One of the greatest benefits of speculative fiction is that it can take aspects of society which are metaphorical or difficult to tackle head-on and render them literal. (Buffy's “high school is literally hell” is probably the best example of that.) But this can get tricky in certain situations where the real-life targets of those speculative battles are in a public battle between metaphor and reality—by which I mean race.
The core issue is this: There is an occasionally loud, constantly at least low-level argument in this country about whether there are actual scientific differences between races, or if race is a construction where the distinctions between different perceived groupings of people are historical and social. Those arguing that real objective differences exist have often used descriptions of those differences in order to justify oppression based on how unintelligent, how irrational, or how diseased those “other people” are supposed to be. When science fiction and fantasy have extremely different races with objective and scientific differences from Humans (like Elves, Klingons, or Irathients) they're entering into the discussion sideways. Instead of using metaphor in order to reveal and analyze something about the real world, it becomes more complicated and problematic.
That's exactly what “If I Ever Leave This World Alive” does. The plague which started in Defiance last week is known as “the Irath plague” because Irathients can carry it without it ever manifesting against them, but it does hurt humans. Here there is a literal scientific difference between the Irathients and other races, which is used by the show in order to have other characters say the Irathients are dirty plaguebearers who deserve to be separated from healthy society, just as the Nazis said about the Jews. (This isn't idle invocation of Godwin's Law, either, later in the episode, an Irathient says that the during the evacuation of the Votan star system the Castithans stuffed caves with Irathients, and then killed them with poison gas.) Except that on Defiance, the people saying lines indistinguishable from Nazi propaganda are actually literally correct: The Irathients are plague-bearers.
Defiance is playing with fire here. It's not merely invoking the Nazis, but positing a situation where racial discrimination is justifiable on scientific grounds. There are a few different ways that I can respond to this as a critic. On one hand I can say “this seems to justify real-world racism and is thoroughly inappropriate!” Alternately, I could say “good for Defiance, engaging with difficult questions as only SF can!”
But I think I'm going to go with a third way, inspired by Homer Simpson. “Oh Marge, there's no moral, it's just a bunch of stuff that happened.” The entire episode was almost…endearing in how it wanted to engage with certain ideas and images without actually being about those. Certainly as I watched the episode I didn't think it was horribly offensive, nor did I think it was trying to do something especially impressive ethically. I was mostly just slightly disappointed at how overstuffed it felt, and interested in how it was going to get to an ending that managed to deal with the difficult premise.
And Defiance wriggled out of its problems by switching from a wide-in-scope perhaps-metaphorical story into a character story, with Datak Tarr at the center. He and Stahma finally make a direct move from possibly malevolent antagonism into outright villainy. First, Stahma manipulates the situation so that Datak becomes acting Mayor while Amanda is sick, then convinces Datak to release the quarantined Irathients. Then Datak attacks and kills the Irathients holding the plague cure hostage, which may be justifiable, then proceeds to kill the E-Rep ambassador who was Amanda's ex-boyfriend since he'd witnessed the act, which is certainly not justifiable. Then he announces he's running for Mayor in order to support the rights of Votans, casting the blame for his own quarantine idea on Amanda.
It is, in a sense, Datak's Londo moment. From the moment he and Rafe were introduced, their positions and antagonism reminded me of Londo and G'Kar, the rival ambassadors on Babylon 5, who seemed to be morally ambiguous but generally respectable and gaining respect for one another, up until the point when Londo triggered a war in order to further his own intentions. I have been waiting for Datak or Rafe to move out of the old-fashioned model of reluctant ally and into a more complicated position of understandable, charismatic villain. Datak's actions are not so operatic or fraught with dramatic irony as Londo's were, but they are a strong indication that Defiance's serialization isn't just for show. That was just enough to make the dubious symbolism of the earlier part of the episode fade in importance.
- Alak, playing songs about sickness during a deadly fast-moving plague is really not cool, oh wait it's The Thermals? Carry on.
- Nice moment from Irisa, talking Nolan down from trying to save her by saying “I don't like these odds.”
- “Oh, your father and I were having an affair at the time.” Nicolette Reardon may be too entrenched in the mythology I'm skeptical of to really interest me, but she does have a way with petty villainy.
- And a history with Doc Yewll! That actually got me interested.
- Defiance the game report: I didn't play much this week, and when I did log in today to check out the plague stuff, it was gone. I can understand why the game ties very specific events into the show, otherwise the synergy doesn't really matter, but as a player it frustrates me that content—especially good content, like the plague events were—is gone. And as a viewer, it's annoying that background info about the show is no longer available, like the plot missions when the game was released that showed Nolan and Irisa acquiring the magical glowstick from the pilot. I could try to make myself play it more to ensure I get that content, but part of the reason I find the game so appealing is that I don't feel compelled to play it all at once.