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

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

Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project