'Defiance' Review: A Complicated Yet Familiar Alien Drama
'Defiance' Review: A Complicated Yet Familiar Alien Drama
John Kubicek
John Kubicek
Senior Writer, BuddyTV
Defiance is certainly an ambitious show in every sense of the word. The Syfy drama, premiering Monday, April 15 at 9pm with a two-hour pilot, takes place 33 years after aliens come to Earth, terra-form the environment, and begin to cohabitate the new planet with humans. If that's not enough, Syfy also has an online game that explores the same universe, giving fans the chance to play along with the series.

While all of this ambition can be admired, I wish there was a better underlying story to hold it all together. The backstory is painfully confusing, even for fans willing to pay very close attention. There are seven different species of aliens living among the humans, and after the initial invasion, there was a prolonged war that ended with a peace agreement when "the defiant ones" chose to simply stop fighting and provide an example for the rest of the world to follow. This, and many others elements to the show's mythology, are doled out in various bits of dialogue. Unlike similar futuristic shows like Falling Skies or Revolution, the world of Defiance doesn't resemble our own in any meaningful way, so you need to learn everything from scratch.

As complicated as it all is, the main characters are quite traditional. Joshua Nolan (True Blood's Grant Bowler) is a former Marine who now wanders the dystopian landscape scavenging for things to help him and his adopted alien daughter Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas) keep moving to a mythical paradise. The two wind up at the town of Defiance (formerly St. Louis) and he takes on the role of the chief lawkeeper. It's the same set-up as Terra Nova, but with aliens instead of dinosaurs. It's also a bit like the start of Syfy's Eureka, for that matter. Or even HBO's Deadwood.

The town also has a Romeo and Juliet-style story as the human daughter of wealthy mine owner Rafe McCawley (Graham Greene) is in love with the alien son of the seedy and power-hungry Datak Tarr (Tony Curran). These two families, both alike in dignity, don't like each other at all, and there's even a Benvolio in the mix.

Then there's the new mayor (Dexter's Julie Benz), who recently took over from her wildly beloved predecessor (Lost's Fionnula Flanagan). Finally, we have the sexy proprietor of the town's bar/brothel/gambling hall (Mia Kirshner) who has a surprising connection to the mayor.

Watching Defiance is like experiencing deja vu, everything is so familiar. One scene in particular, where the new mayor must give a rousing speech to her people who are dubious of her ability to lead, is almost laughably bad because it's something everyone watching has heard a million different times in a million different moves and TV shows. Benz's character is just Battlestar Galactica's Laura Roslin, minus the cancer and the gravitas of a two-time Oscar nominated actress.

The lack of originality is in stark contrast to the deeply involved backstory. Defiance comes from Rockne S' O'Bannon, who developed a cult classic in Farscape and had much less success recently creating the CW's failed Cult. Maybe his next one will work better.

The most confounding part of the Defiance pilot comes in the second hour when a huge action sequence seems to come out of nowhere. There's no real explanation for why any of it is happening except to force Nolan to stay in the town and to serve as an advertisement for the online game. Do you want to shoot giant evil aliens like you just saw on TV? Then try the game! It doesn't matter if we have no idea where they came from or why they came, just so long as they need to get shot with cool laser weapons.

The best part of Defiance comes at the very, VERY end of the two-hour pilot when a bigger mystery and conspiracy is revealed, offering a glimpse of something interesting hiding beneath the surface. But to get there, you need to wade through a whole lot of video game-style action sequences and painfully cliched writing.

It's obvious that a lot of thought was put into the story. The show's official website has pages and pages of detailed information on all of the alien races and the history of the world within the series, but I don't like watching a show that requires homework. Instead of wasting time hiring a linguist to develop several completely new languages for the different races to speak, the writers should've spent a little more time on the actual characters and story of the episodes. It's nice in theory to have an expanded universe that exists online in a video game, but at the end of the day, Defiance is a TV show. Somewhere along the road of ambition, I think the creators forgot that part.

Defiance airs Mondays at 9pm on Syfy.

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(Image courtesy of Syfy)