Television & Film

Syfy Gets Defiant… But Will It Last?

Episode 101 “Pilot”

There’s actually two completely different conversations we could have here. The first is an evaluation of Defiance on the merits of the show itself and the quality of the end product — and we’ll get to that in a moment — but there’s also the conversation about whether or not Defiance indicates Syfy is still willing to identify itself as a science fiction network.

So, let’s examine that point (briefly) first, as it informs the examination of the episode itself and the overall future of the show.

Yes, Syfy has been the target of a lot of heat from fans, mainly with the complaint that there’s “not enough science fiction” on the network. And yes, I think we can stipulate that everyone understands that it’s their network, and they can do whatever they want with the programming. Having said that, though, one wonders if the suits at Syfy are starting to get an idea that their plan to broaden their scope of programming might not have been all that great a plan.

Given that the list of potential Syfy shows is long and decidedly heavy with shows that could be considered solid SF, and given that the network has sunk a bajillion dollars into Defiance — both the show and the game from Trion — you have to at least allow for the possibility that they’re listening to fans and at least trying to meet everyone halfway.

That’s all I’ll get into here on that subject, but it dovetails into an examination of the show itself.

Defiance clearly has had some money spent on it. The CG effects — while dodgy in some places — holds up and supports the notion that we’re in a future version of St. Louis (although the I40 bridge in the show … uhm.. well… I haven’t driven over that ever, but why quibble?). There’s a name-heavy cast led by Graham Greene, Julie Benz and Jaime Murray. There’s all sorts of Deep Space Nine humanoids with head latex.

And that points up what could be the biggest flaw in the show: it’s not original.

As a writer myself, I’ve come across situations where someone like Peter David or Ron Moore has the very same idea I had — only different — and it’s led me to the conclusion that there’s no such thing as an original idea anymore, just original combinations of elements. Defiance is every science fiction show thrown into a blender and mixed with a good dose of Shakespeare in Vancouver.

The basic plot: several years after a number of aliens settled on Earth — and apparently had a lousy-huge battle for the planet — there’s a sort of peace/armistice in place among the survivors. The town of Defiance — which used to be St. Louis, MO — is one of those places where people have learned to get along and try to make things work. Two families — the human McCauleys and the Castithan family named Tarrs — are vying for power and influence as a smug rogue named Nolan makes his way into town after he and his Irathient adopted daughter Irisa get attacked by Spirit Riders — more Irathients.

Keeping track of all the aliens yet?

The rest of the pilot is the usual “getting to know you” pieces — some of which are written quite well — mixed with Rome0 & Juliet. Honestly, I found myself wondering why Graham Greene was playing someone named McCauley. Uhm. OK. But the dynamic between the McCauleys and Tarrs is lifted straight out of Shakespeare: the kids are in love, and the girl’s brother gets killed (he’s in the Tybalt role, methinks) and now there’s a murder to investigate. Only no one can investigate it because the Lawkeeper got shot in a barroom brawl. And I’m still not convinced that was an accident.

So, Nolan — being an ex-soldier — offers to help in exchange for getting his stuff back so he and Irisa can be on their way. They’re salvage operators, scavenging for pieces out of wreckage that falls from the sky. And Irisa just wants to get away.

Overall, it’s not a bad first episode. And the fact that it’s two hours actually helps because the story has time to breathe while introducing everyone along with the environment, the plot, and the possible complications that could come down the line.

But there are flaws in the logic, the main one regarding the conspiracy that gets introduced in the last five minutes. So, there’s more to the ex-mayor than she lets on. Fine. There’s something under the town that somebody wants. Fine.

Why didn’t she get it while she was in charge and could direct responsible parties to look the other way? It’s a gaping hole big enough to fly both the Serenity and the Millennium Falcon through with room to spare.

Speaking of which, let’s detail out the borrowed pieces:

  • Han Solo/Malcolm Reynolds — handsome-ish rogue loner who doesn’t want to get involved but does because he’s ex-military and tends to do what’s right in spite of himself
  • Leia Organa/Aeryn Sun — attractive woman leader with all the earnest energy of an idealist who has to learn how to get her hands dirty — while fighting the attraction to said rogue
  • Romeo & Juliet — star-crossed lovers caught between feuding families
  • Dr. McCoy/Emergency Medical Hologram — caustic and sarcastic doctor with a horrible bedside manner
  • post-apocalyptic/rundown shanty town — something almost every science fiction story has to have anymore. Seriously, it’s getting really really old
  • conspiracy involving unknown shadowy figures — been there, done that how many times now?
  • Prostitute with a heart of gold — anyone else think of Inara when Kenya showed up?
  • mini-lightsabers — basically a cross between a “lazer sword” and a switchblade, with colors!
  • biker gang — Mad Max, anyone?
  • teenage offspring with a chip on her shoulder — yeah. Everything from The Karate Kid to Eureka to Deep Space Nine to …

Oh! Speaking of Eureka, let’s point out that the main plot involving Nolan & Irisa seems very similar to the plot involving Carter & Zoe — and I’m not the only one to point it out.

Yeah. Syfy has a lot invested in this. So much so that it feels like they cribbed elements from a lot of other popular science fiction stories and cobbled together this in a Frankenstein’s Experiment attempt to woo back the science fiction crowd and attract the gamers at the same time. Is it all a big marketing ploy? Or is it a show they really believe in?

Or is it that Syfy is so fully invested in this show with so much money on the line, it has to work or else?

Time will tell.

[Official site on Syfy]

Jason P. Hunt

Jason P. Hunt (founder/EIC) is the author of the sci-fi novella "The Hero At the End Of His Rope". His short film "Species Felis Dominarus" was a finalist in the Sci Fi Channel's 2007 Exposure competition.

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