Sunday, November 8, 2009

An Epic Failure

“Defying Gravity” is yet another example of broadcast television’s inability to properly nurture a science fiction program. “Firefly” is the chief example of a great science fiction show that was never given a chance. “Defying Gravity” was not a great show, but it had some interesting science fiction elements. After 13 episodes, the show has been canceled and the sets have been struck. The show’s creator gave an interview and shared what would have happened if the show had gone on. I’ll talk about that and share the link later.

I’d say that there isn’t an audience for science fiction shows, but networks continue to make them, so someone thinks there is a market for them. “Gravity” was cancelled in America after 8 episodes. CTV in Canada cancelled it after 9 episodes but the remaining episodes aired on the Canadian network SPACE. It is airing in Britain on BBC-2 and will soon be airing in Germany. Thanks to the wonders of the internet I’ve seen all 13 episodes. Here is a link to watch the episodes:


The show is definitely what I’d call high concept in that it’s hard to just watch one episode and know what’s going on. Here is an attempt to explain the premise:

The year is 2052

10 years ago there was the first manned mission to Mars. That crew consisted of Maddux Donner (Ron Livingston), Ted Shaw, Sharon Lewis (Donner’s lover), Jeff Walker, and Rollie Crane (Commander). This mission goes horribly wrong when a massive sandstorm hits unexpectedly while Lewis and Walker are on a surface walk. They can’t get back to the module before the storm hits and under Crane’s orders Donner and Shaw are forced to leave Lewis and Walker to certain death on the surface of Mars.

5 years later training begins for the next big mission. Out of 50 applicants, 8 astronauts will travel for 6 years on the spaceship Antares and will visit Venus, Mercury, Mars, Europa, the rings of Saturn and Pluto. Donner and Shaw are trainers for the mission, but are also in the running as crewmembers. Crane is now the head of Mission Control.

And 5 years after that the Antares mission is about to be launched and this is when the show starts.

The action of the show flashes between “present” day and 5 years ago.
The present day stuff involves the Antares crew on their mission and also follows some of the mission controllers back on earth, while the 5 years ago stuff is about the astronauts when they were first starting their training.

It says something like 5 years ago on the screen the first time it jumps back each episode, but after that it counts on the audience to figure it out, but this can be confusing, especially to casual viewers.

The main character of the show is Donner who narrates the show with homespun blue-collar wisdom. He is racked with guilt over leaving his girlfriend to die on Mars. Early in the Antares training Donner has a one-night stand with astronaut trainee Zoe Barnes. But he ends up having a purely sexual relationship with another trainee Nadia Shilling. And that just one love triangle. There are 3 sets of married couples when the ship leaves, none of whom are together at the start of the mission’s training. With all this romance it is not difficult to see why the show was nicknamed “Grey’s Anatomy in space.” I think this label hurt the show a lot. It was a transparent attempt by the network to get more women to watch the show. However, I don’t think that the label got women to watch the show because they could not get past the show’s science fiction premise. I know there are lots of women that love science fiction, but statistically speaking you are a rare breed. Meanwhile, the soap opera image hurt the show’s credibility with actual science fiction fans.

Future Technology

Future technology is rarely shown and nearly never explained on the show. For example, the Antares gets from planet to planet by gaining power while in orbit around planets, but that’s just a guess and I have no idea what they use for fuel except that their blast-off from earth looked like a present day blast-off. I also have no idea how mission control is able to communicate with the Antares instantaneously even when the ship is in orbit around Venus. One think they did try to explain was that there is limited gravity in the Antartes because of the centrifugal force brought on by two metal arms that rotate the ship. And the astronauts also have shoes that are slightly magnetized to the floor of the ship. However, they ruined these explanations by saying that astronauts also magnetize their hair each morning because they might have to go into areas of the ship without gravity! (the truth is that they could not find a way to simulate how hair would move in zero gee)

Back on earth, technology has not advanced too much, despite the fact that it is supposed to be about 40 years in the future. Everyone uses these paper thin cell phones, in addition to being able to call people they can be used to pay bills at restaurants and you can hold a futuristic business card near the phone and it will dial the number! A futuristic car was shown briefly one time, but it was basically just a car with a weird bumper.

The creator of the show James Parriott, said in his interview about what would have happened if the show had gone on (here is that link now by the way:

In the next two seasons, the state of the Earth would have been explored. Though it was never hinted at apparently Earth as we know it had changed in those next 40 year. He said, “We were going to reveal the world at large and, y’know, it’s kinda a fucked up place.” He claimed this wasn’t revealed for budget reasons, but that makes zero sense to me. Why not just introduce the ideas in some way that doesn’t use CGI or expensive sets?

Science Fiction Stuff

To me the show’s greatest weakness was that the science fiction elements did not come into the forefront of the show until episode 9 “Eve Ate the Apple.” (Note: the show was cancelled before this episode aired in America).

It is heavily hinted at from the first episode that there is some sort of unknown force manipulating the crew, but the audience is left to wonder what exactly it is? Is it an alien, a supercomputer, a shadow government? In episode 9, it is revealed that an object of extraterrestrial origin called Beta was found in Peru some years before the Mars mission. This object is on the Antares and has been giving the crew hallucinations, exposing them to radiation and even altering their DNA. There are also 6 other objects that have communicated with Beta over the years. These objects are on Venus, Mercury, Mars, Europa, the rings of Saturn and Pluto. In fact, it turns out, the whole mission of Antares is to go pick all of these objects up. (I don’t know how an object can be in the rings of Saturn? Pluto also seems like an odd choice.)

I thought the show suffered because it took almost the whole first season for the Antares to reach Venus and to me that was when the show actually got interesting. By that logic the crew would not have reached Mercury until the end of the second season and would not have reached Mars until the end of the third season. However, as I said before the events that happened on Mars 10 years ago are crucial. Donner and Shaw both hallucinate about the surface of Mars and thematically Mars is the focal point of the show. Therefore Mars should have been the show’s second stop.

Odds and Ends

-If you watch one episode, watch episode 6 “Bacon”. Visually it is the best episode, a crewmember gets injured and there is all this blood floating every which way because there is no gravity. The best part is it’s one of the episodes currently available on, which means it’s better quality and 100% legal and ethical to watch it.

-Cristina Cox, stars in “Gravity” as Jen Crane the Antares’ Biologist. Unfortunately, she is one of the least interesting characters on the show. However, I started watching the show because Cox was recently on an episode of Dexter called “Dex Takes a Holiday” in which she played a police officer who kills her own husband and daughter and then makes it look like a robbery gone bad. On Dexter, her performance was fantastic; as a police officer she presented a significant challenge for Dexter’s serial-killer title character. And while, I was of course repulsed by Cox’s character’s actions, the small part of my psyche that secretly routes for villains was intrigued and even a little turned on by Cox’s performance.

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