There’s been a relatively decent uptick in quality televised SFFH over the past few months, hell the past few years. Of course HBO is king right now with Game of Thrones, AMC has The Walking Dead, FX has American Horror Story, among other shows on other networks. Last year NBC’s Awake was an interesting and too-smart-and-ambitious-for-its-own good drama of a man’s life in two worlds, BBC America got into the mix with original programming this past year with the phenomenal Orphan Black, while the SyFy network has tried for years (with very mixed results at best), since Battlestar Galactica to get more serious-minded SF* on their channel, and every year the networks try and usually fail with shows not going more than one season, i.e. Terra Nova).
*Don't get me wrong, my wife and I adored Eureka and were very, very sad to see it leave the airwaves but that was a much lighter version of SF than BSG
This past Sunday, CBS’s latest effort is an adaptation of Stephen King’s massive novel Under the Dome (a novel met with a very lukewarm response upon publication). But they enlisted some folks with proven experience for this thing: Steven Spielberg as Executive Producer, Niels Arden Oplev (director of the Danish/original film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Brian K. Vaughn (writer of the Y: The Last Man one of the most acclaimed SF comics/graphic novels of the past decade, writer on Lost) and it features Dean Norris, a recognized and respected character actor most recently known as Hank Schraeder on Breaking Bad and character actor Jeff Fahey. So, with that pedigree it seems a shoe-in to succeed, right? I haven’t read the book, though the fine folks at Tor.com have indicated changes from the book (some spoilers in that article). After having watched the first episode, I will at the very least be tuning into the second episode. The first episode established the characters to a good enough extent that I want to learn more about most of them, the premise of the town trapped under the dome is well-established when it slices a cow in half, cuts off a woman’s arm, a truck crashes into it and the final scene of the episode showing helicopters flying above the dome. Right now, this thing is set for 13 episodes and they are off to a very good start.
Monday nights on SyFy has been their big night for original programming for a couple of years. Specifically, ever since they eschewed original programming on Friday nights for WWE SmackDown! SyFy is such a hit or miss (20% Hit/80% Miss if I’m being generous since I'm not a fan of reality programming), but their latest venture is quite impressive. Defiance is a multimedia experience, the television show and video game released nearly simultaneously and the game is supposedly going to affect the TV show. I’m not concerned about the game itself (which does look fun, I’ve got to admit) but the show itself. Basically, Earth is now refuge to a slew of alien races (collectively known as the Votans) and part of the Earth was changed when alien technology, during our war against those aliens upon initial discovery, accidentally terraformed the planet. War was halted and now these alien races and humans attempt to coexist on the world, specifically in St. Louis where the show takes place now known as Defiance.
One of the folks responsible for this show is Rockne S. O’Bannon, a name fans of genre TV should know – he wrote the film/TV show AlienNation, episodes of Amazing Stories and the first Twilight Zone revival in 1985 and perhaps my favorite SF show of all time FarScape. Long time Star Trek writer Michael Taylor is also involved. On the acting side of things, Grant Bowler (perhaps best known for a run on True Blood and a small stint on Lost), Oscar-nominated actor Graham Greene, and Julie Benz (Buffy, Angel, and Dexter) are probably the most prominent acotrs, with Bear McCreary providing the music. Again, good ingredients, but do they mix well together? 10 episodes in, I’d have to say yes, things are moving along pretty well.
The first couple of episodes felt familiar as the show blatantly exuded a Firefly vibe since the transformed Earth evoked a similar Frontier/Western setting. Of course, Firefly took place on colony planets and in space and included no alien life. In that respect, Defiance bears a more striking resemblance to FarScape with the variety of alien life and the fact that Earth is only barely recognizable. In our primary male protagonist, Joshua Nolan (portrayed by Grant Bowler), we’ve got a guy who is a fair enough melding of Malcolm Reynolds and John Crichton; he's a veteran of the war and has some rough edges. Nolan is appointed the lawman of Defiance in the first episode and his adopted alien daughter Irisa and becomes Nolan’s deputy. Julie Benz is the newly elected Mayor, and Graham Green plays Rafe McCawley (miner and one of the most prominent human characters).
Two things help to distinguish the plots and overall story of the show, from my perspective. The first is the setting. While Earth in the future, the city is St. Louis whereas these things often take place on either of the large Coastal Cities of NY or LA. The terraforming has transformed Earth enough that the creatures, races and landscape is alien enough for these characters to be wary when venturing to far outside of their familiar confines. The second is just how powerful, proactive, and prominent the female characters are. Julie Benz as Amanda Rosewater is the current mayor, who replaced previous mayor Nicolette "Nicky" Riordan (portrayed by genre mainstay Fionnula Flanagan). Although one of the prominent alien (the albino Castithan) families, the Tarr, is headed up by Datak and he’s the public face of the family, the one who is pulling the strings just as powerfully is his wife Stahma. Mayor Rosewater’s sister Kenya (Mia Kirshner) owns a brothel/bar has a significant role of power in Defiance.
As the series has progressed over the course of the first 10 episodes, the writers have made it easy to empathize with most of the characters and are not overloading the viewer with heavy sets of back-story. Rather, each episode reveals enough about the characters, the world-building/history of this future earth that a nice balance is struck. With each episode, it becomes clear that not all characters are safe even if not not exactly to GRRM levels of schadenfreude.
In short, I'm hooked and the show is pretty much appointment-television for me right now.
The last show I’ll mention is Arrow, the CW’s latest modern interpretation of a DC Comics character. I've read some Green Arrow comics (specifically, the Kevin Smith relaunch of the character and the Andy Diggle/Jock Year One storyline which informs this show, as well as comics featuring GA like Justice League) over the years, the comic book series/character upon which the show is based so I don’t have a full allegiance to the minutia of the character’s mythology. After one season, I’m very hooked on this show. Sure there’s a formula that around the 45 minute mark of the show, the villain or plot is resolved. Through one season, though, the writers have managed to filter in enough of a second storyline detailing Oliver Queen’s time shipwrecked on an island where he was during a five year absence when he was presumed dead. The writers are mixing in nice bits of DC Comics mythology (Deathstroke the Terminator, sidekick Speedy, Ferris Aircraft of Green Lantern lore), twisting the hero’s mythology a bit (playing with arch-enemy Merlyn the archer) to make a fun weekly TV watching experience. I wasn’t familiar with Steven Amell, the actor portraying Oliver, but I did know Paul Blackthorne (who portrayed Harry Dresden on the SyFy series of the same name) as Detective Lance, a foil for the vigilante Oliver and John Barrowman* (Doctor Who and Torchwood) as Malcolm Merlyn the Big Bad of season one and father to Oliver’s best friend Tommy Merlyn, Alex Kingston (Doctor Who and ER) as Lance’s estranged wife, and even naming Oliver's bodyguard, security head Diggle in honor of writer Andy Diggle.
The show has the hallmarks of a CW show in that the cast is a mostly Young Beautiful People and the aforementioned resolution of the villain of the week at the 43 minute mark. The first season was a lot of fun, and I kept saying it was a lot better than I thought it would be or had any right to be. I just hope it doesn’t pull a Smallville and crap all over itself before it goes away.
*My only real issue with the show is that while I like Barrowman, he seems far too young to have a son in his mid-twenties.