‘Defiance’ and the Possibilities and Pitfalls of Transmedia

In a culture swiftly becoming more and more saturated with the Internet, television, video games and movies, audiences are hankering to interact with entertainment in a variety of new ways. From reality shows that post fan tweets at the bottom of the screen during revelatory moments, to game shows with downloadable smartphone apps that let users play along with contestants, to entire websites devoted to picking apart the minutiae of detail within a show, film or novel, it’s simply not enough to just be able to tell a good story anymore. Increasingly, if entertainment is built to last, it must be viable across more than one medium.

One way that artists are embracing this new trend is through transmedia. More than just adaptation, transmedia uses different mediums to tell disparate pieces of the same story. An album meant to be read along with a book, a web series that explores the background origins of characters in a feature film, or a television show with a video game that takes place in the same universe can all be considered transmedia.

The point is that while each part can be enjoyed separately, “collecting” each piece means a richer experience for fans. The phenomenon certainly isn’t new, but the success of the trend is still in its infancy. Much of its growth over the next several years will depend on how well this integration across platforms actually respects an audience’s experience. The storytelling possibilities are endlessly exciting, but we’ve yet to see a project that pulls it off well enough to push the idea fully into the mainstream.

Perhaps one of the most ambitious projects to attempt this to date is the series Defiance, which debuted on the Syfy channel last April. The new flagship series for Syfy, Defiance is set in 2046, 33 years after an alien race called the Voltan invade Earth and terraform much of it beyond recognition. In addition to new landscapes, the Voltan – made up of eight different races within themselves – also brought with them new cultures and ways of life. Decades after a war between humans and aliens has ceased, a tenuous peace now exists worldwide. In some regions, the races even attempt to live together.

One of the largest experiments in cohabitation is the town of Defiance, built on the ruins of what was once St. Louis, Missouri. Defiance is self-governed, and is led by the newly appointed Mayor, Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz). But with so much bad history between humans and aliens, keeping the peace is tricky. Into Defiance one day comes drifter Joshua Nolan, a former soldier, and his adopted Irathian daughter, Irisa.

“Iraths” are one of the more primitive of the Voltan races, and not many of them live in Defiance. Just passing through at first, Nolan and Irisa get caught up in a murder in town and when the investigation claims the life of the Lawkeeper, Amanda asks Nolan to step into the role. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, he accepts, and decides to stay put.

If all of that sounds somewhat confusing, that’s because it is. But luckily, aside from the show, Defiance can also be experienced on the PS3, Xbox 360, and PC. Far from being just an adaptation, the game (which I haven’t played), a Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game, takes place in the San Francisco Bay area. It’s the same terraformed post-invasion universe of the show, yet far enough from St. Louis to allow the different narratives to coexist separately – although certain characters do cross over.

The game received mixed reviews, generally citing a lack of clear context and boring missions. However, it does provide more insight into the universe, although one review I read cautioned readers to watch the show before playing so they don’t get lost. Some interesting revelations about the show come up in the game as well, but it’s hard to imagine anyone but die-hard fans choosing to invest interest.

The show has plenty of issues with it, as well. While the relationship between Nolan and Irisa is suitably complicated, and it’s refreshing that for once not all of the aliens look exactly like each other, Defiance still suffers from a lack of imagination. Most of the likeable main characters are human; most of the unlikeable main characters are alien. In particular there’s Datak and Stahma Tarr (Tony Curran and Jaime Murray), a married Castithan couple who seem to do nothing other than scheme and have very little dimension.

Most of the characters are predictable – there’s the hardened sheriff with a soft spot, the alien outcast just trying to fit in, and even the hooker with a heart of gold. None of this feels new or different in the realm of Science Fiction or Westerns; it’s just an ill-conceived mash-up. In many ways, Defiance feels like a bad copycat of Battlestar Galactica – Syfy’s other flagship, hit series – right down to the made-up curse word (“shtako” here, overused to the point of ridiculousness).

But Defiance’s biggest downfall is one that not a lot of other projects have: it’s too ambitious. From the beginning, viewers are introduced to a world so expansive and foreign that it’s too much to take in. A lack of background and context within the show itself leaves much unexplained, almost to the point of frustration. World building is a delicate thing, and shows that attempt to dive right in or leave viewers to figure out things on their own are taking a dangerous gamble. In reality, for Defiance, both the game and the show, the transmedia element might have hurt efforts more than it helped. One can’t help but feel that they could have spent their time on a really good show or a really good game, but instead, produced mediocre results by doing both.

After a full eight episodes of the brief 13 episode season, I had to visit the show’s website to search for answers. Surprisingly, the website itself is probably the most helpful tool in Defiance’s arsenal. It contains a timeline with links to fictional newspaper clippings that relate to important dates on the show, so viewers can read “firsthand accounts” of what it was like when the Voltan first arrived. There are interactive maps that show how the rest of Earth fared after war, and photo galleries of the technologies featured on the show. After a few minutes on the website, I found myself surprised by the depth of thought that had gone into making Defiance, and confused because from what I was seeing on screen, none of it was apparent.

But that’s the problematic side of transmedia: no matter how hard artists try to keep all elements self-sustaining, people who only choose – or who only can choose – just one medium will always be missing something. The irony is, in a culture with everything instantly available at your fingertips, a show that requires you to visit its website to adequately enjoy it isn’t just entertaining you anymore. It’s making you work. But maybe, in the end, that will be a good thing. Maybe transmedia’s legacy will be making us care enough about art again that we will actually take the time to enjoy it fully, in whatever form it comes.

Defiance’s first season is available on Blu-ray, with few special features including deleted scenes, a gag reel, an 11 minute behind-the-scenes documentary, a video journal of one of the main actors on the show, and a six-minute feature called “Defiance: A Transmedia Revolution”m which delves further into the relationship between the show and the game. According to game developers, Syfy actually gave them a surprising amount of ownership in contributing their vision to the universe. It’s worth checking out to see just how far the transmedia experience can go. All in all, we are still waiting for the one transmedia project that can really surprise us. Defiance isn’t it, but it does show a little of what transmedia can do, and will hopefully open the realm of possibilities to others.

RATING 3 / 10