The Island of Doubt

Just eight episodes into a 13-part first season, ABC has canceled suspended (see update below) Defying Gravity, a flawed but relatively honest attempt at hard-core science fiction. Why is this noteworthy? OK, this is a stretch, but I am reminded of attempts to reform the U.S. health insurance system and climate change legislation. In each case creating something that respects reality seems to be beyond the powers that be. And yet even the watered down compromise product that emerges from the sausage factory can’t attract sufficient support. Further evidence that the American public is hopelesly polarized.

The six-year tour of the planets that formed the basic narrative premise of Defying Gravity was even more ambitious that the original Star Trek’s five-year mission. Some critics dismissed that schedule as unrealistically brief, but given that the propulsion technology was never specified, I wouldn’t be so harsh. There were, however, other serious violations of the laws of physics that made it difficult to give the show more than a lukewarm endorsement, especially seeing as the writers obviously went to great lengths to get the science correct, or at least not obviously impossible, in other areas.

The most repeated scientific gaffe was the instantaneous communication that the eight astronauts aboard the “Antares” enjoyed with mission control, despite the 30 million kilometers that separated them by the end of the show’s run on Sunday night. Given the speed of radio waves is only 300,000 km per second, all such conversations should be hampered by 200-second delays for signals to travel in both directions.

Trek’s Gene Roddenberry faced what he thought was a similar challenge to telling compelling stories on television in the 1960s, so he came up with “subspace” communications and matter-to-energy-to-matter “transporters” to avoid the need to shuttle the Enterprise crew members to planets and back. Not scientifically believable perhaps, but at least he recognized the limits that the forces of nature impose on space travel. The creators of Defying Gravity made no such attempt to explain superluminal communication.

Add to that the hackneyed unexplained (alien?) entity that’s playing havoc with the Antares’ mission and far too much emphasis on the sexual dynamics aboard the spacecraft, and it all made for a mediocre contribution to the genre. I also found what few glimpses of life on Earth circa 2060 we were granted to be virtually identical to the here and now, but as most such scenes involved a bar or training facilities filmed in a famous west coast Canadian university, that’s not much to carp about. On the other hand, shouldn’t iPhones of the mid-21st century be a little more sophisticated that today’s?

And yet, I still wanted to like the show and kept giving it another chance. Great set design, engaging characters and refreshingly slow-paced scripts (not quite as slow as Mad Men, but still…) that represented at least one concession to the reality of life in space.

Apparently, I was in the minority. The show didn’t appeal to enough viewers and there’s no word on whether the last five filmed episodes will ever see the light of day. I suspect they’ll pop up on the net (where I watching the series anyway) and/or DVD. I am left with the feeling that if anyone was ever to try to make a science fiction series set in space that actually did respect the laws of physics, even fewer people would watch it. Kind of like health insurance. We all know that the only way to cut health cuts enough significantly is to remove the profit incentive, but that’s just not on the table. And on climate change, everyone with a grasp of the fundamentals knows that all the coal-fired plants have to be shut down over the next two or three decades, but that’s not on the table, either.

Anyway, Defying Gravity could be the last gasp of hard-core sci-fi on network television. After all, Fox didn’t even pick up Virtuality, an intriguing series pilot with more than a passing resemblance to Defying Gravity, but fewer violations of nature. Oh well. Back to good old books.

UPDATE: ABC is reportedly denying that it’s deep-sixed the show, even though it called Sunday’s episode the “season finale.” The truth is they’re probably trying to figure out how to best to minimize their losses after ordering 13 episodes but haven’t yet reached a conclusion.

ANOTHER UPDATE: From Airlock Alpha, we learn that:

The show’s publicist, Nicole Marostica, has recently confirmed that series has not been canceled and will in fact return to ABC’s schedules once the network finds a place for it. Apparently, the decision to remove the series was not one of malice but instead the result of poorly timed scheduling as the new fall season has now commenced and “Defying Gravity” is currently occupying a sought-after slot.


