EPISODE REVIEW: Defying Gravity: “Pilot” (Episode 1)

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While there hasn’t been an amazing amount of pre-broadcast hyping for this show, and some people say that it’s already as dead as “Kings,” “Defying Gravity” is an interesting concept for a show: An international cast of talented, intelligent, and above-all attractive people trapped on a space ship for six years as they tour around the solar system. Some wags are already calling it “Greys’ Anatomy in Space,” and if you check the tags for this article, you’ll find that I myself am lumping it in to my “Estrogen in Space” category. As cheap a gag as that may be on my part - and it is cheap, definitely - I’m intrigued at the prospect of an SF show that appears to be attempting to make relatively Hard SF accessible for women.

This is a good thing. Women have traditionally been a vastly under-represented demographic in SF, which never really made sense to me. I mean, yeah, when I was ten I sort of got the whole “Boy’s club” nature of SF, but by the time I was eleven, trust me, I was really wishing there were more chicks on the shows I watched, even if I wasn’t quite sure why. So women were terribly under-represented up until the seventies when it got a little bit better, and I assume this was for the wish-fulfilment aspects of SF. “Nobody will want to be Captain Kirk if he’s got a wife and kids, so he needs to be free to bed exotic alien women every week!” (I’m not sure who’s wishes this was supposed to fulfill. Shatner’s? Roddenberry’s? Probably Roddenberry’s.) In the nineties there was a move to make women more prominent parts of various SF shows, and to show them in leadership positions, not in caregiver roles. These were mostly terrible because the female characters were for the most part written by dudes who couldn’t even write male characters believably, so what chance did they have with writing women? “Let’s just put Captain Kirk in a dress and be done with it.” I’ll site Major Kira and Captain Janeway as the worst examples of this. Also the first year or two of Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, though she eventually evolved in to a better character even as the show evolved in to the most pointless deus ex machina in history.

The bottom line to all this is that women stayed away in droves. Kira and Janeway didn’t really draw in new viewers, or give women a sense of empowerment because, in the end, they were badly-drawn characters who didn’t act like women perceive themselves as acting. Of course this was all before Joss Whedon, and the rules are different now, but still, after all this time, SF is portrayed as a boys-and-their-toys thing, so I’m happy to see a genre show that’s hoping to change that. Granted, it’s a soap, but so what? Babylon 5 was a soap. The New Galactica was a very violent, and frequently incoherent soap. Dollhouse is a Soap. Kings was a Soap. Ivory Snow is a soap. I’ve got no problem with that whatsoever, provided the characters are good, the peril is real, and the drama arises naturally from the situations at hand.

So, how did it go?


2052 AD

There’s a manned mission on Mars. The lander is on the surface, ready to launch and re-connect with the orbiter. A sandstorm blows up while two astronauts are outside. The mission commander - Mike Goss - in the orbiter tells the remaining two guys to launch, and leave the others behind, rather than have all four of them die. Reluctantly, the astronauts agree, and abandon two of their own on the surface to die.

2057 AD

Candidates for the Antares mission have been selected, and are beginning their training. Most of them won’t pass, of course, but it’s an unprecedented, expensive, and frankly amazing mission - a manned flight to seven planets in six years with very specific launch windows. The two members of the lander crew who survived the Mars mission - Maddox Donner and Ted Shaw -are among the instructors for the candidates.

One of them, a blonde girl named Zoe Barnes is pregnant, the result of a drunken one-night-stand with a guy who claimed he had a vasectomy. She confides in another of the candidates, who’s a doctor, Jen Crane. Jen confirms that Zoe is pregnant, and arranges for her to have an abortion rather than risk her position on the mission. Evidently in the 2050s abortion is illegal again (Hurrah!), so this is a big deal for all of them. Zoe hasn’t made up her mind yet.

2062 AD

Donner has been having dreams of him pulling a statue of an elephant off of the Antares heat shield while Zoe goes outside naked and dies.

The Antares mission is in the final stages before launch, the crew has been selected: Zoe, Jen, Paula Morales (the ship’s reporter), Nadia Schilling, and over-sexed German pilot, Rollie Crane as mission commander, Ajay Sharma, and Evram Mintz, an Israeli doctor, and Steve Wassenfelder, a physicist who likes the porn. Jen and Rollie are recently married, and looking forward to a six-year honeymoon in space. Donner and Shaw are part of the backup crew working ground control. Donner’s got a bad reputation for being a squirmin’ hatch blower who left people behind on Mars, but he decks an obnoxious British reporter when the guy questions him on it, and Mike Goss says that as soon as he can find a replacement, Donner’s out of the program entirely for this little outburst.

The crew is launched, they rendezvous with the Antares, and just 30 hours before their launch window, both Rollie and Ajay develop identical heart murmurs. This is not possible, of course, but Mike Goss - who’s now the overall head of mission control - and Ted Shaw’s wife, who’s the overall head of the science end of the program know something is up, and that “It” has rejected them for whatever reason. Having no choice, what with “It” calling the shots and all, they send up Donner and Shaw as the backup crew, even though this will cause a world of hurt.

