Universal // 2013 // 558 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // October 21st, 2013
New Earth. New rules.
I haven't always loved science fiction television, but in the last five or six years have really developed an affection for the genre. These days, I can't get enough of every Star Trek, Stargate, Farscape -- you name it. That makes me a total mark for Defiance, the new original show that premiered on SyFy in April of this year and which is seeing its first season hitting Blu-ray now. When the ads began premiering (as far back as 2012), I was intrigued. The look and the premise of the show, coupled with the fact that it was co-created by Farscape's Rockne S. O'Bannon, sealed the deal. I was on board.
In the year 2046, Earth has been transformed by aliens, wiping out huge portions of the landscape, making several species of plant and animal extinct. It's not quite a wasteland, but it's not totally far off, either. Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler, Liz & Dick) and his adopted alien daughter Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas, MirrorMask) find themselves in Defiance, a town (that used to be St. Louis, Missouri) that hosts multiple races of aliens attempting to coexist and form a functioning government. When the town's lawman is murdered, Nolan steps in and is made the sheriff by the mayor, Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz, Bad Girls from Valley High). The majority of Defiance: Season One is made up of smaller, less serialized stories -- murders to be solved (or in same cases prevented), discoveries made about the town, business agreements taking place. There are a few overarching story lines, though, including a mayoral election that could unseat Rosewater, a young romance between two warring races -- one the son of powerful mine owner Rafe McCawley (Graham Greene), the other the daughter of one of Defiance's most powerful businessmen, a white-skinned Castithan named Datak Carr (Tony Curran, Blade II). It all builds towards an alliance with Earth Republic and a collection of artifacts located deep within the mines that multiple parties hope to obtain.
Here are the 13 episodes that make up the first season of Defiance:
* "Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go"
* "The Devil in the Dark"
* "A Well Respected Man"
* "The Serpent's Egg"
* "Brothers in Arms"
* "Goodbye Blue Sky"
* "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times"
* "If I Ever Leave This World Alive"
* "The Bride Wore Black"
* "Past is Prologue"
* "Everything is Broken"
It's very difficult to be completely original these days. Once upon a time (let's call it the '90s), genre entertainment was enough of a rarity that some TV series and movies felt wholly new and different, even if they actually weren't. Nowadays, science fiction and fantasy are so prevalent in the mainstream (from blockbuster comic book movies to Game of Thrones) that we are inundated with genre tropes on a weekly basis. That puts a show like Defiance in a difficult position, because savvier viewers can sit and spot all of the influences -- the politics that feel borrowed from Battlestar Galactica, the new frontier, western feel reminiscent of Deadwood, the makeup and alien designs that recall Farscape. Even the tensions among the different species of aliens thrown together into a single location smacks of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Not surprisingly, the producers of Defiance were involved with a few of those shows. At least it comes by these influences honestly.
But Defiance does at least try to set itself apart, too, and that's where it's going to lose some potential viewers. The show goes all in when it comes to its political wheelings and dealings, concerning itself as much with government machinations and hostile takeovers as with rousing action scenes. At times, there sheer number of characters and names can be difficult to keep straight, particularly because they're the traditional "made up" sci-fi names ("Datak," "Sukar," "Irisa," "Joshua"). The number of threads and subplots the show tries to juggle gets rather unwieldy at times, and it all starts to become white noise. It doesn't help that both Bowler and Benz are a little generic at the series' center; while I like both of them (and Bowler, in particular, grew on me as things went along), they end up fading into the background a bit as they're shown up by the more colorful supporting characters.
Defiance is ultimately a western, about the formation of a kind of frontier town made up of warring factions and new technologies (though not necessarily "new" everywhere, they are relatively new in Defiance). Often times, it succeeds better at creating a sense of place than it does at giving us interesting characters to care about -- more world-building than compelling drama. That can make sections of Season One a bit of a drag, in which there are impressive sets, special effects and production design on display but little that connects us to them. But it also suggests that future seasons will fare better; with the town of Defiance pretty well established in these 13 episodes, a second season can zero in on its inhabitants a little more closely. Longer-form storytelling might do the show some good, too. While networks sometimes shy away from serialized shows for fear that viewers who drop in on episode six or seven may get lost, shows like Defiance lend themselves to large-scale narratives. We're in this world from week to week. The stories should reflect that.
The show is actually quite a bit better than it ought to be, considering its somewhat mercenary origins. It was launched as only half of a media "platform," with the other half being a video game that fans were supposed to play to extend the experience -- either that or the players of the video game were supposed to watch the show to see the characters visualized on TV. I get it. This is how media is produced and consumed now. I'm just not sure if it always leads to the best possible art. If Defiance is any indication, it is possible to retain quality and integrity even when your "art" is just part of a brand you're trying to launch.
Universal's Blu-ray of Defiance: Season One does well enough by the show, though anyone looking for loads of bonus content is going to come away disappointed. The episodes are spread out over three discs and presented in their original 1.78:1 widescreen HD broadcast format in full 1080p. They look really terrific. Though the show has the kind of washed-out look we've come to expect from genre shows trying to be "gritty," the HD transfers bring out tons of good detail and even manage not to betray the makeup designs or digital effects (which can sometimes be an issue with high def). Much care has gone into the look of Defiance, and Universal has treated it well on this release. The audio is carefully designed, too, and the lossless 5.1 audio track does a nice job of creating an immersive atmosphere and balancing it with the excellent music from composer Bear McCreary, the go-to composer for sci-fi TV these days.
The set contains little by the way of bonus content. There's the standard collection of deleted scenes, a gag reel, a behind-the-scenes production featurette, a short piece on actor Jesse Rath and, of course, a featurette about the video game. That's it.
There's a lot to like in this first season of Defiance, and while it hardly announces itself as a classic of science fiction television in the initial 13 episodes, it has the makings of something that could be special. Though unlikely to find much of an audience outside devoted genre fans, let's hope that a second season (already promised by SyFy earlier this year) gives the show room to find its voice, do less of what doesn't work and more of what does. No one wants another Terra Nova.
Not guilty...for now.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 558 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* Gag Reel
* Digital Copy
* UltraViolet Download
* Official Site
* Facebook Page