Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Frontier at the Ends of Civilization

Irisa Nyira (Stephanie Leonidas)
and Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler)
When Nolan, the jaded scavenging veteran at the heart of the new Syfy series Defiance, strides from the Lawkeeper’s office early in the pilot episode, seasoned viewers will recognize the streetscape. With storefronts built of reclaimed materials and stacked cargo compartments, it distinctly resembles the Eavesdown Docks from Joss Whedon’s Firefly. And for good reason, since both shows shows channel the same American frontier mythology.

Frederick Jackson Turner’s seminal 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” identified the idea of frontier as the defining trait of American society. Crossing the invisible line from society to wilderness allows individuals to shrug off confining Euro-American stipulations of hierarchy, subjection, religion, and money. But Turner lamented that the closing of the American frontier, according to the 1890 census, marked the end of American pioneer fervor.

Firefly, like Star Trek before that, rejects that closing by moving the frontier line off Earth’s surface. New experiences and dynamic individualism remain for us to discover “out there.” But Defiance alters that tack, suggesting that the movement of new species into our domain can open new frontiers where we are; the American pioneer ethos can be reinvested where we are. We need only destroy existing civilization to get there.

Defiance’s frontier myth doesn’t need unpacked; creator Rockne O’Bannon splashes it across the screen in vibrant CGI Technicolor. Nolan’s swagger, the city’s ad hoc justice, and the contrast between settled urbanity and the vibrant Badlands, all bespeak classic cowboy heroes like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. This essentially American ethos (enacted here, ironically, by an aggressively international cast) creates a fusion of past greatness with future promise.

Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz)
and Rafe McCawley (Graham Greene)
This creates a world where people are judged by their actions, not their language. Nolan’s adoptive daughter, Irisa, repeats some variant of the statement that “promises are shtako” in the first two episodes, first at Nolan, then at people generally. (Shtako, like Frak, is Syfy’s attempt to get vulgarity past the censors.) Though she speaks for herself, Irisa represents the morality of a society in which present reality trumps either past laurels or future intent.

Action is defined by a code that enforces standards without recourse to external motivations. Though appointed Lawkeeper at the end of the pilot, Nolan shows less interest in law than in justice, especially retributive justice. Though he tempers that in the second episode, when distributing righteous payback to a fugitive could doom the entire city, he still sees categorizes vengeance as “do[ing] right by your dead child.”

Nolan and Irisa’s stance puts them at odds with Mayor Amanda, who advocates order. It’s impossible to miss the fact that the Mayor, enforcer of order and the social contract, is a woman. Owen Wister, author of the classic Western The Virginian, described civilization as innately feminizing. Not for nothing does Wister’s novel conclude with the Virginian’s marriage to, and by implication his conquest of, the (female) civilizing schoolteacher from Back East.

To its credit, Defiance doesn’t seem aimed at such blatant sexism, though it uses gender as a metaphor for social morality. The tension between Nolan and Amanda, representing vigorous male action versus contemplative female deliberation, has not at this writing turned sexual, though we know it will. It plays the same symbolic role here that the tension between rough-n-ready Mal Reynolds and elegant Inara did in Firefly.

Datak Tarr (Tony Curran)
But law and justice remain beholden to power. Human miner Rafe McCawley and alien financier Datak Tarr use money to sway Mayor Amanda, and McCawley manages to buy justice from Nolan. Casting Native actor Graham Greene, famed as Kicking Bird from Dances With Wolves, as McCawley is a masterstroke. It demonstrates, without words, how the frontier upends power structures. In episode two, McCawley growls, “Predicting the future’s a sucker’s game.” And how. Men like McCawley don’t predict the future, they make it.

Near the end of the pilot, Irisa muses to her journal about the gap between “the wild, open spaces where the weak are afraid to go” and cities, with “all the people jostling for space, sucking up the air.” She could not have summed up science fiction better. From Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury to Mal Reynolds and Han Solo, science fiction has always dreamed of crossing the frontier. But they, and Nolan, demand we ask: how will we know when we’ve found the fight worth having?

Defiance makes a good contrast to this season’s other sci-fi spectacular, Revolution. Where the latter says social collapse will hasten anarchy, violence, and a Caucasian type of dystopia, Defiance has another vision. It sees collapse as opportunity, and survivors as pioneers, not victims. Like the difference between Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” and Reagan’s “Morning In America,” one seems more innately, viscerally American. Defiance is a mythology of hope.

For commentary on Revolution, see:
The End of Everything Ain't What It Used To Be

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