Wed
Jun 19 2013 12:00pm

Defiance: For Better Or Worse, A SyFy Western

Defiance cast

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.

Law Men: Defiance's Nolan and Deadwood's Bullock

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.

Deadwoond's Alma and Defiance's StahmaThe 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.

Defiance's Kenya and Firefly's InaraThe 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

Irathient Spirit Riders

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.

IrisaIrisa, 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.

16 comments
Jon Moss
1. JonMoss
You are much kinder than I was. I gave up on watching Defiance after the third episode. I love westerns, but I saw more of a 'police procedural' than a good western being protrayed.

I completely agree with your final statement: "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."

Exploration ... 'to boldy go' ... is where science fiction shines best and brightest.
Sky Thibedeau
2. SkylarkThibedeau
I've watched six episodes now and so far it's just OK. The best description would be "'Terra Nova' with Aliens instead of Dinosaurs". The show is actually a mashup of several shows. Has the Space Cowboy bit from 'Firefly'. Has the new Sheriff and daughter thread from 'Eureka'. Has a lot of the cars and jeeps from 'Terra Nova' and 'Road Warrior'. The diverse aliens trying to live together ala 'Babylon 5' and the plots and mysteries of 'Lost'.

The first episode introduced the Sheriff and his Alien adopted daughter. They are Ark Hunters. They scavenge artifacts and loot from the debris of the alien Ark ships which exploded when the 5 extraterrestial races came to Earth.

They are bushwhacked by Irathi scavengers who look like Steampunk Conventioneers but act like Sioux from 'Dances with Wolves as we get to know them. Their car is stolen as is their loot save for one piece they will use as a Dues ex Maschina later. The girl is wounded as they get away. They are then attacked by monsters and are rescued by hunters from Defiance.

There are two families who run Defiance ala 'Yojimbo' and a 'Fistful of Dollars' or 'Romeo and Juliet'. There is a murder of one family's son that nearly ignites a fued. The Sheriff of Defiance is killed and the Ark Hunter takes his place.

So far the whole series revolves around someone using the fued between these two families to take over the town for some unknown purpose. The new Sherriff and his Irathi daughter and friends have so far managed to keep the conspirators at bay and there is a love triangle for him with the Mayor and her sister, the Madame at the local bordello (this aint exactly family fare and the game has R rated language. In the last couple of episodes they have shown all kinds of romps in the hay).

Its an ok show like Warehouse 13 or Eureka. Its not as good as 'Battlestar Galactica (2003)' or 'Merlin' nor as bad as "Flash Gordon". I'll watch it but I didn't find it to be good DVR material.

It has a game attached to it from trion worlds. You are an Ark Hunter in the ruins of San Francisco. Its a fast paced fps. Graphics are pretty good and its got more places to explore than SYFY's BSG game. you find the Sheriff Nolan and his Alien daughter have a bounty on their heads where you are.

There is a main boss mission when you reach San Francisco. You're teamed with one of Lawkeeper Nolan's friends who is trying to take the main villain down before he unleases a terra forming device on the bay area. If you beat him you get some information on the town in the Midwest

Still its mostly a shoot and loot, if you're looking for more cerebral pastimes 'Defiance' the game is not it.
S Cooper
3. SPC
I keep watching, waiting for it to deliver on its promise . . . they've set up some wonderful characters (although I am finding Irisa's visions less than interesting), I just think they haven't hit their stride yet.
Steven Lyle Jordan
4. Steven Lyle Jordan
Actually, I'd say the world-building is Defiance's weakest feature... because the world they're building would only make sense in the video game to which it is tied (or to a SYFY channel that gets off on cheap SFX, BearAnchulas, WolfSpiders and raining shrapnel).

Given the badly-rendered premise, they'd be better off concentrating on the characters. But, as you say, they're not doing a good job of it: Every character you mentioned is a pale, 2-D, badly-written counterpart to their dopplegangers in Deadwood, Firefly and EveryWesternEverMade. All in all, I'd rather watch Blazing Saddles.
David Lev
5. davidlev
I actually quite like "Defiance", but I have a problem regarding the Irathiants as stand ins for Native Americans that you didn't mention, that being that the show is trying to portray them as being indigenous of a place they're definitionally not indigenous to. I can't really put a finger on why that seems wrong to me, but I can't shake the fact that it bugs me. Similarly, having a Native (well, First Nations, as Graham Greene is Canadian) man be the most anti-alien main human character on the show is a choice that feels like one with perhaps more meaning than the creators meant to imbue, although in this case I sort of liked it.
Occasionally the show seems to shift the Irathiants into being representatives of unassimilated immigrants (in a way similar to how Castithians could be seen as representing immigrants that assimilated faster into society), with their strange customs, human and alien prejudice against them, and their reputation as being "dirty"--as the most recent episode delved into with them being carriers for a disease they themselves don't get sick from. I think that this works a little better, although having people be ciphers for morals is always a dangerous tactic to use when writing a show
Chris Meadows
6. Robotech_Master
No discussion whatsoever in the article itself about the show being tied into an ongoing MMO, not even so much as a mention? C'mon, Tor, this is something no other TV show has tried yet. I haven't either watched the show or played the game, but if the synergy works it has the potential to be an interesting new twist on how stories are told, and I'd have thought it would at least merit calling out instead of treating it as just another TV show. Especially when the reviewer is a game developer herself.
hascow
7. hascow
The problem that I have with Defiance is that it clearly has potential, but the writers aren't taking risks. It's a procedural, episodic show, and I think that's the problem. There's an overarching plot, but it seems to be about 5 minutes an episode, if that. There's nothing wrong with episodic in the right context(see Warehouse 13 and Eureka), but they seem to be trying to be more than that, and it's not working for me.

