Defiance – Opening episodes preview by Alex Bardy

DEFIANCE — The Epic Fantasy Sci-Fi Drama arrives on Syfy (Sky 114; +1, Sky 205; Virgin Media 135; Virgin HD, 165)

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Defiance is the new Syfy fantasy drama scheduled to hit UK TV screens on Tuesday 16th April, 2013. Originally designed to run in tandem with the MMO game of the same name (by Trion Worlds), this would have been a daring effort to combine big-budget television drama with open-world online gaming. As it happens, I think cooler heads have prevailed, and now the show producers are content to have the game set in the same world, with occasional crossovers and shared points of reference — they were designed and developed concurrently however, and as such I believe some of the ‘Episode Missions’ of the game are tied to events in the series, but thankfully one narrative doesn’t depend directly on the other.

Not having played the game, I can’t comment on how well or otherwise the crossovers work, but I have been fortunate enough to see the two-hour Pilot episode, and am happy to proffer my findings herein. There will be no intentional spoilers, but I apologise in advance if you do stumble upon any.

The series is billed as “combining the epic scope of a sci-fi blockbuster with the intimacy
of a small-town drama”, and I’m pleased to say that it’s made a promising start, even if some of the background premise is not entirely without fault, or believable for that matter. But hey, we’re talking fantasy drama here, so let’s open the doors, peel back our doubting Thomas brains, and take a wee peek…

The year is 2046, and our beloved planet Earth has been accidentally terraformed
into an exotic landscape in which wild mutants and hybrids roam free, and the closest thing to paradise is a little place called Antarctica. This came in the wake of a protracted war between the alien Votans and the humans on Earth, a war in which the mysterious and apocalyptic Arkfall event resulted in alien terraformer tech being accidentally unleashed onto the planet and its biosphere by the Arks. These Arks —formerly in orbit around the Earth and filled with millions of Votans in hypersleep as negotiations dragged on— were originally launched from the Votanis star system in the Perseus Arm of our galaxy, with hopes of settling what they thought was an uninhabited Earth; the terraformer tech forming part of a grand plan to flee their own doomed star system.

Needless to say, things didn’t go according to plan, and when negotiations with Earth broke down following the assassination of the Votan ambassador during peace talks designed to smooth the migration process for the alien visitors, a global conflict ensued. This conflict, the so-called Pale Wars, culminated in the mysterious Arkfall event that eventually forced an uneasy ceasefire as forces dwindled on both sides and survival against the planet itself became more important than individual squabbles.

Millions died on both sides, including many Votans who would never wake again from hypersleep following the destruction of their fleet in orbit around the Earth (the aforementioned Arkfall), and even now there remains the ever-present danger of debris from the destroyed Ark fleet in orbit (called the ‘Ark belt’) falling to Earth.

The Votans are not a single species or race, more a collective: a suite of aliens that had
previously formed an uneasy peace back in their home star system. We have the hierarchal Castithans, an albino-like race both arrogant and aristocratic, somewhat liberal in their attitudes towards sex and religion; the Indogenes, a more advanced race who are generally considered austere, learned, and scientific in their approach to all things, many also have hidden genetic and cybernetic implants; and the feral Irathients who are human-like, but somewhat more aggressive and independent than all the other ‘peaceful’ Votan races. There’s also what I’d consider the ‘minor’ alien races: Sensoths are ape-like humanoids who seem happy to do the bidding of others, but in no rush to do anything at all, frankly; the Liberata are a fallen race who now seem destined to live their lives out as indentured servants and slaves for the Castithans; and the Volge are a hostile race of huge beast-like automatons armed to the teeth with big guns and bad attitudes — these are the signature villains of the series, so far.

Of course, there are a few other ‘alien’ races, including Hellbugs and other mutant hybrids from the aforementioned apocalyptic disaster, and a ‘race’ of Bio-men originally engineered by Earth’s military to serve as expendable troops in the war against the Votan menace. Oh, and there are outlaw bands of Spirit Riders who are outcasts that give chase to anything they can salvage and make a profit from.

