Pilot Review: Defying Gravity

The Brief: Eight astronauts start a six year grand tour of the planets, but there’s something mysterious motivating and guiding the mission.

“My old man calls space travel a fool’s game. He says human beings are 60 percent water, they eat, sleep, defecate, can’t follow directions, and explode like piñata when exposed to the vacuum in space. Lately, I’ve been wondering if he is right.”

The first thing I guess I should do is say that I’m really late reviewing this, it actually started back at the beginning of August. In fact it took me so long to get round to watching it, that it’s already aired 8 episodes and been pulled from the schedules – a move that generally signifies that the show’s going to be cancelled.

Frankly, I can completely understand if you stop reading right there. Why bother with a show that’s never really going to get a chance to get going? The thing is I think it might have the potential to go down as one of those “coulda, woulda, shoulda” shows that was poorly marketed and doomed before it got much of a chance.

It’s an ambitious show. It’s jointly produced by the BBC, an American Studio, A Canadian production company, and Canadian and German broadcasters, but it’s actually somehow come together into a remarkably cohesive production. It’s a full on space based SF show, with a space ship, EVAs, mission control and Science and it has the sort of beautiful cinematography that screams budget. It’s actually inspired by a BBC series a few years ago called Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets, a docu-drama about a group of astronauts on a very long mission to tour the solar system.

There’s a degree of competency amongst the characters that I was impressed by and was severely lacking in Virtuality, a similar pilot which aired over the summer but didn’t get picked up for a series. The problem there was that after about 20 minutes it was clear that the characters were the most useless, dysfunctional bunch of idiots to ever be assembled and I would have been more than happy to see them eat vacuum. Defying Gravity however manages to gather a far from flawless, but completely believable group of experts. It was particularly satisfying that the only people in the show I felt deserving of being punched, did indeed get punched before the end of the pilot.

The cast is made up of a collection of “damn i know him from somewhere actors”, the sort of group that drives you to imdb as soon as you finish watching. None of them are exactly stars, but they’re all really likable and believable and by the end of the pilot I felt enough of a connection with them that I could really empathise with how they felt.. An impressive achievement given just how many people and relationships there are to introduce.

To avoid the claustrophobia of being stuck in a ship all the time, not only are the team in mission control major characters, but there are also extensive flashbacks showing how the astronauts and support team got to their positions. A popular trope these days thanks to the success of Lost, they’re elegantly handled without being either over used or only token padding scenes. As is also popular these days, no show would be complete without some sort of cryptic mystery. Liberally sprinkled throughout the first couple of episodes are references to some sort of being that is influencing the mission, most notably who does and doesn’t go on it. Only a handful of the characters are aware of this being and the cryptic remarks from those in the know do start to get a little irritating.

So where does the show fall down? There are a couple of really poor bits of science/engineering, particularly in the pilot. The show is set in 2052, but to all intents and purposes it’s present day – there’s no weird fashion, language or amazing leaps in technology beyond the fact that the mission is possible. They gave a cringe inducing ‘magic nano doodad’ explanation for the gravity on the ship, which could surely just have been avoided with a slightly better ship design. So long as they don’t draw attention to that 40 year gap when apparently nothing changes, I can accept and ignore it, but they’ll have to be careful with it.

I think the biggest problem that the show has is that some genius decided to try selling it as Grey’s Anatomy in space, which is one of the worst marketing ideas in a long time. For a start – how much appeal *is* there for Grey’s Anatomy in space? I love SF and Grey’s (well, before it got shit, but that’s another article), but I have no interest in watching the combination. Secondly, it’s not even correct! The show is smart and polished, proper drama and proper sci-fi. It’s not the melodramatic, emotional manipulative soapy drama that Grey’s is. The video trailer shown above is trying very hard to be Grey’s, right through to the music and style, but it’s not a particularly fair representation of the show. The only similarity I can see is that Defying Gravity will build up the same kind of ensemble cast that Grey’s has, successfully building varying relationships between each of the members in an elaborate network. But that’s a bit of a stretch to extract from a brainless marketing slogan.

I really enjoyed this show, I watched two episodes back to back and am intrigued enough that I’ll probably watch a couple more tonight. I have a lot of respect for the ambition of it and I’ve always enjoyed this near future, space program genre of science fiction. I hope rumours of it’s death are exaggerated, it would be nice if it could at least see out the season and resolve the story somehow.

Links: Official site at ABC.com, TV.com, imdb, wikipedia

Defying Gravity is described as “coming soon to BBC Two”

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  1. August 27th, 2010
  2. September 3rd, 2010
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