June 19 marks the return of Defiance, the Syfy drama about a future Earth in which humans and various races of alien must cohabitate. In spite of being a moderate ratings success in its first season, Defiance has failed to garner the kind of critical attention it deserves. By which I mean: The people I love who love sci-fi still aren’t watching this show, and it makes me sad. It’s especially heartbreaking to see the Warehouse 13 fandom donning black armbands in preparation for the last episode and wanting to shout “Guys! There’s a place for you! And HG Wells is there and everything!” Since you have just enough time to catch up on season one, I’m here to tell you why Defiance is the new face of smart sci-fi. Just imagine I’ve got you cornered in a bar and am in that specific stage of drunk where you just want to explain how great something is.
Before it ever premiered, Defiance was heralded as the heir apparent to Battlestar Galactica: that is, a sci-fi show self-consciously tackling issues of society, psychology, and even (occasionally to its detriment) spirituality. The comparison was derived chiefly from the association of some BSG vets, as well as Kevin Murphy, who was briefly the showrunner of the short-lived and dearly missed Caprica. You can also see Caprica’s obsession with the blending of real and digital lives in Defiance’s accompanying online game, from which one fan-made character is being incorporated into the actual show. I haven’t played so I can’t really comment as to its quality, but it definitely deserves a shoutout for committing to that level of fan involvement. In terms of talent, the cast boasts such geek favorites as Julie Benz and Jaime Murray (whose universal appeal should have made this show a smash hit).
After robust premiere ratings, however, Defiance’s numbers slid for most of the latter half of the season, with many commenters ridiculing its dreadful CGI. And it’s true, this little space-Western is neither as slick nor as self-serious as its predecessors. But what critics failed to notice, after the early BSG comparisons, was that Defiance actually delivered on its promise. It consistently subverts expectations, has the guts to actually answer its own tough questions about the nature of society and humanity, and (far from incidentally) boasts a lineup of female and queer characters that would put the Colonial Fleet to shame.
Amanda Rosewater (Benz) is the mayor of Defiance (on the site of the former St. Louis) and practically begs for a comparison to Laura Roslin. Since Madam President was one of the greatest TV characters of all time, Rosewater could be a carbon copy and that would be fine with me. But while Laura always had faith in her mystic visions for humanity’s future, Amanda has to slog through the day to day with a much more relatable uncertainty. Plus also she is Julie Benz, so she’s got that scratchy voice working for her.
Her ally/foil is Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler), whose hard-drinking, scruffy charm has invited a lot of Mal Reynolds comparisons. But Nolan is deepened by a vein of guilt and self-doubt. One of the first season’s most powerful moments comes when his adopted alien daughter, Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas), screams at him for making her fear and hate her own alien-ness. Anyone mistaking Nolan for a stock Western sheriff should watch how hard he works to confront his own prejudices for the sake of his daughter and his town.
Opposed to these characters—yet failing to fit in any category so conventional as “villain”—is Stahma Tarr (Murray). A member of the intensely class-oriented Castithan race, Stahma combines Lady Macbeth’s cunning machinations with a very personal journey of freedom as she learns to embrace some of the charms of human society. One of the charms she embraces is the town Madam (Mia Kirshner) in a storyline that made for some of the season’s best intrigue.
While this foray into cross-species lesbianism is taboo in Stahma’s case, the show as a whole is refreshingly nonchalant in portraying a variety of sexualities. A high-ranking female official has a ménage with her two husbands. A hulking cyborg is deeply in love with his boyfriend. And it was recently revealed that Doc Yewll (Trenna Keating)—member of the coolest-looking of the show’s alien races—is about to interact with her ex-wife. This stacks up against BSG’s queer quota of Helena Cain, Gina, and poor old Gaeta (would that he had died before betraying the fleet!). Of course, lesbians will always give Starbuck honorary entrance into the clubhouse, but sadly she is queer only in our hearts.
Defiance is not without its missteps. The different alien races can be painfully reductive in their qualities. The ape-like, subservient Sensoth race could disappear entirely from season 2 and you wouldn’t hear a peep out of me. And, like BSG, the show is on shaky footing when it incorporates the various religions at play on this new Earth. The presence/absence of the god Irzu is a tricky card the writers love to play. But, whereas BSG wrapped up its spiritual storylines with a shrug and a “who can say, really?,” Defiance’s ambiguity feels both more deliberate and fully thought-out. Fingers crossed no one dies and comes back as an angel and totally wrecks her awesome butch haircut.
Both Battlestar Galactica and Defiance start from the premise that the end is not the end. The decimation of the 12 Colonies and the alien invasion of Earth, while catastrophic, are merely part of the cycle of history. And for those lucky or unlucky enough to inhabit these brave new worlds, they offer a chance to redefine the definition of humanity (frequently to expand it beyond what is strictly “human”). BSG at its greatest and weightiest was never about humans versus cylons, but about military versus state, science versus religion, and loyalties at war with one another within a human (or Cylon) heart. Defiance tackles the same questions, but in a time of (fragile) peace. So bring your high expectations. It will rise to meet them.