On the surface, the premise for Defiance—SyFy’s new “aliens on earth” TV show—has everything to distinguish itself as a science fiction hit. After a period of a long war, alien life forms have settled on Earth; the aliens are forced to integrate into human society after (accidentally) causing the nigh-cataclysmic destruction of most of the planet. The Earth is a shadow of what it once was, a strange place with new technology, mutated creatures, and fragmented societies trying to rebuild. There’s political intrigue, hidden danger, inter-species relationships, and lots of gunfights.
But what makes Defiance stand out is the fact that, like many science fiction shows before it, it’s not really about aliens or technology. At its heart, Defiance is a western, a post-apocalyptic Deadwood that calls to the frontier-lover in us all.
Science Fiction and Westerns
Westerns had their heyday in the early years of cinema and television, coming to the height of their popularity during the 1950s. Icons like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, John Wayne, and later Clint Eastwood embodied much of the “spirit of the west” in their characters. While Rogers and Evans had a comedy show, serials like Bonanza and The Lone Ranger went right to what made the Wild West a place for adventure. When the confines of regular society were stripped away, people had to step out in lawless towns to prove just the kind of people they really were. Morality tales were set against the mesas and dude ranches, ethical dilemmas couched in easy-to-swallow rootin’ tootin’ yarns. They were not without their problems, but the genre of the western carried with it the idea that dangerous places brought out the best—and worst—in people. They told us that in new, undiscovered places, anything was possible.
Alongside the western, then, came science fiction. The two genres had a lot in common, but nothing so poignant as the idea of adventurers coming together in untouched frontiers to discover and test their mettle against dangers untold. Unlike westerns, however, sci-fi shows were able to take those adventures off of planet earth and out into territories never before considered or depicted on screen. Still, that spirit of restless human discovery and curiosity fueled some of the best science fiction shows on television. Gene Roddenberry designed the original Star Trek as a “wagon train to the stars” while latter-day creator Joss Whedon launched a die-hard fandom with his western homage Firefly.
And now, we have Defiance.
The Frontier Town Reimagined
Defiance, built on the ruins of the old world St. Louis, is nothing if not the perfect alien boom town—a haven in the wilderness, a tiny bastion of civilization. New arrivals come in on retrofitted busses just like the old stagecoach. When they disembark they can belly up to the old saloon—or rather the NeedWant Bar—and should they fancy it there are plenty of girls there to give them a good time. Are Kenya’s girls any different from Quark’s Dabo Girls on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine? Or for that matter, Al Swearengen’s girls on Deadwood? It’s a tale almost as old as television, only now it’s being restaged in the post-apocalyptic remains of an American city.
And should anyone cause any trouble, well then they meet the town’s Lawkeeper, the bringer of justice in a complicated and nearly lawless land. This old trope is at the heart of most western stories about little towns trying to hold onto their humanity, and Defiance is no exception. Nolan is the old soldier, looking for a place to lay down his head and new life with his adopted daughter, Irisa. He’s even got the typical romance dilemma, his heart torn between the bad saloon girl Kenya and the sweet, almost schoolmarm mayor Amanda. The fact that they’re sisters just makes the story more spicy, but the trope hasn’t changed that much. In fact, if you look close, the icy squint Nolan doles out goes back to the days of Wayne, Eastwood, or Deadwood’s Sheriff Seth Bullock.
The support cast is also pretty standard. There’s a Hatfields and McCoys rivalry set up in the town between Castithan businessman Datak Tarr and Rafe McCawley, the human mine owner. Both the Tarrs and the McCawleys are examples of two families trying to get one over on one another for business control in the town, and enact the old ritual of marrying two kids off to each other to solve the feud. It’s Shakespeare in the old west… er, post-apocalypse, all fought over control of a mine. It might as well be a gold rush in the California hills. And if Stahma Tarr—played by the stunning and intense Jaime Murray—isn’t a much paler version of Deadwood’s Alma Garret, then I don’t know shtako (look up the lingo: Defiance has created it’s own “frak”).
The fact that Defiance reenacts these old Wild West stories puts it in the long pantheon of science-fiction shows that have done the same thing. But rather than coming off feeling tired, the world building that SyFy invested into Defiance helps to make the show feel fresh. Fans of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 might get a little feeling of nostalgia watching the alien races try to work together with humans on the frontier outpost. It’s those alien races that make the show shine, as the Votan cultures are built to make them interesting to watch.
The show also pulls on the tradition of Deadwood and Firefly for character-driven stories, giving us frontier-dwellers we want to care about and root for. The Castithan characters especially shine as examples of a well-created alien race and the old-world versus new-world struggle in the Tarr family is fantastic to watch. Kenya, the madam with the heart of gold, brings to mind Inara’s struggle as a space Companion, and her interactions with the other characters make Mia Kirshner one of the highlights of the Defiance cast.
Still, for every good choice the show makes, they also trip into the trap of importing westerns wholesale. Not every trope of the old western translates well into twenty-first century television.
The Problematic Parts of Westerns
Defiance, like many shows before it, struggles to escape from the difficult tropes that made westerns unpopular for many years. While the show pulls some great inspiration from the stories of adventure and discovery, it also copies some of the more difficult issues of racism against native cultures that plagued the genre for decades. The show falls back on the old portrayals of Native Americans, often the most cringe-worthy parts of western stories, and recasts them into the Irathient people. These “wild” aliens ride through the wasteland, wearing bits of cast-off human clothing and living “savagely” by the standards of the human beings. There is even an episode in which Irathients are murdered so that their land can be stolen by humans, driving the surviving daughter to come back as a vengeful murderer. The Irathients are represented as both the raiding monsters in the dark, the uncivilized alien at the border ready to kill, as well as the noble savage that brings wisdom from their unknown ways. This is exactly the sort of treatment of native culture that bogged down western films and television for decades and opened it up to its greatest criticism. These portrayals have unfortunately continued to this day in traditional westerns; the portrayal of Tonto in the upcoming Disney film, The Lone Ranger, for example, has drawn critital attention.
Irisa, Nolan’s adopted daughter, is the embodiment of this difficult representation. She is portrayed as the savage child, rescued from a cruel religious ritual of her people by the human soldier Nolan. He then takes pity on the girl and raises her as his own, trying to make her fit into human culture while neglecting her Irathient heritage. When Irisa begins to display psychic visions, considered a gift from her people’s goddess, she reconnects with the local Spirit Riders in order to explore where she truly belongs. The portrayal of Irisa as the “civilized savage” is a classic trope for the lawman’s sidekick (see: Tonto), made more complicated by the fact that she’s Nolan’s adopted child.
Most modern westerns, like Deadwood and even Django Unchained dodged the fraught topic of native representation, and their sci-fi genre-bending brethren like Firefly did the same thing. Defiance seemingly didn’t get the memo, however, and dances a fine line sometimes between paying tribute to a difficult topic and playing into cultural stereotypes.
And that, in the end, is the best way to describe Defiance. It’s a show that takes its roots from the traditional western-inspired sci-fi stories and, for better or worse, stays right within the same confines. It’s in the places that it deviates—in its fun character portrayals and world building—that the show really shines and makes the frontier stories all the brighter. Looking ahead, one hopes the show will remember that the gift of science-fiction is the ability to branch out and reach for stories outside the box—to boldly go, as it were. Otherwise, we might as well just go watch Deadwood.
Shoshana Kessock is a comics fan, photographer, game developer, LARPer and all around geek girl. She’s the creator of Phoenix Outlaw Productions and ReImaginedReality.com.