Aug 4 2009 12:05pm

Doomed Summer Pilots: Defying Gravity

I came up with so many possible subheads for this review. “Defying Gravity Falls Flat.” “Defying Gravity: Snark Matter.” “Defying Blah-vity.” None of these made it (lucky you), but if you’re looking for the tone of the review—well, this is going to be it.

Defying Gravity,” ABC’s new summer drama, takes soap opera into space with all the fervor of a network that didn’t realize it was going where many have gone before. (Fun fact for the casual TV-watcher: the mission of every starship ever televised was 20% exploring space, 80% longing glances.) However, the genius marketing pitch for Defying Gravity was apparently “Grey’s Anatomy in space,” which is both accurate and—if you can recognize an oncoming train wreck when you see one—terrifying.

The show stays true to the premise, at least. As the mobile space station Antares prepares to launch on a six-year mission, the green and comely crew (inexplicably chosen for the taxing mission above all the more seasoned available astronauts) suffers some major setbacks.

Ajay and mission head Rollie both come down with a case of artery calcification that ground them just hours before launch. Rollie grumbles, has zero-gravity sex with his wife (who’s a biologist on board the Antares), and goes home. Ajay, meanwhile, paints his face with “traditional” warpaint, straps into a suit, and shoots himself out an airlock with his Ganesha statue in tow. Because he’s Indian, see?

Your show, ladies and gents!

Other cast highlights:

1. Our hero, the burnout astronaut who’s been haunted ever since he had to leave two astronauts behind during a Mars mission. It’s a chilling backstory that doesn’t bleed through into Livingston’s lackadaisical performance, even though he’s a better actor than the show requires. Your bemused look speaks for all of us, sir.

2. The feisty biologist (she sasses superior officers and gets away with it! She’s so lovable!). She likes having sex with her husband, until he has to go home. Then she just mopes around, poking rabbit DNA and providing best-friend services to the heroine.

3. Our heroine, the frailest of them all. She slept with our hero once. Then she got an abortion; now she has to stare longingly at Ron Livingston, and she hears a baby’s cries echoing constantly through the space station. Oh, won’t that teach her a thing or two!

4. The physicist. He’s slightly overweight; therefore he’s a porn addict who can’t swim! He also saves the day, on command, after the sexually aggressive German lady demands that he do something. (Nooooo comment.)

Despite having to be careful in case any of these two-dimensional character-shaped cutouts snaps right in half, the plot lumbers forward, throwing out a handy, illustrative flashback any time there’s a risk of suspense or tension.

The show does manage to hit two extended-plot points: the first is to kick Ajay out of the program because of his little interlude. I think this is a little harsh; I mean, I’d like to kick the showrunners off for thinking that Ajay’s Ganesha statue would rest snugly in his open hands in space, but hey, we all have to compromise.

(Also, the station has gravity because of nanofilaments. Also, dark matter. Also, Venus has 90 atmospheres of pressure. Also, in space, your Ganesha statue has Earth gravity, but just your Ganesha statue. It’s a thing.)

The second big plot point is the acknowledgment of some sort of vague, shadowy presence that can calcify your arteries and force you to put that overweight physicist guy on the team for some vague, shadowy reason. This tied with the other big plot point, which was that if you spit into your spacesuit, it will form an impermeable barrier that seals off leaks and is totally unaffected by the sucking, unforgiving void of space.

Emphasis on “sucking.”

In the inevitable comparisons with Virtuality, the crew-in-space pilot that Fox threw away earlier this summer, Defying Gravity comes up short in every respect. Naturally, Defying Gravity is the show that has another episode next week. Have fun with that, show! I’ll be watching (something else)!

Adam Lipkin
1. yendi
I went with "Defying Quality" when I Twittered about it. But yeah, it truly sucks. One thing you failed to mention is the presnece of about twenty "slow motion emotional moments while a crappy product-placed pop song plays." It was like the final five minutes of an episode of House, repeating every five minutes.

I adore Christina Cox (who plays the sassy biologist, and was wonderful as the lead in Blood Ties), but she's wasted here.
Jason Ramboz
2. jramboz
"Mobile space station?" Isn't that a bit of a contradiction? I always pictured space stations as being, um, stationary.
3. DavidA
According to Wikipedia, at least, Venus does indeed have 92 atmospheres of pressure (i.e., 92 times Earth atmospheric pressure).

