Friday, 7 November 2014

Review - Defying Gravity (ABC/CTV 2009)

Its always interesting to see what happens when a TV show airs that tries to mix adult drama with sci-fi, sometimes the results are good, and sometimes they are bad.

Defying Gravity (sometimes stylised as "DefyinGravity") was an attempt to expand on the concept of Space Odyssey: Voyage to the planets and make an intelligent TV show about space exploration that was character driven drama as opposed to pure sci-fi or docudrama.

The shows storyline takes place in two time periods, the "present day" of 2059 and flashbacks to the year 2055 and even as late back as 2038.
By 2059, man has set foot on Mars, although the mission ended in disaster with two of the crew members being left behind, and has developed spaceflight technology to the point at which missions lasting several years can be comfortably attempted with a better than average chance of success.

The series itself consists of 13 episodes, covering the first 50 or so days of the multinational space ship Antares journey to visit (in the following order) Venus, Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and Pluto.
The first, and only series ends with the Antares successfully landing a manned mission on Venus, and preparing to depart for Mercury.
Should the series have continued, series 2 would have dealt with the landing on Mercury, and the trip to Mars, and the third series would have dealt with an extended stay on Mars, followed by the journey to Jupiter, presumably any further series would have dealt with the remainder of the planets and culminated with all questions raised by the series being answered.
Although the plot ostensibly deals with the first human attempt to make the "Grand Tour" of the Solar system successfully, the real main plot, as revealed from episode 8 onwards, in fact deals with mankind's first possible contact with extra terrestrials (this is one of the unanswered questions raised by the series) and in fact the journey is simply a facade to cover up the need to visit the planets in order to retrieve the "fractals", a group of seemingly alien entities that have strange supernatural powers.

The space ship Antares is designed along the lines of utilising current and "near future" levels of technology. Powered by 3 nuclear reactors, backed up by a combined solar collector/cosmic ray shield, and propelled by nuclear ion thrusters, the Antares has artificial gravity in the form of two sets of rotating arms (crew quarters are located in these sections), as well as sections, such as the common area and laboratories, which require magnetic shoes to be worn. Most of the vessels structure is made up of fuel tanks, payload bays and vital propulsion and life support systems, very little of the ship is intended for human habitation so the ships interior is somewhat cramped.

Most of the shows plot is derived from human interaction, mostly between the 8 members of the ships crew (4 men, 4 women), but also supplemented by the people at mission control.
The series is interesting as it shows that space travel, although it may seem glamorous and futuristic etc, is actually a rather boring experience, as the time required to travel from point A to point B is usually a lot longer than any planetary landings etc.
The problem with this type of format is that the "space" scenes tend to be quite boring, and thus most of the series plot comes from the human factor and their reactions to plot developments.

As the series is character driven, here is a bit of bio on the series' main characters....

Ted Shaw  (Mission Commander, American).
Ted is an experienced astronaut, and is married to Eve, however in the past he had a relationship with Jen Crane. Ted is the first member of the crew to be informed to the Antares real mission goals, and struggles with keeping the secret for most of the series, until he is compelled to reveal to the crew what is really going on after all of the crew except for Jen and Steve begin suffering from crippling hallucinations. Teds hallucination centres on him seeing a violent storm on the surface of Mars.

Maddux Donner (Chief Engineer/Pilot, American).
Maddux was one of the surviving crew of the ill fated Mars mission, which saw him have to leave behind his lover on the surface after a storm began which would have prevented their lander from taking off, something which he feels guilty about. Maddux is also involved in a casual sexual relationship with Nadia, and in the past had a one night stand with Zoe.
Maddux was not originally intended to be a part of the actual space mission, however he replaced Ajay at the last minute due to Ajay developing a heart problem.
Maddux has two hallucinations, the first being an image of him seeing Zoe flush herself out of an airlock naked whilst in orbit around a dark planet, the second being that he keeps seeing the two people he left behind on Mars .

Zoe Barnes (Geologist, Canadian).
Zoe was initially dismissed from the Antares program due to poor performance, however was later reinstated to the ships crew for reasons not shown on screen. She became pregnant after her one night stand with Maddux, but aborted it so that it would not lead to her being dropped from the program.
Zoe shares the same hallucination of seeing herself flushed into space as Maddux, but she also occasionally hears a crying baby, as she feels guilty about having the child aborted.

