The most effective way to build a setting that will support good storytelling is to give the world a solid history. It’s not necessarily the most efficient method of building a story—there are plenty of great shows that make it up as they go along—but if a show has a solid history, everything else flows from that. Defiance has a solid history, which makes it a good example of why the historical approach to world-building works. It’s not often apparent, as the show has deliberately given priority to what’s happening to the characters in the here and now. But as the show has progressed and the stakes have gotten bigger, the defining past events of the characters, the town, and the planet have become more necessary, and more helpful, to the storyline.
“Past Is Prologue” makes this quite clear in its episode title alone (although since Defiance doesn’t put these on-screen, it’s not that helpful). The big reveal in the episode: Datak gets his hands on Nolan’s military file and tells the entire town how much of a war criminal the Lawkeeper is. It’s brutal stuff, a massacre here, a court-martial there. The key element here is not that the audience learns Nolan is a war criminal—there have been obvious clues in previous episodes—but that his past becomes public. Defiance is raising the stakes by giving its characters new knowledge, not its audience.
It also finally ties the history of the world to the history of the main character. We’ve gotten some idea of how brutal the Pale Wars were, but it’s usually been in the background, or based around a one-off character like the Castithan war criminal. But when it’s Nolan, there’s no way around it. When he says “Irathient death squads,” suddenly the oppressed victims of previous episodes seem quite different. When he says he wouldn’t hesitate to put down a twelve-year-old coming at him with a gun, it doesn’t explain as much about Nolan as it does about a series of wars where an event like that is at all likely. And it hammers home just how much has been lost. St. Louis, a city of nearly three million inhabitants, is down to 6,000. And given how much of the world is now apparently “the Badlands,” that miniscule percentage of survivors may be higher than the rest of the world, thanks to the Pale Wars and the terraforming disaster that followed.
This horrifying history hasn’t been apparent in Defiance’s tone either. It has, generally, seemed like a fun science fiction romp with perhaps a bit of an edge. That may have been a mistake for the show, or it may have been an intentional audience deception—bring ‘em in with the adventure, then escalate the drama—that does work out for it. In one of the best scenes between Amanda and Nolan, he shows up after his past has been revealed, and resigns. She wants to defend him, but he argues otherwise, appealing to her political nature, saying “do the right thing” by publicly attacking him in order to prevent the Earth Republic from taking the town over. Normally on TV shows, characters are pushed into political decisions they don’t want to take because they lack choices or courage. Here on Defiance, the nasty political lie is treated as the difficult, ethical thing to do in a broken world.
And then there’s Irisa’s history. Doc Yewll runs some experiments on the artifact, which triggers a physical reaction in Irisa. Via a few flashbacks/visions, we see now that the religious ceremony performed by the Castithan salesman and Irisa’s parents so long before was more than mysticism. It was a bonding of some sort of high-tech Castithan device to Irisa’s body, and one which seems to have triggered her visions and her special nature. (This also redeems, to a certain extent, the Sukar episode, which now clearly was meant to introduce the idea of extraordinarily advanced Votan tech that could directly affect its carrier’s brain.) Giving a scientific, Third Law-esque, reason for the Chosen One story experienced by Irisa is a best-case scenario for Defiance’s mythology. I continue to be interested in seeing this story go in a way I didn’t expect at all after the first eight or nine episodes—although I’m still wary of tying the St. Louis earthquake into it. It’s another good way of tying character history of the Pale Wars and the attendant genetic and physical manipulation used by the combatants. Irisa isn’t a savior, she’s…a weapon? A cache? An experiment?
As much as I appreciate this episode for building Defiance as a world, it is also impressive visually. The outdoor scenes of the debate and then Nolan fighting Datak as the rain poured down made them seem more tangible, more desperate, and certainly more dramatic. (It does make me wonder if waiting for the rain was intentional, or if after three days of rain the crew just said “screw it, grab the umbrellas, we can do this!”) It also made me realize how rare it is to see scenes that seemed to be filmed in real rain, as opposed to scenes where rain was just added for drama. I liked seeing Irisa with stringy wet hair, and Datak crawling through the mud. It made the town of Defiance more memorable.
At the height of her arguments about Nolan’s past, Amanda declares Defiance is a place “for new beginnings!” She seems to believe that, but the events of “Past Is Prologue” indicate there’s no such thing. Nolan will always have been a war criminal. Irisa will always have had Votan tech implanted in her. And Alak will now always have been an accessory to his friend’s death and Nolan’s smearing. “If I could go back and do it over again—” “You can’t. Look forward.” It may not be best for the characters that Amanda is wrong, but it’s definitely best for Defiance.
- “We’re pretty good with alien barbarians. It’s kind of our thing.” This might have finally eliminated my misgivings about Benz in the role.
- We got last week’s montage at the start of the episode, and then another song at the end. “Time After Time” might have been overdoing it.
- “Murder my opponent? A novel approach to victory, to be sure.” and “And they say humans lack a sense of poetry.” were two marvelous Tony Curan line-readings.
- I thought the “assassination” was clearly a paintball gun based on how Alak telling his friend about it was framed—no dramatic music, no edits indicating evil. I’m not sure how intentional that was.
- “How dare you pull the race card!” Yup, someone said it.
- I loved how Stahma looked when Kenya came to confront her. As though she’d been sitting there, in her most imposing outfit (that high neck!), just waiting for the confrontation and expecting to be able to bluff her way out of it.
- “Yeah, I taught you that. You really gotta stop listening to me. I’m an idiot.”
- The last scene indicates that Datak may be the Gaius Baltar of Defiance, more than the Londo Mollari. Not that there aren’t major similarities between Baltar and Londo. And continuing with the Baltar line of thought, I’m hoping Datak wins the election, E-Rep moves in, and he and Amanda have to lead a resistance next season. I love resistance stories.