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With this in mind, Defiance tells of the whys and wherefores of an uneasy peace as this small frontier boom-town in St. Louis, Minnesota becomes the setting for a compelling new series of adventures hoping to draw on the very best aspects of shows like Desperate Housewives, Battlestar Galactica and A Town Called Eureka to bring us another successful US franchise. Taking the established home-town formula and throwing in big budget effects does not a winning series make, but with a good blend of drama, action, and conflict, Universal Cable Productions are hoping they’re onto a winner, and a legion of potential fans from the computer game should at least lean the odds in their favour.

This opening salvo is something of a two-hour blockbuster, and does at least set the foundations for the conflicts of interest to follow. Thrust into this troubled town is a sweeping cast, led by Josh Nolan (a former soldier) and his companion, Irisa (an Irathient ‘rescued’ from her parents by Josh and brought up/adopted as his own), but comprising numerous other characters rich with potential. The new mayor of Defiance is Amanda Rosewater [played by Julie Benz], tasked with the unenviable job of maintaining peace
in a town of combustible attitudes, as well as acting as mediator between the town’s two main business men: Datak Tarr [Tony Curran], a Castithan who pretty much runs the underworld and gambling dens in town (accompanied by his scheming wife, Stahma); and Rafe McCawley [Graham Greene], a rich and powerful single father who has amassed a fortune through his mining business in this territory and has a family of troublesome teens to support.

There are also a host of minor characters, each with their own stories to tell, and the show does a good job of setting these up for stories to come. In particular, I’m already a big fan of Doc Yewll [Trenna Keating], a straight-talking Indogene doctor with a penchant for sarcasm and forceful direction, shall we say…

This pilot episode tells how Josh [Grant Bowler] and Irisa [Stephanie Leonidas] arrive in
Defiance looking to fund their way back out again following an attack by Spirit Riders, only
to become embroiled in a bitter feud between Datak and Rafe while the new mayor is forced to bring an uneasy peace to the town in expectation of an attack by the Volge, aliens that all the other Votan races hate enough to put aside their own petty differences.

I do like the way the show has set up plenty of contrast between the Votans who have obviously tried to adapt to a new way of life here on Earth (different to what they left behind on their own planet, for example), while the younger generation have obviously been born into this multi-faceted world of alien and human cultures living together, and thus are well-grounded in expected norms and behaviour. This generational gap alone holds plenty of promise for episodes to come, not to mention the human politics and squabbles that arise naturally from a small town environment in which aliens and humans are learning to co-exist.

Plenty to chew on then, and from this viewing I’d say there’s huge potential here, although
I do have some concerns. Josh Nolan is portrayed as some kind of super-soldier-cum-ranger, with extensive tracking skills and an intimate knowledge of modern weapons tech, etc. but feels like a cardboard composite of so many other action heroes, lacking both depth of character and purpose (at least for now). His loyal companion, Irisa, is also confusing: a curious mix of devoted follower, lethal assassin, last-minute saviour, and troubled teen; she saves his hide on numerous occasions, lending weight to the argument that she has no real need of him at all, and surely loyalty can only take you so far…?

Then there’s Kenya [Mia Kershna], apparently the mayor’s sister, but also the proprietor of the town’s combined bar and brothel, a sisterly role which certainly shouldn’t sit well
in any respectable town — her character has yet to be explored in the first two episodes, so maybe it’s unfair to point the finger just yet, but nonetheless she feels something of a bolt-on at present…?

Finally, like all popular TV series, there is a twist or sting in the tale at the end of this pilot,
but one which I’m not convinced can stretch across the entirety of the series, although that does seem to be the hope of the show’s producers if my own sources haven’t let me down.

In summary? Plenty of promise, some great effects, lots of action, and numerous
opportunities for potential conflict. I do hope it works, and with Revolution proving disappointing thus far, it’s about time we had another decent SFTV show.

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