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.
– 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