Jen Crane (Biologist, Canadian).
Jen is married to the Antares' original mission commander, Rollie, however in the past she had a relationship with Ted. Jens main responsibilities on the mission are to maintain the ships hydroponic gardens and to perform experiments in rapid evolution with rabbit cells, however, she decides to allow one of the rabbit embryos to mature to full term in an artificial womb in order to keep it as a pet. Only Zoe and Rollie know about the rabbit.
Jens hallucination is strange as in for the most part, she sees and hears nothing, even when the alien entity is right there in front of her and everyone else can see it, this is due to her deep seated fear of abandonment, which the entity "Beta" manifests as her being "left out" of being able to see it.

Evram Mintz (Medical Doctor, Israeli).
Evram was formerly a combat surgeon in an off screen war (presumably some sort of middle eastern conflict during the late 2040s), who suffers from PTSD due to not being able to rescue a young girl that was trapped in a building he had called an artillery strike on. this incident left him with permanent scarring on his back and has led to him becoming an alcoholic. Despite being a brilliant surgeon and doctor, his alcohol withdrawal symptoms have led to him becoming addicted to painkillers which periodically results in him being unable to perform his duties due to being addled or unconscious. Oddly, although Evram is explicitly stated to be Israeli, it is not mentioned if he is a practising Jew or not.
Evrams hallucination involves him seeing the girl he was unable to rescue appearing in various places, which causes him to go into shock.

Paula Moralez (Payload Specialist/Pilot, Mexican/American)
A staunch Catholic, Paulas duties on the ship seem to mainly revolve around filming bilingual (English & Spanish) documentary films to be shown on TV and in schools on Earth. Her devout belief in God irritates most of the crew, most notably Steve, however all of the crew pull together to help her heal after an accident in one of the cargo bays results in her receiving a serious and almost life threatening injury. Paula was originally to be the pilot of the Venus lander, however her injuries prevented this.
Paulas hallucination involves her seeing what she calls her "miracle", an incident form her childhood where her pet dog was run over and killed in the street, but then suddenly came back to life. It is revealed in the final episode of the series that her recollection of these events is not what actually happened, what actually happened was her father tried to molest her, and she ran out into the street to escape, which caused her dog to follow her and get run over, her father then gave the dog CPR which caused it to come back to life. Her encounter with the "Beta" entity clarifies this and proves that the hallucinations are part of a test to see if the crew can overcome their fears.

Nadia Schilling (Navigator/Pilot, German)
Nadia is a sexually promiscuous woman who refuses to wear a HALO (Hormone Activated Libido Oppressor) that all the crew are required to wear in order to stop sexual tension from leading to conflict on the ship. She has had a casual sexual relationship with Maddux for at least 6 years before the mission and is usually a source of conflict amongst the Antares crew, particularly with Zoe, whom she regularly argues with.
Nadias hallucinations involve her seeing a bearded, baseball cap wearing man walking around the ship, whom she does not recognise but who looks familiar to her. (The shows creator stated that the man is in fact Nadia herself, as Nadia was born inter sexed, and her parents decided to have her as a girl. Series 3 would have included a storyline in which Nadia was changed by the entities into a male)

Steve Wassenfelder (Theoretical Physicist, American)
Steve is the odd one out on the Antares, as at first glance, he appears to serve no purpose amongst the crew as none of the ships systems are experimental or require any of his skills.
A self confessed genius, Steve spends most of his time living like a slob, indulging in pornography and being cynical. He particularly dislikes Paula due to her chirpiness and her religion, even coining the nickname "Paula puke" for her when she keeps being sick due to motion sickness, however both of them feel a connection to each other because of their status as "outsiders" on the ship.
Steves true purpose on the ship is revealed after the crew learns about the entities, as his mathematical skill is needed in order to further understand them and their purpose.
Of all the crew, Steve seems to be the only member that is unaffected by "Beta".

