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Had Defying Gravity avoided cancellation, the future voyages of the Antares would have featured intriguing new developments among the members of its crew.

Going somewhere Out There: revisiting Defying Gravity one last time

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A few weeks ago a rather obscure announcement about NASA-funded research with a thin connection to the subject of life on other planets caused a brief media sensation. A few months before that, an equally obscure announcement about the possible discovery of a planet around a distant star with some of the characteristics required for habitability also attracted a lot of media coverage. Of all the topics associated with space exploration and space science, the possibility of life on other planets holds tremendous attraction for the public and the media.

Extraterrestrial life is a common topic for science fiction. The various iterations of Star Trek featured an alien of the week. Star Wars had a plethora of alien life forms. It’s easy to understand why—aliens can add mystery to a story, or they can serve as analogues for current social situations that a writer wants to highlight. But aliens are rare for science fiction stories set in the near-term in our own solar system.

Unusually for a show set in the near future, Defying Gravity featured an extraterrestrial subplot, and a surprisingly good one.

Over the past several years I have reviewed a number of near-term science fiction television shows on The Space Review, using the thinly-disguised justification that they come closest to depicting what human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit might be like. I have devoted the most attention to an ABC program called Defying Gravity that aired from August to October 2009. But the fact that I’ve written a bunch of articles on this TV show over the past year and a half does not in any way indicate that I thought it was very good. There are better shows currently on television. And there have been better science fiction shows on TV in the recent past (Battlestar Galactica, Firefly). I’ve devoted attention to Defying Gravity on this site for a couple of reasons. One, because it is about near-term human spaceflight in the solar system and therefore is topical; articles about Hawaii Five-O are not suited for this forum, even if I’d enjoy writing them (for instance, does Honolulu really have that much violent crime? And Grace Park in a bikini: yowza!). And two, Defying Gravity is enigmatic. The show wasn’t great, but it did have excellent production values, decent acting, and some intriguing stories. As one commenter noted, by the second half of the show’s only season, viewers discovered that there was actually a story behind all the melodrama. Unusually for a show set in the near future, Defying Gravity featured an extraterrestrial subplot, and a surprisingly good one.

If you missed it, Defying Gravity was set in the middle of this century and concerned a small group of astronauts on a massive ship known as Antares on a mission to visit most of the planets in our solar system. Despite the science fiction setting, the show was primarily a relationship drama and featured numerous flashbacks to the characters’ experiences on Earth five years before the mission. Space exploration was not the primary plot driver at first, although over time the show developed a strong subplot involving a series of extraterrestrial objects scattered throughout the solar system: the crew’s mission, which they did not learn about until it was well underway, was to recover these apparently living organisms. The studio filmed 13 episodes, but only the first nine aired on American television before ABC pulled the plug and canceled it. It is available on DVD (although it looks great in hi-def, it has not been released on Blu-ray. See: “Beating a dead space horse (yeah, Defying Gravity, again…)” The Space Review, February 8, 2010).

The show had many problems. One of them was that the characters lacked depth. Another ABC show, Lost, had an amazing ability, particularly in its first season, of adding tremendous depth to its characters quickly and intriguingly. For instance, the audience was initially led to believe that one character was a mafia thug, only to learn that he was not, but was being forced into situations that he did not choose. Many of Defying Gravity’s characters started out as little more than flat stereotypes and only slowly gained extra dimensions. Zoe was frail, Donner was wounded, Wass was the nerd gamer with the porn stash. But the problem was compounded by poor casting, particularly among the leads in the ensemble show. Ron Livingston, most memorable as the slacker from Office Space, never really worked as Donner. He always seemed somewhat bemused, not haunted. He was supposed to be haunted, because he had left his girlfriend to die on Mars. But the best that Livingston could accomplish was a somewhat blank stare. Similarly, Laura Harris didn’t bring much to the role of Zoe. It was really hard to understand how this woman, who seemed like she could be knocked over by a light breeze, was selected to fly on an important space mission.

