Defiance as a premise is everything my eternally sci-fi loving heart loves in a show.
It’s post-apocalyptic – that’s what happens when an invading collective of seven alien races arrives to take Earth as their own following the annihilation of their own system, goes to war with humanity and oops-a-daisy, accidentally partially terraforms the place – is stacked to the ramshackle rafters with all manner of good guys, bad guys and people who deliciously and dramatically slide somewhere in the middle, and has a solid sense of its own world-building mythology.
It’s execution on this sterling premise however often left a little something to be desired in its maiden season.
Despite these deficiencies however, and a sense that it had taken more time building the world in which to tell its tales rather than ensuring it told them all well – points for the former, not so much for the latter – season 1 was a largely solid and engaging affair, with episodes like “Pilot”, “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”, and “The Bride Word Black” keeping the interest up over the less than stellar episodes in between.
And the final two episodes, “Past is Prologue” and “Everything is Broken” in which the mythology, intrigues and secrets, and all their devastating consequences were ramped up to a enthralling end of season breaking point, in which major characters came face-to-face with all manner of unpalatable outcomes, was precisely the way you’d want a season, any season of any show, to end, with fingernails clawing nervously at the top of a cliffhanger, desperate to hang on.
Nine months later in future apocalyptic time, and just under 12 months in ours, Defiance has returned with all of the major characters in new roles, new locations and facing a host of dramatically-rich new problems, some large, some small.
The flawed beating heart of the show, Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler), one time law keeper and now outcast temporary son of Defiance, is moving across America, looking everywhere he can think of to find his adopted Irathient (one of the seven alien Votan races) daughter Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas), who was last seen clothed in gold and silver curling tendrils of light and casting herself into a pit of glowing energy in order to save Nolan’s life.
This act of sacrifice was not simply motivated by a wish to bring Nolan back to the land of the living but by a sense that she has been chosen in some way by Irzu, an Irathient god, around whom a rather pedophiliac cult has been built, whom Irisa sees as as silent but compelling young Irathient woman who fills her chosen one’s mind with all sorts of gloomy and sometimes bloody visions.
As you can well imagine, these visions of a person who no one else can see is doing Irisa’s head in, and so while she apparently escaped utter oblivion in the pit of swirling energy back in Defiance, she is no hurry to return to the frontier town, now under the control of the dastardly and dictatorial Earth Republic, fleeing to AngelArc, which is where Nolan finds her via New Chicago where he encounters and despatches the psychopathic Castithan man (another race if you’re keeping score) who turned her into a weirdly messianic ticking bomb.
Both AngelArc, a series of islands known as key Diego, that lie where California and Arizona once stood, and upon which partly sits the remnants of old Los Angeles which includes rather cleverly the old Hollywood sign, ruins of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the iconic Capitol Records building, and New Chicago recall the grittiness and shabby chic Wild West squalor of post-Votan arrival Earth we know so well already, a sign that the rest of the world is as makeshift as Defiance itself.
I am not sure if I expected cities outside of Defiance to be a little more cosmopolitan and well put together than the titular town of the show but while I was intrigued by seeing the world outside of what was once Missouri, I was initially disappointed that the sense of a world still in turmoil was still very much intact wherever Nolan journeyed.
As Revolution made abundantly clear, in one of the few things it got right as a show, some people and hence places would cope better than others in a post-apocalyptic world, something we have yet to see evidence of in Defiance.
However, given the military precision and ruthless rule of the Earth Republic, I would expect that we will see some evidence of more prosperous areas if the show ever journeys to New York, the capital of E-Rep as it’s colloquially known, to supporters and detractors alike.
But for now, we have the Earth as a post-partly terraformed schmozzle, one in which a newly re-united Nolan, happy to have his daughter back, and Irisa, as troubled as ever especially when she has unfortunate visions of slashing her father’s throat on their way back to Defiance, seem quite at home.
