Cast: Grant Bowler, Stephanie Leonidas, Julie Benz, Tony Curran, Jaime Murray, Graham Greene, Mia Kirshner
Defiance set itself up to be the next big Sci-Fi. It released this series the same time that a massive online game tie-in was brought to the public. The series was meant to give us this stunning universe, a terra-formed planet where humans lived alongside several interesting alien species, and then we would go off and play the game in that universe. It sounds pretty neat, but like most Sci-Fis that set out to be an epic, this franchise falls flat on its face at the first hurdle.
OK, not the first hurdle. The pilot was actually pretty decent. We are introduced to our two leads, Nolan and Irisa, two scavengers making their own way across the planet. Irisa is an alien girl that Nolan adopted during a dangerous mission with the military. They find some valuable loot and fight their way to a nearby town, Defiance, to avoid the local rogues. They gets caught up with a local crime that sees the town sheriff – or lawkeeper – killed. Defiance is soon attacked by a violent alien race, the Vulge, and Nolan is the only one with any experience at killing these monsters. We are introduced to the cast and then are given an epic war between Defiance and the Vulge. For a TV programme, the action is pretty intense and the pilot concludes with Nolan becoming the new lawkeeper and the two of them settling down to life in Defiance.
However, we soon learn that the pilot set an unfair bar for the show to reach each week. The main problem here is that Defiance is constantly drowning us in exposition. We are instantly thrown into several alien cultures and asked to keep up with these new religions and several characters. I like the idea that most of the throwaway characters are recurring, but it’s too much to ask that for the audience to recognise every new face. Also, there isn’t anything really new here. The Sci-Fi meets Western thing has been done so many times before with Firefly and even Star Wars. Defiance tries to piggy-back its way to greatness and although it is too early to tell if it has succeeded or not, a few viewers will catch it out on this little trick.
Also the characters are a little hollow. On the surface, they are quite impressive. Grant Bowler is the star of the show here, channelling his Han Solo charm. When the show hits its low points, Bowler will probably keep you tuning in with his badass action and tough guy lines. Also, Tony Curran and Jaime Murray are deliciously evil as the Castithan royals, aiming for a shot at town mayor. Only a few characters are in fact awful. The problem is that the writers pile on the backstories too soon. For the first couple of episodes, we are learning the origins of Mayor Rosewater or Irisa, plunging us into history lessons, complete with vague flashbacks and emotional monologues. Quite frankly, it is too early to care. Nolan and Irisa meeting for the first time should have encouraged tears, but it is shown too early in the season, before we really feel connected to the characters. It is the same with Mayor Rosewater and her sister, Kenya. Their relationship is really good, but it feels so done to death early on that when the writers try to dial up the drama for the season finale, we can’t help but wish the story was focusing elsewhere. Again it is just too much to really relax into comfortably.
The only character I outright have a problem with is Irisa, which is disappointing as Defiance tries to use her as the catalyst for the events of the season. She is just so damn annoying. We never really understand her teenage mood-swings. There are episodes where she endangers those close to her, including Nolan, who should be her dearest relative, on some kind of hunch/vision. Most of the time, her friends narrowly avoid death. Then the writers make her forgiven, because she turns out to be right, more from luck than wits. She should be the character we all get behind, when the action heats up, but most of us will be cursing her under our breaths, during the midway point.
The middle of the season kind of picks up the pace a little. When we have all of the back stories explained, the writers give us some standard action set-pieces, allowing Grant Bowler to shoulder most of the duties. Most of the other cast members are pushed to the side (no one seems to know what to do with Graham Greene and Mia Kirshner has to wait a while, before she is trusted with a substantial amount of screen time). Despite an improvement in the episode quality, there is something slightly off about the episodes. The best I can do at explaining it is that there never quite seems like to be a season game plan. The writers simply write an episode and decide what comes next there and then. Nothing happens with the Luke storyline. Decent villains are hinted for a comeback and barely make a return. Important characters are killed off, but their deaths don’t mean enough to the storyline to make it worth it.
This becomes apparent when we get the finale. The pace goes into full speed, killing off characters and putting big question marks over the rest. But it feels added on. While the season feels like it is giving us a lead villain, it ends up switching around who is the big bad near the end, so that when the final episode kicks in, we are given a completely new face as the nemesis. He isn’t a bad villain, but he doesn’t have enough time to make an impact, which is a shame, because there were a few good other candidates for the finale bad guy. The end scenes fall flat. Unless you are a dedicated fan to the show, you will end up rolling your eyes, disbelievingly. The season ends awkwardly, somehow grabbing itself a second chance in 2014.
Final verdict: There are some good ideas and characters here, but the writers have no control over them. It becomes a struggle to tune in.