Defying Gravity’s arc

In October 2009, soon after Defying Gravity was canceled, show creator James Parriott responded to television blogger Keith McDuffee’s questions about the show with a surprising amount of detail and candor (“How Defying Gravity would have progressed, straight from the creator”). He explained what would have happened to the main characters had the show continued. This was unusual for several reasons, primarily the fact that Parriott actually knew where his show was going had it continued, and knew where it would ultimately end. The plans he had for the show’s characters and storyline indicate that Defying Gravity could have become a very intriguing and thought-provoking show. It was clearly going somewhere interesting.

The characters for Defying Gravity were in some ways clichés, but Parriott indicated that he was going to do some interesting things with them and develop them beyond their stereotypes.

Most TV producers set up the premise of a show and the major characters and plotlines, but do not have a sense of where it is actually going to end. For most TV shows that is not an issue. Does anybody think that CSI: Miami actually has a story arc? An endpoint? The series will not conclude when the investigators have solved all the violent crimes in Miami. The writers simply need to set their characters in motion and keep writing crimes for them to solve and the show will end when the viewers—or the producers—get tired of the premise and the characters and the writing. Parriott even told the story about how one of the producers of Lost spoke in front of a group of ad execs just before the premier of that famously convoluted show and admitted that he had no idea where Lost was going even in the next few episodes, let alone how it was going to end (those of you who, like me, were devoted followers of Lost and were glued to our sets for the unsatisfying finale will find this unsurprising). In contrast, Parriott had worked out story arcs for nearly all of his characters as well as the show’s overall storyline, and in October 2009 he revealed where they would have gone.

Part of the interview was devoted to inside-Hollywood stories of the production, and these are common to anybody familiar with television production—producers and studios subjected to the mysterious whims of network executives who make programming decisions by rolling dice and reading chicken entrails. According to Parriott, ABC gave them the go-ahead for the show, but did not actually commit to airing it until shortly before the premiere. That limited the amount of advertizing and promotion that the network did and also made it impossible for the studio to take Defying Gravity to the SyFy Channel, where Parriott thinks it might have had a better chance at survival. Parriott also explained that he was not responsible for the “Greys Anatomy in Space” moniker that got stuck on his show. Clearly the network wanted a show that had greater appeal to women, hence the romantic relationships angle, but that was not the reputation that Parriott sought.

Transformation and testing

The characters for Defying Gravity were in some ways clichés. The plump guy is a gamer and brings a stash of porn onboard the ship, one of the guys is a jock, one of the women is deeply religious—in typical Hollywood fashion, the writers have taken a single personality trait and exaggerated it. But Parriott indicated that he was going to do some interesting things with them and develop them beyond their stereotypes.

One of the themes that appeared in the first thirteen episodes was that of regeneration and transformation. There were clear indications that the objects could alter human physiology and even human DNA. Donner, for instance, had a vasectomy that had reversed. And after Paula got injured she healed at an abnormal rate. (This wasn’t always positive: two of the characters were removed from the mission when their lives were endangered by the extraterrestrial “fractal object” named “Beta,” thus establishing that Beta was manipulating the mission for an unknown purpose.) Parriott explained that if the show had continued the characters would have continued to transform, in unusual ways. Zoe, who had a hysterectomy after a botched abortion, would become fertile again. Her hallucinations about a baby were eventually going to result in her revisiting the choice of having a baby with Donner. The fractal objects were testing the members of the crew by forcing them to face important past decisions in their lives.

One of the more startling cases was Nadia, the over-sexed German pilot, who was never portrayed very sympathetically in the first season. In one episode Nadia hallucinated becoming a man, and indeed this is what would have happened over several seasons if the show had continued. Parriott’s back-story for her was that she had been born with male and female reproductive organs and her parents had decided to have an operation performed to enable their child to grow into a woman. Nadia had not made that decision herself, and over the course of the show the objects would have allowed her to reverse that decision, and she would have eventually transformed into a man. She also would have become involved with the ship’s doctor, who was also male.

