Back in January, Syfy released a trailer for its sprawling futuristic drama Defiance, which paired space-western visuals with British singer-songwriter Jamie N. Commons’ bluesy country-rock tune “The Preacher.” It seemed calculated to evoke the memory of Joss Whedon’s beloved 2002 space-western series Firefly, chronicling the adventures of Captain Mal Reynolds and the crew of his wandering transport ship Serenity. Soon the buzz went ’round: Is Defiance the new Firefly?
The short answer is no, it is not. But in some ways, the April 15 premiere did recall Firefly – and Farscape (whose creator, Rockne S. O’Bannon, is one of the executive producers and writers) and, among other things, Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (fellow exec producers/writers Kevin Murphy and Michael Taylor have history with those shows). It’s Earth, the final frontier – set in a town called Defiance (formerly St. Louis) in 2046, where every aspect of life has been transformed 33 years after the arrival of alien refugees the Votans, seven races who fled their distant dying star system thousands of years ago in ships known as Arks. Most of the races are humanoid, but each has different looks and customs.
Yet for all of its details, Defiance feels curiously generic. Its most unique feature is that it ties into the MMORPG shooter of the same name from Trion Worlds (Rift), which Syfy touts as the first time a show and a game have existed simultaneously in the same universe and have an impact on each other. Which is one giant leap for marketing kind, I guess, but unlikely to inspire the same kind of fan passion that Firefly did. So here are five ways Defiance brings back memories of Firefly – and four things it should do to actually be more like Firefly. (Minor spoilers for the Defiance pilot.)
5 Ways Defiance Brings Back Memories of Firefly
1. A Frontier World
The planet-wide Pale Wars, along with Votan terraforming machines and Arkfalls (intermittent crashes of the mysteriously demolished Arks), have made Earth a rugged place, full of menacing creatures and other dangers outside small pockets of relative safety like Defiance, where grizzled warrior-turned-scavenger Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler) and his adopted alien daughter Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas) find themselves after a run-in with alien steampunk biker gang the Spirit Riders. A few structures remain from the old days, including the battered Gateway Arch, and Defiance has advanced alien-tech medical facilities. But mostly the town is a makeshift place built of shipping containers and salvaged bits, where chickens cluck in the dusty streets and the jail has old-fashioned metal-barred cells.
There are hints that more civilized areas exist – and Antarctica, now a legendary beach paradise, is Nolan’s dream destination. Shades of the Firefly universe, where civilization is concentrated on the inner planets of the star system humans colonized 500 years after leaving Earth, while the outer planets Serenity usually sticks to are mostly dusty, rough-and-tumble frontier towns.
2. The Former War Hero
Before becoming captain of Serenity, Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) fought with the Browncoats, the Independent troops who battled against centralized control of all the colonized worlds by the Alliance. Before accidentally becoming Lawkeeper of Defiance, Joshua Nolan was a lieutenant in the Earth Military Coalition, fighting in the human-Votan wars. He became part of a legendary group known as the Defiant Few, apparently consisting of those inspiring folks who were present at the historic Battle of Defiance (see next item).
3. What’s in a Name
The name of Mal’s ship Serenity comes from the Battle of Serenity Valley, the Browncoats’ final stand in the war against the Alliance. Mal fought on the losing side, but, as he puts it, not necessarily the wrong side. Naming the ship Serenity makes it a talisman of sorts, a reminder that freedom’s worth fighting for even if the odds are overwhelming.
Likewise, the name of the town Defiance comes from the Battle of Defiance, which Mayor Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz) reminds her people was a pivotal point in the Pale Wars 15 years earlier, when armies on both sides defied their commanders and banded together to save endangered civilians. To the town’s residents, Defiance is both a symbol of those ideals and a place to live by them.
4. The Hooker with a Heart of Gold
While searching for a job, Nolan finds instant sparkage with Kenya (Mia Kirshner), owner of the Need/Want, Defiance’s go-to bar/brothel/gambling parlor. She’s tough, smart, persuasive and a well regarded member of the community. Kenya may not be as highly revered as Firefly’s Inara (Morena Baccarin), the high-class courtesan known as a Companion, who travels with the Serenity crew and confers an air of respectability on the vessel with her mere presence. But, like Inara, Kenya is a kind-hearted soul who genuinely cares for people and goes the extra mile to help out. While Mal and Inara shared an unrequited attraction, however, Kenya and Nolan dive into bed about 5.2 seconds after he comes up with her fee. She enjoys him so much, she almost feels bad about charging him. Almost.
