Defying Gravity: Star trekkers, the next generation

With no aliens, warp factors or teleportation, new space opera ‘Defying Gravity’ appears more down to earth than the classics. But that just adds to its appeal, says Gerard Gilbert
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The Independent Culture

Space may be “the final frontier” – but the final frontier of what, exactly? The final frontier of human endurance and technological capability, or of the literary imagination? Or is it just a vast void into which to propel reckless amounts ofmetaphysical and allegorical junk?

From Georges Méliès’ man in the moontoStanley Kubrick’s star-child, by way of any number of Klingons, Cylons and Clangers, the universe is a limitless playground for both the brilliant and the mundane. And if it’s true that in space you can’t hear critics scream, more often than not it’s because of the clamour of federations of sci-fi fans. Devotees and critics were as one when it came to Battlestar Galactica, the hugely imaginative space opera that reached its own final frontier earlier this year. BSG, as it’s fondly known, worked perfectly well as an allegory of the post September 11 “war on terror” (with the Cylons as al-Qa’ida), but also as sweeping, novelistic and compelling TV drama. Its followers weren’t being entirely outlandish when they argued that itwas a greater TV series than The Wire. A BSG prequel, Caprica, comes to our screens next year, and apparently the allegorical business of this new one is to do Vichy France.

On the other hand, only a vast hinterland of fan-worship can surely explain the Stargate franchise. Sky1 has recently started screening Stargate Universe, the latest spin-off from Roland Emmerich’s supremely daft 1994 movie about a mysterious portal that projects people through space. This one stars Robert Carlyle as a dodgy Glaswegian scientist and appears to have plundered both Battlestar Galactica and (inevitably) Lost, without suggesting it might get within light years of either show’s greatness. Stargate Universewas filmed in Canada, by the way, as was another new and altogether different type of “space opera”, Defying Gravity.

What’s strangely refreshing about this one is its very lack of thematic ambition – its determination to stay within the realms of the probable. Defying Gravity is bound to our solar system, with no alien races, warpfactors or teleportation. And this new13-part drama comes (partly at least) courtesy of the BBC, a broadcaster that hasn’t really embraced the genre since the heyday of Terry Nation and Blake’s 7, seeming to prefer instead space Star trekkers, the next generation comedies like Red Dwarf and Hyperdrive. At least sci-fi sitcoms are cheaper to make and when the scenery wobbles you can pretend that it’s part of the joke. But where is the money coming from for the gorgeous-looking Defying Gravity?

Just like the International Space Station currently orbiting earth, the 13-part drama is a cross-border coproduction – this one between the BBC, Fox in the US, two Canadian broadcasters and a couple of TV stations in Germany. The talent however is predominantly American, starting with the two executive producers, Michael Edelstein (Desperate Housewives) and James D Parriott, the man who gave us Grey’s Anatomy and Ugly Betty, but whose first love is sci-fi, having written for such Seventies classics The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. “The idea was to start a project by selling foreign first and bringing it back to the US,” is Parriott’s somewhat Earth-bound explanation of the project. “It was instantly appealing to me, because with an international space mission you have crew members who are from different countries. It’s about man’s place in the universe, as opposed to the United States planting a flag on the Moon.”

Set in the not-too distant future (once the world gets over the recession obviously), the show was directly inspired by a 2004 BBC dramadocumentary, Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets, which imagined a six-year mission around the Earth’s solar system. Parriott’s research was done mainly at the Kennedy Space Center, near Cape Canaveral in Florida, and the Johnson Space Centre in Houston Texas.

“I talked to a number of very highranking scientists in Nasa,” he says. “And I took three astronauts out to dinner. One of them, Mike Fink, asked for my cell number and said, ‘I’ll call you from space’. A few months later, I was back in Los Angeles having lunch with my writers in a noisy restaurant, and I got this call. ‘It’s Mike from the Space Station...’.”

The show’s astronauts are played by an international cast led by Ron Livingston (Carrie Bradshaw’s onetime boyfriend in Sex and the City) and Laura Harris (24). Livingston plays ship’s engineer Maddux Donner, a hot-headed space veteran haunted at having had to leave two astronauts to die on Mars during an earlier mission. He’s torn between Laura Harris’s Zoe (dubbed a “space nun” because she refuses to have relationships with fellow inter-planetary travellers) and Nadia Schilling (played by Berlin-born actor Florentine Lahme), a rather more obliging German astronaut.

“Donner finds himself kind of pulled between the two of them,” says Livingston, whose own father trained as an aerospace engineer in the late Sixties (“I remember growing up building models of the very first test shuttle, the Enterprise”).

“We’re probably girlier than most sci-fi shows,” he says. “But that’s what makes it interesting and gives it a new spin. I do think that when people watch this, they’ll say, ‘I haven’t seen anything like that before’.” “It’s a little bit of Grey’s Anatomy”, agrees Michael Edelstein. “It’s also got an overarching mystery like Lost...”

Ah, yes, Lost – without elements of which no contemporary sci-fi show now even attempts to see the light of day. The mystery element in Defying Gravity involves a secret objective for the Venus probe – a mission within the mission that’s hidden from most of the crew. “Jim (Parriott) created his characters and his story and this over-arching mystery, which took us a little more into the world of sci-fi,” says Edelstein. But is Defying Gravity sci-fi? “Any time you have people in a spaceship, that’s going to be defined as sci-fi,” says Parriott.

The comparison of the space opera to the classic frontiersman “stagecoach” Western has often been made, with aliens instead of marauding Apache, except that in Defying Gravity there won’t be alien races to contend with, just the very real problems that a mission like this would be likely to encounter. Not that Parriott has entirely forgotten about the big stuff – the metaphysical business that is so appealing to both creators and consumers of sci-fi.

“I think the central theme of Defying Gravity is about man finding himself and his place in the universe,” he says. “What’s wonderful about doing a big show like this is that we get to deal thematically with race, religion, all the big issues of our time.”

‘Defying Gravity’ begins on BBC2 on Wednesday 21 October at 9pm; ‘Stargate Universe’ continues on Sky1