A Subjectively Obscure SciFi Primer: Defying Gravity
After a few months off, the Obscure SF Primer returns with a more recent show than most. Defying Gravity is a 2009 series that aired on ABC for a few weeks, and was pretty much doomed from the start by network mismanagement. Only 13 episodes were made, with some of them never being shown in the US until the DVD release. Defying Gravity is a bit of an odd bird, another genre crossover (like Century City) between the soap opera-esque antics of hospital shows like Grey’s Anatomy and ER and “relatively” hard sci-fi. As you might expect, these two radically different genres share very little in the way of fans; the mere mention of “Grey’s Anatomy IN SPACE” was enough to turn off your average sci-fi fan, while people who tune in each week for the ups and downs of character relationships couldn’t care less about the “science” and exploration that was supposed to be involved. But given all that, is there any redeeming value in this show for those of us no the sci-fi side? Let’s find out.
Set in 2052, Defying Gravity follows the mission of the Antares, an interplanetary spacecraft on a “Grand Tour”-style trip to visit multiple planets in the solar system in one go. The mission also has some mysterious ulterior motives behind it, and much of the crew were “chosen” by an unknown force referred to as Beta. This poorly selected crew includes Maddux Donner (played by Ron Livingston of Office Space fame) and Ted Shaw, survivors of a prior failed Mars mission; Paula Morales, the religious one; Nadia Schilling, the nympho- one; Jen Crane, the disobedient biologist; Evram Mintz, ship’s doctor with PTSD; Steve Wassenfelder, the gross one who has no real purpose; and Zoe Barnes, the one with a poorly handled abortion plotline. There are also a number of other characters back home at Mission Control, including Ted’s wife Eve, Jen’s husband Rollie, flight director Mike Goss (also from that Mars Mission) and Ajay Sharma, a crewmember sidelined at the last second. Yes, it’s quite a lot of characters to keep track of.
The big thing with this show is the aforementioned comparisons to Grey’s Anatomy, which was ABC’s killer show at the time. Every time I sat down to watch it, all I could imagine was the meeting where it was pitched to some executive over there:
“Well, it’s a relationship drama set aboard a spacecraft… kinda like some of the other dramas on your network. Grey’s, that sort of thing.”
“Grey’s Anatomy… in space. That’s BRILLIANT!”
“Okay, but not literally–”
“Start writing up the cheesy sum-it-up voiceovers immediately! I’ll get the schmaltzy music lined up by next week!”
“I don’t think you’re quite understanding–”
“What are you waiting for? Get out of here! Get to work!”
Basically that. This makes the show frustrating in a lot of ways, but I’ll get to the specifics of that later. For now…
- The plot, or what there is of it, is pretty interesting. Most of the sci-fi we get on TV is in the far future, even when it’s confined to the solar system like The Expanse. This is very close to the present by comparison, and there’s plenty of drama to be mined from a long term mission with only slightly better than modern technology. It hasn’t really been done before, and as a result it’s neat to see on that merit alone.
- Defying Gravity has a weird mix of attempting to stay realistic and going completely off the rails in terms of physics, but for the most part it’s okay. It takes them a very long time to get to their first stop, Venus, for example. There’s talk of “point of no return” as far as fuel goes, and the ship is long and modular, as most suggested designs would have it look…
- …But on the other hand, there’s still a lot of bits of truly terrible science in there. For example, their explanation for how the crew walks around is that they have “nanobots” in their clothes that help them stick to the deck with magnetism. Except then their hair would still float… so they later added that they have nanobot hairspray, and style their hair with giant magnets. Never mind the horrible effects this might have on the electronics, or the sheer impracticality of it. Worse, they also use the conventional explanation (rotating compartments with centrifugal force simulating Earth gravity) simultaneously, which gives us some even more baffling problems to cope with. I think, honestly, they just wanted an excuse to be able to have 0 G sex scenes while still excusing themselves from filming expensive 0 G shots all the time. The hallways and compartments are also absurdly huge, but we can excuse that as a necessity of filming (gotta have room for the cameras). And this is nothing compared to the blatant absurdity of sending humans to walk on the surface of Venus.
