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<i>Defying Gravity</i> cast
Defying Gravity got off to a bad start, but later episodes haven’t been nearly as bad. (credit: ABC)

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It’s rather rare for a science fiction show to hit the ground running with excellent stories in its first season, let alone its first few episodes. Star Trek did it (although The Next Generation took longer). So did Firefly, and Battlestar Galactica (I’m obviously referring to the new one here, and don’t know why I even have to point that out). Usually it takes a show at least several episodes for the writers to find their voice, the actors to find their motivation, and the producer to truly figure out what the show is supposed to be about. Babylon 5 is the best example of this, with a relatively mediocre first season that was followed by mesmerizing second and third seasons.

(Note: in case you have not figured it out yet, I’m a geek.)

Which brings me to Defying Gravity.

Rest assured, I am not going to compare Defying Gravity to those other shows, all of which were infinitely superior. But I bring up this fact because, if you managed to swallow your disgust and stick with it, Defying Gravity has finally had a few decent episodes. They are not good science fiction, but they have at least risen to the level of being decent drama. Fans of fiction about near-term space exploration don’t have many choices, so decent drama may be the most we can hope for.

Maybe I need to back up a bit.

If you managed to swallow your disgust and stick with it, Defying Gravity has finally had a few decent episodes.

If you don’t know, Defying Gravity is a television show currently running Sunday nights on ABC (see: Lost Lust in Space”, The Space Review, August 10, 2009). The premise, which is taken from a better British show (see “Voyages to alien worlds”, The Space Review, August 15, 2005), is that in 2052 an international crew of six astronauts is visiting seven planets in our solar system in six years aboard the massive spaceship Antares. There are really only two other relevant facts about the show: everyone on the crew is both psychologically scarred and oversexed, and the mission is apparently being instigated by some kind of alien entity known as “Beta.”

So far, ABC has aired seven episodes, out of (apparently) thirteen. The first four episodes were not—what’s the word I’m looking for here? Oh yeah—good. None of the characters is particularly likeable or very well-drawn. A couple of them are downright annoying. Perhaps this is the reason why the show’s ratings, which were never good to begin with, have been steadily heading down.

Right from the start the stories have been weak, and the characters have challenged credulity. A case in point was the fourth episode, “H2IK.” In that episode, an intermittent power failure aboard the ship is both potentially life-threatening and baffling (the title refers to an engineering explanation for the malfunction: “Hell If I Know”). In one scene, while the ship’s chief engineer, Maddux Donner (played by Office Space’s Ron Livingston) is trying to figure out what keeps causing the power to fail, his (pardon me for using this term, but no other one works) lover, horny pilot Nadia Schilling, keeps pestering him for sex.

Read that last sentence again.

Okay, got it? That’s right: their ship is malfunctioning, potentially seriously—which in space could mean YOU ALL DIE—and Nadia’s thoughts naturally turn to boinking.

It was at this point while watching the show that I had pretty much reached my limit and started hoping that a meteor would come along, punch a hole in their ship, and cause all their heads to explode in vacuum (yes, I know that doesn’t happen, but a guy can dream, right?). These people are too stupid to fly in space. What kind of idiot would give these libidinous dumbasses a ten trillion dollar spaceship?

Bizarrely, I kept watching. And surprisingly, it got better.

The fifth and sixth episodes, titled “Rubicon” and “Bacon,” respectively, were solid, character-driven stories. They had few science fiction elements in them. In fact, “Bacon” was a decent episode largely because it was a medical drama, and the episode’s creator was an executive producer on chick-flick medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, and clearly pitched this show as “Grey’s in Space.” Stick to what you’re good at, I guess. Also, the episodes finally started to mimic the best qualities of the other show that Defying Gravity steals from, Lost. One of Lost’s greatest strengths in its earliest years was its ability to show how a character had become who they were, and to impart just a little bit of story twist while doing it.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the show is good. It’s cheese. Melodramatic freeze-dried astronaut cheese. The light-hearted moments can suddenly turn dark without warning, and we are constantly treated to Donner’s voiceovers, which always contain some Very Important Message. It’s a truism that female-oriented dramas have to contain some kind of Life Lesson, just like celebrity profiles in Parade magazine, except accompanied by chick rock musical interludes. Here’s one of Donner’s actual lines: “We can find redemption in the simplest acts of humanity.” Uh, yeah, sure. Steal that from Hallmark?

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the show is good. It’s cheese. Melodramatic freeze-dried astronaut cheese.

But these two episodes improved upon their predecessors. In “Rubicon,” the Antares is approaching the point in space where they cannot turn around and return to Earth. They’re committed to their mission. Antares’ commander, Ted Shaw, tells the crew that they have to give up a personal object that will be placed in a time capsule jettisoned from the ship before reaching the point of no return. This is supposed to symbolize leaving their pasts behind and committing to the journey ahead.

