Welcome to the first review of the pilot episode of SyFy’s new (actual) science fiction program, Defiance! Taking cue from Daniel and Michael’s comic book reviews as well as Ben and Matt’s Game of Thrones reviews, Brandon and I (Max) have decided to begin an episode by episode review of Defiance. Before you check out our thoughts, here is the official description of SyFy’s grand endeavor:
In the year 2046, it’s a new Earth – with new rules. Over thirty years after various alien races arrived on Earth, the landscape is completely altered, terraformed nearly beyond recognition. To the town of Defiance, on what used to be St. Louis, comes the mysterious Nolan (Grant Bowler) and his charge, Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas). As they settle into town – overseen by the mayor, Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz) and filled with residents like the powerful Rafe McCawley (Graham Greene), enterprising lounge owner Kenya (Mia Kirshner) and the ambitious, alien Tarrs (Tony Curran and Jaime Murray) – events begin to unfold that threaten the fragile peace this border town has fought for.
As the events of Defiance unfold weekly on your TV screen, you can see how the residents’ struggles impact the game of Defiance, a high-octane, multi-platform experience from Trion Worlds! For the first time in history, a TV show and a game will exist concurrently in a shared universe, influencing and impacting the other!
In the game of Defiance, players take on the role of Ark Hunters, specialists in survival, combat and tracking who brave dangerous frontiers to retrieve lost relics of advanced or alien origin in return for great financial rewards (The Arks are the ships that brought the aliens to Earth). Players can search for Arks on their own, simultaneously join tens of thousands of other players for missions or just explore the fully realized, future world of Defiance (it’s really, really big). Custom character creation allows players to adopt a human or alien appearance for their Ark Hunter. With weapons, armor and special abilities that evolve with experience, Defiance is a gaming experience that must be played to be believed.
Without further adieu, let’s begin our review (hehehehe, that rhymed):
What are your thoughts on the story?
Brandon: I do love the concept of the whole project. Having a show and game work in conjunction with each other to build a world all the more rich is an interesting idea. Even though I don’t plan on playing the game, I am a fan of world building. I like to see fictional histories play out as one big story and see how the different cultures clash or get along. Considering the show revolves around a host of characters in the city of Defiance, I almost feel that the city itself is the main character and the story of the show is the story of this rambunctious city; the characters are just the frosting. As with every show we have already seen these characters before. You have a reluctant hero, a pair of star-crossed lovers, a mob boss type, the young, independent and rebellious teen and the clueless mayor to name a few. Having these archetypes you can probably guess what they are going to do next. But like I said before, I am more interested in world building and alien cultures. The show definitely calls on the sci-fi western genre and because of this, it will forever live in Firefly’s shadow.
Max: As a whole, I thought the story was entertaining. Due to multiple alien races arriving on Earth, subsequent years of war and mass destruction, and an eventual world in which pockets of humanity and aliens attempt to peacefully coexist is surely an intriguing idea. Did the pilot for Defiance pull off this concept? In some ways, yes indeed; in other ways, not so much.
The overall story for the first episode about a father (Human) and daughter (Irathient)—whom he adopted through the early years of the turmoil—trying to catch a break and never quite able to succeed drew me in right away. I loved watching them enter the town of Defiance, having to abide by the rules of the local government, but also not shying away from speaking their minds and forcing the locals to adjust to their ideals as well. I enjoyed the political maneuvering—two families stuck in a bitter feud and the slight undertones of conspiracy within those family structures as well. I also thought the way in which all of the characters connected was portrayed in a superb way. The inclusion of various languages made the story feel real (rather than everyone solely speaking in English). What I did not care for was the classic Romeo and Juliet storyline: two young lovers from either side of the feuding families, forbidden to fall in love. There were also a few very predictable storylines, but I don’t want to spoil too much (or turn people off for that matter.
Did the Special Effects live up to the $100 million budget set aside for the season and the MMO?
Brandon: Based on the division of funds for both projects, I would have to deduce that each episode would be produced for a little fewer than four million dollars. So, considering that the pilot probably cost 3.8 million I would say that yes, the CGI did live up to whatever the VFX department had to work with. The effects remind me of a very well rendered cut scene from a game like Halo or Mass Effect. There were a few shots that I felt were a little too cluttered, such as unnecessary flocks of birds. I did however enjoy looking at shots of the city—especially the cityscape shots at night. I also noticed a running visual theme of aerial photography that moved from one part of town to another. This is to set up the transition from scene to scene. My guess is that this Google-Earthesque visual cue will run throughout the whole series.
