Genre: Sci-Fi | Adventure | Drama
Air Date/Time: April 15 at 9/8c
Director: Scott Stewart, Michael Nankin
Writers: Rockne O’Bannon, Michael Taylor, Kevin Murphy
On Monday, April 15 at 9/8c, Syfy will present the series premiere of the highly-anticipated transmedia event, Defiance. Defiance is an epic drama that will unfold as both an original series and a multi-platform video game – the first-ever convergence of television and online gaming, featuring an interconnected world between the two mediums as they evolve together into one overall story.
The series’ amazing cast is led by Grant Bowler, portraying Nolan, a former marine who fought in the alien conflict and became a wanderer in the new world. Julie Benz portrays Amanda Rosewater, the idealistic mayor of the bustling mining boomtown of Defiance. Stephanie Leonidas plays Irisa, a warrior who is part of an alien race called the Irathients, and Nolan’s adopted daughter. Tony Curran and Jaime Murray portray Datak and Stahma Tarr, scheming and opportunistic members of an elite alien race known as the Castithans. Graham Greene is Rafe McCawley, owner of the largest mine in the territory. Mia Kirshner plays Kenya, the dauntless town madam who displays an unwavering devotion to the town of Defiance.
At its core, Defiance is a story about survival under extreme circumstances and the will to fight for what matters. Set in the near future, the planet Earth has been exotically transformed and its landscape permanently altered following the sudden – and tumultuous – arrival of seven unique alien races. Their arrival sparks 30 years of war, at the end of which the story of Defiance begins as groups of humans and aliens attempt to lay down their arms, build new civilizations and coexist peaacefully.
There’s a reason why I’ve chosen to cover the first three episodes in one review, but don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil any plot points. Stick with this and you’ll see. Which is exactly my message about Defiance. The pilot’s great, somewhat vast in scope and theme, but it’s in the following two episodes, when everything gets dialed down a notch or two, that the show evolves into something even better.
When I spoke recently with Defiance star Grant Bowler, I asked him what he thought of the by-now-common characterization of the show as a “western.” He replied that it is really more Shakespearean, and he has a point – Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Henry V all make an appearance in the pilot. There are also bits of Star Wars. And what Battlestar Galactica did for the “f” word with “frak”, Defiance does for the the “s” word with “shtako”. There are in fact several character and plot tropes in the pilot but the details – from backstory specifics to the number of races to the setting – make it entertaining and interesting and make me want to come back.
The pilot is, as it should be, a set-up, an introduction to the players and to the back story. We’re given a lot to process, but it’s rich, intriguing, full of sci-fi goodness, moves along nicely, and thank goodness is double-episode length. Many stories are put in motion, but there is a conclusion to at least one storyline so that it feels satisfying, which is the case for each of the first three episodes.
Once we get past that epic 2-hour pilot, and again, it is pretty epic, the series really starts to come in to its own. We begin to get a real feel for these people and this place, and the stories that are to come. The battles are smaller, and not quite as literal, but don’t worry, the eight races alone add plenty of sci-fi-ness to each episode, so it’s in no danger of turning into just any old Shakespearean frontier immigrant series.
The episodes build on each other, and it’s the third episode when it all really comes together for me. There are initial sparks of chemistry in the pilot, and some real camaraderie comes in on top of that in the second episode, but an additional sci-fi element and some real tenderness and heart all also come into play in the third episode, and that is for me when the show hits its stride.
One of the things I appreciate about the show’s structure is that we are given small helpings of backstory throughout the episodes, as opposed to a few major exposition dumps. This inferential way of teaching us about the history of the Earth between our current time and theirs can make you feel like you’ve missed something, but again, stick with it, the clouds will clear. On the other hand, if you miss an episode, you’re going to constantly have the feeling that you’ve missed important bits of information, when in fact you probably haven’t. We’re all learning as we go. Because there is so much detail to the setup, the setting, the people on a larger scale and the individuals, there are times when you might wish for a glossary of terms and list of characters handy, but again, just relax and enjoy.
The artistic details, though, when you take a step back and notice them, are ridiculously impressive, as is the fact that they are incorporated so seamlessly into the production. Eight different races. Four different languages, each with their own alphabet and dictionary, no kidding; they were created by a languages expert. It’s really brilliant to see the different languages popping up on signage and elsewhere, and words dropped in to discussions periodically, as well as entire conversations with subtitles.
I’ve written elsewhere about the sets, but they are absolutely worth an additional mention here. They have built a town in a lot in Toronto, with congruous interiors and exteriors, so that you can for instance walk from outside the lawkeeper’s office to the inside without stopping. The actors have said that having the town built like an actual town was a great aid during filming; I can tell you it was really impressive to visit, and it shows well in the episodes.
The makeup work on the different races is wonderful; it’s very clear what the differences are, and they are unique. The style of clothing that each race wears is striking and works perfectly with the makeup. The Mad Max meets steampunk meets boho style of the Spirit Riders is absolutely my favorite, though the barely-there bathing wear for Jaime Murray will knock your socks off.
Grant Bowler plays a very likeable hero. I’ll definitely enjoy watching him every week, he really inhabits the character. It’s also great to see him interact with Stephanie Leonidas; I’ve heard that executive producer Kevin Murphy modeled the two of them after Ryan and Tatum O’Neal’s characters in Paper Moon, and you can really see sparks of that pop up periodically. My favorite scene of the two of them together is the first one of the pilot; you’ll see what I mean.
Julie Benz and Jaime Murray are terrific, each fantastic at exhibiting strength in entirely different ways. Benz’s character is tentative in her new role as mayor but leans in to it; Murray’s character is silky smooth in her manipulation. They are each a treat to watch.
I also have to comment on the music. It’s by Bear McCreary, it includes songs as well as musical background, and it’s just right. It’s a wonderful mood-setter and scene enhancer. Great and interesting instrumentation and an ethnic feel that isn’t intrusive all work together to aid in the new-and-old world ambience. I can’t wait until the cd comes out this summer (the game cd is available now; our review will post shortly).
There are a few instances of musical excerpts that aren’t original, but they are easily recognizable, and one of them provides a fun side note: we hear Cole Porter’s “Night and Day’ in what sounds like an original recording from the 20s-30s, until you realize that’s not an Earth language we’re hearing. References from “before the arkfall” (our current time and earlier) both in dialog and in sets feel like Easter eggs, since they nearly always show up without comment from the characters. It’s fun.
One more thing about the premiere: I feel it’s my duty to make sure that you don’t miss the tiny scene at the end of the two hours. You might think the episode is over but do not switch it off until you see the credits. Just saying. Then maybe watch the whole thing again, because you’ll almost certainly see things that you missed the first time around.
And do come back for the second and third episodes, and watch the evolution. Then you can decide if this show is for you. It absolutely is for me.
I give Defiance, Season 1, Episodes 1-3, Five Out of Five Stars.