Defiance 1.01 "Pilot" TV REVIEW
Writers: Rockne S O'Bannon & Kevin Murphy & Michael Taylor
Director: Scott Stewart
THE ONE WHERE 33 years ago, the Arks arrived. The Votans, a collection of eight alien races fleeing the stellar destruction of their solar system were, it’s fair to say, surprised to find the planet occupied…
Now, a vast ring of broken ships and debris orbits the Earth. The planet has been sculpted beyond recognition by alien terraforming techniques and a fortune in salvage regularly drops from the sky when one of the arks fall. Nolan, a human soldier and his adopted daughter Irisa, an Irathient warrior, follow an ark down and find something that will finally give them the payoff they need to get out of America. Then they’re ambushed and, badly wounded, are rescued by the lawkeeper of the town known as Defiance, formerally known as St Louis…
VERDICT Defiance is immensely ambitious and that’s clear from the first, beautiful shot of the arks arriving. The idea – seven alien races struggle to co-exist with humanity on a transformed, post-war Earth – is massive in scope and the amount of effort put into the design work is amazing. Defiance itself is a marvel, a combination of nu old west city and the most creative use of shipping containers I’ve seen in a while. Everything feels used and lived in. This is a show with a sense of wonder a mile wide, but a pragmatic streak that would make the crew of the Serenity feel very at home.
Let’s deal with the Firefly-class ship in the room; the two shows have some common ground but it’s all in style and background rather than premise or execution. Nolan, played with tremendous charm by Grant Bowler,would get on very well with Mal and with Han Solo, both characters he owes a large debt to. He’s a ruthlessly efficient soldier when called on to be, but mostly he just wants to protect his daughter, make his money and head to the paradise that Antarctica apparently now is. He’s not especially moral or engaged with anyone or anything outside daughter Irisa, but, interestingly, he keeps trying to be. Irisa has a line late in this episode where she complains he always ruins things for them just as they’re getting ahead. It’s an interesting distinction; Mal has his “family” and support network but Nolan is looking for one, even if he can’t admit it to himself. Whether he finds it in Defiance or not remains to be seen, but Nolan’s emotional rehabilitation, if it is on the same track as Mal’s, is at a far earlier place. After all, Mal left Serenity Valley. Nolan has just come to Defiance.
The sci-fi western elements of the background established, the show gleefully throws a large cast at us. The genuinely impressive thing is pretty much all of them register, with Tony Curran and Jaime Murray as Datak and Stahma Tarr standing out early on. The dynamic between them is fascinating; Datak eager to achieve power by force and Stahma happy to play the long game. There’s a strong element of Macbeth to their relationship, but with both of them on the same page instead of one bullying the other along. They’re smartly written as well as acted, with the decision to have McCawley’s daughter Cristie become engaged to their son displaying the sort of Machiavellian thinking that most villains never quite manage. These are people fully prepared to manipulate their own son for their political ends, to say nothing of the irony of Datak, Defiance’s gang boss, living a life of crime so his son doesn’t have to. They’re complex, nuanced characters, even in this single episode, and you want to spend time with them. If nothing else, to make sure they’re not stabbing you in the back…
Ranged against them are the McCawleys, led by Rafe. This is a classic western feuding families plot and Graham Greene does great work in a surprisingly unsympathetic role as Rafe, the local mine boss. Again it would be easy to make him a cardboard cut-out villain but his initial antagonism leads to sympathy by the time the episode closes. McCawley’s in a lot of trouble, and he knows it, the only question is can he do anything about it?
Caught in the middle are the citizens of Defiance, formerly St Louis. Julie Benz, as new mayor Amanda Rosewater has the hardest job to do and, cleverly, that’s worked into the character. Amanda has newly taken over from Nicolette Riordan (played by Fionulla Flanagan) and whilst the town’s in good condition, Amanda’s untested. That doesn’t last the episode and her brutally honest rallying speech is really nicely handled. I’m looking forward to seeing where they go with the character.
Mia Kirshner as Kenya, her sister, has a pleasing edge to her and the series deals with the fact the NeedWant, the town bar, is also the town brothel in a refreshingly upfront way. Kirshner has one absolute clunker of a line but aside from that she gives a sparky, fun performance that complements’ Benz’s work.
