World building is no easy task, even when undertaken by hundred million dollar-plus films. And when large-scale world building becomes the task of an ongoing television series on a network that's not necessarily known for its extravagant, 'Game of Thrones' or 'Boardwalk Empire'-size budgets, then the job becomes exponentially more difficult. But as hard as it must be to create a fictional world out of nothing, it has to be that much harder to create a new, believable, and most importantly, entertaining world that exists literally on top of the world its audience knows and is familiar with. It's an interesting and complex conundrum of combining a recognizable world with one that is wholly alien, while still being able to call it Earth. To that end, Syfy's ambitious TV/video game experiment, 'Defiance,' has a lot on its plate in the series' better than expected first season.
Taking a concept that looks like a television executive just discovered LARPing, and combining it with the same kind of lighter, but still serious attitude that 'Star Trek' managed to pull off back in its television heyday, 'Defiance' suffers only from the preconceived notions about science fiction that, despite the genre's ability to also churn out billion-dollar franchises, it is for nerds, geeks and shut-ins prone to posting angry, anonymous rants on the Internet from the relative safety of their parents' basement. But really, if we're honest, other than generating zeitgeist-y flash-in-the-pan event movies like 'Sharknado,' the network model behind Syfy was to create a place where those two aspects of science fiction media could exist – i.e., profit generating power and products attractive to genre fans – outside the normal expectations of a medium that would likely consider a show like 'Defiance' too fringe to ever be successful.
In order to try and assuage some concerns about the show, and hopefully reach a wider audience, the creators behind 'Defiance' had to branch out and make it more than just a series. So it also became an MMORPG experience that actually tied into the series' main narrative and progressed at the same time the television series did. While the accomplishments of the game might be debatable, the series itself could be the new cornerstone on Syfy.
'Defiance' tells the story of Earth in the year 2046, after a lengthy war stemming from the arrival of extraterrestrial life that consists of the alien races known collectively as Votans (or separately as Castithans, Gulanee, Indogene, Irathient, Liberata, Sensoth, and Volge). It's been 33 years since their arrival brought about not only a complete change in everything humans thought about the existence of alien life, but it also transformed the very nature of life on Earth itself, starting with some dramatic terraforming that gave the ol' blue marble a complete and radical makeover. It's a lot of information to take in at first, but just think of it in terms of having the 'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition' crew show up one day to drastically reshape your home against your will, and then move into it with you. Or, if you'd like to compare it to a similar show, 'Defiance' takes the principle concept of TNT's 'Falling Skies' and kicks it three decades down the road to a place where spouting patriotic platitudes will just result in an angry Irathient head butting you and then stealing your top hat.
Yes, along with the planet's transformation into something familiar, yet bizarrely unrecognizable, the people (humans and aliens alike) have become a wild mishmash of genres and styles of their own – which, I guess, is the result of becoming the living embodiment of a society that only tangentially exists anymore. Grant Bowler, who plays Nolan, one the central protagonists of the series, is essentially an amalgam of an Old West lawman and modern day (ours, not theirs) soldier, with just a hint of mercenary thrown in for good measure. Joining him in Defiance – which was once St. Louis, Missouri, as noted by the iconic presence of the Gateway Arch – are his adopted Irathient daughter, Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas), Mayor Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz) and her prostitute sister Kenya (Mia Kirshner). In addition to all the alien goodness roaming around the town at any given moment, Defiance is also home to two feuding families with love struck children straight out of 'Romeo & Juliet.' This time, though, it's the Castithanian Tarr family, headed up with patriarchal stubbornness by the politically ambitious and deadly Datak Tarr (Tony Curran) and his duplicitous wife. Conversely, there is the equally ruthless McCawley clan, run by notable character actor Graham Greene as Rafe.
Like the show's central premise, the list of characters and the actors playing them is a lot of information to take in at once. It's important to note, however, what 'Defiance' gets right most of the time, and what other shows (and certainly movies) of its ilk tend to forget, is that placing the emphasis on the characters and how they live in the world, rather than the spectacle of the world in question generates better stories. That's not saying the series' storytelling is exemplary or revelatory, because it's not; it's actually rather rudimentary. But the show does manage to do a lot with very little. It all starts by taking this new Earth and all of the alien races now calling it home, and telling simple, effective, and humanistic stories that are relatable on an emotional level without feeling too contrived or too overwhelmed with the notion of exhibition. Episodes concerning things like Hellbugs, life-giving, super-intelligent nanomachines mistaken for religious miracles, and sweeping epidemics of Viral hemorrhagic fever generally sound like the kind of nonsense that terrible stories are made of, but somehow 'Defiance' makes them work pretty well within the context of its larger, sweeping story of government conspiracies and mysterious alien artifacts that begin to tie the whole thing together toward the end.
