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REVIEW: Defiance (Pilot Episode)

REVIEW SUMMARY: A promising return to form from the SyFy channel.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In 2046, the Earth has been radically transformed following the arrival of seven alien races and subsequent war between the newcomers and humanity. After the war, the town of Defiance springs up in the ruins of the old world.

PROS: Vivid, immersive new world with lots of potential.
CONS: Story, CGI are somewhat lacking.

After five years of development and a major media blitz, the SyFy Channel has released their latest tent pole show: Defiance. Following the cancellation of shows like Caprica and Stargate: Universe (not to mention the failure to pick up Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome), the channel has a new space-based show. There’s a lot to like here: There’s aliens! Frontier-like settings! Lasers! Drama! A cynical hero! Amongst it all, the network that’s been known for its space shows, such as Stargate SG-1/Atlantis/Universe, Battlestar Galactica, Farscape, and others, finally has something that directly appeals to the fans who have been missing their fix of the prime-time Science Fiction drama that’s been missing from the airwaves for so many years.

Defiance feels like the jacket that central character Joshua Nolan wears: worn, comfortable, familiar. It’s an entire universe in a box: planned out, with all of the backstory that you typically get with a series that’s been on the air for a couple of years, with a large fan base already in place. This is where the pilot is at its best, and it does an excellent job distilling down the characters, various story lines, background world, and general environment into a couple of hours.

There’s some issues out of the gate, which a number of reviewers have picked up on already: the plot offers no surprises: Nolan and his adopted Irathient daughter Irisa, come in to town, get into some trouble, and when the chief lawman is killed in the course of his duties, he picks up the title. There’s some other story seeds planted as well that are sure to bring out the drama: a forbidden romance between two major rivals in town, a menacing threat from outside the town’s borders, and a conspiracy that involves some former officials. The pilot of Defiance doesn’t really bring anything new to the realm of SF TV, whereas other SyFy shows, like Stargate Universe and Battlestar Galactica have pushed the boundaries since the beginning.

That’s okay, because the show’s pilot really isn’t about the story. It’s compelling enough to be interesting. To quote my wife, it “didn’t make me hate it and want to turn it off,” but it’s also simple enough to spend a majority of its focus on the characters and various story lines in the show, which it does well. The pilot takes its time to move from character to character, introducing not only the main players, but the diverse species now inhabiting the planet.

The main guy, however, is Joshua Nolan, who’s cut from the same cloth as characters such as Han Solo and Mal Reynolds. For my money, he can pretty much trace his lineage back to C.L. Moore’s character Northwest Smith: the rough and tumble rogue. He’s well portrayed by Grant Bowler, and feels completely at home in Defiance. The comparisons are apt, and I hope that the desire to make the character likable won’t box him into a point where he’s simply a boring good guy. Matched with Irisa, who’s a bit more of an interesting character, I think we’re going to see some interesting things from them.

While the plot for the pilot’s not memorable, it does set the drama into motion. The city comes under attack, with an unknown plot revealed towards the end of the episode, which will undoubtedly carry the first season through its 13 episode run. There’s also plenty of character drama revealed throughout, with a lot of dynamics to play with, and hopefully, the week to week run of the show will be interesting. Given the show’s development cycle, I’m optimistic that they’ve been able to give the first season a bit of a good road map.

What Defiance does is dump you in the middle of a rich, constructed world, and pushed play. There’s a lot of material for the show’s producers to work with, and quite a bit more potential than most recent SF shows. In a lot of ways, this feels far more like the Star Trek: The Next Generation, Babylon 5, Stargate SG-1 types of shows, which are incredibly open-ended, but with some overarching story elements.

This isn’t to say that this latest outing is an entire throwback to the golden age of SF television: the late 1980s and 1990s – it’s not. It’s more of a blend of what worked for those shows: an open ended world and diverse cast of characters, and an ongoing story line that with plenty to keep the characters busy. It feels like there’s more of a tilt towards an overarching plot than the random, standalone morality episodes that frequently appeared throughout the Defiance’s longer-running relatives. Time will tell, however. Hopefully, the show will be looking forward, rather than behind, for lessons.