"Beta"  (Fractal Entity)
The "Beta" entity was found on Earth in 2038 near the Nasca lines in Peru. "Beta" is one of seven known fractal entities which exist in the solar system, the others being located on Venus, Mercury, Mars, Io, Europa and Pluto.
"Beta" appears to everyone except Jen as a constantly shape changing blob of  unknown, but organic, material that glows with a yellow/green hue. It communicates with the crew and Eve via inducing hallucinations related to that persons guilt or greatest fear.
"Beta" was discovered by members of SETI when it began communicating with the entity designated "Alpha" on Mars via the use of high frequency harmonic tones. Since the discovery of Alpha and Beta, five more entities, named Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, Zeta and Eta, were discovered to be in communication with each other. This is what kickstarted the Mars landing, which was an attempt to find "Alpha" but ended in disaster after Alpha rejected the astronauts sent to find it, and also the Antares mission, which is an attempt to find all of the entities and bring them together.
"Beta" is only properly revealed in episode 8 of the series, and is hidden in a top secret cargo bay with storage units for the other six entities.
"Beta" also exerts some strange influence over the people who come into close proximity to it, changing their DNA for an as yet unspecified purpose.

"Gamma" (Fractal Entity)
Gamma is found and recovered from the surface of Venus by Zoe during her landing on the planet, where it appears to her as her aborted baby. Zoe receives life threatening burns to two thirds of her body when her space suit is damaged in the oppressive and hot atmosphere on Venus.
Gammas true form is similar to Betas, except it glows red/orange.

Eve Shaw (Civilian Observer/2iC, American)
Eve is Ted Shaws wife, and was the first human to encounter the "Beta" entity whilst working as an aid worker in Peru. She now works for the Bertram corporation as an observer on the Antares project and has had her DNA altered by her encounters with Beta.

Ajay Sharma (Mechanical Engineer, Indian)
Ajay designed most of the Antares systems and was originally a member of its crew, however Beta caused him to rapidly develop a heart problem which rendered him unsuitable for space flight. Upon learning this Ajay, who was already aboard the Antares in final preparation for launch, seemingly decided to commit suicide by donning a space suit and heading out for an unscheduled EVA, however he was persuaded not to kill himself by Maddux who, along with Ted, had been launched into space to replace Ajay and Rollie. On his return to Earth, Ajay finds himself "blackballed" from the program, however he is allowed to take up a position at mission control as the engineering advisor due to his extensive knowledge of the ships systems. Ajay was one of the few people who knew the full secret about Zoes pregnancy, and was one of the first people to figure out that something fishy was going on when nearly all the ships crew were crippled by hallucinations.

Rollie Crane (Mission control supervisor, American)
Rollie was originally to be Antares's mission commander, but was replaced by Ted after Beta caused him to develop the same heart problem as Ajay, something which is a billion to one chance of happening. Rollie is married to Jen and is unaware of her previous relationship with Ted.

Trevor Williams (Investigative journalist, British)
Trevor is one of the few people to be suspicious about the Antares mission from the start, simply because the facts about the previous Mars mission didn't bear up to close inspection. his suspicions are further aroused due to the last minute replacement of Ajay and Rollie. Eventually he gets Arnel Poe, one of the Antares programs failed astronauts who works in mission control after losing his leg in a training accident, to start feeding him secrets. The final scene of the series shows Arnel sending a text to Trevor informing him that the footage of the Venus landing was in fact faked to cover up Zoes injury as well as the retrieval of the "Gamma" entity.

The show itself was cancelled mid season, with only 9 episodes out of the 13 being shown on TV, this was due to the show not being very well promoted, which resulted in low viewing figures, but also because the show was somewhat boring, with its main story arc being uncomfortably stretched over the full 13 episode run, and proceeding at a slow pace. In the UK, the series was aired in a late night slot on BBC2, thus meaning very few people saw it.
Fans of the series hoped that it would be picked up by another network to have the story finished off, however in 2010 it was announced that the actors had all been released form their contracts and all the shows sets had been destroyed, thus dashing any real hope of there being a conclusion to the story.
Personally I did find the series a tad boring and slow pace,d but the final 3 episodes made up for it as they ignited what could have gone on to be an interesting sci-fi story, and provided explanations to the numerous unanswered questions that came up in the shows short run.
It would be nice to see a follow up series, or even a TV movie, but it is doubtful that will happen now.

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