If the opening 10 minutes of Defiance’s season-one premiere episode feel like the prologue to a big-budget science-fiction video game, that’s because they’re essentially just that. Syfy’s new series is being billed as unprecedented, a “highly-anticipated transmedia event” that incorporates a massively multiplayer, online third-person shooter into its gimmicky dual-media storytelling. The show takes place in Defiance, Missouri (formerly St. Louis, where, somehow, the famed archway is still standing tall after a destructive stellar collision), while its digitized playable counterpart is set primarily in the San Francisco Bay area during the same time period. This twofold, backstory-laden plot structure hampers the cohesiveness of Defiance’s overarching futuristic chronicle, which comes off as an inchoate fusion of Battlestar Galactica and Mad Max.
The main storyline picks up 16 years after a universal armistice following an intergalactic conflict that led to the decimation of a large portion of the galaxy. Several alien species are scattered far and wide, each still harboring some sort of resentment toward one another after the ruinous wars that ripped the star system apart. From the invasive Votans, who sparked a cataclysmic terraforming debacle, to the aristocratic Castithans and the Wookie-meets-orangutan-like Sensoth, every foreign breed appears hackneyed and generally expressionless. Amid this medley of extraterrestrial odds and ends is ex-military man Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler) and his adopted daughter, Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas), a member of the half-mutant Irathients who the former marine found orphaned after the initial hostilities. The frequently strapped-for-cash Nolan and Irisa intend to head to Antarctica, which they believe to be a safe haven of sorts from the post-enmity turmoil, but their plans are promptly derailed while searching for remnants of a working Ark mechanism, and the pair finds themselves brought into Defiance by its natives, eventually forming relationships with the town’s various inhabitants.
Surprisingly talky given its uneconomical use of CGI, Defiance is akin to watching the Cantina scenes from Star Wars indolently re-scripted and reenacted by amateurs. The dialogue is suffused with genre clichés, and the emotionless performances don’t do much to aid in softening the blow. Early on, Nolan and Irisa are seen attempting to bond, singing Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash’s “Jackson” in a facepalmingly awkward duet that quickly outstays its welcome. The listless neighborhood politics of Defiance are placed front and center almost immediately, hardly giving the show’s rebuilt dystopian setting a chance to flourish. Newly elected mayor Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz) gives a boilerplate acceptance speech to a crowd of restless citizens, and then later reveals her true colors to Nolan, who soon becomes Defiance’s leading lawman, guaranteeing that his anticipated short stay in the community will be henceforth extended. There’s also an excessive dose of soap-operatic shenanigans linking the wealthy Tarr family (Castithans) with the blue-collar McCawleys (humans), whose interracial children so desperately want to marry each other, but the love is unrequited in typical Hatfield/McCoy fashion.
Staying awake during all this uninteresting exposition is a herculean enterprise, and viewers are likely to only be jarred from their semi-conscious state by Defiance’s eye-popping battle sequences, which almost warrant a curiosity-satiating glimpse, at least of the first installment. The visionary environments are without blemish, and the sound design is on the level of some of Hollywood’s heavy-hitters. Yet the stodgy inaction between each explosive set piece is so often bereft of substance that to endure Defiance is to lamentably scour its orbit for any exiguous points of engrossment.