Tuesday, April 16, 2013

'Defiance' recap: Pilot

Daddy, daughter time at the brothel. Courtesy Syfy

Ah, Defiance. We have heard so much about you on the Interwebs. Please, please, please, do not suck.

I will admit that I have high hopes for this new sci-fi Western on Syfy. There are a lot of reasons; first for me is Rockne S. O'Bannon. He's the man behind Farscape. If you somehow missed Farscape, you really need to fix that, now. Bear McCreary composed all of the music for the show and the game. He did an excellent job with Battlestar Galactica and doesn’t disappoint here either. Speaking of which, Kevin Murphy from Caprica is Defiance's showrunner.

So who's in this epic? Grant Bowler (True Blood) plays the main character, Jeb Nolan. Stephanie Leonidas (Helena in MirrorMask) plays his adopted daughter Irisa. Julie Benz (Darla in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) plays Mayor Amanda Rosewater. Jaime Murray (H.G. Wells in Warehouse 13) plays Stahma Tarr. While Tony Curran (Marcus in Underworld: Evolution) plays Datak Tarr. And let us not forget Graham Greene (Harry Clearwater in the Twilight movies) plays Rafe McCawley. So, seriously, with all this talent it has to be good, right?

So, what is this thing about, you ask? Well, a bunch of alien races collectively called Votan jumped on a bunch of alien spaceships called Arks and headed across space to colonize this pale blue dot we affectionately call Earth. Imagine their surprise when they got here and we didn't roll out the welcome mat.

After some failed attempts at peace, war inevitably breaks out. During these Pale Wars, the alien Arks are wrecked above our little planet and soon begin raining down debris. These Arkfalls set loose a bunch of crazy little terraforming machines and the place we call Earth is transformed into an all new world. This new Earth has been terraformed into something alien to both humans and the Votan races. It's in this new world, 33 years later, that our current story begins.

Like any good space Western, we begin on a dusty road. Our narrator is Irisa. She describes a recurring vision she has of Nolan as a child standing in a park when the first Arks appear in the sky. She tells us a little about the terraforming that changed the planet and leaves us with a bit of wisdom.

Nolan likes to say, "This world has no natives. Which means it belongs to everyone." Nolan is a very progressive guy.

He and Irisa continue speeding down the road in a dusty vehicle known as a roller. He is being subjected to the silent treatment by his alien Irathient "daughter" -- until he pops a little Johnny Cash in the stereo. She can't help to sing along as they track an Arkfall down to Earth. Did I mention this is a Western? It’s an interesting visual anyway having an obvious alien enthusiastically singing along to Johnny and June Cash. Nolan and Irisa are scavengers known as Ark Hunters. Think Han Solo or Captain Mal types.

Inside the fallen Ark, they find a Terrasphere. This pretty gizmo looks like a sparkly blue soccer ball and it's worth a lot of money. Apparently, we’re talking enough money to pay off their debts and get them to Antarctica, which is now a (possibly mythological) paradise. But as they are exiting the Ark, they are ambushed by Spirit Riders, an Irathient tribe, who take all their gear. With some clever trickery showing that the pair is well versed in such shenanigans, they escape, running into the nearby woods.

Unbeknownst to Nolan, Irisa was shot in the scuffle, and soon falls to the forest floor. At this point Nolan picks her up and continues to run until exhaustion leads him to fall beside a fallen tree where he quickly buries the Terrasphere for safekeeping. As he looks up, we get our first look at the new wildlife of this terraformed Earth. I don't know what you call these things, but they look like what would happen if Dr. Moreau crossed a wolf, a bear and a beetle together and made it the size of a VW Bug. Well, Nolan exhausts his limited ammo, but is saved by a party of Lawkeepers from the nearby settlement of Defiance, which is protected by a big alien stasis (defense) net. As they enter the town, Nolan catches sight of a large arch stretching high over the city and realizes this shambling little town used to be St. Louis.

As Nolan and Irisa are transported to the hospital, the rest of the town is celebrating Armistice Day. The town itself is a mix of old west and shiny alien, as are the people. Mayor Amanda Rosewater is giving a speech in the town square describing the history of this great day. This Armistice Day marks the 15th anniversary of the end of the Pale Wars. The critical event leading to the end of this war, took place in this very town. The human and Votan soldiers refused to fight anymore and instead worked together to rescue the innocent victims of the battle that had decimated the town. These soldiers came to be known as The Defiant Few and the town is, of course, named after them. This is important because as we switch over to the hospital, we learn that Nolan was a member of the Defiant Few. So, he's a badass.