Of the other characters, the three standouts are Stephanie Leonidas as Irisa, Dewshane Williams as Tommy LaSalle, the deputy lawkeeper, and Trenna Keating as Doc Yewll. Leonidas is great, a seething mass of barely-contained violence and teenage resentment who manages to riff on every troubled female lead in SF over the last few years and still make the character her own. She’s angry, at very nearly everything, but most of all at Nolan’s pathological inability to take the easy route. She’s the grown up, her father’s the damaged kid and Leonidas lets you see just how tiring, and also how fun, that can be.
She also meshes very well with Williams as Tommy. He’s another interesting character, a young man put on the straight and narrow by the previous lawkeeper and desperate to live up to the older man’s faith in him. He’s refreshingly grounded and sensible and the scenes he shares with Irisa absolutely crackle with energy. These two have the makings of a great double act, especially as Irisa’s father is now Tommy’s boss.
Finally, Trenna Keating as Doc Yewll steals every scene she’s in. Yewll is an Indogene, a partially cybernetic Votan and is also clearly tired of all the meatsacks’ nonsense. Picture Bones, the original Bones, crossed with a grey alien on a bad day and you’ve got the Doc. She’s a joy, and almost every line she has is golden.
All of which is great. Unfortunately, the canvas it plays out across needs some work. The practical effects in the series are never less than competent but the CGI is wildly variable. The location shots are great, especially the beauty passes of Defiance itself, but some of the close up work is awful. There’s a shot through the windscreen of Nolan’s car towards the end of a car chase that looks especially lousy and whilst the climactic fight isn’t anywhere near as bad as some people have made out, the integration between the real and CGI elements of the show’s set pieces is going to need more work. The ambition, and writing, is there. The technology isn’t. Quite.
Likewise, the human/Votan rock combo that turns up at one point is just a bad plan all around (although given that they may be supposed to be the local band, that could be the point) and the Romeo and Juliet plot between the Tarrs and McCawley’s looks seriously wobbly for the first hour. Nicole Munoz and Jesse Rath both do good work, and the plot gets upended pretty seriously, but if the show’s going to drag, it’s going to drag there.
Defiance is an immensely ambitious show which moves, if anything, like an Earth-bound Farscape rather than Firefly . Its punky and spiky and weird and complex and I’m completely sold. It’s not perfect by any stretch but its potential is already starting to pay off. I’m fascinated to see where it goes with this huge, sprawling premise and it’s odd, crumpled, secretive hero. Early on, Nolan says, “I like this place.” He’s not the only one.
Know Your Votans
Votans – seven alien races from the same solar system, the Votans’ arrival changed Earth forever. Here’s your brief guide to the seven races:
Castithan: The Castithans are very similar to humans, but far paler. They have an aristocratic society although their caste system has largely broken down in the chaotic new environment of Earth. Datak Tarr, Stahma Tarr and their familiar are Castithans.
Indogene: The most technologically advanced Votan race, they have bright skin and smooth, hairless skulls. They’re also cybernetically and genetically upgraded to varying degrees. The Doc, and the mayor’s aide, are both Indogene.
Irathient: The Irathient resemble humans with lower, wide nose ridges and bronze-coloured skin. The Irathient are warriors by culture and have adapted to Earth very well, with several groups setting themselves up as roaming bandits. Irisa is an Irathient.
Liberata: The Liberata are short, stocky humanoid Votan with long yellow hair. They’re viewed as a servant race and the Macauleys appear to employ a Liberata as their cook and housekeeper.
Sensoth: The Sensoth are larger and taller than humans. They’re covered in reddish-brown fur and have protruding jaws. Sensoth aren’t directly identified in this episode but Datak Tarr has one as muscle and, charmingly, a Sensoth out walking his dog discovers the murder of Macauley’s son.
Volge: A machine race that stand eight feet tall, are covered in armour and have internal weaponry. They’re disliked and feared by every other race in equal measure. The war party sent against Defiance are Volge.
BEST IMAGES The first scene, showing the arrival of the inconceivably huge arks, and the last. No wonder Nolan likes it here…
The second to last scene, mirroring the first and showing exactly why Nolan likes it in Defiance.
