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Defiance: Season One

Universal // Unrated // October 15, 2013
List Price: $69.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted October 17, 2013 | E-mail the Author
The Season:

Defiance is, in concept, one half of a contemporary experiment in the realm of transmedia entertainment sparked by the Syfy Channel and Trion Worlds, where a massively multiplayer online (MMO) videogame simultaneously coexists with a television program. Assuming both side of the coin share similarly high qualities, it's a compelling prospect in the sci-fi genre: playing the game could expand the lore and atmosphere present in the weekly series, while the info learned in the television narrative could serve as the game's linear storytelling foundation. While the game's quality itself met a lukewarm (albeit relatively sizable) response from the players for a variety of reasons, the producers behind Battlestar Galactica and Farscape worked diligently to make this series strong enough so that, essentially, it could be viewed as a standalone production and potentially fill the void left by its predecessors' absences. Defiance isn't there quite yet, its first season lagging in certain areas and compelling in others, but it certainly has the potential to do so.

The show's eponymous name refers to the title given to St. Louis in the year 2046, after Earth was violently terraformed and its topography, vegetation, and species forever changed due to accidents of technology, occurring during a strained battle amid the Pale Wars between humans and aliens, the Votans. Now, the world outside of the safety of towns has been transformed into hostile "badlands" full of marauders and beastly creatures, while one of the most profitable ventures comes in gleaning crash sites for different forms of alien energy stores known as "arktech". Defiance first focuses on two of these Ark Hunters: Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler, True Blood, an ex-marine with exceptional training in alien warfare, and Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas, MirrorMask, a tribal warrior belonging to the Irathient race of aliens. After one of their more profitable vessel-raiding excursions goes south, they're brought to the safety of the city's electronically-confined walls -- both to patch them up and for interim mayor, Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz, Dexter), to check into their stories.

After the massive environmental shift and formation of the Earth Republic interspecies government, cities like Defiance have been left in a state that combines scattered bits of advanced technology, especially in medical science and energy usage, and the ramshackle, resourceful way of doing things during early-American frontier life. Mayor Rosewater butts heads with rivaling bigwig entrepreneurs in power struggles over how to handle the town (including the owner of a mining operation and a snide, powerful overlord), while their lawkeepers patrol the streets where murder and other illegal activities happen far more frequently than during more civilized times. The key difference? Several different alien species -- chief being the white-skinned aristocrats of the Castithans, the tanned and broad-headed Irathients, and the cybernetically-enhanced Indogenes -- also populate the city in a shaky alliance, creating a collective of vastly different cultures and attitudes that often come into conflict. When they all need to unwind, they venture over to the Needwant saloon/brothel for some recreation, and when they get banged up, they've got a brilliant physician, the sardonic Indogene Doc Yewell (Trenna Keating), there to patch 'em up.

Against a post-apocalyptic setting full of foreign vegetation and hostile monsters, Defiance exhibits shades of Western drama that mix with science-fiction involving the species and tech that thrive in the ruins of St. Louis. Underneath what remains of the Gateway Arch with energy fences walling in the citizens, the show relishes the opportunity to do its world-building in the first couple of episodes; whether it's to compliment the coexistent game really doesn't matter, since the town's politics, economy, and law enforcement take shape as an engaging setting on its own. Harsh but appealing (and occasionally beautiful) cinematography follows Nolan and Irisa as they navigate through the derelict town as its unlikely new pair of peacekeepers (that happens similarly to the way it does in Cinemax's Banshee), while the music styling of BSG's Bear McCreary brings an earthy, whimsical essence to the table. Through this, the show reveals the differences between the alien species -- the pride of the Castithans, the brilliance of the Indogenes, the tribal essence of the Irathients -- about as gradually as Nolan and Irisa adapt to them, hallmarked by alluring makeup work and erratic CG that's at its best when focused on environment. Defiance is an interesting place, cradling a narrative that operates as a clever genre melting pot.

The town needs to be intriguing, because, by design, there's not much of an overarching plot powering the events within it. Instead of an encompassing storyline that progresses by episode, a lot of underlying plot threads intersect with recurring conflicts that persist in Defiance: the tension between mine-owner Rafe McCawley (Graham Greene, Dances With Wolves) and a powerful Castithan entrepreneur, Datak Tarr (Tony Curran, Underworld: Evolution), escalating as their younger children get lost in romance; the relationships that starts and finish in and around the NeedWant; and the transition of mayoral reign from the mysterious, ailing Nicolette Riordon (Fionnula Flanagan, LOST) to Amanda Rosewater, along with the approach of an election. Even considering and appreciating this smaller-scale expansion of mythology, it's hard to ignore the air of staleness surrounding the stories, from romances kept hidden or resisted to the town's reaction to crises (disease, weather, etc.) and info revealed about the city's denizens; it's easy to find these exact same episode ideas in similar series. To its benefit, the town -- the enveloping atmosphere of Defiance -- really does offer a unique setting for these happenings to go down, informed by how different species with different codes of behavior react to backstabbing and cooperation.

