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Reviewed by Will Harris
ou know a series hasn’t had much in the way of pre-premiere publicity when you bring up ABC’s mid-season entry, “Defying Gravity,” and even a full-time TV critic says, “Wait, what show are you talking about?” Seriously, if it hadn’t been for the premiere episode making it to iTunes as a free download, it’s highly possible that the series might’ve come and gone without my having ever been aware of it. In my defense, I have since learned that there was only a three-week window between the network picking up the series and putting it on the air, which certainly explains the limited publicity push behind it, but I also have to wonder if perhaps ABC didn’t exactly know how to sell “Defying Gravity,” anyway. To say that it’s a groundbreaking series is to suggest that it’s completely unlike anything we’ve ever seen on television before, and that would definitely be overstating things, but at the very least, it is an attempt at genre-blending that doesn’t come about very often – and that always confuses the suits.
Inspired at least loosely by the BBC docudrama "Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets,” about an international crew of astronauts on a trip through space, “Defying Gravity” follows the crew of the spacecraft Antares – which, yes, happens to be a multi-national – as they proceed toward the first-ever Venus landing. The series is structured such that it bounces back and forth between Antares and Mission Control, but it also regularly flips from present to past, revealing tales from the astronauts’ training and gradually filling in blanks about their respective histories. One of the key flashbacks belongs to Maddux Donner (Ron Livingston), who, during an earlier mission to Mars, was forced to leave behind two members of his crew – a necessary action which has nonetheless haunted him ever since. More often than not, however, the reminiscing relates to the crew’s various romantic entanglements.
The idea of trying to combine sci-fi and romance has been done before, but by my recollection, it’s never been the predominant thrust of a series in the way that it’s done here. The problem with this approach, however, is that by setting the show predominantly in outer space, they’re alienating the people who are coming in for the romance, while the sci-fi fanatics will invariably grouse about how those elements are far too much in the background for their liking. Indeed, the most traditional sci-fi aspect of the series – I speak of the strange entity referred to as the Beta, which seems to be manipulating the astronauts’ emotions and actions via highly realistic hallucinations – doesn’t really hit its storyline stride until Episode 9, “Eve Ate the Apple,” and since ABC pulled the plug on the series after Episode 8, no Americans had the opportunity to see it – until now, that is.
Although “Defying Gravity” isn’t great, it’s interesting and definitely tried to be something different, which, given the number of straightforward procedurals on the network schedule these days, certainly warrants acknowledgment. Beyond the sci-fi and the romance, there’s a subplot about the media’s place in the expedition (the astronauts are regularly broadcasting back their goings-on, often with some tweaking, ostensibly for security reasons), and the Halloween episode touches on the very interesting idea that future spaceflights may well be sponsored by advertisers rather than paid for by the government. Otherwise, the point of reference that was often used for the series was “‘Grey’s Anatomy’ in space,” and you can see why: this person dates that person, another sleeps with someone else, and, inevitably, things get complicated. Fair enough, but you may find that you’d rather than they had just stuck to the sci-fi.
Special Features: What would’ve been nice, given that the lead time was there, was if they’d ponied up the dough to let series creator James Parriott sit down and explain where he’d planned for the series to go if it had continued – like, say, the way he did for CliqueClack.com. You should not expect any such revelations from the featurette that’s included here, despite the fact that it’s entitled “Mission Accomplished: A Look at ‘Defying Gravity,’” as it was clearly filmed as the show was still in production. There’s also a photo slide show of production stills, spacecraft designs, and so forth, but really, it’s the collection of deleted scenes that will be of most interest to diehard fans of the series, as they expand upon the characters by providing small but interesting bits of information.