Developed by Rockne S. O'Bannon (which may qualify for the coolest executive television producer name this side of Rod Serling), 'Defiance' may not be for everyone, and it certainly has its fair share of storytelling quirks. but on the whole, it's a fun series that takes it's ridiculous elements as serious as they need to be without dipping into sentimentality or overwrought earnestness. It takes a particular kind of actor to pull off believable emotion while under a pound of facial prosthetics, but many of the series' key actors – like Noah Danby (Sukar) and Stephanie Leonidas – manage to do just that. There're plenty who fail miserably at the task and wind up inadvertently generating giggles when the audience should be feeling sorrow or anger, but thankfully, those actors are generally in supporting parts.
What 'Defiance: Season One' boils down to is an ambitious series that may have begun with the gimmick of attempting to bridge two different kinds of media in a clever and ongoing way, but it wound up being a surprisingly satisfying and appealing piece of genre television that, in spite of a few rough edges, basically finds success in the story it is trying to tell.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Defiance: Season One' comes from Universal Studios Home Entertainment with 3 50GB-discs containing all 13 episodes and various special features. The inside of the insert reveals the episode titles and a brief synopsis of each. The set also includes a pamphlet with an Ultraviolet code for digital download.
'Defiance' is presented in a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer that looks terrific and helps make the show and its sometimes iffy, but largely acceptable special effects look better than you might think. For starters, the image is very clear and the show itself is shot in a straightforward manner that eschews things like heavy filter use, or crazy camera angles to obscure the CGI or things like that. This allows for a maximum amount of detail to be present in things like facial features, clothing textures and subtle little background details (of which there are many), making the series feel more cinematic (in a Jon Favreau kind of way, but still) and less like a low budget television series on third tier cable network.
Colors also play an important role in the presentation of 'Defiance' as the terraformed landscape is now full of all sorts of plant life and new mountain ranges that help lend the show its unique alien quality. Filled with purples, blues and greens, the new Earth has areas that look positively Dr. Seuss-esque and the image here does a nice job in making them pop, without giving them an oversaturated or too vibrant look. Additionally, the image boasts high contrast levels that produce deep, inky black tones and whites that convey heat and arid conditions without being too overwhelming or marring the picture in any way.
As good as the image is, there are a few instances where high levels of grain inexplicably pop up. The degree to which this is noticeable suggests a flaw somewhere in the filming process, as one would think QC would have nipped it in the bud before allowing it to be stamped to the disc. At any rate, it only happens briefly, but it takes what could have been an exemplary image down a notch.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track has a lot more to do than your average television series. 'Defiance' is the kind of show that's looking to be as cinematic as possible, and while it delivers a nice image with some slightly shoddy CGI, it makes up for it in sound that is remarkable for TV and manages to compete with the big budget shows of HBO and Showtime.
The first thing that stands out is the musical score by Bear McCreary (the guy behind the music on 'The Walking Dead' and the only good thing about 'Da Vinci's Demons'). Here, McCreary's signature sound can be heard during the credit sequence, and manages to be used heavily throughout each episode as well. This is pushed mostly though the front channel speakers, but it also creeps into the rear channels on occasion, giving some extra depth to the score. That element is balanced nicely with everything else the series has on hand in any given episode. Dialogue and sound effects are well balanced against one another, while also being sharp and distinct in their own right.
Sound effects can often be the star of the show, as everything from the rumble of modified car engines, to gunfire, explosions and even the dreaded "razor rain" of crashing space debris manages to sound impressive on this mix. While most of it offers superb directionality as well as clarity in sound, the LFE in some cases feels as though it could be a little more robust.
Overall, though, this is a great sounding 3-disc set that makes the world of 'Defiance' a little more exciting and cinematic in its presentation.
'Defiance: Season One' certainly stood up against most of the preconceived notions that may have been generated by its out there premise and the failures of high-concept sci-fi shows in the past. But give credit to the show's producers, writers and actors for just putting the wild, strange world they've created out there for anyone who rabidly devours that kind of thing, or is simply curious to discover something new. The storyline is nothing transcendent, but it's not total dreck, either. As with most shows – especially in their first season – there are some hit-or-miss episodes, but as the season rolls along, the storyline really begins to find its footing. If anything, this bodes well for season 2. With terrific sound and picture, and some interesting special features, this one is definitely worth a look.