- The absolutely bizarre justifications for things don’t stop there, though. In the world of Defying Gravity, the global warming has “evaporated the oceans,” exposing the great barrier reef and killing it. In reality, global warming will melt the ice caps and RAISE sea levels. Their medical technology is also totally baffling, given that abortion is apparently illegal and they have libido-suppressing patches and finger-regrowth powder, but no effective and simple forms of contraception. A lot of this is clearly stupidity put in place to justify character backstories. Which brings us to…
- The utterly incompetent and immature nature of almost every character on this mission. I mean, it’s honestly staggering just how poorly put together this crew is. Every single one of them has severe mental illnesses which would disqualify them from astronaut training in real life–at least 3 characters have PTSD; 5 of them experience flashbacks and audible hallucinations in the first few episodes (all characters do eventually). When we see flashbacks to the time they spent in training, it seems more like a high school, with awful cliques, puerile sexual jokes and humor, etc. They worry about things like “the big halloween party” and who’s interested in who. They have stupid bets over who’s “man enough” to overcome the libido suppressors. They are, universally, unprofessional people who would never have even been accepted to the astronaut program in the first place. THIS is where that Grey’s Anatomy soap-style bullshit comes through most heavily, and it makes the first 4 or 5 episodes almost excruciating to get through. It’s little wonder the show died a quick and inglorious death. Just how much of this was foisted on them in a situation similar to the above is up in the air, but I don’t think it can all be blamed on ABC execs. Some of this is just there from the basics of the pitch.
- Bonus points for our nominal lead, Donner, becoming a stalker in all but name, and having this behavior seemingly encouraged by the show, which ships him with Zoe heavily. Could you imagine how awful it would be to be trapped on a 6 year space mission with your stalker? Horrifying.
- Lastly, the music. Yes, it has some really awful “romantic” pop music going on in it, but even going beyond that to the episode specific score, it’s just total crap. The music insists the childish and idiotic antics of the astronauts in training are “cute” and “amusing” when they aren’t at all. In general, the music is very pushy and fails at manipulating you into feeling what the show wants you to feel. Maybe it’d be more effective if the characters weren’t awful, but… they are.
That says it all really. I don’t know who thought “pretty people being naughty” style soap opera and hard science fiction would go together like chocolate and peanut butter, but they were so, so wrong. These are genres with mutually exclusive demographics, and all that combining them did was drive each away for something more conventional. And keep in mind this is 2009 we’re talking about–the tail end of the silver age of TV sci-fi, when sci-fi fans were eagerly looking for the next thing (the deaths of Caprica and Stargate Universe acting as the harbingers of the end in 2010). And actually, that might be a good comparison–Defying Gravity is all the bad things about SGU extracted and refined into an ultra-potent soap show.
Interesting plot drowned in an
evaporating ocean of soapy bullshit.
A quick reminder of my rating system: a 5 represents must-see–a “hidden gem,” as it were. A 4 is good, solid television. A 3 is “cult classic” stage, where the show’s appeal is likely limited to a specific group. A 2 is flawed, but fun, or even “so bad it’s good,” depending on the series and its release timeframe. A 1, of course, is avoid at all costs. Unfortunately, Defying Gravity is not on Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Hulu… but you can get it on a per-episode basis from Amazon.
I guess this is it for this month. I’ll be doing a “What Could Have Been” on Defying Gravity at the end of the month, so stay tuned for that. Suffice it to say, what might have eventually happened is way more interesting than what we actually saw. Have any suggestions? Or are there any little known shows you’re a fan of that you’d like me to cover? Leave them in the comments, or send a tweet to @RetroPhaseShift. To be notified of the next entry in the Subjectively Obscure Sci-Fi Primer, you can subscribe to the RSS feed by clicking here.