Trolling, shit-posting, and rants—justified or not—contaminate the internet. The online world is distinguished by the same cold realities and festering hatreds we face every day offline, so it’s not surprising that we often try to escape from the persistent negativity by diving into a good book or show. However, our fictional escapes don’t always offer sanctuary: negative, regressive messaging can be found on far too many channels, in most video games, and in many books. So let’s talk about good content—stories that give us hope and showcase diversity. Let’s talk about Queers in Space, also known as Syfy’s Defiance.
(SPOILER NOTE: I’ll try not to gratuitously reveal the show’s secrets, but this is a discussion of Defiance, and I’m not going to spoiler-tag every plot point and revelation that arises.)
All right, the queers aren’t actually in space most of the time—they’re on Earth, and not everyone in the cast is LGBTQ. Nonetheless, threads of inclusiveness and diversity are woven as deeply into the tale of Defiance as the lore of the world itself. The show takes place on a future Earth, which has been ravaged by a human-and-alien conflict triggered when the Votanis Collective (a conglomerate of aliens) came to our life-bearing green wonderland after escaping the collapse of its own universe. Naturally, the Votanis Collective arrived with fancy ships, big guns, and the same d-bag attitudes we humans would probably display if we were to invade another planet. The story is set 15 years after an armistice was declared following a devastating seven-year war. Humans and aliens have established an uneasy peace, but tensions are simmering. Cameras, lights, music…Welcome to the town of Defiance…BAM! Graham Greene’s mug hits the screen. Right off the bat, in episode one, we’re introduced to a Native* American character.
*In Canada, the land from where I hail, the term “Native” is quickly falling out of favor for “Aboriginal”.
You’ll probably recognize Greene—an Oneida from Ontario, Canada—as he’s one of the few Native actors to have regularly graced both the small and big screens. (He and that pretty fella, Adam Beach.) That’s really about it. In the midst of so many racial, sexual, class-based, and political struggles, the historical and present-day injustices perpetrated against Indigenous peoples of many lands are often overlooked—and this blindness is aided and abetted by popular culture. In Defiance, though, we immediately meet a pretty cool Native family, the McCawleys, who own and operate the local mine (which is also the source of the town’s wealth). They’re those rare benevolent One Percenters—wealthy elites with hearts of gold. Defiance is also home to an alien family, the Tarrs, who stand in stark contrast to these worthies. Datak (Tony Curran), Stahma (Jaime Murray), and their son, Alak (Jesse Rath), are like the Castithan (one of the Votan races) Sopranos: they rule the underworld of Defiance with an iron fist. (Well, it’s Datak who’s mostly in charge of the power-brokering and face-bashing.) We also encounter Doc Yewll (Trenna Keating), a lesbian artificial life form who moonlights as a doctor. And Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz), a mayor who’s suffered a rape trauma and battled with drugs and alcohol. Oh, and there’s also the mayor’s sister, Kenya (Mia Kirshner), who runs the NeedWant, the happiest whorehouse this side of Missouri, and the local lawman, Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler), a soldier with PTSD who has, albeit somewhat unwillingly, adopted an alien child. That was years back, and the girl, Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas), is now a sassy relic-hunting mercenary.
On paper, the show sounds as if it could be either fabulous or a smoldering train wreck, and it certainly stumbles in its opening season when trying to harmonize so many disparate ideas. However, over time the show gets better, not worse. The characters develop: they’re not simply bullet points representing different forms of sexuality and identity. After her husband is incarcerated, Stahma steps up and runs the family business, and in doing so discovers the freedom and allure of power after having spent her life enmeshed in the hugely misogynistic Castithan social structure. Later, when her husband returns, assuming he’ll reassume his role in the business and household, Stahma gives him the equivalent of two-fingered salute. She emerges as a delicately crafted and beautifully acted character, both hero and villain, transforming her values whenever her family members—particularly her son and grandson—are in danger. Her feelings undergo a transformation as well, as increasing intimacy with Kenya leads to a passionate affair between the two women. Adding to the unrest in the Tarr household, Alak goes and falls in love with Christie McCawley, creating something of a Romeo and Juliet situation (minus the tragic death—well…). The couple later has a child, who is effectively biracial—half human, half alien, and cute as a button.
The dynamic and complex tension between the McCawleys and Tarrs builds to a shattering climax at the beginning of the third season, when loyalties are brutally defined and honored by members of each clan.
This kind of material is revolutionary for the science fiction and fantasy genres, because only recently, and then often too shyly, have we begun to explore alternative characters, sexualities, and family arrangements. (Mercedes Lackey raises her hand and says: “Ahem.” Yes, yes, she’s been doing swords & sorcery with sorcerers playing with each other’s swords for years—among other notable authors.)
Defiance might have an ambitious premise, but it’s executed with subtlety and a marked lack of moral bombast. The show’s messages of inclusivity and diversity are delivered through smaller vignettes (perhaps at least in part because of its non-Hollywood budget). It’s peppered with heartwarming moments that I find have more meaning and dramatic impact than the deafening explosions and deadening grandeur of the recent Star Trek reboots. Despite Defiance’s limitations, its actors and writers create a brave and compelling realization of what our future—even if it is a troubled one fraught with war, racism, and uncertainty—could be like.
If we do end up being invaded by extraterrestrials and then have to rebuild our civilization with a collective of alien races, the world of Defiance wouldn’t be a terrible one in which to find ourselves. For a show that takes place in the future, the themes of diversity, acceptance and conquering negative social constructs such as racism, are indelible and important to our present era.
Of course, as with all good things, Defiance has now come to an end—and been replaced by something of much lesser substance, I’m sure. Whoever made the decision to axe the show: you suck. I’ll miss, you, Defiance. I’ll miss you dearly.
All my love,
P.S. Congratulations to the winners of last month’s Fan Appreciation Contest: Michelle, Erwina and Rachel! The prints are being made, and your packages should ship next week.