There’s a moment filled with significance for American fans of science-fiction television that takes place a few minutes into the pilot of Defiance. After a voiceover lays out the show’s background, the camera eventually settles on the speaker. She has a prosthetic nose, bright hair, and contacts that make her eyes look larger than the average human’s. She’s a TV alien! It’s like teleporting back to 1999, when a half a dozen shows across several different networks featured goofy extraterrestrials, space exploration, outlandish weaponry, and crazier plots. It’s silly to consider that such a symbolically welcome sight, sure, but since the end of Caprica and Stargate, science-fiction fans haven’t had much else to go on.
This isn’t an accident, either. Defiance is a direct descendent of huge amounts of science- and speculative-fiction television. Its three executive producers include Rockne O’Bannon, the creator of SeaQuest DSV and Farscape who also wrote for V; Michael Taylor, a writer on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as well as Voyager, then Battlestar Galactica (including “Unfinished Business,” Todd VanDerWerff’s all-time favorite boxing/hugging episode of TV) and Caprica; and Kevin Murphy, who’s been a writer on many different things, including positions of power within Desperate Housewives and Caprica.
It’s not just the producers—the cast is also recognizable. There’s Darla from Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel! Isobel from The Vampire Diaries! Defiance’s main character is played Grant Bowler, who also appeared on Lost and True Blood. Veteran character actor Graham Greene, who recently popped up in Twilight, has a recurring role as well. Tony Curran played Van Gogh in an episode of Doctor Who. With the actors and producers combined, it seems like every speculative-fiction series of the past two decades has a direct connection to Defiance.
Yet it’s the SF show that’s most famous for being unsuccessful that seems to be Defiance’s closest relative: Firefly. Defiance may not be a “space western” technically, as it takes place on Earth, but it’s dominated by a western aesthetic. Julie Benz’s character Amanda is the mayor of the town of Defiance (a beacon of tolerance and liberal ideals in the wasteland) and she’s shown approving plans for a new well. Mia Kirshner, oddly, plays Amanda’s sister Kenya, who owns the brothel in town. The two most powerful men in Defiance are Greene’s Rafe McCawley, owner of the local mines, and Curran’s Datak Tarr, the local semi-legit gangster. It’s a western, just with aliens, terraformed monsters, and plasma rifles.
The lead character, Joshua Nolan, also comes straight out of the science-fiction western tradition of the roguish hero, like Malcolm Reynolds and Han Solo. In one exchange, his adopted daughter Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas) reminds him as he confidently prepares for a boxing match “You got knifed in Kansas City.” “This is a completely different situation,” Nolan replies, a seemingly deliberate callback to “Serenity” and the great “Didn’t she shoot you one time?” exchange. Greene is no Nathan Fillion, and the dialogue isn’t quite at Firefly levels of excellence, but the charm is already there and there’s no reason it can’t get even better.
When Defiance moves away from Nolan and Irisa, it loses some of its charm. The key issue is a Romeo And Juliet-style feud/romance between the Tarr and McCawley families. All the characters involved are painted in extremely broad strokes, and the worst scene of the pilot occurs when Datak Tarr and his wife Stahma take a sexy, conniving bath together, plotting to increase their power, and every last bit of their plan gets parceled out, as if Datak, and the audience, were totally oblivious. It’s not a huge problem like, say, the family drama of Terra Nova, it’s just weaker than Nolan and Irisa’s scenes. There’s good to be found in the Defiance family drama; Greene has a simple power and charisma as McCawley. And the bath scene is especially frustrating after a wonderful earlier scene where Stahma immediately moves to distract some children while Datak takes care of less pleasant business, which respects the audience’s intelligence.
Defiance is at its weakest when it has to spell out what’s going on, but it’s pleasantly surprising just how little of its mythology it pushes down the viewer’s throats. I was initially quite skeptical of the show, since a video game of the same name was developed and released concurrently, almost never a good sign. (The game, according to reviews, is good but not quite great.) And to be sure, the pilot’s climactic battle does suffer from feeling excessively game-like. Yet I actually found myself enjoying aspects of Defiance that seemed directly connected to its accompanying MMO. The background information required to create a balanced game also creates a sturdy foundation for stories to be built off of. The show’s mythology supports several varied but roughly equal races, just like a game would. Those races, and the world itself, all have a significant backstory that puts them in places where they can all interact. If you go to the show’s Wikipedia page, you can read the backstory for much of Defiance, like it’s a game manual. But I’d actually recommend against doing this—I thought the pilot generally did a good job of explaining the backstory that needed to be explained without going overboard with the lore. Defiance seems quietly confident in its world and story’s ability to be interesting instead of shoving mystery down your throat, like so many post-Lost shows. There’s a little bit of mythology tossed in at the end of the pilot episode, but it doesn’t define the show’s story like many mystery-based SF shows tend to have.
Given the post-Caprica wasteland of televised science fiction, it’s easy to get excited about Defiance simply for existing and putting its actors in creative makeup. After all, Terra Nova demonstrated that a promising pilot doesn’t always yield a great series. But Defiance isn’t just a show with potential: It’s good from the start, and there are no major warning signs preventing it from maintaining or improving that quality. The future of the future on television may depend on it.