Defiance Series Premiere Review: Familiarity in an Unfamiliar World

By Tim Surette

Apr 16, 2013

Defiance S01E01: "Pilot"

After spending much of the last few seasons dabbling in the reality of Steve Urkel turning out the lights and the "soft sci-fi" of shows like the artifact hunt that is Warehouse 13 and the monster mash that is Being Human, Syfy is back in space! The network returned to its roots tonight in a big way with the premiere of Defiance, its first bigger-budget space-opera-ish project since Stargate Universe went kaput in 2011. The show is a step back toward what used to be the norm for the network, when lucky actors sat in makeup trailers for hours to have prosthetic faces thrown over their mugs and studios were wallpapered with green screens because building a model planet was just too expensive. 

But those shows were always a big deal only for a small, loyal audience. Aside from Battlestar Galactica, which crossed over into the mainstream thanks to gushing word-of-mouth support and well-earned drool from critics, the hardcore science-fiction Syfy (back then it was SciFi) almost went extinct as the network rebranded itself as a cool kid. So why is it getting back into the hard sci-fi game with Defiance? Because Defiance itself is also a game. Game developer Trion Worlds (Rift) is simultaneously releasing and maintaining a Defiance massively multiplayer online video game for consoles and PCs, in one of the first-ever fully realized television and video-game symbiotic relationships. Though the game and the show are set in the same universe, each project will inhabit a different part of the world, and events in one will be referenced in the other. It's an interesting idea that needs to be pointed out, but we're TV.com, not CrazyTVandGameProjects.com, so let's talk about the show as an individual entity (you can check out the game over at GameSpot). 

Defiance the show is a compilation of many familiar ideas playing out in an unfamiliar world. You probably noticed nods to Firefly, Star Wars, Halo, even Romeo & Juliet, and many, many more in the two-hour pilot. But given the taxing effort on the brain that Defiance's future new world demands—there are a bunch of new characters with funny names (can't aliens just be named "Bob?" Be more like The Neighbors, I say, semi-sarcastically!), there are new alien races that all have different relationships with one another, there's a complicated historical background of what happened since the aliens showed up, and there's the typical mundane expository details that come with brand-new show—the familiar elements actually provided some relief. Defiances's originality comes from its universe, not from its storylines (at least initially), and that makes it immediately digestible and alleviates the biggest obstacle viewers might have when deciding whether or not to watch the second episode. In that sense, it's not unlike Game of Thrones, another action-packed soap that injects tried-and-true themes into an imaginative world. And just like with Game of Thrones, you won't truly appreciate the dramatic turns the series has to offer until you feel comfortable in the world where the show is set, and Defiance's pilot served as a very attentive host.

Set however long in the future that Grant Bowler's character Joshua Nolan needed to grow up from a boy watching aliens arrive in 2013 to the adult wreckage hunter we met in the pilot—I think it's 33 years—Defiance is skipping the messy wars and peace treaties that happened during those three decades in favor of starting on an Earth that's shared by humans and the seven alien races known as the Votans. That plunks us right down in a multi-cultural melting pot filled with interspecies bouillabaisse, where some of the flavors clash and others, literally, marry. And it's the right decision for Defiance. The "origin story" isn't what we're here for; we're more interested in the deep-seated grudges and flimsy truces that come with long-term cohabitation than we are with the explosive off-the-cuff fisticuffs that often come between brand-new planetmates. We'll learn about the past as the series moves on, and that gives the writers even more to work with down the line.

The characters aren't that groundbreaking, but again, that's probably by design. They were all quickly distilled: Nolan is the rugged rapscallion, his tough adopted alien daughter Irisa is the orphan with trust issues, mine-owner Rafe (Graham Greene) is a man of the people and represents the working class, Datak and Stahma Tarr wade alone in their own arrogance as alien upper-class, new mayor Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz) has lots to prove and big shoes to fill, and Mia Kirshner (once again) plays a seductive floozy. A collection of types, sure, but the flip side is that we could've been left with too many characters floating through the first two hours of the series without any direction, as pilots often do with characters who exist just outside the inner circle. Instead, the basics were laid out, and there was no mistaking who's who.

