Syfy’s ‘Defiance’ re-embraces sci-fi

Apr 13 2013 - 10:12pm

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BEN MARK HOLZBERG/Syfy
Stephanie Leonidas stars as Irisa on “Defiance,” premiering Monday on Syfy.
BEN MARK HOLZBERG/Syfy
Stephanie Leonidas stars as Irisa on “Defiance,” premiering Monday on Syfy.

Since its conversion from "Sci Fi Channel" to "Syfy" a few years back, this cable network has taken a broader approach to its programming, developing series that have more of a fantasy appeal than sci-fi proper. So it's a welcome return to form to see Syfy re-embrace science fiction with "Defiance" (7 p.m. Monday), an OK-but-not-exceptional new drama.

More serialized and with a greater emphasis on character development than some Syfy efforts, "Defiance" has already been knocked by "Firefly" fans, sight unseen, as a rip-off of that great Joss Whedon show. This comparison must be based on clips of "Defiance" that give off a Western vibe.

While it's true that "Defiance" is set in a frontier mining town, I don't recall any horses and no characters in spaceflight in the first three episodes sent for review (although there is a prostitute). Regardless of misperceived similarities, "Defiance" pales when compared to "Firefly;" but "Defiance" deserves some credit for constructing an intriguing new world.

Viewers get plopped into this world, and it's a bit disorienting at first. But over the course of the two-hour pilot, it starts to make sense and the show avoids copious amounts of exposition -- though I still don't know what to call the species that looks like a cross between Chewbacca and Harry of "Harry and the Hendersons."

''Defiance" is set in an undefined future following the arrival of seven alien races, a war and terraforming of Earth that resulted in new cities arising atop old ones. The town of Defiance is built on the remains of St. Louis.

Viewers enter the story as former Marine Nolan (Grant Bowler, "Ugly Betty") and his adopted alien daughter, Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas), attempt to scavenge parts from a downed alien spaceship.

A group of unsavory characters called Spirit Riders -- the futuristic equivalent of an alien outlaw biker gang, it appears -- shows up to give them trouble, leading Nolan and Irisa to escape into Defiance where the town's new mayor, Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz, "Dexter"), presides at a statue dedication. She's joined by representatives of two of the town's most prominent (and often clashing) families: Human Rafe McCawley (Graham Greene) runs a local mine; aliens Datak (Tony Curran) and Stahma Tarr (Jamie Murray, "Dexter") are considered leaders of the town's white-haired alien population. Naturally, Rafe's daughter and the Tarrs' son fall in love "Romeo and Juliet"-style.

''Defiance" has a soapy vibe to it like "Caprica," but "Defiance" is more accessible and less ambitious.

As for those seven alien races who now attempt to co-exist with humans, "Defiance" doesn't give names to all of them, or if it does, they whip by and are easy to miss.

The most prominent alien race is the Castithans, represented by the Tarrs, and Irisa is an Irathien.

''Defiance" is at its best in its second episode when characters debate religious freedoms versus civil rights when a Castithan religious ceremony comes under scrutiny for its similarity to torture. That's an interesting sci-fi plot, and if "Defiance" does more of that and less chasing of alien monsters in a mine (the plot of episode three), perhaps it can evolve into a show worth watching.

After Nolan and Irisa arrive in Defiance, Monday's overstuffed pilot plot segues into a murder mystery before the town's rivals lock arms and team up against a bigger threat, which is then topped off with a conspiracy. It's too much to swallow, particularly when a seemingly important, well-liked town leader is killed (and no one mourns) and when a battle is followed by hugs.

''Defiance" is less gritty than Syfy's best series, "Battlestar Galactica," and the characters aren't as well-drawn as on the superior "Farscape." ''Defiance" lands at a slightly higher end of the murky middle ground of quality.

Syfy's big marketing push for "Defiance" is that it's both a TV show and an online game set in the same world but a different city (San Francisco for the game). And while being able to tout "the first-ever convergence of television and online gaming" is a unique selling point, for TV viewers all that matters is the quality of the show. In the early going, "Defiance" introduces a world and characters with potential, but falters on weak, unimaginative storytelling.

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