5. Wiggins-Inducing Bad Guys
Firefly has the Reavers, cannibalistic self-maimed human savages that prey on the outer reaches of the star system with such brutality that the mere sight of a Reaver ship inspires terror. Because they stick to the edges of the system, people from the more insulated worlds think they’re a myth.
Defiance has the Volge, a warlike race so apparently unredeemable that the other Votans planned to leave them behind when they began their odyssey to Earth. The Volge are massive and wear frightening armor, and seem vaguely reptilian underneath it. Unfortunately for the Votans, Earth and Defiance, someone smuggled some Volge aboard the Arks, and they reemerged during the Pale Wars. Surprise!
4 Ways Defiance Should Actually Be Like Firefly
1. Mash Up the Cultures More
Firefly doesn’t even have aliens, yet the show does a better job of making us feel like we’re in a completely different world than Defiance does. Granted, Firefly was set 500 years in the future, so its fusion of American and Chinese culture had a lot more time to percolate than the mere 33 years between the appearance of the Votans and Nolan’s arrival in Defiance.
Still, for a bustling postapocalyptic melting pot, the town feels both too segregated and too “human.” The creators have given us these widely different races, yet the music sounds like techno, the street food looks like kebabs and dogs make great pets for anyone. Even when a girl apologetically asks her alien boyfriend not to mock her for dancing “like a human,” he then leads her in a dance that isn’t much different from Earth goth dancing. If we’re going to mix it up with seven alien races, let’s see some more actually alien stuff swirled in.
2. Expand the Vocabulary
What’s a futuristic culture without an all-purpose made-up swear word? It lends authenticity without running afoul of the censors. Battlestar had frak, Farscape had frell and Defiance has shtako, which appears to mean “shit.” That’s fine, but the show would do better to take a page from Whedon’s book and go deeper with the lingo.
On Firefly, Mandarin Chinese was a common second language, and everyday chatter was appealingly laced with various Chinese phrases as well as totally made-up slang words like “shiny,” aka “groovy” or “bitchen.” Defiance could give us a little more cross-pollination than the commonly used shtako and the one instance of an alien using human slang, when the Indogene town doctor (pictured) grumbles “frickin’ deadbeats” after letting Nolan and Irisa leave without paying. Again, it’s a shorter timeframe for change, but language is one of the most fluid things about a culture, and Defiance could do a better job of letting that reflect how the people of this crazy-quilt new world share and borrow from each other.
3. Introduce an Underdog
One running joke in Firefly is that nobody in the crew has much power in the world – except Inara. But, although Defiance’s main characters are all dealing with having been plunged into circumstances beyond their control, most have a good measure of power in the community: Madam Kenya, Mayor Amanda, human mine-owner Rafe McCawley (Graham Greene), Castithan power couple Datak and Stahma Tarr (Tony Curran and Jaime Murray, pictured) and former mayor Nicky Riordon (Fionnula Flanagan).
This relatively level playing field is set for a variety of future struggles among people with stakes in the action, but the politics of Defiance would feel deeper if the show took a cue from Whedon and gave us at least some main characters whose struggles include having to deal with the fallout from those power plays.
4. Give Us a True Lovable Rogue
Despite its outlaw trappings, Defiance lacks an actual lovable rogue. Nolan has his roguish qualities, but he’s more like Farscape’s John Crichton – a good guy in a weird situation – than Firefly’s unapologetic rascal Mal. The respectable folk look at him askance at first, but only because he’s a scavenger. When they find out he’s one of the Defiant Few, it confers on him a sense of respect that hardly anyone has for Mal, who gets no props for being on the wrong side of the war.
Irisa comes close to lovable rogue status, with her Han Solo-esque insistence on looking out for No. 1, but her journal-keeping and voiceover musings make her too introspective to comfortably fill that role. What this town needs is a guy or girl who lives outside the law and does things their own way – but is savvy enough to pitch in when needed. For a price.
What do you think of Defiance so far? Is it a Firefly rip-off? Is it better than that? Sound off below!