While staying with my aunt in Florida last week, I was introduced to Defiance, a Syfy-channel series about which I knew exactly nothing.
We started at the first episode, which looked, basically, horrendous. The opening scene was archetypal Bad CGI of a car driving down a road, presumably because they couldn’t afford to film an actual car driving down an actual road. It looked more like a videogame screencast than a proper film production. It also set up an extremely bizarre, totally mysterious, melodramatic future wasteland, with at least half a dozen different alien races and a long ton of room for lazy writers to do whatever they want and explain it away with a sentence or two of expository. In short, it seemed a lot like a typical doomed Syfy channel show.
It’s not, quite. Why not, exactly, sort of creeps in over the course of the pilot episode, and then lands with a thud when the mayor hands our fearless protagonist a pewter badge of a six-pointed star tipped with circles, and declares him the
sheriff lawkeeper. Suddenly, it all snaps into focus. Over the course of the first season, ostensibly
- It’s the year 2046
- It’s been 14 years since a devastating war
- St. Louis is a small city with hardly a paved road because it was destroyed by alien terraformers
- but New York is still a big city because … unexplained
- The economy is driven by the local Gulanite mine
- The mine-lands were originally taken by two local outlaws who killed the (alien) Irathients who were farming there
- There’s an epidemic of “hemorraghic fever” due to an unfortunate immunological relationship between humans and Irathients
- There’s only one doctor because … unexplained, but presumably because few people have the training to care for all these different species
- and medical images are made on big sheets of paper (which then animate to show different features)
- The local drinking hole is also a brothel, presumably related to the (unexplained, but implied) gender skew of the town overall
- There’s a Bible salesman/preacher who turns out to be a con artist because Times Are Tough
- Everyone wears three-piece suits, bowlers, and pince-nez glasses, for absolutely no reason
- It’s the old west
- It’s shortly after the civil war
- St. Louis is a small city but New York is big because it’s the old west
- The economy is driven by gold mining because it’s the old west
- and the land was stolen from native Americans who were murdered
- There’s an epidemic of cholera because it’s the old west
- There’s only one doctor because it’s a Western
- and medical images are made on big sheets of paper because they’re old-timey X-rays
- The local drinking hole is a brothel because it’s the old west
- There’s a Bible salesman/preacher who turns out to be a con artist because they just copied it straight from Oh Brother Where Art Thou, which is extremely meta because that’s a story that’s ostensibly set in the old west but actually is from ancient Greece
- The costumes … come on.
It’s absolutely transparent, but also surprisingly endearing.
The surface layer alone has unlimited artistic freedom, with little fixed history to guide the story. Without constraint, nothing the writers can set up would be particularly impressive or thought-provoking. It’s a world as floppy as a string; no surprise that you make any shape you want.
With their two parallel plots, the fabric of the show has both warp and weft. The writers have to satisfy both the surface logic of their alien races in 2046, which are fleshed out gradually as needed, and the implicit phantom story in ~1870, which must somehow follow the Western’s genre conventions. Like rhyming poetry or a cappella music, the competing constraints make the plotting more impressive, and give the viewer more to think about.
It doesn’t hurt that their visual effects budget clearly increased dramatically over the course of the season, so that by the end the visuals finally awe instead of detract.
If you’re in the market for a science fiction Western, watch Firefly … but if you have a lot of time afterwards, and the patience to tolerate the first few episodes, you could do worse than Defiance.