But yeah, the show pretty much sucked.
Melissa Ann Singer
4. masinger
Yeah, that spitting thing just blew me away. Not to mention the "these are our children/you're killing your children" stuff about the rabbit embryos. Not to mention that I couldn't figure out why they were taking rabbit embryos along in the first place. And why didn't the tether have an automatic rewind of some sort?

It was a very ouchy couple of hours; I winced a lot.

I'm guessing the big secret is that there's an alien on board and that they picked it up on Mars during the mission that went wrong.
Fred Coppersmith
5. FCoppersmith
I thought it was halfway decent -- that half being mostly the acting, mostly Livingston, and the mystery of what's really going on there -- but only halfway. Then again, I also think Virtuality would have been doomed even if Fox had picked it up; it had an interesting premise and aesthetic, but I don't think it (or Defying, for that matter) would have been sustainable beyond a mini-series. I don't think there was a lot to love in either show. There might have been more to like about Virtuality, but I'm at least intrigued by Defying Gravity enough to watch beyond the first episode.
Jennifer Dunbar
6. paticake
I enjoyed it. Yeah, so the science isn't great and it's full of melodrama. It's scifi, it's set in space, and it doesn't use rape as plot device.

That last one? Is why I think Defying Gravity is superior to Virtuality.
Allyn Edgar Hughes
7. allynh
Whoa, this is not "_Grey's Anatomy_ in space".

First, start brushing up on World Religions because that comment about Ajay painting his face with "traditional warpaint" is beyond clueless.

- BTW, Have you ever heard of velcro? The little statue was stuck on to his glove, then on to the front shield, it wasn't just sitting there with it's own gravity. When you can build a ten trillion dollar ship applying little things like stick points on gloves, tools, etc..., is standard.

- You totally missed the fact that an alien called "Beta" is onboard the ship--in Pod Four--and Beta was the one who picked the crew. The whole story is about Beta and why he picked the people. He forced the two guys off at the last minute to have the older Mars crew put onboard. From the actual story as seen so far, there is a high probability that Beta was discovered on Mars which is why the mission commander made the tragic decision to launch leaving two crew behind on Mars. Beta wanted those older guys to go on the mission for reasons yet to be revealed.

- The baby crying is not some snide commentary by the writers about her choice. You missed the fact that abortion was currently illegal and that the guy had a vasectomy after the Mars mission. Beta is clearly capable of physically manipulating the humans, causing calcium build-up in a matter of days, or undoing a vasectomy. That Beta was manipulating the people five years before the flight occurs means that manipulation will escalate as the story progresses. Beta was making the girl hear the baby crying for reasons yet to be revealed. The baby may actually show up at some point as a dream or physically.

- Didn't you notice the shared dreamstates happening between the two characters. That is going to spread to the rest of the crew as time goes on. That's clearly how Beta communicates with humans. Think _Solaris_.

- There is also a high probability that the two crew left on Mars ten years before are not dead or will appear in the crews dreams as time goes on.

- The physicist is studying dark matter, no one said that dark matter was being used onboard. The fact that he does not fit in is an overt sign to the audience that the guy is there because Beta wants him there. He will probably be a key figure as time goes on.

This is not a six year journey to do a Grand Tour of the Solar System; that came through loud and clear. Think the classic Frank Herbert story _Destination Void_, where the purpose of the voyage was to create an isolated environment safely off planet, where dangerous/interesting things can happen without danger to Earth. As in _Destination Void_, you want to have any singularity class experiments done somewhere safely off Earth.
C.D. Thomas
8. cdthomas
So, okay, the *snippiness* in the post above? Indicates to me that DG has a fairly healthy run ahead of it, because it's snagged the He's Just So Dreamy, So You LEAVE HIM ALONE audience.

allynh, it doesn't matter that its technobabble had more plausibility nanofilaments than we thought -- it matters that it wastes those fairly meaty details in the service of a soap opera that privileges sappy and implausible characterization over the thrill and logic of figuring out how humans will deal with first contact issues in space.

And your TWILIGHT-level scorn setting isn't helping matters much, either.

And as for the "Grey's Anatomy in space" phrase, AHEM:

"I sat down in a meeting with Jim Parriott and he said, 'We want to make a "Grey's Anatomy"-type relationship drama and we want to set it in a workplace people haven't seen before,' " Livingston says.