Firstly: substituting backups for the primary crew at this point is traumatic enough, but they’ve got to do it in a very narrow window of time, and it means splitting up Shaw and his wife - she’ll remain on Earth - for six years! Even worse is splitting up the newlywed Cranes. It can’t be helped though. Ajay goes nuts and tries to kill himself. He steals a space suit and heads outside with his idol of Ganesha, the statue Donner saw in his dream. The Antares crew want to go out and rescue Ajay, but Mike won’t let them, saying that he’ll eat the loss of one person, but he’s not going to loose two. Donner decks Goss and says when he gets back to earth, he’s quitting.

Donner gets a quick pre-flight medical where he's informed that his vasectomy from years before didn't take, so they fix it again. Then they take a shuttle up to the Antares, and rather than dock, they defy orders and find Ajay sitting on the atmospheric shield on the leading edge of the massive ship. Donner talks him down, and Ajay agrees to return if he can put Ganesha on the shield, which is, of course, exactly where it was in Donner’s dream. Ajay and Rollie head back to earth, and Donner and Shaw take their places, with Shaw as the overall mission commander.

On the ship, Zoe keeps hearing babies cry at random intervals.

The Antares meets its launch window after all, with the engines firing up as the ship leaves earth



“So how did we do?” Not bad, actually. It wasn’t nearly as “Chicky” as I’d been led to believe, and while there’s an enormous amount of similarity between this pilot and the failed pilot from the “Virtuality” series a couple months ago http://www.republibot.com/content/tv-movie-review-%E2%80%9Cvirtuality%E2... this one is vastly, vastly, vastly better. It really is an apples-to-apples comparison, too, since both shows are very similar: You’ve got a finite number of people on a large ship for years on end, you’ve got interpersonal conflicts, and the whole story revolves around getting the mission underway, or simply scrubbing the whole thing. Both are medium-hard science, rather than drippy-soft Trek crap. Both scripts even involve crewmembers coming down with serious ailments as major plot points. They also both feature annoyingly sunny reporter characters. But whereas Virtuality felt stagey, half-baked, not terribly logical (You’re sending an emotionally and physically crippled man as the second in command of the mission? You’re sending a conspicuously gay couple who are already having massive relationship problems? Why?), the stuff we see here makes sense, and people behave like grown ups. The characters feel like they’re here for a reason, and not just shoehorned in for some political purpose. The acting is better, too And whereas Virtuality felt pointlessly overlong and bloated from the decision to blow a 45 minute script up in to a rather pointless 90-minute TV movie, this story feels tight and just about right. Virtuality was a foul ball, and Defying Gravity, to my surprise, is a solid base hit. One wonders if the Fox suits somehow got wind of this show, and realized how poor theirs looked by comparison. It would be interesting to know the reasons behind their decisions.

Of course the punching people out thing is kind of silly, the scenes between Donner and his dad go nowhere, and the sexual tension between Zoe and Donner is perhaps slightly overplayed, but it was interesting, and I like Donner’s not hesitating for an instant to defy orders if it will save a person’s life….the second time. The first time out, he wasn’t quite so brash.

I wonder how and why Abortion was delegalized in this show’s version of the future. Is it a criticism of conservative politics in the present, or is there a specific reason for it, like the current trend towards depopulation or perhaps the results of a major war? It will be interesting to see. Abortion is still a taboo issue - deservedly so - and obviously we all know what side of the debate I’m on, but I’m impressed that this show has the guts to tackle it in this manner. Thus far, they haven’t seemed terribly preachy about it one way or another. Jen Crane is obviously pro-abortion, of course, but she’s also Candian, and her views may not be representative in this case.

What is “It?” An alien, obviously. (Virtuality appeared to have some Alien influence as well, though this was nebulous.)

Though it’s use of flashbacks was obviously derivative of the Lost playbook, I really *like* the Lost playbook, and I thought they made use of it to good effect here.

The *real* Antares was the Lunar Module from the Apollo 14 mission, which took Alan Shepherd and Ed Mitchell to the lunar surface on February 5th, 1971. It’s unclear if the ship in this show is named after that one - indeed, it’s unclear if the producers of the show had heard of it at all, or if they just thought it was a cool-sounding name.

I really genuinely love the Antares interior sets. They look cool. I love the upward-opening big clunky doors, the observation deck, the conference room, it all looks really good. Again, much better than Virtuality, though to be fair, this production seems to have a much bigger budget, and a much better shot at at least finishing out their first season.

The down-side is that some portions of the ship rotate for gravity, other portions of the ship don’t, and yet no one ever floats because of “Nanofibers” in their clothes that “Pull them to the deck.” Riiiiight, pull the other one. Obviously this isn’t the case, since the women all have medium-length hair (Excepting Zoe, who’s rockin’ China Phillips’ old ‘do), and it’s being pulled towards the deck, too. What’s causing that? Nanofibers in the shampoo? So that’s irritatingly dumb, particularly when a slightly different redesign of the exterior of the ship would have removed the problem, but there it is.

Donner’s dream would appear to be at least mildly prescient.

So what does all this mean? Well, they ran two episodes back to back tonight, so tune in again in about 45 minutes when I have the second review posted.

Bottom line: I liked it way the hell more than I expected. The abortion subplot will obviously make some conservatives uncomfortable - and well that it should - but as of yet, no one’s preaching at us (Except the Canadian lady, and they do that kind of thing, you know?) No one is telling us we have to endorse this kind of behavior. At present, it’s just one more skeleton in the closet of the characters on the show, not much different than two dead astronauts on Mars.