Not so quite at home is Datak Tarr (Tony Curran), local Casithan mafia kingpin and thug-like brute of a husband to the scheming and delightfully manipulative Stahma (Jamie Murray), and father to ineffectual and far too kind pretender to the gangland throne Alak (Jesse Rath), who finds himself in Camp Reverie, a rather ironically-named prison camp six miles east of Defiance, where survival of the fittest is the order of the day.
Keeping him company, and saving his neck for her own escape-oriented purposes, is Indogene Doc Yewll (Trenna Keating as a member of a third alien race), who fallen on hard times for own crimes against humanity.
But it’s Datak Tarr on whom the focus falls, as we watch him railing and impotent to do much but beg for sexual favours from Stahma when she visits.
Despite claims to her increasingly desperate husband that the most extensive and stringent legal measures are being taken to release him from his 10 year imprisonment for hot bloodedly killing a high-ranking E-Rep official, you get the distinct impression she is enjoying her liberation from his cruelly misogynistic ways, a perception cemented firmly into place when she tells Alak in no uncertain terms that she is the one in charge and he will take his orders from her, even while maintaining the veneer of traditional, and in her mind out dated Casithan male dominance.
It’s patently clear that a revolution of sorts is in play, a commentary on the struggle of women worldwide to assert their equality in societies that mistakenly view them as the inferior sex, and it’s heartening that Defiance is taking up the banner of science fiction down through the ages and weaving social commentary into its narratives.
You get the distinct impression that should Datak ever escape the confines of the makeshift prison, he will find the world a wholly different place to the one he left, and not simply because an E-Rep official, a rather dandy, Roman Empire-esque, handwash-loving dandy, is now cock of the Defiance roost.
As suave as he is creepy, Mayor Niles Pottinger (James Murray), an ambitious man-on-the-make in the imperial power structures of the Earth Republic, has worked hard to bring a semblance of law and order to Defiance, re-building the stasis net (a casualty of last season’s Volge attack), getting the mines, now nationalised off Rafe McCawley (Graham Greene), running more efficiently than ever, even if it comes at the expense of workers’ lives.
But he is not loved, least of all by ex-mayor Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz) who is running the local bar/brothel Need/Want in lieu of missing sister Kenya (Mia Kirshner) with the aid of a rather fearsome Adreno drug habit, and who regards the E-Rep interlopers as an invading army.
Pottinger of course begs to differ, and driven by a mix of crudely-expressed lust – he is a subtle as sledge hammer, and has hidden cameras in Amanda’s bedroom, the better to sleazily spy on her – and realpolitik urgency (he is a babe in the post-apocalyptic Hellbug-infested woods when it comes to Defiance), attempts to woo her to become his chief of staff at every possible opportunity.
Amanda naturally enough rebuffs him at every turn until the death of a recently-deceased miner – more pay yes but crappier conditions, proof that you pay your pound of flesh even in a transfigured alien-esque future – leads his two sons to stage a muted and short-lived protest to E-Rep rule, which sees one eaten by Hellbugs for dinner and stirs up unneeded unrest in the town, leading the good-hearted but pragmatic mayor to step in lest disaster unfold.
Thus are all the pieces in the place for what could well be a gripping and hopefully far more consistent season indeed.
We have seen a little bit more of post-apocalytpic America, been introduced to some more of the power schisms and rivalry re-shaping life on a re-shapped continent, and in one small frontier town and had a host of social issues come percolating nicely to the boil.
If Defiance can keep its eye on telling robustly-constructed stories, fill them with keenly observed and tautly-written characters and dialogue, much of which was on display in “The Opposite of Hallelujah” to my great viewing pleasure, and remember that great science fiction is as much about blistering commentary on present society as it is in taking us into future, often dystopian successors to it, then Defiance has every chance of enjoying a critically-successfully, viewer-embracing second season and becoming the stellar show it’s premise always indicated it could be.
*Here’s the promo for next week’s episode “In My Secret Life” …