Plus, it's easy to imagine these characters building on their foundations and becoming more than just bits and pieces of characters we've seen before, because they're all tethered to the same area of the world rather than sprawled across it. And the pilot did a phenomenal job of connecting them in a way that drew lines from each character to every other character. They have no choice but to interact with each other, which brings out more of their personalities, and the cozy confines of Defiance will guarantee plenty of encounters. In that sense, Defiance is more Deadwood than Firefly (and that's a good thing, because it fits the mold of the HBO Western better than it does the Fox space Western).  

One area where Defiance stands out is in its ability to mash together different genres and give them a science-fiction makeover; as a result, the two-hour premiere sped right along and gave us zero reason to change the channel. There was obviously a bit of a space-Western feel, but within that genre the Tarrs were on a political bent, the big battle at the end gave us an action fix, and Nolan even CSI'd a crime scene to solve a murder. All this was under the umbrella of a larger big picture, and none of it felt crammed in. Even the slower scenes, like the Tarrs conspiring (which was basically two aliens in a bathtub), worked well. There was substance to every scene, and we had a good sense of what to take away from them. There was even time left over to give us an underground fight club featuring a bio-man who put a little extra effort into working out his trapezoids! 

Of course, science-fiction means special effects, and the reaction to Defiance's will likely be all over the map. Yes, TV special effects always look poor in comparison to feature-film effects, and Defiance's visuals are a bit inconsistent so far, but for the most part they hold up and for crying out loud if you have a problem with them just use your imagination.

Defiance's solid start is something to be excited about, and it comes as one of the more pleasant surprises of the season. The two-hour premiere did a lot of things well, but what's particularly impressive is that it didn't do many things wrong. That sounds like a backhanded compliment, but I assure you it's really a vote of confidence; with a series like this, so much could go awry. Count me in for the season, and I'm cautiously optimistic that it fulfills its potential. 



SPACE NOTES!!!


– Johnny Cash, still bringing cultures together decades and an alien invasion later!

– Of all the characters, only Doc Yewll, the sarcastic Indogene doctor, stands out as an early fan favorite. She's all sass and sarcasm! 

– Runner-up would be the Sensoth (the simian-like race) with the pet doggy Tito. You gotta like a huge dude with a tiny dog, and you gotta love a huge dude who names his tiny dog Tito. 

– Ahhh, how I've missed dialogue like, "Earth Republic pays top jaja for Votan tech. Pristine terra sphere like this? Three million easy." 

– I'm pretty sure the Irathient Spirit Riders are Canadian... I swear one of them said, "Ootside." 

– I'm a big fan of the cheesy "copy and paste" technique of special effects animation, recently used to perfection on Falling Skies. Example: The spider buffalo creatures getting shot right after Nolan buried his terra sphere in the woods. They all just fall over in the same way.

– I'm guessing the Castithans (the pale race with white hair that the Tarrs are part of) intercepted Edie Brickell video transmissions in space, and that's how they developed their dancing techniques.

– In a fight, why bet money on anything that has an obvious off switch, even if that switch is in the butt? Nice Jean-Claude Van Damme move from Bloodsport there, Nolan!

– I loved this exchange that was subtitled. Rafe: "Your son's been screwing my daughter!" Datak: "I'll screw you with my knife!" Not a great comeback, Datak, and even more corny when we have to read it.




Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter if you want to: @TimAtTVDotCom
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  • nexpose Apr 25, 2013

    I finally watched the pilot and I enjoyed it more than I thought. I happen to be a big time fan of the "soft Sci-Fi" like Warehouse 13 and Eureka but Syfy has done a great job for a new high concept Sci-Fi show. Honestly the whole old St. Louis and Arch are probably the only reason I tried it out since I live across the river in Illinois. I'd say Irisa is my favorite so far but the Jamie Murray character too since I love her roles she does. Not sure if I'll be a big fan but want to check it out.

  • MikeUK123 Apr 21, 2013

    I liked this pilot. Great concept, particularly as it goes back to straight forward sci-fi which we've needed for some time.