The Indogene doctor is also something of a badass, when she faces down Irisa who is threatening her with her own scalpel. We learned a few other tidbits along the way as well. Datak Tarr (a Castithian) is the head of the criminal element in town, while Rafe McCawley (Human) owns the local mine and is very, very rich. To say they don't like each other is an understatement. It would also seem that there is a little Romeo and Juliet action going on between their children.

We now enter the stranger-meets-Mayor portion of this little Western. Mayor Amanda calls Nolan in for a meeting to try a figure out what they are doing there. Some amusing banter is exchanged, further reinforcing the Western feel to the exchange. When he tells her that he needs to earn some money to buy a roller to leave town, she refers him to the brothel, suggesting he might clean up well. It turns out that her sister Kenya runs the brothel/bar called Need/Want.

After a flirty exchange with Kenya, she points them to The Hollows to earn some fast money. I guess she's playing the hooker with a heart-of-gold. Turns out she's sent them to alien fight club. Being a former badass, this is right up Nolan’s alley. He quickly jumps into the fray, but the watching Datak substitutes a Bioman for the current champion. Now, this guy is like 7-feet-tall and about 3-feet-wide. And it's all pale gray muscle. Irisa amusingly doesn't seem impressed by Nolan's chances. Well, like any good rogue, he takes a beating for a bit and then takes the big guy down with a hit to his power center. This apparently shuts the behemoth down. They happily collect their winnings and trot out to gather supplies to leave this town.

But you didn't think it would be that easy did you? Datak and some goons follow them outside and take their money back, claiming the move was against the house rules. Datak helpfully gives them a few bucks back for their trouble though. He’s all heart, that one. While this won’t be enough to buy a vehicle, Nolan declares it will get him a bath and a change of clothes. This is code for getting some action with Miss Kenya.

During all this, someone else has been getting a little action too. It turns out that Datak's son Alak (played by Jesse Rath, brother to Meaghan Rath from Being Human!) has the hots for Christie, Rafe McCawley's daughter. The two are dancing together at the festivities when her two brothers show up. Brother Luke provokes a fight and the Tarr kid pulls a glowy alien knife. Fortunately, the sensible McCawley brother Quentin intervenes. Luke gets a mysterious phone call afterwards and disappears...

His body is found by a Sensoth out walking his little jack russell terrier.

This of course, sets Rafe on the hunt for Alak Tarr. He soon finds him in the Need/Want, where Irisa has been sitting in a booth sketching the boy. I suppose this hints at her having a deeper, more sensitive side than the hardass we have so far come to know. On the second floor, Nolan and Kenya are exiting one of the bedrooms. I am still unclear, just how old Irisa is supposed to be, but leaving my "daughter" alone in a brothel is not high on my tips for good parenting. Just saying.

So, anyway, Rafe comes in with a small lynch mob ready to kill Alak. Kenya tries to intervene, but isn't listened to when the menfolk get their dander up. So Nolan engages some quick thinking and pretends to have been gambling with the kid. He just wants them to hold off killing him until he gets his money he claims.

As one of Rafe's crew moves in on Nolan, he gives him a quick beat down. This prompts an exasperated sigh from Irisa still sitting in her booth. She snaps closed her journal and gets up. And as the next guy moves in on Nolan, she's there with a knife at his throat. Further bloodshed is postponed as Lawkeeper Clancy shows up with Rafe's daughter, Christie. She tearfully tells her father that Alak couldn't have killed Luke because he was with her all night. You can imagine daddy's joy at hearing this. As he raises his gun to shoot Alak, all hell breaks loose and shots are fired. The real heroine is Irisa, who does some excellent knife work.

Sadly, when the smoke clears, Clancy is dead. Look like this town needs a new sheriff. Nolan generously offers to help find the real killer for a small fee. The catch is that Irisa gets locked up in the jail with Deputy Lawkeeper Tommy to watch over her.

After all this stress, Datak is taking a nice bath with his wife. We get a glimpse of who’s the real brain in this family. Stahma uses her wiles to school him on how if Alak marries Christie, and then something unfortunate happens to Rafe and his son, they get the mine. You get the picture, right?

