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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

DEFYING GRAVITY: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON -- DVD review by porfle


When I first heard of DEFYING GRAVITY: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (2009), I wondered--how in the world could a sci-fi show with such a great premise get cancelled during its first season? After seeing all that there is of the show--and, apparently, all there ever will be--I'm at a loss to explain why the hell it didn't catch on with viewers.

Creator James Parriott's premise is pretty intriguing, with a crew of four men and four women embarking on a trip around the solar system in the Antares, a massive ship that looks like an updated version of the "Discovery" in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. The plan is for them to touch down on seven planets during their journey, but what they don't know yet is that they'll also be seeking a number of mysterious glowing, living objects that have suddenly started communicating with a similar object found on Earth, known as "Beta." The initial attempt by the International Space Organization (ISO) to retrieve the first object, "Alpha", from Mars resulted in a failed mission and two stranded astronauts.

Maddux Donner (Ron Livingston, OFFICE SPACE, "Band of Brothers") and Ted Shaw (Malik Yoba), two surviving astronauts from the ill-fated Mars mission, find themselves among the Antares crew because Beta seems to want them there. Beta, in fact, appears to be pretty much in charge of everything, exerting its influence to manipulate the crew selection process and every step of the voyage later on. While in deep space, certain crewmembers begin having bizarre hallucinations based on traumatic incidents in their past. The closer they get to their first destination, Venus, the more Beta seems to be wielding total control over the mission's outcome as the beleaguered astronauts try to deal with situations that increasingly make no sense.


Each of the series' thirteen episodes shifts from the present mission to past incidents from the grueling selection and training process, with the subplots complimenting each other according to various themes. What I initially feared would be a bunch of contrived soap opera nonsense turned out to be rich character interaction that contributes to the emotional impact of the overall story arc. (Much of it is still soap opera, but damn good soap opera.)

Romantic entanglements and other dramatic developments have meaning beyond the usual titillation; the astronauts and their Earthbound allies, including two married couples separated by millions of miles, are portrayed as believable three-dimensional characters that we get to know and whose interactions we care about. In particular, veteran astronaut Donner and fresh-faced hopeful Zoe Barnes (the beautiful Laura Harris of SyFy's MERLIN AND THE BOOK OF BEASTS) have a complicated and increasingly touching relationship that becomes the emotional core of the entire season.


As sci-fi, DEFYING GRAVITY is a fascinating and plausible extrapolation of where the space program might be in fifty years, with beautiful set design and special effects that are both convincing and awe-inspiring. The premise--a mysterious alien race seemingly leaving guideposts for an evolving human race to follow to the stars--is reminiscent of 2001, but without the pessimistic outlook or the robotic humans who appear to have reached an evolutionary dead-end. And while the metaphysical stuff is consistently compelling, the show could exist without it as a straight, non-fantastical view of the future of space exploration. The way these two sensibilities are skillfully intertwined makes for some riveting viewing.

The show has a large cast and all are very good in their roles. Livingston makes a great flawed hero, with Harris endlessly appealing as Zoe. Other crewmembers include: Jen Crane (Christina Cox), a biologist whose husband was removed from the crew at the last minute; Nadia Schilling (Florentine Lahme), the hot-blooded German pilot who can't keep her hands off Donner; Steve Wassenfelder (Dylan Taylor), a clumsy, overweight physicist with no idea why Beta wants him on the mission; Dr. Evram Mintz (Eyal Podell), ship's doctor and psychologist whose old war wounds run deep; and Paula Morales (Paula Garc├ęs), the landing vehicle pilot who finds her faith in God tested as the mission grows more and more bizarre.

The cast also features several key characters on Earth too numerous to mention, including duplicitous mission control chief Goss (Andrew Airlie) and Karen LeBlanc as Eve Weller-Shaw, the woman who first discovered Beta and remains inextricably linked to it.

Everyday life on the Antares is depicted in realistic fashion while the increasingly supernatural elements become downright creepy at times. SPFX are consistently convincing. The season climaxes with the Venus landing and its potentially disastrous outcome as the landing vehicle touches down far beyond safe walking distance to the "object" while one crewmember, driven by what seems to be yet another baffling hallucination, embarks on a suicidal course of action. The last moments of this episode--and thus the series itself--are quite moving. But the voyage is far from over and there are many loose ends, which is frustrating.

The four-disc DVD set from 20th-Century Fox is in 1.78:1 widescreen with English Dolby Digital 5.1 sound and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. The eight episodes that were actually aired are followed by the five unaired ones (I still can't believe this show got whacked mid-season). Disc four's extras include the featurette "Mission Accomplished--A Look at 'Defying Gravity'", several deleted scenes, and a photo slide show.

Really good TV sci-fi like this doesn't come along every day, and the fact that there will be no more episodes of this outstanding series is highly regrettable. Would it have maintained such a high level of interest as the story developed further during the rest of their six-year mission? I guess we'll never know. DEFYING GRAVITY: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON is a richly rewarding blend of soap opera and sensawunda, and it left me wanting more.

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4 comments:

Firecracker said...

So glad someone else saw the 2001 A Space Odyssey homage. :D I love this series and think it has a tremendous amount of potential. I really do hope that another network will pick it up. Intelligent and engaging Science Fiction does not come around very often. It would be a real shame if this series wasn't continued.

Edice said...

Thank you for writing such a wonderful & realistic review of this truly breathtaking & 'outstanding' sci-fi series.It left me wanting more too. The development of story line & characters is rich indeed, like a brocade (in space no less).
Doomed and cancelled for reasons unknown.
In the process of viewing the series & writing the review you may also have become a fan?

porfle said...

Thanks for the nice comments. Firecracker, I've read that the sets for the show have been destroyed, so it seems increasingly unlikely that it will be renewed. But who knows? Edice, I definitely became a fan!

Anonymous said...

At last -- some appreciation of a great series!!! Thanks for your favorable and highly detailed remarks: I wish more people knew about Defying Gravity. I've been telling everyone I know about the series, not just my fellow sci-fi readers/viewers. Your readers should know that there is a fairly active support group for DG that helped the show to get Constellation Award nominations in every single category for which DG was eligible. The group, Save Defying Gravity, has a Facebook page at:

http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=145579116164&ref=ts

Those who love the show might want to check that out, as well as the Constellation Awards themselves:

http://constellations.tcon.ca/ue.shtml