I am watching a show that I’ve had in my queue for a while: Defiance. It is a Sci-Fi show (post apocalyptic) that is currently streaming on Amazon Prime (not sure if it is elsewhere, but I know its been on Prime) for a while now, so I thought I’d watch it. So, when my late creative writing professor, Ken Smith, opened my eyes to the fact that Science-Fiction’s antecedent genre was the Western, I was aghast. Star Wars and the original trilogy were my favorite movies at the time (this was in the era where the Prequels were still a couple years away from release and the Matrix hadn’t quite changed the landscape for science-fiction films (although Aliens & Terminator 2 had made significant in-roads). And yet, as I watch Defiance, I can’t help but recall Ken’s assertion as this show is every bit the Western.
Alien Backstory & Mythos + Western Plots and Characterization = Defiance
So far, about mid-way into the show’s first season, I’m slogging my way through it. The show takes the approach to adding aliens to Earth via a “failed” attempt (or maybe incomplete) at an alien race terraforming Earth. The Earth has been transformed into a (mostly) post-apocalyptic wasteland complete with alien species and races complicating life for the remaining human residents. One of the things that I like about the show is that it doesn’t just focus on humans, however, but seeks to show a town (Defiance) that has multiple alien and human inhabitants and how they can survive and life together despite their prejudices and differences. In many ways, it tries (again early times, at least) to present a hopeful, unifying front, no matter the individual prejudices that flare up.
All Western, All the Time
And yet . . . the show really hasn’t grabbed me. Even though there are aliens, what looks like an ancient alien mystery, and quite a few alien cultures that have traditions different from our own, all of the stories so far have had a decidedly Western (genre) feel to them. Their has been a feuding pair of families with young lovers on each side of the families (a la The Hatfields & McCoys–and yes, they are of two different races just to ratchet up the tension). The protagonist becomes the town’s “Lawkeeper” in the “pilot” episode. The episode I just finished had to do with a “Bounty Hunter” friend of the Lawkeeper (a “trope” of many a Western). There are deputies, a doc with a possible bad past, prostitutes with hearts of gold, and the like.
Now, all this to say, that the actors and the story isn’t bad–it just skews heavily into the Western motif, where I might want it to do so a little less.
And this is Why I Like “Space Ship Shows”
Defiance (and shows like it–The Walking Dead comes quickly to mind) is that it devolves into the same tropes that a Western might: be quick with a gun or be dead, protect yourself at all costs because your neighbors won’t, the frontier is the big open space of badness, with little pockets of safety coming by way of cities.
Now, you could say this about my beloved spaceship shows (Star Trek, Star Wars, Dark Matter, Stargate (& spinoff shows), etc), but one thing that spaceship shows do better than their post apocalyptic cousins is that sense of “wonder.” There is the chance that some scientific concept or paradigm will be explored in some unique and awesome way that completely explodes the traditional/contemporary way of looking at the world. For instance, Star Wars has a lot of western tropes early in the movie, but moving to the later parts of the movie, we see the tropes of medieval knights (Kenobi vs Vader fight on the Death Star) and even WW2 fighter tropes (the iconic Trench Run). As a child, this blew my mind. Another example, from the world of books this time, was a scene in one of Elizabeth Moon’s books where a main character walked on the ship’s outer hull while the ship was in freakin’ HYPERSPACE. I’d never read the like and this one scene helped make me a lifelong fan of Elizabeth Moon’s work.
Anyway, hopefully I’ll be able to stick through it to the end and report back with a mini-review. We’ll see–while I like and respect the western, I would prefer my science fiction to show a little less western tropes and a little more wonder than I’m currently seeing in Defiance. But who knows, maybe they’ll lean harder into the “alien artifact” mystery and it will have the wonder I’m looking for in my sci-fi.
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