Defiance Breaks Sci-Fi Mold

Defiance television show and video game images are ©2013 NBC Universal. All rights reserved.

SyFy channel’s new show Defiance is breaking the mold in every way. An unusual combination of fantasy blockbuster, small town mystery and sci-fi action drama, Defiance takes place on a decimated, post-apocalyptic Earth set several decades into the future. After an alien invasion and war, hmans try to co-exist with a group of aliens that are both friend and foe in a small town literally defying the odds. was extremely fortunate to have access to one of the head writers of the show, as well as its official science advisor. In our interviews, we delve deeper into the backbone of this sci-fi hit, which is a terrific, engaging story, paired with colorful characters and the clever incorporation of science to support the plot. More after the “continue reading” cut.

Defiance is set amidst a backdrop of the ruins of a major American city, formerly St. Louis, now called Defiance, where a group of humans and aliens must survive under extreme political and existential circumstances. Jeb Nolan, a former military hero who fought the last battle of the human-Votan war, aptly named the Battle of Defiance, is now a wanderer looking for his place in the world. His adopted daughter Irisa, from a Votan alien tribe called the Castathans, is also battling a difficult past as she migrates between the world of her own people as friends and foes. In the middle of episodic mysteries, such as who is behind an attack on Defiance, or the murder mystery of the town mining magnate’s son, is a larger storyline about the integration of human and alien races in a unique post-apocalyptic melting pot.

For the SyFy channel, Defiance looks like the first bona fide hit since Battlestar Galactica, whose prequel follow-up Caprica never managed to latch on with a consistent audience. It’s premiere had the highest ratings since Eureka and follow up episodes are holding a steady audience.

And if its intricate plot isn’t enough to keep viewers hooked, Defiance is defying traditional media by merging the show with a concomitant multiplayer online video game concept, where action takes place simultaneously in San Francisco. The events that take place in the video game, which has already recorded one million registered users, will impact the storyline of the show to varying degrees, and vice versa. It is without a doubt the most interactive and ambitious storytelling format ever attempted for the genre from a technical standpoint. was very honored to have the opportunity to sit down with both series writer and co-creator and executive producer Michael Taylor, as well as the show’s scientific advisor Kevin Grazier, to get a better idea of the characters, storyline and what we can expect going forward.

A couple of the Votan races represented on Defiance: the Indigenes (the town doctor on the left) and Castathans (Irisa, one of the principal characters).

Taylor, also a series writer and producer on breakout SyFy hit series Battlestar Galactica, was involved in the early development of the series, which took over one and a half years to re-conceptualize and bring to the small screen from its initial concept. “Keep in mind, the original draft [of the pilot] was very different,” Taylor says. “The Chief Lawkeeper role was prototyped as this older, wry Brian Dennehy-type of character, for example. Irathient warrior Irisa was more of a wide-eyed, naïve girl than she is in the current version. We even had about two to three episodes of the series done. But as we went along, we were finding it hard to keep thinking up episodes from week to week.” Which is when the series went back to the drawing boards.

And reimagine the series they did! Unlike the vast majority of sci-fi shows, which explore the process of warring factions integrating and co-existing, in Defiance, this has already occurred, something that Taylor calls a “cool experiment.” “The 30-year-war has already been fought, all that stuff is long in the past,” Taylor reminds us. “And now we are at the point where the 8 races are trying to co-exist together. Remember, in the opening episode, the mayor [Amanda Rosewater] tells the multi-ethnic crowd that Defiance is a pretty nice place to live.” Which is in stark contrast to the vast majority of the now-destroyed Earth, which remains a very dangerous, primitive environment, as is seen in the opening minutes of the pilot. But the relatively peaceful, self-contained environment of Defiance is not the only way it differs. “This idea of the 8 races living together is still pretty rare [throughout Earth],” Taylor remarks. “In fact, in Rio de Janeiro you have the opposite with the Votan-led Earth Republic, which has pretty much the opposite goal than what’s happening in Defiance.”

People should also be careful about inferring too many sociological or current events extrapolations from the themes explored in the show. For Taylor, the writers and creators are mainly exploring a fun concept with strong storytelling and even stronger characters. And what characters they are!

Lawkeeper Jeb Nolan and his adopted daughter Irisa are both dark, complex characters with extremely difficult pasts. “In many ways, they complement each other and need each other,” Taylor says. “They are the only two people who can complete one another because of that bond.” But they aren’t the only characters with a past. New young mayor Amanda herself has some dark secrets that fuel her motivations, many of which will be explored in future episodes, according to Taylor. At the mere suggestion that mysterious ex-mayor Nicky, who figures into the Votan plot against the humans, might not be that evil, Taylor retorts: “Nope, she’s evil. She just rationalizes her actions as the end justifying the means.”

