Sci-fi fan ANDREW JOHNSTONE reckons there’s been nothing to aspire to the greatness of Star Trek. Until Defiance, that is.
Capsule Comment: I love sci-fi, and Star Trek is the mirror by which I judge all entrants to the genre. Like most Star Trek fans, I have watched the various series’ countless times and kept my fingers crossed for a new incarnation to fill the void, but sadly there has been nothing for many years unless you include the big screen movies which while grand spectacles, do not satisfy the need for long running and in-depth story arcs. That’s about to change with a new series coming soon, but in the meantime, good quality science fiction TV is as rare as hen’s teeth. Sci-fi admirers have learnt not to expect much, but Defiance delivered, with great storylines, plenty of action, a charismatic cast and loads of interesting ideas.
I was among the first generation of New Zealanders who grew up with a TV in the house. The fledging NZ Television Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC) got underway in 1960, I was born in 1962 and my parents procured their first TV in 1967. By then I was five years old and have no memory of the house without a flickering black and white screen centre-stage in the living room. It was valve machine, a second-hand job imported from Australia and prone to breaking down. The effect on me was much the same as with kids today when the Wi-Fi goes down: devastating. My life revolved around that machine, and I loved every moment of it and when it wasn’t there, I was grief stricken.
My first great TV love was Star Trek: The Original Series. That’s the one with Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, Sulu and Uhura, a veritable United Nations of crew onboard a spacecraft whose loyalty was pledged not to the USA as these shows usually are, but to the United Federation of Planets, an alliance of sentient species working together for the common good – think the United Nations but with real teeth.
Star Trek was not just about grand adventure, it was also dedicated to a new idea of humanity, and one where the people of the earth were not separated by borders, but united by a concept of freedom defined by emancipation from poverty, cultural, religious and racial differences.
This was also a time when black Americans were still suffering very real social segregation, a grievous injustice that the writers and producer (Gene Roddenberry) faced head-on when Kirk (Captain of the Starship Enterprise) kissed the ship’s black American communications officer Uhura on the mouth in an act of unbridled passion. The effect was profound if not revolutionary. It had not been done before on TV and it’s astonishing that the network screening the show let it happen, given the mores of the time.
The other astonishing thing about Star Trek was the technology, ideas so bold that they influenced generations of kids to grow up to be scientists, determined to make real what they saw imagined on the screen. The crew’s standard communication device was the precursor to the smartphone and other ideas including matter transporters, replicators and faster than light travel, while still works in progress, are technological mysteries that are slowly being unraveled and brought to life.
Besides the original series, the Star Trek Universe has spawned five long-running TV series’. The Next Generation, Voyager, Deep Space Nine and Enterprise are all shows that have remained faithful to ideals dedicated to peace, equality and scientific endeavor while offering narratives that examined emotional, political and philosophical issues via characters of depth and substance.
For the hardcore sci-fi fan there is little else like it on the small screen, and while there have been plenty of imitators, no one has yet been able to nail it with any degree of authenticity, except perhaps Stargate (in its various incarnations) and latterly, Defiance.
The foundations for the Defiance narrative begin some 5000 years in the past in a star system inhabited by eight related species collectively known as the Voltanis Collective. When they discover that a cataclysmic event is about to wipe out their solar system they build several ‘arcs’ and set out for a new home, an environmentally suitable planet discovered through long range scans, one that appears to possess no species with technological capacity and is therefore ripe for colonisation.
When they arrive several millennia later, the human species have come a long way and the planet, already bursting at the seams, has little enthusiasm for taking on a whole new population. Settlement negotiations don’t go well and it ends up in a war, one that radically reshapes the planet’s ecosystem and almost destroys everyone involved.
Defiance is set some years after the end of the war in a mining town built on the remains of the former metropolis of St Louis. The community called Defiance is the equivalent of Deep Space Nine/Voyager/Enterprise, a self-contained community of strikingly varied species who are learning to get along, their mutual quest for a peaceful life being their binding glue.
Defiance is a liberal place that embraces diversity, but this is no utopia, this is a frontier town and unlike the Star Trek universe, this show does not attempt in any way to gloss over the less desirable aspects of life like sex, drugs and rock and roll – music is a big part of the narrative structure and the soundtrack is strikingly original and highly evocative. The violence is visceral and lead characters are not sacred, many meeting untimely ends as the community fights any number of subversive forces determined to destroy everything the town represents.
The Kirk/Picard/Janeway figure here is Amanda Rosewater, the town’s mayor. Played by Julie Benz (you might remember her as Dexter’s love interest in the very excellent serial killer series Dexter) she is a woman of conscience charged with making morally difficult decisions as she works to unify the town’s awkward cultural diversity and protect it from its enemies. Then there’s New Zealander Grant Bowler (Outrageous Fortune), who plays the town’s law-keeper, Nolan (think Kirk with an ambiguous moral code). Together they face off disaster while battling many and various personal demons with the assistance of alcohol, drugs and relief sex.
Like most Star Trek fans, I have watched the various series’ countless times and kept my fingers crossed for a new incarnation to fill the void. Sadly, there has been nothing for many years, unless you include the big screen movies that while grand spectacles, do not satisfy the need for long running and in-depth story arcs. Good quality science fiction is as rare as hen’s teeth and I didn’t expect much from Defiance but it delivered… in spades.
* Defiance is available through Lightbox in NZ. It recently ceased production after three amazing seasons. The producers and network cited costs as the reason.
* The Internet and ‘TV on Demand’ has revolutionised the way we watch TV shows. No longer beholden to television networks and their programming whims and scheduling, we can watch back-to-back episodes of new and old shows to our heart’s content without those annoying advertisements interrupting the narrative flow. TV viewing has suddenly become more accessible, democratic and a hell of a lot more fun. ANDREW JOHNSTONE scours the available channels and finds the best of the best, so you don’t have to.