Making up for a lack of inventiveness with the plotting, Defiance digs into the characters populating the town and how they network with one another, driven by self-aware writing not unlike a solemn fusion of Joss Whedon's work and Farscape. While it's easy to appreciate Nolan as an ex-Marine with wartime skeletons in his closet, and Grant Bowler's performance is effortlessly charming and severe where needed, it's his traveling companion, his "daughter" Irisa, that somehow generates the most intrigue between the two. Played with intensity through layers of makeup by an energetic and raw Stephanie Leonidas, she becomes a unique pair of eyes and ears as she learns more about what it means to be a member of her species, proving to be a crucial piece of the puzzle once Defiance is in need of outside help. Tony Curran's Datak Tar disappointing transitions from gray-area mogul to a mustache-twirling villain, yet his wife, Shahma (Jaime Murray, Warehouse 13), taps into a compelling blend of subservience and venom similar to Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones. Doc Yewell's no-nonsense sarcasm adds a lot to the show's medically-minded needs, and Julie Benz's predictable charisma as Mayor Rosewater intersects well with Kenya (Mia Kirshner), the town brothel's fiery and astute madame/owner ... and Amanda's sister.

After a volatile two-part pilot that reveals how intense the threats in the "wastelands" and beyond can get, Defiance's first season maintains a steady rhythm of expanding the lore and exploring the characters' hidden demons and drive to survive, eventually showcasing how fantastical science-fiction (and some unexplained whimsy) factors into the universe. Eventually, the series does fall back on easy tropes to give the story some forward motion and a feeling as if something's really happening -- including oppressive government intervention from E-Rep, election tampering, and an obscure mysticism subplot driven by MacGuffins -- but at least their execution takes strides to add political and mythological breadth to the universe, while also finding a way to grippingly trim the fat when it discover that it's juggling too many villainous forces. Unfortunately, both lead directly into this season's cliffhanger finale, ending on ambiguous notes that are equally nonsensical and bleak. Thing is, there's a magnetism built into these characters that makes the cliffhanger well-felt, where the town's fate hangs in the balance. Feels like the opportune time to gather some of the game's players and help the embattled folks of Defiance out.

The Blu-ray:

Defiance: Season One arrives from Universal Home Entertainment in a standard hinge-tray case holding three silver-topped discs, complimented by a lenticular slipcover that replicates the front artwork. The inner package design features an episode guide underneath the transparent blue casing, while a Digital Copy insert also confirms the series' return in June 2014.

Video and Audio:

Much of Defiance's visual tempo reminds one of both the starkness of Battlestar Galactica's cinematography and the colorfulness of Farscape's, complete with harsh, shaky grayness and fluidity that conveys a sense of realism, but it employs far less shaky-camera movement and, at times, exhibits truly beautiful close-ups and blasts in color. Universal's treatment of all fourteen 1.78:1-framed, 1080p AVC episodes comes only a few steps shy of being perfect: the radiance of color emitting form energy sources and in the mines provide rich, solid expressions of "unnatural" color, while the camera's focus on the characters -- often on makeup -- reveals the Blu-ray discs' capabilities with fine detail, depth awareness, and solidity of color gradation. Scenes in motion never lose their digital cool, providing smooth transitions during the show's sequences of hand-to-hand battle an artillery warfare. Perhaps the most intriguing visual element here is the show's play on contrast, ranging from standard overcast daytime sequences that consistently preserve details to moments in the stark-white Castithan homes that express many, many shades of silver and white. These are beautiful digitally-shot transfers.

While some of the surround work in Defiance might be a bit on the gimmicky side, there's a wealth to appreciate in the active 5.1 Master Audio tracks. Activity frequently comes out from all angles, whether it's the ambience of the town's bustle both outdoors and in or some more aggressive battle elements, creative an active stage design that keeps the viewer locked into the town's aesthetic. Engaging sound effects like energy blades and foreign medical technology add spice to the show with suitable clarity, while the impact of gunshots and the aggression of certain kinds of beasts persist on the bass channel with impressive punch. Despite these elements being frequet, Defiance, at its heart, is driven by its consistent dialogue, pouring through with robust clarity here. Some sound effects and dialogue scenes are muffled to a point of mediocrity, perhaps due to the source itself, but in all the tracks here are energetic, dynamic, and immersive. Only English subs are available.

Special Features:

Aside from a few Deleted Scenes on the first disc, the bulk of the extras for Defiance arrive on Disc Three (along with further deleted scenes), though they're not in great abundance. Defiance: A Transmedia Revolution (6:59, HD) gives the audience an overview of how the mythology between the game and TV show interact, coupled with behind-the-scenes shots of the game's design process, while Making of Defiance (11:12, HD) scrunches together the vast production work done on the show -- makeup, visual effects, casting, costume design -- into a brief but engaging glimpse at how the show's taken shape. To fill in some of the gaps with a little personality, they've also included a Behind the Scenes with Jesse Rath (6:54, HD) piece that chronicles a day in the life of the actor who played Datek Tarr's son, complete with fight choreography, ADR, and time in the makeup chair. We've also got a fairly humorous Gag Reel (3:13, HD).

Final Thoughts:

Even if you're not into the idea of a massively-multiplayer game universe (or video games, period), there's still a rich mythology and environment to explore in Defiance, one half of the "transmedia" effort from Syfy and Trion Worlds. Despite being billed as a cooperative enterprise, you're more than capable of absorbing the Western-meets-science-fiction dynamic created in this modified version of St. Louis, hinged on politics and survival in a melting-pot town featuring humans and aliens cohabiting with one another. The driving force here, however, is the drama created by the characters living in said environment, most of which have a few layers of history and secrets that the show peels away in each weekly installment, driven by whatever small-scale, contained conflict has the town on-edge. While the individual stories aren't terribly inventive and the show relies on stale genre tropes to shove its momentum forward later on, there's enough to appreciate in the show's tweaked perspective on an alien-inhabited, post-event Earth to hold one's interest. Universal's Blu-ray delivers impressive audiovisual properties and a light but substantive array of extras. Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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