The next day, Irisa and Deputy Tommy are still hanging out in the jail. He finds Irisa to be very disconcerting. They seem to hit it off after she describes how she could kill him and get out of the cell any time she wants. The conversation inevitably turns to how she came to be with Nolan. She tells him that Nolan saved her by doing something she couldn't do for herself; he murdered her parents. Oh, boy. That'll be an interesting story don't you think?

Nolan quickly figures out that the killer was an Indogene that was stabbed in the leg. It just so happens that Mayor Amanda's assistant is an Indogene who has lately developed a limp. The question becomes, where might Ben be right this very moment? Well, he's currently sabotaging the stasis net that surrounds the town.

 When Amanda calls him, he tells her that he had no choice, the town is dead, and all that's left is for them to run. They catch up to Ben, of course. In fact they kind of head him off at the pass. His vehicle flips and he is seriously injured in the wreck. Fortunately, Nolan immediately recognizes the coldfire weapon that Ben used as being of Volge design. About the time this revelation hits, the stasis net explodes.

As the town gears up for fight or flight, Nolan and Irisa gather supplies to hit the road. But one can see that Nolan is wavering a little at the sight of the frightened children. Nevertheless, they pack up and head out to dig up the Terrasphere.

Once it's in hand, Nolan gets a grand idea that Defiance can use the Terrasphere to destroy the Volge. Well, Irisa is not pleased. So far she has appeared to be cold and a tad unemotional. She becomes well and truly upset at this news, almost to the point of tears. She emotionally exclaims that he always ruins everything, and then takes the new roller and leaves him behind. He treks his way back to town just in time to save the day.

Doc Yewell gets to work on hooking the device up as the rest of the town takes the high ground for the battle. Their job is to hold the Volge in the pass until the Terrasphere powers up and blasts the mean aliens to smithereens. The battle itself has some very cool special effects. The Volge appear to be entirely mechanical and we get the idea that no one likes them, not even other Votan. Their army marches into the pass and the townsfolk open fire. This firefight rages on for a while, but just as the battle seems to be slipping away from the townsfolk, a new band enters the fray. It’s the Spirit Riders, with Irisa among them on a motorcycle. It turns out they hate the Volge more than they hate humans. The Terrasphere finally powers up and sends a massive blast of energy through the pass, incinerating the Volge in the process.

Victory for Defiance! Irisa gleefully hugs Nolan. See, she really does care.

As the town picks itself up the next morning, Mayor Amanda offers Nolan the Lawkeeper position from her hospital bed. I expect some wackiness to come from this, but in a good way. Of course, the main concern, is why did the Volge attack them and who sent them?

Hmm. Good question. I smell a conspiracy.

Well, life goes on and from tragedy comes new hope. Alak and Christie think this is a fine time to get engaged. Datak and Stahma watch the couple from a distance. If only Datak had a mustache to stroke he would be the quintessential villain.

Irisa breaks in as our narrator again. She tells us how she has never liked towns. They scare her, all the people seem to suck the air away. She doesn't know if they will stay in Defiance, though you and I can be pretty sure. As she talks of fate, we see Nolan holding the Lawkeeper's Badge with the Gateway Arch jutting across the sky behind him. The scene shifts to the vision Irisa had of him as a child standing in the park as the Arks arrived. And as the camera angle shifts, the same Gateway Arch arcs behind his childish self, and we see that Nolan at least has come home again.

Did you forget about the conspiracy? Well, let's take a quick trip across town to a nice eatery. A well-dressed man wearing blue spectacles sits at a table talking to someone about their mutual failure and the danger that the comatose Ben poses to them. His name is Mr. Burch and his companion is the former Mayor Nicky. It looks like she and Mr. Burch here are part of some great plot searching for some sort of artifact that Luke McCawley had found. Since the Volge have failed to clear the town, Mr. Burch expresses some reservations about the backup plan, saying it is brutal. She assures him that the survivors will thank them.

Well, that’s not foreboding.

What do you think so far? While this show will invariably be criticized for its similarities to Firefly, I think it stood well on its own. This is just the pilot, and there are a lot of details to keep straight. The sheer abundance of alien races to keep in mind is a little overwhelming, and we really don’t know much at all about their individual cultures yet. I personally find all of this to be immensely interesting. In the end, this pilot did its job; I want to know more about this new Earth and the races that now call it home. How about you?

The next episode of Defiance, "Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go," airs Monday, April 22, 9 p.m. ET.