Judge Adam Arseneau took his protein pill and put his helmet on.
The celestial sensation of the year.
Oh, the heartache of discovering cancelled television on DVD! Like finding a canteen of water while lost in the desert, the delight in its discovery is soon tainted by the sinking realization that there simply is no more after the last drop hits your lips, so you better savor it.
Pitched to networks as "Grey's Anatomy in space," Defying Gravity only kicked out a handful of episodes before the cancellation reaper came calling for it. Now on DVD, with five episodes never broadcast, is the show worth a look? Keep reading.
Facts of the Case
Ten years ago, astronauts Maddux Donner (Ron Livingston, Office Space) and Ted Shaw (Malik Yoba, New York Undercover) were among the first humans to stand on Mars, but a disastrous turn of events left two of their colleagues stranded on the red planet forever. Haunted by their past and hated by their mission commanders, Donner and Shaw train a new group of recruits for the Antares mission, a six year exploration of the solar system, knowing they themselves will never get back into space.
But when a freak medical anomaly sidelines two crewmembers, Donner and Shaw are last-minute replacements, and step in as engineer and flight commander to lead their rookie crew, consisting of geologist Zoe Barnes (Laura Harris, Dead Like Me), biologist Jen Crane (Christina Cox, Blood Ties), ship pilot Nadia Schilling (Florentine Lahme, Impact), lander pilot Paula Morales (Paula Garces, The Shield), doctor/shrink Evram Mintz (Eyal Podell, 24) and theoretical physicist Steve Wassenfelder (Dylan Taylor, House Party).
For the crew of the Antares, this is a crowning scientific achievement. But for mission control on the ground, and a mysterious corporation funding the endeavor, the mission holds a secret purpose. Soon, Donner and the team are gripped by madness, hallucinations and mathematically improbable catastrophes, suggesting the influence of someone—or something—far beyond their understanding…
Defying Gravity: The Complete First Season contains all thirteen episodes from the show's singular season run:
Like many good shows cut short before finding its sea (space?) legs, Defying Gravity found itself cancelled eight episodes in. The remaining five episodes, revealing key details to ongoing plot mysteries, simply never made it to air. This is tantamount to narrative blasphemy, especially considering the massive cliffhanger ABC left audiences with. Imagine cancelling Lost after the finale of the fifth season, after the fade to white. People would riot. One would assume Defying Gravity fans were similarly outraged, but there doesn't seem to be many of them. The pilot pulled in less than four million viewers, and the viewership of each following episode plummeted spectacularly thereafter. Arguably, no one was going to be around to watch the last episode anyway. And so, here it is—whatever was in the can is now on this DVD. Hardly the complete creative output, but you take what you get.
Like a slow burn, Defying Gravity had its own demise coming, one could argue. Even the most die-hard fans would be hard-pressed to summon too much excitement for the first handful of episodes. Slow-moving and slightly awkward, nothing clicks the way a new show needs to click in order to draw audiences in, much to the consternation of networks airing it. It takes all eight of the aired episodes to properly grab your attention; far too sloth for burgeoning shows. Add to this the failure of the networkers to properly advertise the show in advance of airdate, and it was fait accompli before the pilot even aired. Next stop: cancellation city.
There is a certain amount of brash audacity in Defying Gravity, selling such a pure and marvelous science-fiction show to a major broadcast network in prime time. The romantic drama and comedic elements are fine enough, endearing the cast to audiences quickly, but the heart of the show is classic science fiction; a genre normally delegated and segregated to its own cable network. This is our world in the future, full of environmental consequences and scientific exploration, where we are searching for mysteries greater than us. The astronauts are surprisingly human; full of guilt and anxiety, stress and uncertainty about their role in the universe.
The first eight episodes only hint at the storyline that was to come, but Season One alludes to complex storylines involving fractal mathematics and intricate secrets about the universe, as well as a surprisingly introspective combination of faith and science that put Defying Gravity firmly entrenched into Battlestar Galactica territory. Well, not really. More like a wussy, romantic entrenchment full of pithiness and charming one-liners. Science fiction fans are the most loyal and forgiving, but also the quickest to make snap judgments. It's a series front-loaded with romantic drama and back-ended with compelling science fiction. Simply put, no one gave it a chance to develop.
