The Syfy original series Defiance just wrapped its first season last week, and I have… opinions.
Defiance takes place in 2046 on the former site of St Louis. In 2013, the Votanis Collective, comprised of several alien species, came to Earth in search of a new home after their own star system collapsed. During the “Pale Wars” that followed, a terraforming accident transformed the Earth into a strange new landscape. After the war, several Votan species integrated into human society while others remained in the badlands.
The show is a pretty straightforward interpretation of science fiction in a western style, and I was initially intrigued by the idea that Earth itself is recast as the unknown frontier. Shoshana Kessock has already discussed Defiance’s somewhat problematic adherence to western tropes here on Tor.com, but I think the show suffers most from its haphazard approach to world-building and storytelling.
Defiance and its corresponding MMORPG create a transmedia or multiplatform narrative, meaning they both contribute to the fictional universe through synchronized storytelling. This can actually be pretty cool, like when a tertiary character in the show escapes the authorities and then appears as an NPC in the video game, opening new missions for players. But most of the time it leaves the burden of establishing the show’s lengthy backstory within the game world.
The strange result is that the narrative structure of the show—both on an episodic and season-wide scale—is constantly interrupted by half-assed infodumps in order to get the non-gaming audience up to speed. An early mission in the game features Nolan and Irisa (the show’s central protagonists) pulling a heist for a crime-boss and then skipping town with the loot before eventually (in the show’s pilot) settling in Defiance. The show itself communicates practically none of this until episode six, when another character hastily explains why he’s dragging them in for a bounty. After a tidy resolution (the bounty hunter lets them go because he respects Nolan’s parental concern for Irisa), that plot thread is never directly mentioned again.
The two-part pilot introduces us to a potentially vast frontier, complete with dangers in the form of Beyond Thunderdome-style nomadic raiders, militaristic mecha-warriors, falling debris from decaying spaceships, and giant bear/spider hybrids (or wolf/spiders, maybe?). But once Nolan and Irisa settle in, we rarely leave the immediate vicinity of Defiance, so it’s impossible to get a handle on the scope of the world or its various inhabitants.
We know that St Louis was largely destroyed and rebuilt as Defiance, which is established as a politically unaffiliated border town. The badlands extend westward, but what else exists in this new world? The show only mentions three other locations: the Earth Republic capital in New York, the Votanis Collective HQ somewhere in Brazil, and a prison in Las Vegas. But what are these places like? Based on the characters from New York, the city remains more “civilized” than the border towns, but Brazil and Las Vegas (and the rest of the world) are a complete mystery.
There are six alien species roaming around this future Earth, but only three of them are afforded any real screen time. The Castithans, Irathients, and Indogenes get fairly detailed (if essentialist) cultural descriptions, but they’re almost always treated separately. The Volge comprise the mechanical armies roving the badlands, but the Sensoth and Liberata are left out the show’s narrative almost entirely. The writers try to get us to care about one of the background players (a Liberata bartender) by having a main character call him by name about five minutes before he’s found murdered. Well, maybe “try” is a strong word.
Ideally, the game and the show should refer to each other and enhance the experience for a diligent audience while still being essentially “complete” in their own right. Unfortunately, Defiance (the show, at least) is devoid of any nuance or subtlety on its own, and the writers clearly get tripped up trying to hastily explain background information you may or may not already have from playing the game.
The series tries to focus on a more intimate, character-based drama than the game would be capable of, but generally fails because we rarely have enough information about the world to fully understand the characters’ personalities or motivations. Unless the show’s writers find better ways integrate the expansive world from the game, there doesn't seem to be a reason to come back for season two.
Sarah Tolf is the production assistant for Tor.com. She devotes far too much time to television shows that infuriate her. You can follow her occasional rants on Twitter.