Defying gravity takes a supreme act of faith. The same kind of faith as the earliest explorers that set out on the sea, fearing dragons and the threat of falling off the very edge of the earth, all for the hope that there’s something out there that’s new and somehow better than what’s here, or at the very least different. As Star Trek likes to tell us, space is the final frontier, and it took incredible acts of faith and courage to reach there.
The show Defying Gravity pays homage to that spirit—the courage of people like Chuck Yeager, Buzz Aldrin, and Yuri Gagarin—and the spirit of mystery that lies in the heart of the great unknown. Like the space program that inspired it, this series aspires to lofty heights, but weak writing keeps it from reaching the stars.
In 2052 a team of four men and four women set out for the greatest expedition ever done by man: a six-year journey through our solar system. On the trip they will visit our neighboring planets, acquire mineral rights for mining companies, and conduct experiments that can only be done in the far reaches of space.
But it’s all a lie. Unknown to just about everyone involved except for the head of Mission Control and the ship’s captain, the crew of the Antares will face a far different, far more dangerous mission that could change the future of the human race forever. A mysterious force has been working behind the scenes, affecting events so that the right crew goes on this mission. What it wants, where it comes from, and how it can shape events is a mystery, and what the crew decides to do about it could well decide the fate of humankind.
This all sounds like a huge, taut science fiction thriller, right? Well, it’s actually not. This show moves at a surprisingly slow pace and, unlike the majority of SF shows on television right now, focuses on quiet human moments. ABC marketed this show as “Grey’s Anatomy in Space” presumably because this is a very character-driven series, and also because some PR person thought that comparing the two would bring in women viewers. Well, it’s a terrible comparison. A better one would be linking it to ABC’s other hit SF show, Lost (hopefully without making any “Lost in space” puns), but even that misses the mark. The two are very similar in that the majority of the backstory is told through flashbacks, and both rely heavily on teasing out a mystery to keep viewers coming back each week. But the two differ in pacing and conflict. I think I only saw one punch thrown in the show and that was in the pilot episode. Where Lost focuses primarily on external conflicts, Defying Gravity is almost solely internal. And that along with the slow, deliberate pacing is probably why ABC cancelled the series after only eight episodes.
We’re talking about some seriously damaged astronauts here. With one exception they all feel almost overwhelming guilt over events from their past—a failed Mars mission, an abortion, a bad decision made in war—that make it nearly impossible for them to interact in any kind of well-adjusted way. At first I had a hard time believing that these people were ever chosen for such an important mission as this, but it does make sense as the episodes progress.
In a way, two journeys are being made in Defying Gravity: the external journey through the solar system, and the internal journey through the minds of the crew. As they leave Earth, the mystery force that’s been shaping their lives induces hallucinations, making the crew members confront their deepest shame. Maddux Donner sees red Martian sand everywhere and, at times, the specters of his two lost friends. Zoe Barnes hears the cry of her aborted baby. And Dr. Evram Mintz sees the girl he failed to save. It’s almost like these people were chosen for their emotional trauma, and if they were then this may well be the most expensive therapy ever. This makes for great drama, but not for great logic.
The show makes no bones about these people being chosen—some over people much more qualified—and it seems pretty clear to me that their trauma is the key reason they were chosen. Supposedly there’s a larger agenda at work here, but I don’t really see how it’s served by forcing redemption on these people (which is actually a rather problematic view considering that Zoe apparently needs redeeming for choosing to have an abortion. That’s not going to sit well with many people, myself included. I have no problem with her feeling guilt over it: that seems to be a natural reaction for many people, but the fact that something extraneous and almost godlike believes she needs to be redeemed is deeply troubling). If their redemption (for lack of a better word) came as a side effect of their mission that would be fine, but because it seems to be the driving force behind this journey it just feels off. It could be that I just need more information, that there’s a greater purpose these people serve but can’t do so until they get their heads on straight, but I can only work with what they give me, and it just doesn’t jive with me.
Because faith and redemption are such major concepts in this series, it has a decidedly religious undertone that at times becomes painfully belabored, especially with the characters Ajay Sharma and Paula Morales. Ajay is the engineer that worked on designing the Antares, and he is Hindu; a fact that the show constantly reminds you of. He almost constantly talks in homilies about our people being on their destined path. In many ways Ajay sounds more like a Calvinist than a Hindu, at least as far as I can tell. At times it feels like Ajay’s sole purpose is to remind us that we have a destiny, and because of this he practically hits you over the head with his homilies. This was actually very disappointing because Ajay was my favorite character in the show. He was certainly the most well-adjusted character, and was also the kindest, compassionate, and sincere person on Defying Gravity and the actor Zahf Paroo managed to do this in way that felt completely natural and endearing, making me think that his belabored pseudo-sermons on destiny didn’t work because of the writing and not his acting abilities.
Paula Morales, on the other hand, seems totally one dimensional. Other than serving as pilot for the landers, she makes short videos that are broadcast to classrooms across the Earth, but her only real defining feature is her dogmatic Catholicism. She follows scripture and ecclesiastic tradition to the exclusion of independent thought. Anytime something out of the ordinary happens, she interprets it as God’s will. Now that in and of itself is fine, but this point of view kills her curiosity: she never investigates further. This seems like a poor—if not dangerous—attitude for an astronaut.