The final scene. Twist! Evil old mayor! Mysterious accomplice!
BEST LINES The script’s packed full of great lines but here are a few…
Datak: “It’s juvenile. Petty. Beneath my contempt.”
Stahma: “You’re annoyed you didn’t think of it first.” – Datak and Stahma Tarr proving that whilst Datak is the figurehead of the family, Stahma’s the brains.
Nolan: “Relax, it’ll be just like Kansas City.”
Irisa: “You got knifed in Kansas City.”
Nolan: “…This is a completely different situation.” – Irisa failing magnificently to talk sense into her father there. Nolan and Mal Reynolds would get on extremely well for several reasons. This story, and the comparable one in Firefly, is just one of the reasons why.
Doc Yewll: “I’m prepping the Irathient for surgery and the human… is trying to make us think he’s unconscious.” (Slaps Nolan in the wound. Nolan yells and sits up). – Doc Yewll is my flat-out favourite character. There’s something oddly reassuring about an alien doctor who has precisely no damns to give about her patients’ nonsense. The world may have changed forever, but as far as the Doc’s concerned, it’s even more irritating than her last one.
Irisa: “I'm not trapped in here. If I wanted I could have grabbed your wrist, broken every finger on your hand, taken the key card to the cell which you left hanging from your belt and before you knew what was happening I'd already be out of this cage and separating your head from the rest of you with one of my blades.”
Tommy: “...What is wrong with you?”
Irisa: “ You wanted conversation.” – Irisa and Tommy bonding over the old, “I’m not locked in here with you, you’re locked in here with me,” schtick. I really hope Tommy sticks around because like the Doc he has a refreshingly grounded approach to the world and he and Irisa have the potential to be a sweet, if frankly terrifying, couple.
Tommy: “What about you, what did Nolan do to save you?”
Irisa: “Something I couldn't do for myself.”
Tommy: “Which was?”
Irisa: “He murdered my parents.” – And speaking of terrifying… This line from later in the scene shows us just how complex Nolan and Irisa’s past is. I sense flashback episode…
Rafe: “That's a whole lot of assumptions.”
Nolan: “More like deductions but I don't wanna quibble.” – CSI:Defiance is go! Nolan has a bunch of great lines but his casual combination of grift and genuine talent is at its most endearing here.
Nolan: “I got no intention of dying today.”
Irisa: “Most people don't. It still happens.” – Again, Nolan and Irisa’s complex relationship is grounded on pragmatism. They want to run like hell because that’s how you survive in this world but neither can quite do it.
Doc Yewll: “If you rush me we all go BOOM. If you yell at me we all go BOOM. Now you know how I'm doing up here.” – Doc Yewll, finding the people around her even more annoying than the massive bomb she’s rigging. Bless.
MOST IRRATIONALLY POLITE HIDEOUS ALIEN DEATH MACHINE The Volge are terrifying automaton Votan race who really shouldn’t be on Earth at all. They’re death, marching. They are fully capable of annihilating Defiance. So why in the blue hell are they so polite? At one point the Commander says something that translates as:
“I don't like the look of that scaffolding. Knock it down.”
Which is a bit like Darth Vader saying: “MOFF TARKIN…THAT ASTEROID LOOKS A BIT SKETCHY. ANNIHILATE IT.”
Odd, and somehow rather sweet.
IT’S WOSSISNAME! Crikey this is just a who’s who of genre vets! Cover me, I’m going in!
Grant Bowler – Prior to Nolan, Grant Bowler played Richard Burton to Lindsay Lohan’s Elizabeth Taylor in last year’s Liz And Dick , Razer in an episode of The Cape , Cooter in True Blood , Connor Owens in Ugly Betty and Captain Gault in Lost . I’ll always remember him from Blue Heelers but that’s because I’m irrationally fond of Australian police procedurals.
Julie Benz – For years, Benz’ major genre credentials were her role as Darla in Buffy and Angel . She was also a vital part of the Dexter cast as Rita, his unsuspecting wife as well as Stephanie Powell in No Ordinary Family , Brit in Saw V , Angela in Punisher: War Zone and Layla Rourke in the Supernatural episode “Faith”.
