Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Defiance - Season 1 Review

Imagine, for a second, that you have a birthday party to organise. For this you’ve hired a great chef to help mark the occasion. He asks for flour, eggs, milk, and icing sugar, and you look forward to the great cake he is surely cooking up. But then, when the day of the great occasion comes, there stands the master chef studiously building a sandcastle of flour and eggs, with milk for the moat and little icing sugar guardsmen on the battlements.

It’s a different idea, that’s for sure, but all you wanted was a cake, so I’m sure you’d rightly be more than a bit disappointed.

Rockne S. O’Bannon is that kind of chef. He’s the creator of Farscape, a 1990s cult sci-fi show about an astronaut lost-in-space on the far side of the galaxy. Here, O’Bannon has been headhunted by the SyFy channel to create their big new sci-fi drama, and headline their recommitment of genre television. Instead, he’s made a frontier drama about the troubles of a small town.

Sense the disappointed already? After that exciting premiere three months ago, Defiance has settled down into a weekly rhythm of a plodding anti-climax.

The characters motivations are impossible to pin down and their personalities less even than paper-thin clichés. Logan, our protagonist, is an anti-hero in the style of Han Solo or Malcolm Reynolds but he has almost nothing to do and precious little to say. At the end of the entire series I know nothing about him – is he’s smart or funny or reckless or calculating or broodish or boorish, I couldn’t tell you. He has an adopted daughter, he was a soldier in the war, and now he’s the town “lawkeeper”. But the entire show hangs on the charisma of the lead role and Grant Bowler is so bland, and the scripts so drearily written, that his presence is a void, often devoid of the slightest importance to the story or interest to the audience.

His adopted daughter is an alien, and she’s angry at the world. There is a plot about her species having telepathic and powers of prescience, but she doesn’t react to that discovery with anything more than continued gently simmering anger at the world. She sometimes tumbles into bed with the deputy sheriff, but that isn’t a plot or part of her story – it’s just something that happens.

There are other aliens in Defiance, and although that’s the main hook for the poster, in truth it’s little more than a footnote for the actual show. Aliens showed up, and their arrival sort of ended the world-as-we-know-it. In this near future, the Humans and Alien Races live side-by-side (except where they don’t. We don’t see that.) These aliens are all mostly human, the most interesting ones being too expensive to show. Apart from some cultural differences and some casual racism they may as well all be human for the needs of the story. Their uniqueness is never explored or used as part of the narrative – the largest attraction of cult classic Farscape – and so remains only to be the thin tether keeping Defiance classified as a “science fiction” show.

For example, this is the main season long story: the town of Defiance is having an election, and the mayor may not be re-elected. Meanwhile, the son of a shady businessman is engaged to the daughter of the biggest landowner, causing mild tension. But, with Aliens.

To be perfectly clear, none of this makes this a "bad" show, and I'm actually looking forward to sitting down for season 2 next year. But I couldn't recommened anyone catching up with this show as it is. This isn’t even “bad” sci-fi, but that means it can never be “it’s so bad it’s good!” sci-fi. Terra Nova or Falling Skies are bad, but they had a charm in their awfulness – like watching a bad B-movie where you enjoy mocking the characters while you watch. Defiance doesn’t have that. It’s just dull. It’s a dull frontier western about small town politics, with weak characters.

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