Tuesday, August 04, 2009

TV REVIEW: Defying Gravity: "Pilot"/"Natural Selection"

Award-winning writer and producer James Parriott -- the talent behind the cult favorite Dark Skies (1996) and also Forever Knight (1989-1996) -- has landed back in the genre with his so-called "Grey's Anatomy in Space" prime-time venture, Defying Gravity.

The series premiered on ABC last Sunday night with a pilot and the first one hour follow-up, titled "Natural Selection."

Like Virtuality before it, Defying Gravity concerns a lengthy space mission. Here, the spaceship Antares embarks on a six year voyage to explore seven planets in our solar system, starting with Venus (a 43 day voyage...).

The ship's diverse crew-members include flight engineer Maddux Donner (Ron Livingston), ship commander Ted Shaw (Malik Yoba), biologist Jen Crane (Christina Cox), geologist Zoe Barnes (Laura Harris), pilot Nadia Schilling (Florentine Lahm), physicist Steve Wassenfelder (Dylan Taylor), and journalist Paula Morales (Paula Garces). The Grey's Anatomy comparison is operable because this series is a "workplace" drama featuring lots of sex and romance. Only the workplace in question is...the final frontier.

Based on the first two episodes, Defying Gravity is lively and bright, but also extremely schmaltzy. The writers opt for big, sentimental, even maudlin gestures in the melodramatic story lines; and position their astronaut leading characters as impulsive, romance-obsessed, top gun sorts. As a result, many individual story moments may leave the "reality based" sci-fi audience gasping in shock.

For instance, a husband-and-wife astronaut team engages in weightless sexual intercourse on the flight deck of Antares -- on duty! -- even though they both realize all the techs in Mission Control down on Earth can see them getting it on. The commander in that nerve center below exercises discretion and turns off the screen, but how did these randy astronauts know he would do so? Furthermore, isn't sex on the job (in the control room...) somewhat...unprofessional? Especially for a guy who was the ship's commander?

At another point in the pilot episode, a depressed and sidelined astronaut named Sharma steps out into space on a suicidal EVA. Down on Earth, our hero, Maddox, virtually leaps into a convenient space pod, blasts off, and goes into space to rescue him. Yet space travel -- as the episode suggests at least twice -- is quite difficult. There are meticulous schedules to consider, windows of opportunity to target, and space adventuring is extremely expensive to boot. Yet Maddox just impulsively mounts a rescue, apparently without mission control's approval, and successfully maneuvers his small spacecraft around the large Antares. In doing so, isn't he endangering the 10 trillion dollar mission?

This kind of grand, emotional, melodramatic touch only makes the astronauts seem....emotionally unstable. Think about it: In one hour-long show, a brilliant engineer attempts suicide, the ship's biologist and commander hump like bunnies on the flight deck, and Maddox, the flight engineer, impulsively punches out two people and goes against orders to stage a difficult rescue. I'm fine with sex in space (who wouldn't be?). I just worry this show should be titled Defying Believability. The teleplay constantly reminds us that only one out of a thousand candidates is selected for the rigorous astronaut training program. Based on the impulsive, emotional behavior of those who "passed," I'm afraid to see what the other 999 candidates were like...

Actually, I get it. I do. Way back in 1975, another near-future space series, Space: 1999, adopted a minimalist, intellectual approach and was roundly criticized because, essentially, all the astronaut main characters were...stoic and thoughtful. "They act too much like scientists and administrators," critics complained. "The main characters behave more like business partners than romantic partners!" reviewers admonished. Ergh!

Defying Gravity looks like it wants to avoid that pitfall (if it is a legitimate pitfall...) at all costs, turning the series' astronauts into horny, quipping, broody, colorful, hormone cases. My advice: tone it down. Just a bit. Keep the sex restricted to off-duty astronauts. And keep it in crew quarters...not on the bridge.

Because, honestly, the science fiction touches in Defying Gravity aren't terrible. In fact, they're moderately intriguing. For instance, there's a strange force called "Beta" at work pulling the strings behind the Antares mission. This mysterious Beta -- an alien intelligence or perhaps a computer -- apparently chose the crew members, overriding NASA's choices in certain circumstances. Why? What are Beta's motives? In the last moments of "Natural Selection," the ship's captain boards the Antares pod that houses "Beta" (or perhaps just a link to Beta...) and seems to go mad...experiencing visions of a tragic mission to Mars.

This is a sturdy enough mystery on which to build the summer series; especially as Defying Gravity has promised that all will be revealed upon Antares' arrival at Venus. Another Space:1999 coincidence: the opening episode of that series ("Breakaway") involved a strange mystery involving not called Beta, but rather Meta. Hmmm...

Anyway, I was also tantalized here by the brief, cryptic references to life in the 2050s, the era of Defying Gravity. Apparently, Roe v Wade has been reversed, abortion is illegal, and now even over-the-counter pregnancy tests are against the law. The show doesn't go overboard with this political background, merely dropping a few hints that the United States -- and indeed the world -- are in for some big changes in the next few decades.

I have decided to put Defying Gravity to the same test I put all other fledgling sci-fi series. I'm going to watch five episodes and see if I'm hooked enough to stick around. This approach worked in the past for The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Dollhouse. But I dropped Fringe and Supernatural.

I hate to sound like a prude, but I certainly hope Defying Gravity goes more into sci-fi and less into lusty space sex. I know the producers want to draw in big audiences, but the program doesn't seem calibrated quite right yet. Grey's Anatomy is a bad role model, I believe. It's a big, stupid, overwrought, inconsequential series -- the Ally McBeal of the 2000s. Maybe Defying Gravity could aim higher, aim for the stars...

How about defying convention?


  1. Thanks for reviewing this, John. I also caught the pilot, and kind of got a kick out of it. It's soapy as can be, but the visuals are SO cool, and I like seeing Horny Astronaut Guy-From-Office-Space as much as I enjoyed seeing Starship Captain Guy-From-Ferris-Bueller in Generations.

  2. Anonymous10:36 AM

    anyone know who sings the theme song to this new abc series - defying gravity?

  3. Sorry, John, but the show sounds like yet another show made for mundanes (non-SF fans) similar to the new Battlestar Galactica and The X-Files (notice how both were wildly popular because of all the sex/weirdness/crime going on, and not the science fiction that's incidentally part of the plot?) I may watch it (provided I still have my satellite TV subscription in October)but I'll be wary of it.

    These mundanes sure LOVE using sci-fi bits to make up a show about screwing/swapping partners in the workplace, but can't get a deeper meaning of the genre, can't they?

  4. Hey Lionel,

    Interesting comment! I tend to agree with you in terms of Defying Gravity (though I haven't been able to watch follow-up episodes because of the accident on my street that destroyed ALL of my televisions and DVR...), but definitely not in terms of The X-Files, one of my all-time favorites.

    There was nothing mundane at all about the X-Files, and the re-interpretation of horror and sci-fi tropes was a regular joy of that series.

    But I do appreciate the comment, and I know what you mean.


  5. @Anonymous - if you're talking about the song "Hope for the Hopeless" it's by "A Fine Frenzy" on the album "One Cell in the Sea" Highly recommend.

  6. scratch my previous comment re: A Fine Frenzy - I got the wrong episode.