That's the way the series was sold on the recent press tour, and that's what sells it now:
"from the producers of Grey's Anatomy"


They see that as a *positive* selling point.
What does that tell you?
9. TRJ
I actually suspended disbelief well enough to like this show so far. Space is basically backdrop for some raunchy interpersonal drama, just like Grey's Anatomy isn't really about medicine. I took it for what it was worth and so far it is working for me.

I agree with Allyhn, though, about the face paint. I do wonder why AJ has to be SUCH a geeky, socially inept Asian stereotype (and why our paunchy physicist can't even freaking FLOAT), but I don't think it's "warpaint" as much as it is some type of tilak or devotional marking related to a Hindu deity. Still part of the stereotype, but at least it makes better sense!
Melissa Ann Singer
10. masinger
My mother likes it. _And_ she bought the "spit into your suit" explanation.

I'm flabbergasted, as mom is an old-time SF fan.

In a key remark, however, mom commented that she doesn't really think of this as science fiction, more as soap opera.

She's nearly 77, fwiw.
11. draker
I also agree with allynh. cdthomas complains about his snippiness and says the plausible nanofilaments in the plot are irrelevant. Well the snippiness started in the original blog entry; allynh was simply correcting the sloppiness.

If anything is going to kill this show, it's the bad writing. The large plot ideas are compelling, and the acting is excellent -- despite the struggle it must have been to give some shape to those unfortunate 2D characters and the humdrum predictable scripts.

The Gray's Anatomy idea -- that the show is about social interactions in a tense environment -- is a good one. The potentially malevolent "force" and it's subversive involvement in the mission is a good way to keep the sci-fi interest and avoid this being "just" a soap opera. So it's a pity the writers needlessly break the laws of physics, and just toy with their characters like children playing with dolls, instead of letting their imagination breathe life into the characters, allowing them to stand on their own two feet.

I am continuing to watch, letting the little slip ups go by for the sake of the overall story, and admiring the technical excellence of the performance, sets and effects. I just hope that the big reveals don't turn out to be as trite as the day-to-day interactions and minor plot twists have turned out to be.
12. Ken Josenhans
"Defying Gravity" has been growing on me steadily, after I almost gave up on it after the two-hour premiere. I wave away the instant communications between ship and earth, and of course there has to be some sort of fake gravity because a weekly TV show can't afford a steady diet of zero-G effects. I'm sure I'm overlooking something, but I don't recall this sort of near-future, space flight but no interstellar magic engines, on network TV before. Meanwhile, on earth, the abortion politics are fascinating -- and did you notice that private cars have disappeared, as the astronauts keep waiting for buses? (And the Israeli/Palestinian war is still going on?)

Ultimately I'm enjoying the characters and their interactions. Within a pretty broad window, I'm prepared to forgive a lot of technical inaccuracy.

Of course we knew this spaceflight was doomed when we started following it; ABC claims it's just on hiatus, which would mean waiting until they have some other black hole on their schedule which they can fill with the remaining five episodes of the worst rated show on the big-four networks. Ratings stink in Canada, too, so I don't think we're going to get to see the rest of the six-year mission. Anybody up for a novelization to finish the story? :-)
13. rt45
I would have liked to see the show progress but has it did not, here is how would have seen things develope:

Defying gravity

The objects can only project illusions from telepathic probe into a subjects mind. They are in fact alien probes built for maximum efficient use of recourses having no prolusion systems and are seeded at random across solar systems. Send to monitor which if any of your solar planets can create and sustain life. Now they are ready for the next stage of evolution of the only suitable life they have found.

The trigger of this is activity in the probes an evolutionary change in man - the physical changes noted by medical. The objects are simple ovals like a American football. But project the fractal pattern to generate other hallucinations. All to push the development of the select group of humans (found closest to the beta object).

All the things that have been experienced by the humans were and are illusions and use to
push the changes (which are a natural potential). This includes the plans with in plans
and various changes.

Once the process has started and the probes have reunited the illusions fade. The crew realizes they can keep or disregard what has happened to them.

Each saw or was made to experience what was necessary to release there potential.

For example Zoe was not as far from the object in Venus as everyone perceived and was with in range but only just and at some risk. The gamma object used the limited extra distance (and achieve successful collection) by making it seem worse and hopeless driving the crew to the highs needed and being the truth of Zoe and Donnas relationship to fuel the extra effort needed both in site and in the support area.

The actual cause of missing the target zone was just as it seemed wind shear. Also note the object was visible to Jen (the object could not affect her at distance and was therefore visible).

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