    My only issue or worry is with the various alien races. The pilot seems setup to show humans as the only rounded ones (whether goodies or baddies), understanding everybody, whereas each other race seems to have it quirks and deficiencies. I'd personally prefer it not to be humans as the mediators, as I'd imagine that's what we wouldn't be best at in such a situation.

  • danharr Apr 21, 2013

    Not bad even though the old mayor did it and wanting to restart the war or kill all the aliens was easy to see coming. They've started something good I may end up dropping Falling Skies for this show.

  • chrelle66 Apr 20, 2013

    How many alien races are there? I thought we were invaded by an alien race. Did they bring their own enemies and/or sentient pets?
    Votan
    Indogene
    Sensoth
    Irathient
    Castithans
    and others?

    And how come no one has any spaceships. Even if all the ships were disabled in whatever battle they had they can't have been too severely damaged since something coming down as intact as what they found is common enough that only a few stray scavengers and raiders show up for the salvage.
    So there must have been a lot of similar crashes in the years since the battle, and a lot of good salvage. I find it extremely unlikely that no one, or at least so few that we haven't heard about it yet, has built at least a suborbital vehicle to get to the salvage before it burns in the atmosphere.

  • psunshine Apr 23, 2013

    There are 7 species; Castithans, Indogenes, Irathients, Liberata, Sensoth, Gulanee, and Volge. Collectively they're all known as the Votan, named for their star system the Votanis, which they all come from. There's an eighth as-of-yet-unnamed species, but it's believed to be completely extinct. I don't think we've seen the Liberata or Gulanee (as of the first episode), but I could be wrong - I may have just missed them. The Gulanee are really rare, and the Liberata act as servants to the Castithans.

  • daeonica Apr 21, 2013

    You forgot the Volge (I think)

  • crenshawdk Apr 19, 2013

    Originality is a bit of a stretch. Sure we have 7 new alien humanoid species to keep track of but other than that not very original. The acting is i dare say mediocre, OK but left wanting. Maybe because of sub par directing. I was certainly not Impressed. But if you liked star gate then this would be right up your alley. It's not a terrible show but it's just not engaging enough and it's just too clichéd.

  • tnetennba Apr 19, 2013

    I liked the stargate shows, but not this.

  • Muderboy Apr 19, 2013

    As much as I hate to say it, Firefly is over - get over it. Castle is kicking ass and ain't about to give up that gig. Anyway, I finally got the go-ahead from my wife who has decided not to watch, so I'm going it alone on this one, and will she be sorry. I guess there's something wrong with me because when I see a good story I don't give two hoots about CGI as long as it's adequate and it was here. And any complaints about Grant Bowler are just wrong. This was an excellent pilot and for those of you who agree that's cool. For those who want something better, well, I feel sorry for you is all...

  • Muderboy Apr 19, 2013

    Or you could work from home and make $7778 in 9 months...

  • ChanX95 Apr 19, 2013

    I actually really enjoyed the pilot but this was probably helped by the fact that I went on Wiki and got the lowdown on all the various races. It's super handy guys you'll be A LOT less confused.

  • Uncle-Bryn Apr 18, 2013

    Colour me pleasantly surprised. And cautious. SyFy may be sucking me in only to cancel it when I really start liking it...

  • Lauravankessel Apr 18, 2013

    I'm going to give it a shot, this one... but comparing it to Game of Thrones... is only allowed because of the many, many people we met. Other then that, GoT had a lot more tempo from the get-go. But, since this is even more of a different world then GoT, i guess Defiance had to set the scene first. Still, throwing one of your obviously key-characters out of the window at the end of the first episode is much more of a cliff hanger (and crowd-keeper) then simply stating the villains in this story.......... So; Defiance! I love sci-fi, but go deep into an awesome story and do it the way we like it; fast and shocking!

  • Lauravankessel Apr 18, 2013

    I guess what this show did most was make me miss firefly!

  • lindhoffen Apr 18, 2013

    Rockne S. O'Bannon is behind this show and I'm a HUGE fan of Farscape. I'm going to give this a shot, I'll even give it a second chance if I don't like the pilot.

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