The quasi-supernatural events that affect the crew along with the rather heavy-handed points of view espoused by Ajay and Paula create a very religious subtext that only increases as the series progresses. Near the end of the season the crew begins to compare themselves to Job in an effort to explain the hardships they’ve endured. Just like anyone else who suffers they want, probably need, to feel like it serves some kind of purpose, and it’s hard not to believe it. As I said before, the show relies heavily on flashbacks. Each flashback fills in some vital bit of backstory, but also relates somehow to what’s currently happening on the Antares. This also creates a sense of structure, of predestination. Every important moment was somehow influenced by this otherworldly force to bring them to Antares: free will had no bearing on their future, and there’s no reason to think that their present is any different.
Unfortunately, it’s just too much. Ajay’s speeches, Paula’s rigid religious viewpoint, the flashbacks, and the insistence that these people were chosen is too much. At one point I wanted to say to my TV, “Okay, I get it.” I don’t know if this was due to some kind of inexperience on the writer’s part or a fear that the audience wouldn’t pick up on these themes, but it seems like the writers and show runners wanted to absolutely make sure that you got it, and it really takes away from what is otherwise a good show.
Although I dislike the feeling that some pseudo-supernatural force is manipulating events just so these men and women work through their inner demons, I do like that they have those demons. My favorite shows are character-driven, and this one certainly falls into that category. These are dynamic, three-dimensional people (well, with the exception of Paula, but that may have more to due to time constraints for the first season) who are to various degrees flawed, and it’s compelling to see them work through their issues. It gives the show heart, and it almost makes up for the heavy-handed mysticism.
Also, I have to say that the science, for the most part, is excellent. The designs for the space suits and the Antares match current designs engineers have come up with for future space missions. I also really appreciate the show’s little touches, such as the way they explain artificial gravity. Even though the Antares uses rotating sections for crew quarters to create artificial gravity, the rest of the ship creates gravity through the use of magnetic deck plates. The crew’s clothes are composed of magnetic nano-fibers that are attracted just enough to the plates to keep them from floating, but not enough to make them stick to the hull like refrigerator magnets.
And another great touch is the way they handle sex in space—specifically, keeping the astronauts from having it. Although the men are required to have vasectomies, sexual tensions, jealousies, and rejections can compromise a mission and possibly lead to disasters. The solution to this is the HALO patch, or Hormone Activated Libido Oppressors. It is little details like that that I really enjoy about this show, but in a way they weaken it, too. The science is so good that the moments where it deviates into what I can only describe as supernatural feel incongruent. The way the show handles them just doesn’t feel organic. They almost feel jammed together.
Arthur C. Clarke famously said that any suitably advanced technology will seem like magic, and that may be the case with this show. It’s possible that it will make more sense and cohere better as the show went on. After all, faith, religion, and science aren’t mutually exclusive. The character development and my deep love of the space program were enough to keep me watching, but unfortunately that’s not an option. Like so many SF shows, Defying Gravity came and went with little notice, and while it certainly had its problems, I would have liked to have seen where the show went. I may very well not liked how it ended, as was the case with Battlestar Galactica, but it would have been interesting nonetheless.
Each episode is presented in Widescreen with the audio in 5.1 Dolby Digital. There is only an English language track, but there are English, Spanish, and French subtitles for the hard of hearing and non-English speakers. Each episode looks and sounds great with no problems with either the video or the audio.
Mission Accomplished – A Look at Defying Gravity (10:33) – I think this was filmed before the show was cancelled, and in a way it’s kind of sad because the actors and writers seem genuinely excited about what they are doing. The contents of the featurette really don’t add anything to the show in terms of thoughtful analysis, though, so I’d say skip this.
Photo Slide Show: “Spacecraft Design,” “Set Design,” “Costume and Prop Design,” “Production Graphics,” “Promotional Photography” – I’m not too keen on photo galleries as extras, but I will say that the music accompanying the slideshows is beautiful and almost make playing them worthwhile just so you can hear it.
Deleted Scenes – There are 12 scenes total, coming in at 19:28, and while they add little bits to the show, such as explaining what the acronym HALO means, there’s really not a lot here in terms of worthwhile content.
For those interested in how the show would have ended, James Parriott did outline the basic plot threads in some interviews that you can find with a quick Google search. Even though I had some problems with the technique, I still enjoyed this show and I think I may rewatch it sometime soon to see if I pick up anything new, or if the parts that bothered me the first run through still bother me. It could be that this is a show that breaks apart under scrutiny, or it could be that I’m just being too nitpicky. Mildly recommended.
Twentieth Century Fox presents Defying Gravity: The Complete First Season. Starring Ron Livingston, Malik Yoba, Andrew Airlie, Paula Garcés, Florentine Lahme, Karen LeBlanc, Christina Cox, and Laura Harris. Running time 578 minutes: Rated: NR. Released on DVD: January 19, 2010. Available at Amazon.