Hopefully, Defiance will have the time to get really good, like those ones did. Given SyFy’s major investment (and thus far, fairly good return in their ratings), I hope that they’ll be a bit more inclined to keep the show on the air for a couple of seasons.

Defiance has a bit to improve on, and that’s something that will have to happen with time. The CGI at points is really left wanting, but when compared against shows like Babylon 5 (which is dated), it’s not a major issue for me. Hopefully, with shorter, regular episodes, the focus will go down to smaller groups of characters and storylines, and use the pilot as a base to push off from.

Again, Time will tell, but I’ll be tuning in for next week’s episode, “Down In The Ground Where The Dead Men Go”.

Defiance airs every Monday at 9pm on SyFy.

About Andrew Liptak (180 Articles)
Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer and historian from Vermont. He is a 2014 graduate of the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, and has written for such places as Armchair General, io9, Kirkus Reviews, Lightspeed Magazine, and others. His first book, War Stories: New Military Science Fiction is now out from Apex Publications, and his next, The Future Machine: The Writers, Editors and Readers who Build Science Fiction is forthcoming from Jurassic London in 2015. He can be found over at and at @AndrewLiptak on Twitter.

13 Comments on REVIEW: Defiance (Pilot Episode)

  1. Not trying to nit pick or look for a fight or anything, but I just thought I’d point out that if story is one of the “cons,” maybe 4 and half stars is a bit too much. Personally, I’d give the show 2.5 or 3, and recognize that there’s potential.

  2. This sounds like an awesome setting for an Apocalypse World or Hillfolk RPG game, too.

  3. First of all, when it was stated that it was produced by SyFy when I saw the advertisement, I resisted it but the hype kept building up and I relented to give it a try. Oh boy, I do not regret at all and it certainly show so much promise and hope they keep building it up from there!. Beautiful background for the fictional town of Defiance and even though I am inclined to disagree with you on the story, I think it is in the right direction with all those subplots that intertwines so well with emphasis on initial character development on several key characters that would make this show memorable, hopefully. So I give it 4 stars as I would be inclined to give it 3.5 but the fact being made by beleaguered SyFy make it much more impressive.

  4. I watched it all the way through. Didn’t hate it. But wasn’t overall impressed. Dialog was lame and predictable. Characters as well. Set seemed cheap. I was hoping for something a bit darker and edgier. I’ll give it another week before moving on.

  5. awesome:-) I have it on dvr but still haven’t been able to watch it yet because of the baby. I don’t think I’ll mind the lack of good CGI much. it’s tv afterall.

  6. Sue Coffman // April 19, 2013 at 7:53 am //

    I thought it was pretty well done, and certainly better than most of what’s on tv right now. I think it did a good job as a pilot episode – the characters and backstory were set up appropriately, it provided plenty of avenues for various stories to unfold, and the acting was good to very good. It had the feel of a book, actually – a good first-in-a-series feeling, which augers well for the series going forward. CGI needs to improve drastically, however. Right now it’s pretty bad.

  7. Watched the pilot but am having a hard time convincing myself to watch again next week. The aliens offer absolutely nothing new. They act just like us. Gamble, fight, back stab, plot. All this seems like to me is your run of the mill primetime soap with a little bit more makeup

  8. The most positive review of the premiere I’ve seen, by far. An back story that makes no sense but is still more interesting than the setting itself. Aliens that behave exactly the same as humans. The only reason I’m giving it a 2nd chance is the cast. SyFy or sci-fi on other networks rarely brings together a group as strong as Benz, Kirshner, Greene & Murray.

  9. Ah, Farscape-Deadwood…

    Lazy writing, expensive production makes it:

    Dead show walking.

    Which is a shame, it had the kernel of a good idea.

  10. At first I thought the writing was pretty mediocre, but I got into a few of the scenes later on. Syfy, bring back The Lost Room.

  11. Jeff VanderMeer // April 22, 2013 at 2:04 pm //

    The story…and the special effects…are not good. So, the characterization is just amazing and thus warrants so many stars? Maybe you ought not double-down on defending that rating…

  12. Finally got to see it.

    The characterization and relationship map are definitely the secret sauce. I even noticed when the episode definitively passed the Bechdel test.

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