exterior sets. Only the larger sets like the McCawley house, Amanda’s office and the Need/Want are on soundstages, and even then, they are literally feet away from their exterior partner.
And speaking of the medical office, by far my favorite character so far is Doc Yewll, the local Indogene doctor played by Trenna Keating. She’s not exactly part of the primary cast, but I have a feeling that she will be sooner rather than later. If you yearn for the old days of Dr. McCoy on the Starship Enterprise, then you’re going to love Doc Yewll as much as I do. Keating is perfectly cast for this role, and despite being under heavy latex and makeup, creates a character you will be talking about right up until you see her in the next episode.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK
A mystery is not a mystery if you give away information so easily that a 6-year-old can figure it out. The pilot for “Defiance” does center on a murder inside its borders, and while that murder is part of a much larger conspiracy, it seemed that the writers made absolutely no effort to hide the clues, or at least make us believe the culprits were anyone other than who was hand-fed to us at the beginning.
Audiences are much smarter than this — especially science-fiction audiences — and they don’t need their hands held. Be smart with stories, don’t worry if certain things aren’t obvious, and get the viewer involved. I should never watch an episode of “Defiance” and have time to let my mind wander on who is cyberstalking Ryder on “Glee.” Make us work — trust me, we like it.
GIVING CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE
“Defiance” stars Grant Bowler, Julie Benz, Mia Kirshner, Tony Curran, Jaime Murray, Stephanie Leonidas and Graham Greene. The pilot episode was written by Kevin Murphy, Rockne S. O’Bannon and Michael Taylor. It was directed by Scott Stewart.
“Defiance” premieres April 15 at 9 p.m. ET on Syfy. Also, get a video preview of the sights and sounds of “Defiance,” with music from Bear McCreary, by clicking here.