Syfy's 'Defiance' Bridges Gaming and Television Worlds
By Kaylee Hultgren
The trailer for Syfy's new genre-bending series "Defiance," premiering Mon, April 15, 9pm
Television is becoming more of an interactive experience for viewers. And there’s no greater example of this than Syfy’s new series “Defiance.” Premiering Monday, April 15, the show aims to bridge the worlds of gaming and television by launching simultaneously with a video game of the same name, produced by leading game developer Trion Worlds. At the Television Critics Association winter 2013 press tour, showrunner Kevin Murphy likened the crossover between the show and the game to the world of comic books, in which characters reappear in different stories but each narrative is complete on its own.
“Our show has its own dramatic storytelling needs, its own storylines. But if you choose to partake of both, because we exist in a shared universe with dual portals or entrances, you get a richer, fuller, more nuanced experience,” he said. Both the series and the game are set in the near future where earth has been inhabited by seven alien races. The story’s main characters, including actor Grant Bowler starring as Joshua Nolan, the chief lawmaker of the town “Defiance” (formerly St. Louis), appear in both worlds.
After the TCA panel, Murphy chatted with reporters about taking over the role of showrunner from executive producer Rockne O’Bannon, the challenges of creating and coordinating a similar experience across two mediums and working with fantasy language expert David Peterson.
When you took over as showrunner, how did you manage the transition? What changed with you at the helm?
There were some changes in terms of what the show was. You have to sort of make the show your own. What was great about [president of Original Content for Syfy and Universal Cable Productions] Mark Stern was, I went in and said I’ll either be a transitional guy to help you with the next guy, [or] I’ve got to make this show something I believe I can make 100%…My job when I was working for Rockne was to help him connect his vision. When it became my responsibility, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t try to find a way to make it my vision.
What changes did you make?
I needed Defiance so much newer. In the original version of the script, Nolan was a fixture in the town. He was the sheriff that had been around forever. He was in a relationship with [the town mayor] Amanda. [His daughter] Irisa didn’t really exist in her current form. Irisa was kind of an adorable alien girl who collected old world arcana. She wasn’t a badass… Originally, the show was going to be more of a procedural. It was a less serialized drama.
Why did you make those changes?
Largely because of the needs of what we wanted the show to be, and what I felt that I could do. Mark Stern and I, I think wanted the same thing in terms of what the show was. And I wanted to see people make mistakes. The problem when everyone has lived in the town together and the central character isn’t from the outside is [that] all of the stupid mistakes, all the ways that the characters bounce off each other—they’re all doing things that they would’ve done like, 15 years ago. It’s much more interesting to meet this new guy who comes from the badlands, and he doesn’t really know how to do his job.
Can gamers alter the TV show’s narrative?
Game players do not affect the plot of the TV show. It’s sort of like when you go in the Jurassic Park ride—it’s very exciting but it’s sort of preordained what’s going to happen. You’re going to survive the Jurassic Park ride.
Then how do you make it challenging and interesting from the gaming perspective?
Elements are added to it. You may succeed or fail. Let’s say there’s a project one week where you have to amass certain items because you are trying to help what’s going on in Defiance. And that’s going to get you loot, or better weaponry, or armor—things that you need to [have] in the video game. It’s a mission that you can go on with your friends over headsets or online. And if you don’t succeed, someone else is going to succeed on that mission, and that’s going to get Defiance what it needs by the time it airs the next week.
Why did you choose to base the town of Defiance in St. Louis?
It’s the center of the country. Actually, that was something that predated me. But I love the idea of the gateway arch being the big symbol. On the key art, [the arch] sort of has a big bite taken out of it at 2 o’clock—that’s kind of artistic license, because the whole thing would fall over. We have a science advisor whose head exploded when he saw that thing. But what you’ll actually see in the show is, the arch is made of all these triangular panels. During one of the alien attacks, a lot of them were blasted off. So for the first time since it was finished in 1965, the understructure of the arch was visible. [The character] Greg McCawley worked really, really hard to fix the arch, but he discovered he couldn’t do it without Votan [alien] technology. He didn't want the goddamn Votans helping, but it was the only way to save the arch. So there’s scaffolding all over the arch in the show, and you see that there are alien rods that are basically preserving the structure. That’s a little detail of St. Louis that I love. I love this idea of [how] it was a gateway to a new frontier, a gateway to the American west.
What are the challenges of coordinating the game with the show itself?
We have to really make the world events consistent, because when we establish something, we can’t simply have someone show up and make up something that’s not true. It usually comes from our end, because we do book reports. [To] the writers, if they’re not doing scripts, we’d be like OK, let’s talk about religion. We have a 5-page document on the religion [the Church of] Harmony. There’s the story I just told you about the gateway arch. I have the dates—I have what happened and everything is on our master timeline, this monster wiki searchable thing, which our mythology coordinator Brian [uses]. If at any point you have a question about anything about politics, about who was president, about how this language works, and you need a synonym for a curse word.
How many languages are there in the series?
There are two complete languages. One has a 3,000-word vocabulary. [Language expert David Peterson] did Dothraki [in “Game of Thrones”], but where this was exciting for him is, the Dothraki are illiterate. They don’t actually write. So [for “Defiance”] he actually came up with what the alphabets look like. They’re sort of related to who they are. He bases them on amalgams of real languages with guttural sounds and he does all the cultural thinking [behind them]. The Indogene is not as developed a language. Everything’s based on hexagons. The more flowery, sort of curlycue one is Castithan, and the other one is Irathient. We wanted them to be speaking languages, and David Peterson was available and excited about doing it. I met the guy, and 5 minutes into the meeting I was like, OK yes, you’re hired, Oh my God, you are the best, smartest, most crazy genius I’ve ever met in my life. Kevin Grazier was another important component for making sure that all of our science fiction made sense.