Defiance – Pilot – Recap and Review

DefianceI’m not a huge follower of hype, so for Defiance, I’ve looked at pedigree for my research – behind the scenes and on camera. Creatively, this show looks to be in solid hands including those of:

Rockne S O’Bannon – developed the show, is a co-executive producer, most notable previous project: Farscape (which I really liked, except Crichton did get annoyingly whiny as the series progressed) as well as Seaquest DSV, V, Cult, and Twilight Zone either as creator or writer.

Kevin Murphy – co-executive producer: most notable previous mass appeal project: Desperate Housewives as writer and producer, for sci-fi: showrunner on Caprica, Battlestar Galactica’s prequel and Reaper for which he was a co-executive producer and writer.

Michael Taylor – co-executive producer, most notable previous projects include Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Deep Space 9 (DS9), and Battlestar Galactica as screenwriter.

Bear McCreary – composer, most notable previous projects: Battlestar Galactica, Eureka, Caprica, Human Target, The Walking Dead and another fledgling show, Da Vinci’s Demons (both concurrently with Defiance).

David J Peterson – linguist, created the Dothraki language on Game of Thrones and created two languages for Defiance.

Let’s see whose faces we/I recognize:

Julie Benz – many TV viewers will recognize her from Dexter as having played Rita Bennett, I will always remember her from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, where she played Darla.

Tony Curran – played Vincent van Gogh in the Doctor Who episode “Vincent and the Doctor” (one of my favorites), the Invisible Man in the film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, as well as a vampire in Underworld: Evolution.

Jaime Murray – recently known as recurring character HG Wells in Warehouse 13, Olivia in Ringer, and a main character in Hustle for 4 seasons.

Graham Greene – not a lot of in the sci-fi department (are we counting Twilight?, let’s not), but a 35-year career in Canada, the US, as well as England is really nothing to sneeze at. He was also an Oscar nominee for his role as Kicking Bird in Kevin Costner’s Oscar winning Dances with Wolves.

Fionnula Flanagan – guest starring role on three Star Treks (The Next Generation, DS9, and Enterprise) and as Eloise on Lost; all part of a 45-year career in the UK, Ireland, and US.

Mia Kirshner – in her early days, the Canadian had recurring roles on Dracula: The Series and was a guest on War of the Worlds. On the more commercial side, she had a recurring role on The Vampire Diaries as Isobel, she was a main character on The L Word and a recurring character on Season 1 of 24.

For me, Australian actor Grant Bowler (who I could recognize from Farscape, MacLeod’s Daughters, and Halifax f.p. except he was only in one episode of each and therefore don’t, but more recently, and on this side of the Pacific, had recurring roles on Lost, Ugly Betty, and True Blood. We won’t mention the Liz Taylor biopic that he was in with Lindsay Lohan where he played Richard Burton) is one of the unknown quantities, as is English actor Stephanie Leonidas – a good portion of the character drama is supposed to revolve around both of these actors. From the previews, they do look like the emotional and dramatic lynchpins. This show will also likely have many Canadian components for non-starring parts, as it’s shot in Toronto, Ontario.

Right – the premise of the show. The planet is Earth, but not one we would immediately recognize. The timeline loosely works as: 2013 First Contact by the group of aliens collectively termed the Votans (they are 7 individual species -with a mysterious 8th presumed to be extinct – but they’re all from the same galaxy) who thought the Earth was uninhabited. Really? They have the technology for interstellar travel and yet are surprised that there are already 7 billion plus humans on their destination planet? Suspending disbelief again. Negotiations for shared settlement drag on for 10 years until a Votan ambassador is publicly assassinated, and a 7-year war (the “Pale Wars”) begins. An event called “Arkfall” puts an end to it in 2030 when the fleet of alien ships in orbit inexplicably explodes but debris from the spaceships (a.k.a. Arks) terraforms Earth into something different.

The town the action takes place in is called Defiance, but was once St Louis, Missouri, only recognisable by its iconic arch. Here is my first issue: if the terraforming added a few kilometres to the earth’s surface (which I think is the measurement they said in The Making of Defiance), how is the Gateway Arch (.192 km) still so prominent?

Benz and Kirshner are sisters Amanda and Kenya Rosewater. Amanda is the mayor of Defiance, Kenya runs the local bar, gambling establishment / brothel. Curran and Murray are a husband and wife of the Castithan race (the really pale folks) and Curran plays Datak Tarr, a wealthy and influential businessman and Murray is Stahma Tarr, the ‘power behind the throne’, it appears. Greene is Rafe McCawley who is the town’s wealthiest man, owns the local mine, and probably employs most of the town. Flanagan is Nicky Riordon, former Defiance mayor and somewhat of a mentor to Amanda. Bowler and Leonidas play newcomers to the town, he is a human called Joshua Nolan with a USMC background and she is Irisa, his non-human adopted daughter of the Irathient race.