Tony Curran – As well as, of course, playing Vincent Van Gogh in Doctor Who , Curran has appeared in X-Men: First Class where he’s credited as “Man in Black Suit Agent”. More meaty fare was provided by his turns as Lugo Elson in season 8 of 24 , his turn as a time-displaced knight in Primeval , his role as Lucas Harvy in Medium and his role as Marcus in Underworld: Evolution . He’s also done a lot of voice work including Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two and Captain Macmillan in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 .
Jaime Murray – The other Dexter alumni on the cast, Murray’s appeared in the criminally short Keen Eddie , ShakespeaRe-Told , The Mentalist , Eli Stone , NCIS and had a trio of especially memorable roles on Hustle , Spartacus: Gods Of The Arena and of course as HG Wells on Warehouse 13 .
Stephanie Leonidas – Best known for playing both Helena and the anti-Helena in Neil Gaiman’s Mirrormask , Leonidas has also appeared in Eternal Law as Jude and season three of Whitechapel as Georgie Fox.
Mia Kershner – Most recently in genreville as Isobel Flemming in The Vampire Diaries , Kirshner’s probably best known as Jenny Schechter in The L Word , or the mysterious assassin Mandy in various seasons of 24 . Fantastically, she also appeared in the classic ’90s horror series Are You Afraid Of The Dark? and her first credit was as Jo in an episode of the War Of The Worlds: The Resurrection TV show.
Graham Greene – One of my favourite character actors, Greene is best known as Kicking Bird in Dances With Wolves , a role which scored him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Since then he’s worked pretty constantly, appearing as Leonard in five episodes of the wonderful Northern Exposure , Detective Joe Lambert in my favourite Die Hard movie, Die Hard With A Vengeance and Twilight: New Moon as Harry Clearwater.
Fionnula Flanagan – Owner of one of the best names ever, Flanagan is of course best known as Ms Eloise Hawking in the final season of Lost . However she also did great work as Rose Caffee in Brotherhood , as Mrs Mills in The Others and appeared in the Enterprise episode “Fallen Hero” as Vulcan Ambassador V’Lar. She was also in the wonderfully odd Poltergeist: The Legacy as two separate characters, The Old Woman and the Narrator of the episode “The Darkside”.
Trenna Keating – Keating’s a relative newcomer, which is a surprise given how effortlessly she steals every scene she’s allowed to talk in. She’s best known prior to Defiance as Sgt Hannah Corday in Combat Hospital .
Dewshane Williams – Williams is another newcomer and another cast member who steals scenes on a regular basis. He first appeared in Flashpoint (or Polite Canadian SWAT Team as I call it) as Adam in an episode called “Aisle 13”. More recently he played Jason Gaines in the Lost Girl episode “It’s Better To Burn Out Than Fae Away”, Tony in the Nikita episode “Arising” and appeared as Doctor Fred on nine episodes of Being Erica .
Nicole Muñoz – Muñoz played Jessica Mitchell in the Sanctuary episode “Pavor Nocturnus”, was “Palestinian Girl” in three episodes of Defying Gravity , appeared as “Frightened Girl” in the Masters Of Science Fiction episode “Little Brother” and has shot an appearance in Netflix’s upcoming horror series Hemlock Grove .
Jesse Rath – The space Romeo to Muñoz’s Juliet, Rath played Frederico Auditore in Assassin’s Creed: Lineage , appeared as Ram in 16 episodes of Aaron Stone and played Robbie Malik in the Being Human USA episode, “What’s Blood Got To Do With It?”
Justin Rain – Rain is another Twilight graduate, appearing in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse as “Quileute Warrior”. More recently, he’s appeared in Blackstone as Alan Fraser
• If Nolan was one of the defiant few, why did he leave?
• What really happened at that battle?
• Why did the murder of her parents save Irisa?
• What does Nicolette want?
• Who is Mr Brice?
• Which one of them directed the Volge at Defiance?
• What does Macauley actually mine?
• New episodes of Defiance air in the UK on Syfy, Mondays at 9pm
• Finally, a very special thanks to Anna Morgan at NBC. She went above and beyond to help me out with Defiance screeners. Thanks, Anna!