The crewmembers all struggle over what object to give up. Donner has been carrying around a baseball since the first episode, and until now the audience has been led to believe that it’s from his childhood, when he was a baseball phenomenon, and symbolizes the baseball career he never had. But as the episode progresses we learn that his former girlfriend, the woman whom he left on Mars to die, caught it at a ballgame they attended and he took it from her possessions when he returned to Earth. Later, feeling guilty, he gave it to her mother, who was understandably hostile to the man who abandoned her daughter on Mars. But the mother returns the ball and he brings it with him on the journey. Donner places the ball in the canister to be left behind as they pass the point of no return.

Except in a twist, Shaw jettisons an empty canister, returning the items to the crew. What mattered was that they were willing to part with their pasts, not that they actually did it—because their pasts are inevitably part of them no matter what. The episode ends with a spacesuited Donner in the airlock, throwing the baseball into space, symbolically cutting his ties with the woman he loved and the woman he killed and the woman who was still holding him back emotionally ten years later. It was a clever bit of storytelling, if a bit maudlin.

In the next episode, “Bacon,” two bickering crewmembers, Paula and Ted, are moving cargo. They get careless and Paula’s finger is severed. She loses a lot of blood and goes into shock and starts suffering from internal bleeding. The ship’s doctor, Evram Mintz, has to operate. The episode’s strength is how it interweaves various characters’ stories as they are forced to confront their fears. Donner gets ill at the sight of blood, but forces himself to deal with it when he has to assist Mintz, who is suffering flashbacks to a bad combat experience.

Defying Gravity, like Lost, makes extensive use of flashbacks. Unlike Lost, the episodes really only flash back to two periods, five and ten years before the mission (i.e. 2047 and 2042), which creates the odd impression that nothing significant happened to these characters at any other time. Also, totally unlike Lost, the writers and directors aren’t very skillful in employing them, as we go from the present to five years before the mission and then several years before that without any good signposts along the way, or real understanding of why the periods they’re flashing back to are at all significant in their development as human beings.

In “Bacon” this technique actually works for a change. We see Donner dealing with an incident during training when Zoe suffered severe consequences from a chemically-induced, illegal abortion. We also finally find out that Mintz is not haunted by the image of a young girl trapped in a school during a war because he couldn’t save her; he’s haunted by the image because he was the one who called in the airstrike that killed her. And in the end we discover that Donner’s reaction to blood is not simply nerves, but stems from a horrific experience in his childhood.

Like Lost, there’s a deeper mystery to the story. In this case, it is something called “Beta” which is located in a section of the ship and has been influencing the crewmembers, usually by causing hallucinations, helpful hallucinations that lead them to detect threats to their safety. Beta provides the science fictional elements to the story. Except that it doesn’t. Beta so far is simply a MacGuffin, a plot device that drives the story, but doesn’t necessarily have any meaning of its own. In all of the episodes to date, Beta simply pushes the story forward. But it’s no different than having an angel reach down and tap people on the shoulder, or Cupid shoot somebody with an arrow. And it is also flawed, because is the crew ever really in danger if they have Beta protecting them? So far Beta is only a fantastical, supernatural force, and that is starting to wear thin.

The proof of this was the seventh episode, “Fear,” which aired September 6 (and was clearly intended to run in October if the show had been placed on the fall schedule rather than burned off in the summer). The story takes place on Halloween 2052, as the crew is supposed to film a live commercial for a candy company. The money from the commercial is supposed to fund the mission’s science projects. Demonstrating a keen understanding of our current space program, the writers realize that human spaceflight is about engineering, economics and politics, and the science is just “gravy” that is the first to be eliminated during funding shortfalls.

Defying Gravity is a summer replacement show, and its ratings have been heading down, unable to defy gravity, or reality. A few more weeks and this show will disappear into a black hole, never to be seen again.

As the astronauts prepare to go on an EVA, many of them start experiencing Beta-induced hallucinations that paralyze them, eventually forcing them to cancel the EVA, the commercial, and lose the money. The Life Lesson of this episode—it seems that every episode now must have one—is that astronauts never show their fears, but sometimes the true act of bravery is to admit them. It’s a decent message, and the writing, acting, and production is all competent. But it’s ultimately an empty episode because it doesn’t mean anything. The show has settled into a pattern whereby Beta does something mysterious, and our characters all learn a little something about themselves, and nothing ever really happens. Seven episodes in and they have not reached their first destination yet.

If you’re looking for drama about human space exploration, this is not really it. As I previously noted, Defying Gravity is based upon a BBC show called Space Odyssey. That show derived drama from the actual spaceflight journey—the perils of encountering a comet, landing on a moon around Jupiter, or traveling near the rings of Saturn. What is missing from Defying Gravity so far is any drama that comes from the fact that these horny, self-involved, shallow astronauts are in space. And that’s the reason why anybody interested in fictional depictions about the near-term exploration of space will probably tune out Defying Gravity. But even if, like me, you’re willing to continue watching for the occasional good character story, you won’t have to watch for long. Defying Gravity is a summer replacement show, and its ratings have been heading down, unable to defy gravity, or reality. A few more weeks and this show will disappear into a black hole, never to be seen again.