The story begins with Nolan and Irisa driving along a fake landscape on both sides of the vehicle singing along to Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash’s “Jackson”, a song where the sentiments by the two singers mimics what recently transpired bringing them into this vehicle driving across the arid countryside (Nolan, it appears, is a bit of womanizer, was found with a married woman and they needed to get out of the town they were staying in). Ah, fake driving. Happily, the rest of the landscape looks okay. Nolan and Irisa are following some Arkfall debris to its crash site in search of a payday. Irisa’s voiceover introduction says she was “Born into the world that came after, after the Arkfalls began” – as the episode progresses, the audience finds out the present time is 15 years later. In due course, we are also told Nolan found Irisa in Denver as a war orphan and raised her as his own – but it raises a few questions: She can clearly write in a language that doesn’t resemble any Earth language (she keeps a diary of sorts) and how old was she when Nolan found her. How old is this decidedly comely alien now?

Within a few TV minutes, they run into trouble with some baddies who are of the same race as Irisa and show themselves as an efficient fighting unit in getting away. There’s further jeopardy very quickly when Irisa is revealed to be injured and Nolan carries her through the forest, with large nasty carnivorous critters nearby. He shows himself her protector (and hides a dodecahedron he took from the Arkfall debris with an estimated worth of 3 million in Earth Republic currency) when the critters attack until he runs out of ammo, but luckily some ranger-types from Defiance happen upon them, take out the critters and help them out.

Defiance has an electromagnetic border (a stasis net) around it and by the first commercial break they enter it. It’s some kind of memorial day and the mayor (on the job for only three weeks) is giving a speech that has some good info for viewers. The “Pale Wars” ended 15 years ago this day. Datak Tarr and Rafe McCrawley are the chief benefactors behind a commemorative statue and hate each other. Defiance appears to be independent from the machinations of an Earth Republic (E-Rep). There’s a Romeo & Juliet story between the Tarrs’ son Alak and McCrawley’s daughter Christie. Nolan has a ‘command performance’ with the mayor who wants to suss him out and it doesn’t go incredibly well, but she introduces the Need /Want as a change of scene – this is where we have Romeo fight with one of Juliet’s brothers, who is very obviously racist and has mysterious appointments. Irisa is discharged from the hospital, where another alien race has been visually introduced (Indogene) and the pair head over to the Need/Want where we meet the Mayor’s sister (though we don’t yet officially know that) who appears to be more than just a barkeeper, madam (taking her pick of the clientele) would definitely also be in the ballpark. Nolan and Irisa get a tip from her that there is quick money to be made in the Hollows (Datak Tarr’s domain, where he actually presides) which is a Fight Club for all species. Nolan volunteers himself as a fighter and we meet another species a “Bio Man” (blue, alien looking, not-responsive to punches aimed at the genitals, but with a convenient off-switch) who Nolan manages to take out after getting tossed around a bit. Datak takes most of his earnings/ winnings after he tells Nolan he thought deactivating his opponent was a ‘low blow’.

A Wookie looking alien (a Sensoth) walking his dog finds the body of Juliet’s’ aggressive brother Luke, when they take the news to his father, the other brother, Quentin, confesses that Alak had had a fight with him and had uttered death threats. Rafe arrives at the Need/Want with his posse of heavies wanting to kill Alak. Nolan, having ‘finished’ with Kenya upstairs sees a bit of the situation developing and tries to give the young Castithan an alibi by suggesting they’d been playing cards all night. The situation escalates when Christie arrives with the Lawkeeper who gives Alak his real alibi – they were together all night – which really doesn’t defuse the father’s anger any, just redirects it. In the short gunfight and knife fight (thanks to Irisa), the Lawkeeper is shot by one of Rafe’s goons. Datak arrives only to have a hissy fit, but serves to provide a strategic opener for Nolan to become the tracker for Luke’s actual killer (for a price), but he has to leave Arisa with the Lawkeeper’s deputy as security. Scene change to the Tarrs having an intimate series of moments in a big ole bathtub. Datak has already accused her ‘handling him’ earlier in the episode and here she shows her Lady Macbeth-ness. She insinuates that if Alak were to marry Christie, she’d be family. If something were to happen to her father and her brother in the danger of the mines they work in, the Tarrs would be honor bound to help her in her time of need. Ka-ching!

Irisa and the Lawkeeper’s deputy have a talk after they establish that Irisa doesn’t have the best conversational skills. They do have something in common – they were each saved by the older person they look up to. Lawkeeper Clancy had ‘seen something’ in the deputy when it looked like he might go off the rails a bit. Irisa says Nolan saved her by doing something she couldn’t: kill her parents. We might not see the end of that storyline.