As for integrating the video game concept, it predated the show by five years, which allowed writers to establish stories and character development that will happen separately from, albeit concurrently with, the action in Defiance onscreen. It also affords the writers on the show some freedom with the knowledge that the events in the video game don’t necessarily impact the flow of the storyline right away. “With the production schedule of television, there’s no way that we would be able to incorporate plots from the video game into the show that quickly,” says Taylor. “But remember, there is a summer hiatus between seasons, so you never know. Maybe that would be a time the writers would be able to look at some of the events that gamers chose and fold them into the story with more leisure.”

So rest assured, those of you enjoying Defiance, whether on your televisions or XBoxes. Plenty of sci-fi action is yet to come.

A scene from the Defiance interactive video game.

In case viewers are worried that Defiance’s deep focus on character development and storyline layout (in two media formats no less!) is going to come at the expense of accurate and interesting science, fear not. The production staff at the sci-fi hit has employed the services of notable scientific advisor Kevin Grazier, who also advised on Eureka and Battlestar Galactica, along with a slew of feature films.

“We’ve seen time and time again small plot points that have become little tidbits, or plot points or even major points driving an episode when you get the science right,” Grazier notes. “Caring about the science [in a series plot] can be as much of a strength as it is a constraint.”

And while it’s true that the science of Defiance does seem a bit less obvious or upfront than in shows like BSG or Eureka, it’s no less important nor is it any less incorporated. “We have a really rich, really well thought-out backstory, and that is very much informed by the science,” Grazier says. “We know that the V-7 [Votan] races came from the Votan System. What happened to their system? Well, we have that [mapped out], we know that.” He also pointed to subtle implications such as in the first few minutes of the pilot. When Irisa looks up at the sleeper pods, she says, “All those hundreds of years in space just to die in your sleep.” Grazier notes: “The subtle implication is that the V-7 aliens don’t go FTL [faster than light]. So we have figured out where they’re from and how far away they’re from and which direction of the sky they’re from and how long it took to get here.”

In addition to its elemental role in the backstory, science has also also had fun ‘little’ moments in the show, like the importance of the terrasphere in defending the Volge attack in the pilot or the hell bugs (a genetic amalgam of several earth critters) in episode 3. Some of these small scientific details were even able to result in cool visual effects. For example, when the table of writers was discussing the ark falls, Grazier, an astrophysicist by training, noted that the conservation of angular momentum meant that these things would not land vertically, but rather horizontally, using the screaming overhead comets in Deep Impact as a touchstone. Sure enough, in the first few minutes, you see Nolan and Irisa tracking what’s about to be an ark fall and you see them screaming overhead. “That will, by the way, come into play in a later episode,” Grazier teases. “We know where the ark belt is. Where the ships were when they blew up, how far away they are.”

For Grazier, the experience has not only been a rewarding one, but different from the other shows he’s worked on. “Just to give you an example of how great the Defiance writing team is with regards to the science, in an upcoming episode, the writers had written a script and there was a big incident in there that I said “You can’t do this scientifically.”” Grazier kept shooting down suggestion after suggestion, with series producer Kevin Murphy, who was a huge Basttlestar Galactica fan, staying patient and open to ideas despite being frustrated by the process. In the end, the series producers allowed Grazier to provide input to the plot that both worked scientifically and resulted in decent storytelling and visual effects. “There was a situation that the scientific content was a sticking point, and a fairly major element of the plot, and they let the science guy come up with the solution,” he remarked. “As satisfying as some of the other series that I’ve worked on have been, that’s never happened to me before.”

“Obviously in any sci-fi show, there are going to be a few [unrealistic] gimmes, a few conceits for the sake of the plot or entertainment,” Grazier reminds us. “But if you buy in that these terrashperes came down and transformed the Earth and take this journey with us, then the science will take you the rest of the way.”

Based on the first three episodes, it’s a journey I know is worth the ride.

Watch a feature-length trailer for the show here:

Watch a special video about the making of the Defiance

Defiance airs on Monday nights on SyFy Channel at 9 ET/PT.


***************** covers science and technology in entertainment, media and advertising. Hire our consulting company for creative content development.

Subscribe to free email notifications of new posts on our home page.

One thought on “Defiance Breaks Sci-Fi Mold”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *