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TV review: 'Defiance' a messy mash-up, with potential

Syfy finally returns to seemingly abandoned sci-fi roots with "Defiance" (8 p.m. Monday, Syfy; 2 stars out of 4), but the new drama doesn't live up to the expectations set by its reportedly $100 million price tag.
 
To be fair, that money not only went into the TV series, but also an online video game that is set in the same world with some of the same characters. Syfy and its video gaming partner, Trion Worlds, are hailing "Defiance" as "the first-ever convergence of television and online gaming," but I'm going to focus on the show, since I won't be playing the game.
 
If you're a fan of sci-fi TV (and classic literature, Westerns or conspiracy dramas, for that matter), you're going to recognize a laundry list of genre tropes in "Defiance." You'll also identify the DNA of far-superior efforts by the new show's three creators: Rockne S. O'Bannon ("Farscape"), Michael Taylor ("Battlestar Galactica") and Kevin Murphy ("Caprica").
 
As the story begins on TV Monday (it's already started in the video game), we see how seven alien races, collectively called Volton, came to Earth 30 years previously and the resulting Pale Wars destroyed the planet. Now the survivors, human and alien, are trying to get along on the "terraformed" Earth that bears little resemblance to what was there before.

War hero Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler) and his adopted Irathient* daughter, Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas), are brought to the mining town Defiance, which used to be St. Louis, after a run-in with an alien motorcycle gang called the Spirit Riders.

Like a rule-breaking outsider from any number of Westerns, Nolan gets hired as the town's law keeper after the previous one is killed as the result of a feud between mine-owning human Rafe McCawley (Graham Greene) and Castithan* crimelord Datak Tarr (Tony Curran). Their kids, Alak Tarr (Jesse Rath) and Christie McCawley (Nicole Munoz), might be involved in a "Romeo & Juliet" romance, but these town leaders hate each other.

The two-hour premiere introduces us to a dizzying number of other characters: Mayor Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz) and her brothel-running sister, Kenya (Mia Kirshner); not-as-nice-as-she-seems former Mayor Nicolette Reardon (Fionnula Flanagan); manipulative Lady MacBethish Stahma Tarr (Jaime Murray); Indogene* doctor Yewll (Trenna Keating), and a Wookie-looking alien of some Votan race I can't recall.

There's also a lot of plot in the premiere, which begins with a history lesson, then slides into a murder mystery before bringing everyone together to fight a common foe. As if that isn't enough, the writers launch a conspiracy story.

Not only is the production harmed by its overloaded pilot and just fleeting moments of originality, its visual effects and alien makeup design are wildly inconsistent.

Despite all this, "Defiance" grew on me the more I watched. I'm encouraged by some of the continuing story threads that have been introduced, including an interspecies debate about a controversial Castithan practice and Irisa's troubling visions.

If the writers continue to develop characters as they've started with Irisa--Datak Tarr, for example, could become a fascinatingly multi-dimensional baddie--"Defiance" could reach its potential and become more than an pale imitation of better sci-fi.

* These are some of the seven alien races in "Defiance."

Watch the first 14 minutes of "Defiance" below:

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Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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