Defying Gravity: best TV show for 2009 and why viewers should stick with it

It’s started on BBC 2 now (Thursdays 9pm – though the opener was tonight, Wed.) so it seems safe enough to talk about this. Defying Gravity is a joint venture between the BBC, ABC and a few other stations (BBC press pack here). It’s the story of a group of astronauts on a six-year tour of the solar system, starting off on Venus and then doing the grand tour. The public believes that it’s for little more than a sightseeing mission but in reality, there’s another purpose to it all, involving an alien life form.

The show is told from two perspectives: from that of the mission and from flashbacks of five-years ago as the crew started to train together and the inter-character relationships are all different.

All of the attractive crew* (and Joey from Bread) have their burdens: two of them abandoned fellow astronauts on Mars, another has killed people in their past, one struggles with religion v science and so on.

If it was to be compared to current TV shows, the mix would be of Lost and Grey’s Anatomy with a dash of Sci-fi, but there’s also a heavy dash of science in here (the show is actually based on an old BBC documentary series) and it covers the following themes:

  • Character relationships in a long-term space mission
  • The impact of alien life – and the cover up of said alien life – on Earth
  • The cover-ups that take place on Earth to keep the mission successful
  • Religion v science
  • The autonomy of a space crew versus following orders from the ground
  • The cost of such a space mission and the impact of commercialisation on space travel
  • The strain on relationships when one is in space and one is on the ground
  • A relatively serious look at the tech/travel times 40 years from now that may take us on space travel
  • How spit can save your live in a leaky space suit

What there isn’t:

  • Laser beams
  • FTL travel
  • bumpy-head aliens/stargates/warp drives
  • happy plot resolution and character resets at the end of each episode (see most Star Trek series, Stargates and so on) – stuff has consequence in this show

It’s not a perfect show – some of the contrivances in the opening eps are a bit much – and as a few people have pointed out, this is not the normal crew you would send into space (though given how dull many of the people sent into space have been, I think I’d rather have this lot up there).

One thing that people moaned about when this aired in the USA was that it was a slow show, but having sat through four hours of Stargate Universe where all they have managed is a) find an old space ship, b) fix the air supply and c) head for the sun I don’t think it’s an accusation that sticks.

The problem the show has is that it may not be SF enough for SF fans (most of them like laser beams and lots of aliens) and everyone else will be turned off by it even having a hint of SF (Lost took years to admit that it has quite a few SF elements like time travel). A lot of the things it does seem normal to anyone who watches Grey’s (a show I can’t stand), ER or other mainstream hits, but they aren’t normal for SF shows.

But this is a show with fantastic potential. Having watched the first 11 episodes, this deserves a shot. It’s not perfect, but it is one of the best attempts at producing a mainstream SF show (to me it also pisses over most TV of recent years including – look away Guardian TV readers – The Wire). If you were a fan of the excellent Orbiter by Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran you may want to check this out. And if you like the show you may want to check that graphic novel out.

Anyway, it’s a show that could do with the ratings – in iPlayer (episodes here) (repeat times here) as much as on the channel – to help it survive past the first 13 eps (in the US, ABC moved it about the schedules and also gave it shockingly bad pre-publicity and advance buzz. They should have hired me for the PR 🙂 )

* Crew run-down:

The series’ international ensemble cast is led by Ron Livingston (Sex And The City) as flight engineer Maddux Donner, Laura Harris (24) as ship’s geologist Zoe Barnes, Malik Yoba (New York Undercover) as flight commander Ted Shaw, Christina Cox (Blood Ties) as biologist Jen Crane,Florentine Lahme (Impact) as pilot Nadia Schilling, Paula Garces (The Shield) as pilot, scientist and on-board documentary producer Paula Morales, Eyal Podell (24) as psychiatrist and medical officer Evram Mintz, and Dylan Taylor (House Party) as theoretical physicist Steve Wassenfelder.

The cast on planet Earth is led by Andrew Airlie (Reaper) as Mission Control Commander Mike Goss, Karen LeBlanc (ReGenesis) as scientist Eve Shaw, Zahf Paroo (Battlestar Gallactica) as grounded flight engineer Ajay Sharma, Maxim Roy (MVP) as flight surgeon Claire Dereux and Ty Olsson as Rollie Crane, once Mission Commander onboard Antares, and now cap comm; episodic director Peter Howitt (Sliding Doors; Bread) also plays the role of British journalist, Trevor Williams.