Despite all of its problems, Defying Gravity had a great story that would have emerged if the show had been given a chance.

On the one hand, the idea seems rather bizarre for a television show. But on the other hand, science fiction literature started exploring the idea of gender and identity many decades ago, and numerous novels in the 1970s delved into it. Television and the movies have simply been too scared to go there (witness the surprising lack of gay characters in Star Trek, and the fear that show’s producers exhibited of merely mentioning the subject, even during the 1990s). In fact, it was only recently, with Battlestar Galactica and Caprica, that science fiction television featured gay characters without treating them as anything unusual. Defying Gravity would have ventured into new territory with Nadia’s gender transformation.

The extraterrestrial imperative

At the time he wrote the first article in October 2009, Keith McDuffee promised a follow-up with more information six months later. That ultimately turned into a year for reasons that he couldn’t explain (but probably had something to do with a dispute over ownership rights for the story bible—rights issues dominate a lot of disputes in Hollywood). But in October 2010, McDuffee produced a second article (“How Defying Gravity would have ended: the final chapter”) resulting from another interview with James Parriott. This second article indicates that despite all of its problems, Defying Gravity had a great story that would have emerged if the show had been given a chance.

According to Parriott, the second season would have involved a mission to Mercury to retrieve a third extraterrestrial object (“Beta” was found on Earth, “Gamma” was retrieved from Venus, “Alpha” was still on Mars, and there were others at Mercury, Europa, Saturn, and Pluto). Nadia would have descended to Mercury’s surface and had to venture across the terminator, into the intense and dangerous sunlight, in order to get it. This would have been symbolic of her own gender identity crisis, and her need to cross her own terminator.

Wass—the physicist—and Paula, who is deeply religious, would have grown closer together, and their relationship would have revolved around discussions of science and religion. Presumably (this is my speculation) Paula would have interpreted the objects in religious terms, and Wass would have seen them in scientific terms. Parriott admitted that in his original story concept Wass was unformed, possibly suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome. But the character changed in part because the actor who played him and the actress playing Paula had such good chemistry together that Parriott saw their characters spending more time together.

By the end of the second season, the Antares would be heading toward Mars, as would a resupply ship from Earth which would be carrying two of the characters who have been on the ground, and are married to people on Antares. This was, after all, a relationship drama.

The third season would have focused on their trip to Mars. Donner would have discovered that Karen, the woman he left behind there, had lived for several weeks after he abandoned her, and was also pregnant with his child. The space agency had blocked her transmissions and kept Donner in the dark about what happened to her. Parriott said that one thing they discussed in the writer’s room was that Karen would still be alive when the Antares reached Mars, although this would be more than a decade after Donner abandoned her. Parriott admitted that he had not thought much about what would happen with the Mars storyline.

After leaving Mars—possibly following the deaths of a couple of crewmembers—they would have faced two startling new challenges. First, they would have learned that the objects were a puzzle they would have to assemble. Second, they would have discovered that Antares was short on fuel, meaning that their options were to return to Earth or to continue on their journey with no hope of going home.

Defying Gravity for all its flaws, was a show that had some big ideas. It also raises some interesting questions about space exploration.

The first season contained hints of some much bigger story points that would have been developed in later seasons. For instance, one character casually mentioned that Cape Canaveral was now submerged, and according to Parriott, the show would have revealed that the Earth was a seriously messed up place by the middle of this century—probably environmentally devastated. But the bigger story was hinted at in the last episode, which never aired in the United States. As Zoe was going to retrieve the Gamma object on Venus, she noticed several other robotic spacecraft that had landed nearby. Obviously one or more countries had sought to obtain the object before her. Donner also realized that his tragic mission to Mars had been an effort to retrieve the “Alpha” object. The Antares crew had been kept in the dark about their mission, but clearly there was a major effort over many years to try and bring back the objects. And there were hints that a shadowy corporation was behind the mission.