Tracking scene – Nolan shows his skills despite Rafe’s ‘peanut gallery’ comments and comes up with a viable theory that mayor Amanda can provide a suspect for: her assistant Ben. Cut to Ben, killing his way into the control room for the stasis net with the same weapon he killed Luke with (Cold Fire gun) where he leaves a hi-tech looking little bomb. Conundrum – Nolan says when he finds alien blood at the scene of Luke’s death that it belongs to an Indogene, but a few minutes later when they catch up with Ben, Nolan says there’s only one race that uses that particular weapon and it isn’t Indogene. Dum-da-da-dum! He tries to interrogate Ben who’s been shot by Rafe. All Ben had said on the phone on the ride over is that the town is finished, all there is left to do is run. The Spirit Riders (Irathient raiders Nolan and Irisha have their first skirmish with at the top of the episode) or whatever’s killing them off one by one using a Cold Fire gun (we’ve already seen how it works as during Nolan’s tracking demo, the audience gets a flashback of how Luke’s death went down). Ben says there’ll be an attack right after dark. Then, the bomb goes off, the stasis net goes down, distracting Nolan, Rafe, Amanda, and others and by the time they pay attention to Ben again, he’s dead. Nolan says it’s the Volge coming, he’d fought them before – and then we see them on a bridge clanking towards “St Louis”. Their gait reminds me of ‘toasters’, the metal-looking Cylons from BSG but from the ‘aerial’ shot, they may be a lot more massive, like the ‘mechs’ from Falling Skies.

Defiance evacuates. Kenya offers Nolan a half-price discount for one final visit on her way to give Amanda a pep-talk. This is when Nolan gets a bit of info he didn’t have before: Kenya and Amanda as sisters. When she addresses the assembled town, there are shouts for ‘the real mayor, Mayor Nikki’ – and then there’s the predictable rousing speech including singling out people in the crowd one-by-one, detailing their hardships, and inciting town pride and solidarity between the races. Then the predictable “McCawley stands with you” and “the House of Tarr stands with you” and cheers and yay. Nolan listens from the sidelines but it doesn’t sway him. He and Irisa continue to pack and make ready to leave…and his conscience tugs at him when a cluster of children is shepherded across his path. At the site where he hid the dodecahedron (a Terra Sphere) he and Irisa have an argument of how to proceed. She drives off. He returns to Defiance to help, offering the sphere as a weapon. The doctor primes it, Nolan and Amanda arm the town. They are positioned along a mountainside and the aim is to lure the Volge into a pass where they will be destroyed once the sphere goes off. Drama: tense faces on the characters we have come to know and the silent clunking of the Volge towards a defenseless Defiance. Shooting. Volge falling down heights. Amanda is hit! Countdown on the sphere and the camera keeps flipping back to the Indogene doctor doing some pointy gestures implying she’s still working on priming the sphere.

In the middle of the battle, a group of motorcycles appear: it’s Irisa who’s recruited the Spirit Riders. Not a lot can happen because one of the Volge knocks her off and just before one of the Volge is about to Cold Fire her out of existence, it’s destroyed from behind. Not by Nolan, but by the former Lawkeeper’s deputy. Boom! A pale-neon blue energy pulse annihilates the Volge. Beat. Cheers from the survivors. Brief touching scene between Nolan and Irisa, who figured the Spirit Riders hated the Volge more than the people of Defiance (in other words, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”), fake tense pause, they hug. All is well-ish.

Field hospital scene. Amanda wants to find out who’s behind the attack. And she offers Nolan the position of Lawkeeper.

Betrothal scene: Romeo puts a big honking rock on his Juliet’s finger in the hokey bright sunshine in a hokey meadow in full cheesy bloom. Over on the sidelines, a little bit in the shadows (ding, ding, ding), the Tarrs watch and remind each other that patience will be needed if they want to get rid of Rafe McCawley. They are intent on playing a long game. Rafe has shown himself as much of a hothead thus far, so we have no idea what his idea of strategy entails, if he has one.

Closing Irisa voiceover as we see images of the town with business as usual, a glimpse of Rafe kneeling at his son’s grave site, and Nolan holding the Lawkeeper badge deep in thought before he turns to walk below the arch when the camera pans out and dramatic music begins to swell.

One would think it’s the end, but the plot doth thicken: camera continues the pan and arrives at an old TTC subway car (I recognise the scratched-off logo anywhere). Inside, the audience finds out the answer to Amanda’s question of who’s behind the attack on Defiance: Mayor Nikki (purportedly trying to save the world, even if they resist kicking and screaming) having a chat with her oddly-bespectacled accomplice, a Mister Birch. But there’s another plotline opening – Luke McCawley knew where a key to something was and now that he’s dead, Mister Birch doesn’t know what to do next. The ex-mayor reassures him.

In conclusion, everyone, including every single alien, sounds American (well, British accents as the ‘other’ only goes so far and only ends up being cliché). There is one alien language so far that Indogenes, Irathient, and Castithan all speak. Like in Firefly, some elements of that language have crossed over into English. A LOT of groundwork has been laid and the audience is in the know about one thing that the residents of Defiance are not, and they in turn are in possession of plenty of information the audience (yet) isn’t. It’s got some good potential, there are enough potential storylines to see this show through a few seasons already, if they can capture and keep an audience. Keeping the cheese factor under control might become a major factor. We want to be kept in suspense and we generally like following breadcrumbs (how long did Lost go on for?) – but only to a point. I get annoyed if I feel like I’m being taken for a proverbial ride and by inane dialogue, and yes, tacky, cheesy, predictable tropes. I also don’t react well to music cues insistently trying to tell me how I’m supposed to feel and for whom. Defiance has potential in those directions as well. I hope they continue to advance the story and leave the cheese on the craft services table, right by the veggie tray.

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