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Defying Gravity - "Pilot"/"Natural Selection"

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Defying Gravity debuts at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT tonight on ABC.

There’s a pretty good, quite interesting show buried somewhere within Defying Gravity, whose two first episodes debut tonight, but the producers, chief among them James Parriott, haven’t managed to find it. The show seems deeply infected with ABC syndrome, which seems odd, since it’s a co-production with a Canadian broadcaster, and that infection keeps the show from embracing some of its more interesting elements. Big, exciting science fiction stuff will happen, but it will only be an excuse to bring on the bouncy, wacky strings on the soundtrack or a moment for the hero to monologue about what he’s learned about humanity from being an astronaut. In short, the show wants to be both a science fiction head-trip and a workplace soap (in SPAAACEEE!!!!), but the blend is too uneasy to be sustainable. Also, there’s an incredibly clumsy discussion of abortion politics.

Defying Gravity is about the eight international astronauts who are headed off on a six-year mission to explore all of the planets in the solar system, their two trainers and the folks at Mission Control, who will oversee the voyage. It freely cuts between present-day stories onboard the spaceship and flashbacks to the training period, which allows the show to establish, mainly, who’s slept with whom and how this has affected all of them. Ron Livingston is the ostensible lead, Maddux Donner, a former astronaut who left two other astronauts (including his lover) on Mars at the end of a mission ten years ago. (And if Donner’s former lover isn’t found still alive on Mars even as Donner’s hooked up with someone else, then we’ll know ABC had less creative influence over the show than it seems to have had.) Donner’s been grounded in favor of eight younger astronauts who don’t have the whole Mars thing on their conscience, including Zoe (Laura Harris), his one-night stand, but because he’s the guy delivering the forced weightiness of the voice-over narration, it’s just a waiting game to see when and how he ends up on the ship before it departs for Venus.

Theoretically, a space-set workplace soap opera could work and work really well. There’s been enough Star Trek slash-fiction over the years to suggest there’s a vocal contingent of sci-fi fans who might really like that, and there’s something refreshing about the idea that having weightless sex in the cockpit could send the craft hurtling into the sun if you’re not careful (or something). The problem with Defying Gravity is the same as the problem that evolved on Grey’s Anatomy over the years; for this to work, you need to give equal weight to the workplace parts of the show (in this show, the science fiction) and the soap parts of the show. Defying Gravity fully commits to neither, so you get a trail of tiny science fiction bread crumbs interspersed with a bunch of soapy elements that have been done better on other shows already. By half-assing each half of the show’s genre, the series satisfies neither core constituency.

This is too bad because, as mentioned, there’s a pretty interesting show inside of Defying Gravity. Livingston’s always a compelling actor, and his gruff tones make some of the more ridiculous narration passages slide right by. There are some absolutely terrific images in both episodes, especially the weirdly poignant one that closes out the first episode. The science fiction overplot, while familiar, at least drops some intriguing hints throughout about who’s really behind the mission and what they really want. And, let’s be honest, insofar as interesting workplaces to set a workplace soap in, a haunted spaceship heading on its way toward Venus isn’t exactly a bad place to derive conflict from.

But at the same time, the show’s priorities are all skewed. There’s so much potentially intriguing backstory here in the idea of training for a six-year mission in space or in the idea of Donner’s guilt over what happened on Mars or in the idea of how Mike (Andrew Airlie) and the other guys at Mission Control came up with this mission in the first place that it just seems a touch disappointing that what really seems to get the show’s blood pumping is, again, the sight of two people having weightless sex, pop music flooding the soundtrack. The whole thing even feels sterile, instead of passionate, as if the producers really liked that sex scene in Moonraker but thought it could involve just a bit more of the Kubrick-doing-2001 touch. (Maybe they should have scored it to the “Blue Danube Waltz.”)

Defying Gravity’s vision of the future is also fairly limited. This is not to say that the show should have come up with some sort of crazy alternate universe that exists in 2052, where ultra-short denim cutoffs are the workplace uniform of choice and every mission must have a super-intelligent dolphin along for the ride, but the fact that everyone in the future seems to wear the same clothes and enjoy the same drinks and listen to the same music as they did in 2009 feels kind of disappointing. It’s nice that the series chases the old science fiction ideal of a world united as one in the prospects of heading toward the stars, but it would be nicer still if the year of 2052 seemed to have more differences from the year 2009 beyond the idea that abortion is illegal.

The show seems to be doing a pretty competent job of arguing against abortion at various points, but it always ends up defaulting to using it glibly. We’re supposed to know one character needs more of a conscience, for example, because she so blithely dismisses it, and the haunted spaceship uses abortion (without spoiling too much) as a scare tactic. Having science fiction tackle political issues is always fun, but it doesn’t feel like anyone on Defying Gravity has thought out too much how they feel about abortion beyond using it as a prop within the show’s universe. (It also doesn’t help that one of the show’s major points against abortion involves destroying rabbit embryos, something even the most hardened anti-abortion person wouldn’t even bat an eye over doing.)

Finally, we come to the biggest problem with Defying Gravity and one that the show has no control over: It’s not Virtuality. While the spirit of Defying Gravity feels as if it were cobbled together from two parts Grey’s Anatomy and one part Lost, the show bears more than a few outright similarities to Virtuality. Obviously, because both shows were in production at the same time, there was no theft or anything, but watching Defying Gravity makes you sad all over again that the more intriguing Fox pilot never even had a chance. Both shows feature a reality show producer who goes on the mission with the astronauts. Both feature marriages tested by space travel. Both feature grizzled veterans unsure if they can cope much longer in space. And in every case, Virtuality took these ideas and just did more interesting things with them. While its commentary on reality TV could be hamhanded at times, it was nowhere near as glossed over as Defying Gravity’s commentary on the same thing.

All science fiction, of course, is deeply dependent on its interpersonal relationships to thrive. Unless you’re writing the hardest of hard science fiction, you need some interesting characters and some interesting dynamics between them to make your story work. Battlestar Galactica, for example, dealt with how a bunch of screw-ups handled being the last hope of the human race. Star Trek (in most of its incarnations) was about how humanity could rise above itself, transcend its petty problems to do something great. Even The X-Files was as much about aliens and monsters as it was about how battling a government conspiracy turned two strangers suspicious of each other into friends and, eventually, lovers. So I don’t think Defying Gravity has the wrong idea in creating a space soap. It just works too hard to satisfy both masters and, in the end, satisfies neither.

Grade: C