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TV's <em>Defiance</em>: When Are Sci-fi Allegories No Longer Enough?

06/24/2014 03:48 EDT | Updated 08/24/2014 05:59 EDT

Defiance is an American science fiction TV series just recently beginning its second season (on Sy-Fy in the U.S., Showcase in Canada, and other broadcasters elsewhere). And it reminded me of an issue that first occurred to me back during its initial season.

And if this will seem familiar to anyone, I apologize in advance. Yes, I alluded to this in passing in a post a few months back. But I'm returning to it because it draws upon things that interest me. I'm a long time SF fan (one of those nerds who gets the "in-jokes" when SF and fantasy programs recycle words like "Rossum" and "Klaatu barada nikto") but I'm also interested in ideas around culture and national identity.

Science fiction has long boasted that its bread and butter is the allegory. Beneath stories of slimy space aliens and shiny robots are deeper, universal truths that reflect current realities. From Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and H.G. Wells' The Time Machine to The Twilight Zone and Star Trek. Some even argue that SF and fantasy can, in its way, be more profound than stories actually set in the real world -- the fantasy is simply the sugar coating on the bitter pill of social realism.

Historically, SF allegories could be a way of tackling controversial or difficult issues that the audience (or at least network executives and advertisers) might not have been ready to acknowledge in a literal form.

Defiance is set on a future earth, devastated and somewhat terra-formed after an ill-fated alien invasion years earlier. Humans remain in charge, but earth has become home to an alien diaspora of various refugee races from the stars. Set largely in a kind of frontier town, Defiance chronicles the conflicts and uneasy alliances between the various groups and factions.

I suspect both the makers of Defiance and its fans would be quick to declare that the series is more than just an adventure/soap opera, but is an ambitious and demanding allegory about modern geo-political realities. It's a series about the Global Village and multi-culturalism, about war crimes and sectarian rivalries, about different races and creeds having to share the same plot of mud and somehow negotiate a mutual compromise -- or perish. Gone, in a sense, is the American confidence of Star Trek and the myth of the Superpower, replaced by a complex world where not even American "exceptionalism" can unilaterally dictate the agenda.

Yet there's an irony beneath the surface of Defiance.

Defiance is actually filmed in Canada with a lot of Canadians working behind the scenes on it. The cast itself is multinational, comprised of actors from Canada, the U.K., New Zealand and, of course, the U.S. of A. It is the very embodiment of the metaphor it is depicting on screen.

Except that all the characters -- all the human characters -- are supposed to be American. The New Zealand and U.K. actors adopt American accents, the Canadians use American pronunciations. The setting is supposed to be the United States -- indeed, with little interest shown in what the world outside of the U.S. is supposed to be like (not unlike another Canadian-filmed American-set alien invasion series, Falling Skies, whose fans have sometimes noted that there have been few references to the situation beyond American borders).

Which raises the question: when is a sci-fi metaphor/allegory a way of dealing with a topic -- and when is it a way of avoiding having to deal with a topic?

Viewed a certain way, Defiance is a series that wants to portray a multi-cultural, pluralistic world yet is only comfortable doing so by creating imaginary alien immigrants while deliberately ignoring the multi-culturalism and pluralism that is reflected by its own cast and crew. Apparently the filmmakers seem to believe their audience will happily embrace aliens with bleached-white skin and jutting foreheads but would run screaming from the room if series star Grant Bowler spoke with a New Zealand accent.

One could go further and say the series even evinces a slight (if perhaps unconscious) xenophobia -- belying its very own theme. An imperialistic power that wants to rob the town of its independence is referred to as the "Earth Republic" -- arguably planting in the minds of the viewer an image of a United Nations-like foreign alliance imposing itself upon heartland America. One of the few humans to speak with a non-American accent is the town's sinister and newly appointed Earth Republic overseer. Another character even mimicks his accent in the 2nd season premiere as though to emphasize he's "foreign."

Nor is Defiance entirely alone in the way its well-intentioned metaphor can seem to trump the very issues with which it purports to be dealing. In the X-Men movies, the explicit metaphor and allegory is about minority rights and bigotry -- yet actual minorities seem oddly unrepresented. And even some non-American characters from the original comics have been re-imagined in the movies as Americans. So like with Defiance, the movies seem to be a plea for tolerance and inclusiveness so long as we don't actually have to be inclusive!

Part of the problem may be that the roots of the sci-fi allegory first dug in during a more conservative era. In the 1960s Star Trek series, the alien Mr. Spock was quickly embraced as a symbol of "the other" and promoting the message that it was okay to be different -- the fact that he was played by a white male was less important than what he represented. And, indeed, it might have been difficult to get the network to okay an actual minority actor in the role when not too many years earlier some TV stations refused to broadcast specials featuring black stars.

So perhaps modern SF filmmakers look back to such examples and say: "If it was good enough for Star Trek, it's good enough for us!"

But Star Trek was half a Century ago.

If we're still only able to explore themes of race and multi-culturalism by getting mainly white actors to adopt mostly American accents while confronting make-believe aliens and mutants -- is any message really getting across?