When Avengers came out, one the best descriptions of it that I recall was that it brought super hero movies back from the darkness that Christopher Nolan had made work to such effect in his Batman films. What Whedon managed to do was tweak the balance of dark and light, humor and somberness such that the film was a perfect combination of serious yet entertaining. “Defiance” reminds me of Avengers in that sense, at least in the pilot.
Oh don’t quote me saying that it’s as good as Avengers, especially if it pulls a “Terra Nova” and implodes over the next two months, but standing alone the pilot aspires to the Whedon trademark of drama that can’t help being both compelling and fun. It’s too soon to make comparisons to something like “Firefly,” but the basic feeling of the show is that of a hybrid of that and Rockne S. O’Bannon’s previous series of note, the fantastic “Farscape.”
The show is premised on what amounts to a failed alien invasion. A half dozen species, all refugees from the same star that died, arrive at Earth a couple of decades before the series begins. A disaster of some sort happens and their fleet is wrecked, raining down debris now and then to be fought over. Earth is ravaged in wars, terraforming machines remake the surface of the planet. And humanity is left a refugee remnant like all the newcomers. It’s post-apocalyptic and draws on every western trope in the book, visually channeling a sort of retro-futuristic wasteland reminiscent of the Fallout series of video games.
The world presented is extraordinarily complex, with both moral nuance and a wealth of hinted at detail that makes you want to explore the world, to let the series take its time and walk you through more of this world and its creatures. That’s the good side, the side that I hope will take precedence, as it did with “Farscape.”
It is not without its share of flaws of course, or perhaps to be more fair, without its share of warning signs. The plot to the pilot is every Western you’ve ever seen, and it particularly draws from space Westerns. The protagonist, played by Grant Bowler, is basically Han Solo. And I don’t mean just channeling him the way that Nathan Fillion did to great effect in “Firefly”, I mean that he has the same plot points and character arc as Han in the original Star Wars, lifting lines here and there to make it even more blatant. Seriously, he uses a snarky “sweetheart” line a couple of times, that I’m pretty sure is word for word what Han used to use to set Leia off.
There’s the cheesy arc of becoming the sheriff and being the good guy with rough edges who can solve every problem because he’s just that cool. Then there’s the Romeo and Juliet cut n’ paste job. Turn that dial up too much and the cheese drowns out the fun. But at the same time, O’Bannon has had a knack in the past for leaving the cheese on just enough in order to allow a show to be fun, but not insufferable.
And as Avengers brought home to us, sometimes it’s okay that we see the plot points coming and know what the characters are going to do in advance. Sometimes it’s just damn fun to root for the good guys to win, knowing full well that they’re going to. And O’Bannon, like Whedon, has demonstrated the ability to make that work right up to the point where he punches you in the gut with abject tragedy.
That’s the sort of show I’m hoping for. The fun, funny, visually gorgeous show with a deep world to explore, that can bring the tears when they’re needed. The potential is there in the pilot, and I’m hoping it lives up to it.