In the green corner we have DC’s Arrow. In the multicoloured and slightly off-white with orange corner Defiance. Their differences couldn’t be more stark.
I like a good sci-fi story either in film or television. I hate bad sci-fi, I hate bad film and television and the reason for my displeasure is lazy writing and storytelling. Let’s compile a list of the usual clichés and stereotypes.
- The hero is a young chisel-jawed male model, probably from a privileged background
- The heroine is winsome, moon-faced and secretly in love with the hero. She is also virtuous and involved in either charity or some socially responsible career
- The hero has a cheeky wise cracking sidekick
- A token African-American acts as the conscience for the white Anglo-Saxon hero
- The villain is a grinning mystery with an ambition that will be revealed half-way through the final season
- The hero’s family are rich and dysfunctional
- The cop is a grizzled individual with personal ‘issues’ and a phobia of hairdressers
- The genius/computer expert is prim and proper, but when she takes her glasses off actually looks like a supermodel
And lo, Arrow ticks all the boxes. For anyone who doesn’t know, Arrow is Oliver Queen, a rich playboy lost on a desert island, comes back from the dead with a murderous bucket list left by his corrupt but redemption-seeking dead father. Disguised as Robin Hood Queen sets about killing henchmen, but not their criminal lords and masters who instead end up being turned over to the grizzled cop so that Queen can go home to his rich dysfunctional family, tell his hipster waster of a sister he loves her for the umpteenth time. . . . you get the picture.
Arrow is for the kind of sci-fi lovers who would have the Clean Reader app on their ereading device. The kind of people who turn up at events like Marvel’s announcement of the Avengers line-up and actually yelp and fist-punch the air when the names are read out. Arrow is conservative television with a small and a large capital C.
Imagine if Arrow was slightly different: If the heroine Laurel worked for corporate lawyers Lockhart Gardner. Imagine if Queen’s family were more like the Simpsons. Imagine if the Undertaking was made clear right from the first episode. Imagine if the cop was happily married and loved his job.
Imagine if Diggle were the hero of the series.
DC can’t, the networks can’t and probably most of the audience couldn’t either. Queen often reminds people ‘bad things happened to me on the island.’ Yeah, and the worst thing was letting you go free.
Now writers are often told ‘show don’t tell.’ In Arrow when two people want to make amends following an argument they hug, kiss, say I’m sorry, having a bad day, but I love you.’ In Defiance two people making up after an argument sing Jackson, the duet recorded by Johnny Cash and June Carter.
In the opening minutes of Defiance’s first season, war veteran Nolan is trying to pacify his truculent adopted alien daughter Irisa. At the end of his tether he turns on some music in the car and within a minute the pair of them are bombing down the road hollering ‘we got married in a fever…’
It is a mouth-watering example of show don’t tell and is typical of Defiance’s desire to take an alternative line. Don’t get me wrong, Defiance is by no means perfect. There are the occasional slips into mushy ‘I love you’ making up territory, especially in Amanda Rosewater’s relationship with her sister Kenya.
The special effects show up the production’s limited budget and there are times when the wild west analogy treads a little too close to cowboy cliché. But on the whole Defiance’s families are borderline paupers, including Datak Tarr’s Castithan supremacists, the hero is old enough to be everyone’s dad, the scientist/genius has a golf ball for a head and the hero’s conscience has orange hair and a lot of teenage attitude every parent will recognise.
Defiance is life on a terraformed earth following the Pale Wars with a group of aliens known as the Votan Collective. In the town of Defiance, an unrecognisable St. Louis, the surviving humans and aliens must make do, get along and resist the territorial expansionism of the Earth Republic and potential threats from an non-compliant group of aliens called the Volge.
It sounds complex, but it isn’t. The characters are ambiguous: scheming Datak Tarr co-operates, Irisa keeps running back to her Irathient co-aliens, Doc Yewll (with the golf ball head) helps and hinders in equal measure and in season two the Earth Republic often come across as rather decent chaps, in a you-can’t-do-anything-about-our-occupation kind of way.
Defiance the programme is, like the town itself, imperfect, but that’s what makes it special. Its honesty, its attempts to do something different. Season two expanded and improved on season one, and season three promises to be even better.
When I finished watching season two I missed the characters and their stories. When I finished watching Arrow I thought good riddance to the lot of yer.
(Apologies for the video quality; it’s out of my control and the only one on Youtube.)