Last year, Defiance was one of those shows which I hadn’t expected a great deal from. A Syfy — still the stupidest rebranding exercise in recent history — produced show made by the creator of Farscape (of which my opinion is a matter of public record) with music by Bear McCreary.
It wasn’t perfect, with a tendency to misstep pretty hard just when it seemed to be getting into its stride, but the story of a world post-alien terraforming accident, and a wild-west-style town in that new world was an engaging one. That potential, that edge of boldness, was exactly the sort of show which TV science-fiction needed.
Though the first season didn’t end on the high that I would have hoped, there is enough going into the second season to be positive and hopeful about.
In a move that reminded me of the Battlestar Galactica season 3 opener, the narrative skips forwards nine months, to a Defiance which is well and truly occupied by the Earth Republic. Niles Pottinger has been installed — sinister British accent and all — as the new mayor in place of Datak Tarr, and plays the part by wearing a fancy suit of armour. For reasons undisclosed.
This is going to be the face of a major antagonist this season, so he gets a load of characterisation straight-off. Clearly self-confident, Niles is already having trouble controlling the city. Hardly surprising given the way in which the Earth Republic entered Defiance. But he isn’t clueless; he knows that Amanda could be key, so doggedly pursues her to become his new chief of staff — an offer which she eventually accepts.
Except, Niles is hedging his bets, having cameras in Amanda’s bedroom. As he watches he taking Casti drugs, it’s hard to tell whether he is developing romantic — or lustful — feelings, or is simply looking for blackmail material.
For Amanda’s part, she’s still convincing herself that her sister is still alive, despite Stahma’s not terribly subtle hints to that she isn’t. Even without her office she is influential, and she eventually does take the chief of staff position presumably to limit the damage that E-Rep can do — it will be interesting to see how her loyalties are tested as the story progresses.
Rafe McCawley, however, doesn’t gain much at all from E-Rep’s presence. Working in the mines he used to own, he can’t do much to protect his former employees — now colleagues — as the work rate is driven up beyond safety. A minority of the miners prefer the increased pay of E-Rep, but most seem to be realising that money isn’t worth much if lax health and safety kills you before you can spend it.
The miners are just one aspect of Defiance society, but it’s clear that there is a lot of tension. When two sons of a dead miner are caught scrawling anti-E-Rep graffiti on a wall — in broad daylight, in the middle of the street?! Romanum ite domum, anyone? — Pottinger uses it as an opportunity to make an example out of at least one of them.
In contrast to his old enemy Rafe, who is at least getting by, Datak is rotting in a nearby E-Rep detention centre which is apparently full of others whom the occupation forces found undesirable. It doesn’t seem to suit the former mayor, scrabbling around in the dirt for thrown food. And, of course, that scene where Stahma visits and, er, pleasures him through the prison bars as she updates him on his business, is deeply…odd.
Datak is, though, incarcerated with Dr Yewll, who hints she has some sort of plan to escape, because of course she does. Honestly, I’ve no idea why these pair are still alive. Datak murdered an E-Rep colonel, and Yewll is the only one who knows why the E-Rep are really interested in Defiance. I would have thought they’d be first up against the wall.
But, then this series wouldn’t be as interesting, and we’d be spared the frankly bizarre scene where Datak attempts to use the sleeping Doc Yewll’s hand to finish what his wife started.
Outside the detention camp, Alak is attempting to take on his imprisoned father’s mantle as head of the Casti crime syndicate. But as Stahma points out, he lacks the cruel streak necessary to keep everything in order. He shows mercy to a Castithan who is making him drugs, but seeing her son mocked Stahma has the man beaten. A little more nuance in Alak’s character would be nice — some urge, perhaps, to live up to his father’s image — but Stahma is going to be a clear mainstay this season. She has, effectively taken control of the crime empire, and when Datak inevitably escapes his prison, I wonder how that power balance will play out.
What has been interesting about the Casthi society in the show has generally been how starkly it looks at gender politics. Throughout the first season Stahma was always tilting at this, subtly manipulating Datak so that he thought that all of the ideas were his rather than hers. His removal from the immediate picture seems to have given her a boldness, as well as giving the show space to be properly subversive.
But the meat of this first episode was always going to revolve around Nolan and Irisa. After making a deal with the maybe-God Irzu to save Nolan at the end of the last season, she has been missing for some nine months. Nolan is determined to find her, and tracks down one of the cult members who he had originally rescued her from. He gleans a bare hint before putting a bullet through the man’s head, a reappearance of “No-Man” from the Pale Wars.
When he does find Irisa — who predictably gets him out of a rough spot with some unsavoury characters — the answers he gets are unsatisfying. For the audience too, though we at least can see the creepy Irathient girl who may or may not be a god. We also see Irisa bludgeoning some random Irathient woman to death.
This seems to hark back to the deal she made with Irzu. In exchange for Nolan’s life, she had to agree to become Irzu’s “weapon”. The actual meaning of this is yet to be seen, but it’s a safe bet that this is what she’s been doing for the past nine months. And now that she’s heading back to Defiance, it’s on her mind, as she imagines slitting Nolan’s throat.
After a shaky end to the last season, the story finally seems back on track. It just needs to keep focus, and if it’s going to have the sexual elements then the least it could do is have some sort of a point.