Defying Gravity's Bold Launch

11-Sep-09 12:31 PM by
Filed under Television; 3 comments.

The traditional television schedule seems to be a thing of the past, with new series starting whenever in the year they please. One recent example is Defying Gravity, which ABC premiered on August 2nd. While it's common for shows like Heroes and Sarah Connor to stream its new episodes on their Web sites, I've never been satisfied with the experience of watching a television show in a Web browser. So imagine my pleasant surprise to find that the first three episodes of Defying Gravity were, for a limited time, available as a free download from iTunes, allowing me an opportunity I'd otherwise get only on DVD.

The year is 2052, eleven years before First Contact. The International Space Organziation (ISO) is set to launch a single six-year manned mission to the solar system's seven planets (discounting Earth and Pluto). Eight astronauts and their ground support are eager to confront the unknown… but before they know it, the unknown comes to them. A mysterious entity is pulling the mission's strings, which only the upper echelons of the ISO are aware of — and oddly, they seem more than willing to cooperate.

Ron Livingston of Office Space is the show's main character and narrator. In the eyes of the public, Maddux Donner is a fallen hero, ever since he abandoned two astronauts on a mission to Mars, although the movie's pilot makes clear he made the right decision and obeyed orders. He opens and closes each episode with a monologue, with other storytelling elements including the flashbacks, personal video logs, and one character whose sole purpose seems to be to document the ship's happenings for the edification of terrestrial grade school students.

More central to the plot than Donner's public image is his relationship with the rest of the crew, and them with each other. Multiple flashbacks to five years prior show us how this crew came to know each other during the application and training for the mission, at which time it seems everyone slept with each other at least once. Now spacebound, the astronauts are supposedly limited by HALOs — hormone-activated libido oppressors that impact one's physical performance but not emotional desire, thus doing nothing to prevent sexual awkwardness.

HALOs are one of the few technological developments humanity has achieved in the next 50 years. The Antares ship must have some sort of improved propulsion to make a six-year solar tour, but there's no evidence of warp drive. Further, the application of antigravity is inconsistent. It's stated early on that nanofibers in the crew uniforms keep them upright and attached, and we see tossed objects and even vomit moving laterally across a room in support of that theory. But in other scenes, baseballs sail in graceful arcs, and an exercise room's weight machine functions normally. Perhaps crew quarters rotate, offering centripetal force that isn't present elsewhere. Regardless, Defying Gravity is closer to our own level of advancement than most science fiction.

Likewise, culture and society has seen few changes, though I appreciate that the possibility for more sweeping evolution is subtle. The existence of the ISO suggests a a world unification, or at least collaboration beyond a single space station. Home pregnancy tests are now illegal. And Donner longs for "the mountains and what's left of the beaches", suggesting some consequence of global warming. But the broader environment in which this mission was launched is not the show's focus, and picking up on these clues is more a reward for the astute viewer than being hit over the head with more jarring differences would be.

If only the rest of the show was as shrewd. The macguffin of the unknown puppet master is intended to keep viewers hooked, but it's too obvious a plot device for me. I prefer hidden elements to be subtle and not critical to the show's very foundation. A particular character can have a secret, or a particular episode or story arc may need a deus ex machina — but this entire show seems driven by a creature named "Beta" who we may not be seeing for some time.

Fortunately, any problems I have with the script do not extend to the cast. Livingston seemed somewhat clueless in Office Space and has a similar air here, but at least he's earnest about it. Ty Olsson, who played Captain Aaron Kelly on BSG and Magento's guard in X-Men 2, is tough but thoughtful Rollie Crane. Among the astronauts, there is a lack of independent female role models, but mission control includes Karen LeBlanc as assistant flight director Eve Weller-Shaw and Claire Dereux as Maxim Roy, who know how to get a grip (when they're not pining for their cosmic boyfriends).

Defying Gravity, which has been described as Lost in space (har, har) or Grey's Anatomy in space, came strongly recommended from someone who said these three episodes had justified committing to the rest of the season. Such a strong first impression is rare: if I'd had to judge Star Trek: TNG or DS9 that quickly, I might not have stuck around. Defying Gravity may likewise mature into a fine show, but since I have no television service, I'm left with the decision of buying the show online or on DVD, or not at all. Given what I've seen so far, I'll save my money and leave others to boldly go. In the meantime, only the behind-the-scenes featurette remains a free download from iTunes, while full episodes can be watched on by installing their spyware plug-in.