Saturday, April 20, 2013

Defiant Defiance

Article first published as Defiant Defiance on TheTVKing.

There's a lot that is familiar in SyFy's new drama Defiance. A loner hero blows into town just to get a bit of money, and then intends to leave. Instead, he is sucked into the plight of the rebels, and ends up risking his life for them. A small frontier town stands up against an army they couldn't possibly hope to beat, and wins. A leader who doesn't feel up to the challenge finds her way. Generational divides between parents and children tear families apart.

But those small elements, used many times over in fiction before, don't seem all that familiar when watching the "Pilot." Instead, Defiance feels fresh and inspiring. The effects are great and the acting is terrific. The story is interesting, and the way it is presented to excellent. Overall, I am very impressed with the first two hours, and could see this as a show to watch, should the quality be maintained.

Defiance is set in our not-so-distant future. Aliens, seven species that together are called the Votan, come to Earth, accidentally terraform it, and go to war on its surface, wiping out much of the native population. We don't yet know the details of why this happens, but I assume that will be revealed over time, based on the tidbits the "Pilot" gives us, and probably has to do with resources. At least, that's the explanation that makes sense, given those are still being fought over in the first episode. More info can actually by found on the Wikipedia page for the show, which likely makes use of press materials and the tie-in video game to explain the story.

I do hope that Defiance gives us this back story. It's true that the tale being told here is primarily about characters, and not about the political maneuvers that led to the current reality. I don't disagree with the decision to skip over a lot of it in the first episode, as the initial two hours are well structured to draw viewers in. But it would be nice if the history is established as cannon on screen and known to all viewers, not just those that read online or play a game.

As the story begins, it's been years since the war ended, and Earth is a vastly different place. One town, Defiance, is a beacon of hope for those who wish to get along and live together, as the war ended when many refused to fight. There are plenty of others that live outside of its walls, including some kind of central authority. But Defiance, standing on the site of what was once St. Louis, attempts to carve its own path.

At the center of the series are Jeb Nolan (Grant Bowler, True Blood, Ugly Betty) and his adopted  Irathient daughter, Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas, MirrorMask). They tend to keep to themselves, and hope to find a paradise to settle down in, possibly in Antarctica. At first, they are resistant to Defiance, but realizing their dreams are just dreams, they decide to stay and forge an actual life.

The dynamic between the two is wonderful, and equal parts familiar and foreign. Irisa doesn't quite act like a human teenager would, but then again, she does. Perhaps her emotions are just stronger and control her a little more, taking her to the extreme. But she also has great affection for Jeb, which says something about his personality that isn't immediately apparent, having spent the effort raising and caring for a girl that he has no familiar connection to.

In Defiance itself, various factions struggle for power, though not in a way that obviously tears the town apart. Wealthy Castithan couple Datak (Tony Curran, The Pillars of the Earth, Gladiator) and Stahma Tarr (Jaime Murray, Warehouse 13, Hustle) don't get along well with human miner Rafe McCawley (Graham Greene, The Green Mile). But when their children, Alak (Jesse Rath, 18 to Life) and Christie (Nicole Munoz, Defying Gravity) bond in a Romeo and Juliet-esque fashion, the Tarrs come up with a very sinister plan to take over the mines and the fortune that comes with it.

I can't fully decide if the Tarrs are villains or not. They are certainly shrewd and cold and not above killing, yet they also seem to care about Defiance. Perhaps their ways are just very alien, and they are hard to understand. They may yet have some sort of honor code, but they aren't very likeable at the onset. Maybe they can find some way to peacefully co-exist with the McCawleys?

There are also several other colorful characters in town including: Kenya (Mia Kirshner, The L Word), madam of the local brothel; Tommy (Dewshane Williams, Being Erica), the lawman's earnest apprentice who takes a shine to Irisa; and Doc Yewll (Trenna Keating, Combat Hospital), the sharp-tongued Indogene doctor, who seems perfectly at home in the Old West tone of Defiance, despite her strange appearance.

Holding this ragtag band together is Mayor Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz, Dexter, Angel). Benz is playing against type here, and doing it well, Amanda being a departure from previous roles. This is someone who isn't a natural leader, but can rise to the occasion, filling in the shoes of her beloved predecessor, Nicky Riordon (Fionnula Flanagan, Lost, The Other), but also forging her own path. She is very much a diplomat, which helps her hugely in her current position. She's tough, but fair; guarded, but trusts those who have earned that trust. Amanda also has an unexpected, but sweet, connection to one of the town's other residents that grounds her and adds a nice layer to the character.

By the end of the first installment, the citizens of Defiance must band together to face a common enemy, but this is only the beginning of their struggle. There is a major villain making a move against the town, and while there is definitely some mystery as to the motivation and purpose, the bad guy is revealed at the end of the "Pilot." This keeps us from being in suspense, but also provides tantalizing crumbs as to what will occur.

"Pilot" is a well-crafted and intelligent story set in a rich, detailed world. Obviously, much care has been gone into developing this universe (at least five years, actually), so it feels more authentic than most sci-fi settings. Defiance manages to deftly balance large arcs with character tales, contributing to a really neat presentation. This show could definitely go somewhere.

Defiance airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on SyFy.

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