News, Views, and Reviews
Welcome to Defiance. The Earth has been terraformed beyond recognition. Thirty-three years ago, a massive fleet of “Ark” ships brought seven alien races, collectively referred to as the Votan, to Earth as immigrants, not invaders. The “Pale Wars” between Humans and Votans followed. During the Battle of Defiance, soldiers on both sides refused to follow orders to fight, and helped each other rescue stranded civilians. This sparked a global movement for peace, and an uneasy treaty ended eighteen years of conflict. Now it is 2046, fifteen years after that treaty, and the combined inhabitants of Earth will have to put aside their differences and work together if they want to survive an even graver alien threat.
Defiance is one of the most ambitious science fiction products I’ve ever seen. If you think the premise sounds like it would make a great sci-fi movie, TV show, or video game, you’d be correct. It IS a TV show AND a massively multi-player online (MMO) third person shooting game. Defiance (the game) launched for PC, PS3, and Xbox 360 on April 2nd, and Defiance (the TV show) premiered on the SyFy Network on April 15th. The game actually takes place in the San Francisco Bay area, and the TV show takes place in the city of Defiance, an area formerly known as St. Louis. Because the game is an MMO, players create their own characters and pursue their own adventures, with little concern of what happens in the city of Defiance. But, the main characters of the TV show, Nolan and Irisa, made a guest appearance during the launch of the game, and future cross-over events are already in the works. I think it was intended for the game to give meaning to the show, and the show to give meaning to the game, but so far, it feels like the show is carrying all the meaning – and the heart – of Defiance.
Story: The Defiance Pilot episode feels like a low-budget movie. It has it all: action, drama, adventure, and a little romance and mystery. The episode begins with a brief introduction to the setting, narrated by Irisa, and then the viewer is dropped right into the action. The dialogue throughout the first part of the episode fills in the rest of the setting. This makes some of the dialogue – and supporting characters – to appear somewhat forced. These alien races now live together, but that doesn’t mean they get along. The heads of two rival families, for example, happen to have children that are secretly in love with each other, which feels a little too much like Romeo and Juliet or Westside Story. This sets up the obvious inter-species-tension that will probably be a main focus of the show, but in an interesting, character-driven way. Personally, I would much rather be introduced to two-dimensional characters instead of listening to boring exposition. For their credit, these supporting characters and sub plots help develop the city of Defiance, and set the audience up for the more engaging second part of the episode. In fact, the weaker parts of the pilot were the necessary “hooks” that will lead to future episodes. Without those hooks – which feature supporting characters we have yet to care about – the Pilot would have succeeded as a stand-alone movie. A somewhat melodramatic, low-budget, sci-fi movie.
Characters and Acting: For such an ambitious product to succeed, a LOT of weight is on the main characters, and Grant Bowler proves he can carry it all if he has to. His portrayal of Joshua Nolan immediately invests us in this sci-fi world, by being so grounded and relatable. Nolan is a rogue-ish, dashing, leading man type of character, that hides a dark past and a dubious moral compass with effortless charm. His connection to Irisa isn’t explained right away, so I won’t spoil it. Irisa is a sulking, rebellious, teenaged Irathient, who doesn’t say much in the Pilot. But their dynamic works really well, and I can’t wait to see more. I think that’s a good way to sum up the other characters: we’re introduced to them, given their backgrounds, and now we’ll get to sit back and see what happens next. Sure, some of them might feel two-dimensional, now, but they might have more to do in coming episodes. Tony Curran caught my attention as a potential villain character, with his portrayal of a Castithan noble named Datak Tarr. Julie Benz provides a solid performance as Amanda Rosewater, the newly appointed human mayor of Defiance, who is in way over her head. In the meantime, it’s definitely Nolan that carries the show.
Visualization: I’ve been playing the Defiance game for several weeks now, so I’m already used to the creature and plant life designs and general color and art style. But I will praise it again: I’m SO glad that they chose this more colorful, vibrant style instead of the dreary, dull, post-apocalyptic over-used style of other sci-fi products. The fantastic setting works in the video game, but this low-budget TV show struggles with the effects. The practical sets; the make up and buildings, are effective, but the mixed use of CGI is a little rough around the edges. I don’t know where it came from, but the story circulating the internet is that Trion Worlds had a total budget of $100 million for the video game AND the TV show. Knowing what I know about block-buster video games, and their huge budgets, I can only imagine the game got the lion share of the funding. That said, I’m hoping that success will breed success and future episodes will have better and better effects. This is, after all, a brand new IP. Even a known property like Star Trek had its share of early episodes that struggled with their special effects. In the mean time, I think the style will carry the show, as it IS interesting to look at. It’s a clever combination of “old west” and “sci-fi” that feels simultaneously familiar and foreign. Ultimately, we’re dealing with a frontier town, not an epic civilization. The developers will be wise to focus on the characters and stories until their budgets grow and the special effects can improve.
Sound: I have to admit, I’m already a big fan of the soundtrack. It has a captivating theme, presented in a “familiar and foreign” combination of electronic and traditional instruments. Excuse the rant, but I find it so strange that many movies fail to carry a recognizable tune these days. If anything, Defiance feels like a throwback to “old” sci-fi like Star Wars – or even the Saturday Serials that inspired them. Here’s the main theme; here’s the “hero” theme; here’s the “action” music, the “villain” theme, and the slower, melancholy version of the main theme. It’s all very epic and appropriate. And memorable. That’s what I want in a soundtrack, movie, game, or TV show. OK, end rant. The sound effects are also well done, especially the alien weaponry and technology. Like its visualization, Defiance somehow captures its own identity with its own musical and sound effect style.
Conclusion: Perhaps that’s the best way to sum up Defiance: it may be a little rough around the edges, but it has it’s own unique identity and style. With time (and a bigger budget) these aspects could be developed even further, and Defiance (the TV show) could truly stand on its own as one of the sci-fi greats. The fact that I get to log in and play some Defiance (the game) just makes it that much sweeter. That reminds me, I have some new “Episode One” content to finish before next week!
Defiance (the game) launched April 2nd, for PC, PS3, and Xbox 360. It is rated “M” for Mature for: Blood, Drug Reference, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, and Violence.
Defiance (the TV show) premiered Monday, April 15th, at 9/8C on the SyFy network. Episodes can also be viewed on SyFy.com. It is rated “TV14” for DLSV.