In truth, the show does bear more than a passing resemblance to Grey's Anatomy; hardly a surprise considering show creator James Parriott worked as a writer and executive producer on the medical drama. The characters have a snappy wit and archetypal compatibility that precludes endless back story flashbacks about their endless romantic entanglements, personal struggles and sacrifices, which fleshes out their character development quite well. Maddox is charmingly damaged, and Livingston's performance is good (although most people just say "hey, that guy from Office Space). All the cast performs their roles perfectly, fleshing out a surprising amount of depth in a scant number of episodes, but the real charmer is Laura Harris, who was marvelous in Dead like Me and simply magnificent here. She's got that natural mix of natural charm, beauty and just a sprinkle of cluelessness that can sell a sitcom, and it's quite unbelievable her career hasn't taken off further.
It is most certainly ironic the very pitch that landed Defying Gravity its network prime time slot—a Grey's Anatomy in space—ultimately served to alienate the product from both intended fan bases: romantic drama fans and sci-fi fans. Romantic drama purveyors couldn't wrap their head around the space theme, and sci-fans balked openly (like I did) at the associations to anything remotely like a hospital drama full of oversexed and jaded medical students. I'm certainly not the first to observe it, but Defying Gravity could have been mightily successful on another network, with a bit more time to grow and expand its plot and story arcs; like on SyFy or a cable network. Alas, we can but speculate as to what could have been.
The anamorphic presentation is quite nice as expected; this is a recent show after all, and there's no reason for it to be anything but pristine. Detail is average, black levels are washed out by some strong gray tones and some small grain, which is detectable but stylistically suited to the production. Silvers and blues are the dominant colors and saturation and flesh tones are good; slightly muted but within natural ranges.
Audio comes in Dolby Digital 5.1, with clear dialogue, solid bass response and average rear channel environmental placement, which shine during moments of hallucinations in the narrative. For a show in space, this isn't a particularly exciting or dynamic audio track, so it's rather straightforward sitcom mixing for the most part. I like the score, a twitchy electronic number with ambient instrumentation and guitar that perfectly suits the show—part sci-fi, part, well, Grey's Anatomy.
The fourth disc contains the supplementary features, which are predictably thin. We get "Mission Accomplished," a making of featurette with the obligatory cast and crew interviews, promotional blurbs and reminiscences that runs a scant ten minutes. Add the obligatory offering of deleted scenes (play all feature included) and a photo slide slow, and that's all she wrote.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The downside of all the Grey's Anatomy comparisons is that, well, it's a bloody apt comparison. There are positive elements to this comparison, and not-so-positive ones. The narrative takes on a certain repetition and predictability, trapped within a well-established rhythm of personal strife and improbable happenstance that begins to wear a bit thin after some time—say, the end of the pilot episode.
Every episode opens with a Donner monologue, rolls into the first act of witty banter between cast members, crashes into personal conflict or situational catastrophe in the second act, right into the obligatory flashback sequences paralleling similar challenges faced by the crew that solve their current crisis, a musical montage sequence (bonus points for slow motion) and ends with another Donner monologue that harmonizes nicely with the opening. I'm not saying the formula doesn't work, but by the tenth episode, you can already see the creative engine start to struggle, throwing up increasingly irrelevant personal obstacles into the character's lives, just to stoke the fires.
Sound familiar? Did we mention it was like Grey's Anatomy?
As with most television shows on DVD that failed to find an audience and get cancelled before they hit their stride, there is potential in Defying Gravity for greatness, but it is a theoretical and conceptual greatness that we will never see. A slow start and an overly familiar format kept audiences at bay, and once those ratings dip, your days on the airwaves are numbered. All the clever sci-fi in the world can't save you. Ask Joss Whedon.
Defying Gravity: The Complete First Season should offer some small amount of comfort to fans, robbed of any progression or development in the storyline. It may only be five episodes, but saying goodbye to the show is a little easier to stomach this way. That little bit extra of closure goes a long way.
A fine show, but we're Judges, not doctors. We can't save a patient already
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