'Defiance' premiere review: Too familiar or just right?

Courtesy Syfy

Syfy’s new cross-platform TV show and video game Defiance has been on my radar for more than a year. It first really registered in my brain June 2012 during a chat over dinner about San Diego Comic-Con. Then, sure enough, it was the very first signage I saw in San Diego when I got off the plane on the Tuesday before the con – and the last I saw when leaving it. A giant Defiance ad draped a hotel overlooking the convention center, and Syfy even hosted a Defiance press breakfast at the Hard Rock Hotel.

Since then, the buzz has only been building. Aside from a lovely press kit, I often find myself riding on a Defiance-branded bus here in New York City. The theme for the Syfy Upfront presentation last week was …? You guessed it: Defiance  There was a Defiance bar, Defiance car and a crumbling replica of the St. Louis Gateway Arch from the show.

The message from Syfy has been crystal clear during all this time: Defiance is a big deal, or at least they want it to be.

Forget the paranormal proclivities the network often exhibits, this is firmly entrenched in the sci-fi genre. And with apologies to Warehouse 13 or the dearly departed Eureka, Stargate and Battlestar GalacticaDefiance is the largest scale series the likes of which haven’t been seen on Syfy before.

And tonight at 9 p.m., after teasing us for a year about it, Syfy finally unveils its shiny new toy.

So, is it any good? Yeah, pretty good. But also very familiar.

The set up: Three decades ago, a collective of seven alien species showed up looking for a new home on Earth after their solar system was destroyed. Our planet wasn’t really accommodating, so they started a war which led to near mutual human-alien extinction. Governments collapsed and the planet was hit with a terraforming tech that radically altered home. To ensure survival, some towns have emerged where aliens and humans have an unsteady truce. Such a town on the show is Defiance aka St. Louis.

When Nolan (Grant Bowler ) -- a former soldier, and current rogue -- runs afoul of a roaming group of Irathient while traveling with his adopted Irathient daughter Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas), he is forced to rely on the kindness of strangers in Defiance. A Wild West-type town, Defiance is held together by tentative alliances.

When a murder occurs and a fight breaks out at the brothel/saloon “Need Want,” an already-heated rivalry between human mining baron Rafe McCawley (Graham Greene) and alien mobster Datak Tarr (Tony Curran) fires up. This forces Nolan to become a “rough around the edges” Sheriff to do-gooder mayor Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz). Of course, the murder takes place while a threat to the town builds and a conspiracy builds.

The world of Defiance makes sense. It is a post-apocalyptic Earth but very alien, and it is rich with potential. In the first episode, the viewer gets a sense of the general characteristics of the creatures. There are the berserkers, the braniacs, the manipulators, the brutes, the super baddie mechs and so on. We also get to see mutants and bioengineered soldiers. They all have their own look as well, and range from a giant orangutan humanoid to a hairless species with hexagonal facial designs. Some look better than others, and the less-is-more practical effects prosthetic approach often works best. The CGI work is good for TV, but shaky at times (but it must be noted that the press copy I screened still contained some temporary effects).

The alien/human interactions works well (although 33 years seems a little too brief time for these dynamics to develop), and there is a complicated mythology being established. We nerds dig complicated mythology. Among the many parent-child relationships in Defiance  Nolan and Irisa are meant to be the most interesting, and it is. But the most engaging set up so far is the mafia wife machinations of Datak’s spouse Stahma (Jaime Murray).

The action in Defiance is a mix of old-school and high-tech. Guns with traditional bullets go up against energy weapons that disintegrate targets; sharp cold energy blades are brought to a knife fight with a standard slashing steel ones; big blue biomen have power switches in fights against puny humans.

As ambitious as it is, and while it is an interesting outing for Syfy, Defiance works if you’re willing to ignore about 35 years of science fiction – about the same amount of time the show flashes forward to in the future.

Defiance the town is Deep Space Nine or a cleaned-up Mos Eisley. Nolan is a fiercely loyal, morally flexible paternal Han Solo and Mal Reynolds. The aliens are Klingons, Wookies and saucier Vulcans. And everywhere you turn, there are familiar characters and plotlines.

The result is that, each time a new character or creature appears on screen, you can’t help but compare them to something well known that’s come before in the genre. That’s not necessarily a bad thing since Defiance plays to a “type” of entertainment. But familiarity can breed contempt – or disinterest – if there are no new, unique characters to root for. And since we have seen the genre spin off in creatively different directions in the recent past (I still miss you, BSG and Firefly), we know it can be done.

Would I recommend Defiance  I would, if you know that you’ve watched it before. It is the kind of large-scale science fiction I want to see on television – altered planets, extraterrestrials, spaceships, blasters – and has earned my attention for the first few episodes. But I will only become a “fan” if it can take off in truly alien territory.