The revelation of the first conspiracy—to keep the objects secret—is not the end of the story. Gradually there are hints of another conspiracy behind the first. Goss, who is in charge of the mission back on Earth and was on the disastrous first Mars mission, realizes that even he is being lied to by the “uberbosses,” who (this is my speculation) are leading the big corporation that has footed much of the bill. According to Parriott, these shadowy figures want the mission to dispose of the objects, not return them to Earth.

The end game for the story, according to McDuffee, is for the crew to retrieve the remaining fractal objects, one at Europa, another at Saturn, and the final one at Pluto. Wass and Paula, apparently in a suicidal mission, assemble them at the edge of our solar system. They flash into a bright light. At that point a series of flashbacks shows all of the characters making different choices in their lives than the ones they had already made. Time is elastic, and the mysterious objects have given them the opportunity to change their pasts. The end is that Antares is suddenly back around Earth, but with a different crew—the characters who never left Earth—because history has been changed. Although McDuffee and Parriott don’t say so, it seems likely that Earth’s ecological destruction also would have been reversed. (Again, this is my speculation, but one possibility is that the leaders of the corporation behind the mission are extraterrestrial in origin themselves. Perhaps they are more chaotic beings than the fractal objects, and fear the change that the objects could precipitate.)

McDuffee pressed Parriott for further clarification, and Parriott told him that the fractal objects were “a puzzle to determine man’s worthiness to exist in a greater universe.” They are a test, not only a test of mankind’s physical and technological capabilities, but also emotional capabilities. Humankind was headed for destruction, but the Antares crew—aided by the fractal objects—gave it a chance for change and redemption.

By now you might have noticed that this theme shares a lot with the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the movie (it’s easier to understand in the book), aliens have been planting objects throughout the solar system in order to test humanity, and to further their evolution. The apes learn to use tools—and to kill—after touching a monolith on prehistoric Earth. Only a technological civilization could have detected the “Tycho Magnetic Anomaly” on the Moon and excavated, and in the end Dave Bowman travels through the stargate and then ages and is reborn as the Starchild.

Defying Gravity’s fans, at least those represented in the comments sections of both of McDuffee’s articles, seem a little bit rabid. Some of them praise it as the greatest TV show ever and decry the fact that television networks are ruled by the bottom line. (In other news: the sun continues to rise in the east.) But a few of them expressed their wish that the show would continue on in book form, something that Parriott responded would not happen because it probably would not be commercially successful. (He was also too polite to say that he had no interest in giving up the high-paid TV world to labor at making a living as a print author—and a lowly science fiction author at that.) But the commenters hit on a valid idea: this is the kind of story that might be better suited for print than the television screen. Admittedly, it might be difficult to stretch the story out so that one book is devoted to Mercury, one to Mars, and so on. But the plotting and the pacing of a book are different than for a television show and an author has greater freedom in exploring his or her subjects. As Kim Stanley Robinson demonstrated with his Mars trilogy, the planets offer a lot of opportunity for storytelling. A series of books that took readers on a tour of our solar system could work, in the hands of a skilled writer.

Defying Gravity for all its flaws, was a show that had some big ideas. It also raises some interesting questions about space exploration. There are people who believe that humanity’s “destiny,” however defined, lies beyond Earth. But simply living on another world is a vision that has not appealed to more than a tiny segment of American society, and many decades of advocacy by groups such as the L-5 Society has not changed that. If NASA happened to find life on another planet in our solar system would that change the equation?

Acknowledgements: the author wishes to thank Keith McDuffee and James Parriott for revealing the plans for this show. He also wishes to thank TSR reader Bob Hayward, who tipped him off to McDuffee’s articles.