Julie Benz, Graham Greene, Grant Bowler
Defiance, Syfy’s heavily promoted new action series premiering tonight, is adapted from an equally hyped video game, so you might be inclined, as I was, to manage my expectations. The series is set in 2046, 33 years after the people of Earth were stunned to see their skies suddenly filled by spaceships bearing a race of aliens known collectively as the Votans, who were seeking a new home after their own star system was destroyed. Inherently peaceful beings, they thought the planet was uninhabited (oops), but nonetheless received a chilly welcome from the locals.
The very eventful three decades that followed were marked by unrest and even extended war between the species, rendering Earth a heavily burnt and reshaped planet before both sides eventually declared an armistice out of sheer mutual exhaustion.
As the series premiere opens, former Marine Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler) and his adopted alien daughter, Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas), are scavenging the remains of a crashed spaceship for anything valuable when they are set upon by unruly bike-riding Irathients, members of the same feral race as Irisa. They manage to escape with their lives, finally making their way to Defiance, a town that has risen up atop the ruins of what once was St. Louis. The newly installed mayor, Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz), is trying to keep a lid on the simmering tensions in a town shared by humans, most prominently mine tycoon Rafe McCauley (Graham Greene) and his family, and aliens, including the scheming aristocratic Castithan couple Datak and Stahma Tarr (Tony Curran, Jaime Murray). Early on in the course of the series, Nolan accepts a position as chief lawkeeper in Defiance, after he, Irisa and their new neighbors discover that someone is behind a sinister plot to wipe their community off the map.
For the first half-hour of tonight’s premiere, I worried that my worst fears were being realized. The new Earth on which Defiance is set seemed comprised of post-apocalyptic clichés (motorbike riding gangs of thugs, again? Really?), and when they introduced a Romeo-and-Juliet storyline involving the Tarr son and the McCauley daughter, I very nearly reached for the remote control and gave up.
Things do improve somewhat as we start to explore Defiance, however, and meet other colorful characters including Kenya Rosewater (the vivacious Mia Kirshner), Amanda’s sister and the very capable proprietress of the Need/Want, the town’s bar, brothel and gambling hall. The principals start to emerge more sharply, and Bowler develops the kind of rascally sense of humor we traditionally expect in our swashbuckling action heroes. Benz, who played the title character’s endearing yet largely passive love interest for several seasons on Dexter, clearly relishes playing an idealistic woman with a steely spine here, and the always impressive Murray is able to suggest hidden mysteries in an alien beauty who doesn’t speak much in the first couple of episodes.
I don’t know yet whether I’ll be visiting Defiance on a regular basis myself, but fans of gaming and the sci-fi action genre probably will find this new entry rewarding. I can’t fairly comment on the special visual effects, since the background screeners provided by Syfy contained mostly temporary effects footage, which, for what it’s worth, wasn’t bad on its own terms.