I don't care enough about the characters, because they're not going anywhere. Irisa keeps doing absurd things like kicking Rafe McAuley off a roof or kidnapping a guy, and then there's no consequences for her after that, because she ends up being right every time. That's absolutely ridiculous

I can see something good hiding behind this show, but it's not there right now. I'm giving it until the end of the season, because maybe it will improve over the second half of the season like Alphas did. However, if it doesn't, I think I'm done with it, which disappoints me, because I thought this was going to be really interesting. It just doesn't take enough risks, which is the big problem with it right now.
hascow
8. Kasiki
Defiance is a pale imitation of firefly, but given the chance to grow that Firefly never got. Part of that might be the game tie in, but really weaker scripts, acting, and direction from firefly. It has left more oportunities for stories, and so can improve given that, but I tried to like Defiance initially but have found it only to be something i leave on if nothing else is on TV.
hascow
9. Kenneth G
Defiance, definitly holds the O'Bannon pedagree, and just like with Farscape before. It seems to be starting out very pedestrian, but with an underlying metaplot that's slowy building momentum. Just like it's familial predcessor, I think we'll see this show start evolving very soon.
Matthew B
10. MatthewB
It's just not very good or compelling. I watch it, but always with my laptop out, giving most of my attention to something else - a game or just reading news.

The acting is fine, the sets and costumes are fine, the effects are fine - all fine - not great. The weak link is definitely the writing and without something amazing in one of those other areas, it's not going to keep my divided attention for much longer.

As for the game...meh. I haven't heard much about it pro or con and nothing i've seen on the show has made me want to try it. At any rate, the show still has to stand on its own, and right now it's not.
hascow
11. Eyeless621
I want to like this show, but I'm not there yet. I still watch each episode because I think it should be good. A couple things that bother me are the doctor (Votan race?). The mask the actress wears seams to interfere with how her mouth moves, so its like she has a hard time talking. And 90% of her lines are annoying in an attempt to be funny/amusing. Thats a small part of the show though, so I can get over that. They call the bar in town the NeedWant... I passionately hate that name, but again it's a small thing.

And the whole Native American parallels just make the show feel really weird to me. I'm not sure why they decided to portray any of the alien races that way. I get that it's a western type sci-fi show, but I don't know... it feels forced and not authentic or something.

I guess it's just all the small things that pile up and keep me from completely liking it. At this point I just want a summary of the overall plot for the show (kinda like what Serenity is to Firefly).
Shoshana Kessock
12. ShoshanaK
6. Robotech_Master
I chose to keep away from talking about the video game component of the Defiance world as it isn't important to the discussion about the wild west content. Certainly there's a lot to talk about when it comes to the tie-in aspect, but that's hardly relevant to the article at hand.
John Thro
14. JRThro
I've only watched the pilot, but I have the rest of Season 1 DVR'ed. Clearly I didn't find the pilot episode compelling enough to get me to really want to watch the rest of the season.

I'm from the suburbs of St. Louis, and I find it really hard to believe that the Gateway Arch survived so well when little or nothing else in the city did.

@ShoshanaK, just for clarification, a dude ranch is "a ranch used as a holiday resort offering activities such as riding and camping" (from thefreedictionary.com), not an actual working ranch. I think if you just removed the word "dude", you'd be fine.
hascow
15. George Starr
After Farscape, Sg1 and Stargate Atlantis, Defiance is crap.
You guys can do better than this.
Joann Buchanan
16. JoannHBuchanan
I agree that the writers aren't taking enough risks. I keep waiting for that OMG moment like we had so many times on Battle Star. I feel as though they started to have that with the last two episodes of the season, but am a little disappointed that it didn't start off like that. I also think the whole "new world" thing is over done. I mean really, think about it. We are the inhabitants of this planet and it seems as though no one takes the humans serious. I think there is great potential for this series, but only IF the writers take it to a whole other level. Let the characters shine and stop worrying about the whole "OLD WEST" feel of the show. I'm sorry, but we don't live in Oppieville anymore.
hascow
17. Johnny G
The first half of season 1 was all about fairly generic plots and a lot of world building. The show really picked up in the last half of the season, and now into season 2. The show is well worth the slog through the first few episodes.

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