Max: Yes, it absolutely did. Sure, there were a few scenes in which it’s obviously clear that the visual effects team was running out of money and had to use whatever they could manage and afford, but overall, the graphics were fantastic. There were some truly beautiful landscape scenes as well as brilliantly designed battles and spaceships. If every episode looks like this first one, I will be highly impressed.
How was the acting? Who did it for you and who needs to pick up the slack?
Brandon: For the most part, I thought the acting was pretty solid. I did like the acting better than shows like Eureka and Warehouse 13 but less than the acting in Battlestar Galactica. There were a few one-liners that felt a bit clunky to me and caused me to roll my eyes. Mostly minor supporting characters delivered these lines. Julie Benz needs to step it up next week if she wants to be taken seriously not only as an actress, but also as the town’s mayor. There were also a few scenes that I felt were stock scenes that we’ve already seen throughout the history of film and TV. For example: A scene when a leader tries to drum up spirit of the troops to give them the drive to defeat the enemy. These types of scenes are predictable and corny.
Max: For the most part, I thought the acting was great. Grant Bowler plays the character of Nolan very well. He reminds me of a cross between Ben Browder’s John Crichton (Farscape) and Nathan Fillion’s Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Firefly)—which to me is a good thing. He is confident (at times crossing the line of arrogance), sarcastic, and witty, but it’s obvious that he has a story to tell and it’s more than likely a bit darker than your average person’s. I really enjoyed watching the chemistry between him and Stephanie Leonidas, who plays Irisa, his daughter. I felt like he was her father from the very beginning. It didn’t seem forced to me at all.
I was pleased to hear that Julie Benz would be playing the mayor of Defiance, Amanda Rosewater. I loved Benz in both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and have been waiting to see her again in a much bigger role. She did a good job at playing the reluctant town official forced to rise to the prestige of her position; however, I think that she’ll need to be a bit more convincing now that she’s supposedly a strong leader.
The other actors did an excellent job as well; aside from the doctor, played by Trenna Keating. Her speech was completely deadpan and monotone. Her acting surely needs help.
What did you think of the music?
Brandon: Bear McCreary is still doing his thing. He sure likes drums and crunchy electrical guitar. I definitely heard some tracks inspired by the BSG score in there. I’m a fan of Bear, so no complaints from me on this aspect of the show.
Max: I’ll leave it to Brandon’s answer for this one. Unfortunately, when it comes to music, I don’t hear things like I used to. But considering its Bear McCreary, I’m sure it was phenomenal.
What would you like to see as the season plays out?
Brandon: For this season I would like to get more of the backstory of what happens between 2013 and 2046 when the show takes place. I know that there is a nice timeline of events on the show’s website that fleshes those events out, but it would be nice to see them depicted on film. I would also love for the characters to explore Old St. Louis, which are most definitely in ruins under Defiance. Maybe even stop by SFC’s own Brady Hardin’s place for a cup of tea. ;P
Max: I know this form of storytelling has been used in many shows in the recent past (Lost, Stargate Universe), but I think a show like this could really benefit from flashbacks. How did Nolan find and take in Irisa? How did the Tarr family and the McCawley family rise to power? How and when was Defiance built? There are plenty of storylines to be told from the past that could easily link to the present (or should I say the future?).
I’d also like to see a new twist on the Romeo and Juliet story. It’s overdone. If it’s going to play out, freshen it up a bit.
Aside from outside threats to Defiance, I’d like to explore the tensions between the Tarr’s and the McCawley’s some more. Perhaps, even making their issues the real threat to Defiance.
Last thoughts and comments?
Brandon: I love the world building of this project. I want to see more of it and look forward to see how the game influences the show each week. I like the show for what it is. I’m not going to pretend that this is the best sci-fi in the world, but I am glad that Syfy is back to living up to its name and giving us actual science fiction with aliens and spaceships. It is by far the best thing Syfy has produced in a long time. I would recommend this show to Matt, but not to Ben because I know he would only hate on it.
Max: I really enjoyed the pilot. Was it a perfect show? Absolutely not. Does it have promise? Yes. I think the fact that Defiance is true science fiction television—in many ways resembling the best of Farscape, Battlestar Galactica, and even The Walking Dead—this show could prove to be a big hit. It needs some help in certain storytelling areas, but the potential is there for great, meaningful drama. At the end of the episode (without revealing the full-circle twist of the story), we hear a monologue from Irisa as she’s writing in her journal and this is what she says:
“My people have a god called Urzu. He has a path for each of us. Where it takes us is not always as we imagined. There is a reason…”
That one line blew me away. It’s an idea that we all need to remember at times. Everyone has a story and journey and I believe science fiction can be a perfect vessel to explore these facets of life. I look forward to following Nolan and Irisa’s path for the time being, and seeing where “Urzu” leads them.