  1. #1 L. Miller
    September 15, 2009

    Once again ABC cancels something worth watching and keeps the crap. We never found out how The Nine, Legacy, JourneyMan, Dirty Sexy Money and now this one ends. It is no wonder people don’t watch much network TV anymore. This was a good show. It didn’t get any publicity and no one knew it was on. Who’s fault was that. I’m amazed you kept Castle on. Thanks, at least, for that one. Let’s continue to DUMP DOWN TV.

  2. #2 Eugene Search
    September 15, 2009

    I liked this show, and felt that if given some time to develop it would have worked the bugs out ad found its audience. I would hope that ABC would air the remaining episodes, or at least release them on the internet.

  3. #3 NoAstronomer
    September 15, 2009

    I have to admit I haven’t watched the show, I simply don’t watch any TV any more. But I find it intriguing that the writers/producers are so locked into formulaic plots that they can’t even think of using non-instant communication with Earth as a key device.

    Indeed that’s one reason I gave up on TV.

  4. #4 RNH
    September 15, 2009

    I doubt I’ll invest any energy in watching an ABC show again. I didn’t even know this was on until I stumbled across it. I’ve never seen one ad for it. I mean, come on, you put it on at 10pm on Sunday night after folks have been watching football all day and have to go to work the next. Give me a break! There were some physics that needed working out, but to cancel in 8 episodes is sadly typical of the big nextworks these days…. ABC is the worst! Maybe SyFy would pick it up, they’ve become the horror network and need to step back into more enjoyable scifi.

  5. #5 capen76
    September 15, 2009

    I agree with all the other comments posted today. I, too, stumbled across this program only this past Sunday and found myself fascinated. I, too, generally eschew network television – in fact, television altogether. I was tired and happened to be watching when it came on. I was hooked and now I am left dangling. What a waste of my time!

  6. #6 tm
    September 15, 2009

    Stumbled on this one as well just last week. Frankly, it is the type of a show I have missed, but a horribly flawed version of it. Some compelling character storylines mixed with Whedonesque intrigue but without Whedonesque dialogue, and seemingly too much oooh, what’s going on and not enough action, resolution or advancement of the plot.

  7. #7 Jesse Pino
    September 15, 2009

    “I am left with the feeling that if anyone was ever to try to make a science fiction series set in space that actually did respect the laws of physics, even fewer people would watch it.”

    Umm, Firefly?

  8. #8 jdhuey
    September 15, 2009

    I really hate to get emotionally invested in a story line just to have the show canceled before it ends, so I just record the shows unwatched and wait to see if there will be more than one season. If it survives, I’ll watch the show – if not, then I delete the series unwatched. I did this for Life on Mars, My own Worst Enemy, Dollhouse, Defying Gravity and a number of others. Some survived some didn’t. I really wish that I had given Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles the same treatment – I really want to know how that story would have progressed but alas, won’t happen.

  9. #9 Art
    September 15, 2009

    I suspect the cancellation was primarily over economics.

    Unscripted or barely scripted shows, ‘reality’ shows, contestants bouncing off large rubber balls and falling into mud, talk shows like Jay Leno who will be sucking up five hours of prime time a week, and manufactured ‘real’ dramas over which bimbo will spend three months married to a millionaire are exceedingly cheap and easy to make. Given that all the other channels have gone to similar low-grade fare they still get their share of eyes to keep advertisers happy. What, you were expecting people to read books?

    It is all about profits, return on investment and advancing shareholder value. If you can’t keep the income high, in part because people are TeVoing out the commercials and spending less time watching broadcast TV, then you keep the cost low to maintain profitability.

    Scripted and staged with writers, actors and sets the dramas like Gravity are slow to write, expensive to produce, and risky because there is only a small chance they will pay off big.

    I keep wondering if the Brits had it right with series like “Dr Who” and “Blakes Seven” where the budgets were exceedingly tight. Most of the money went into the story and hiring a few good lesser known actors. The sets, costumes, just competent supporting actors, and special effects largely becoming just sketched out place holders to be filled in by the viewer’s mind. The original Star Trek, a very highly profitable production still being broadcast, had the same dinner theater standard with decent actors playing scenes on press board sets. Sci-Fi has always been about ideas, stories and adventure.

    I notice that those programs that kept the stories smaller in scale, largely reaching a resolution in an hour, tended to do better. Dr Who, Blakes Seven, and the original Star Trek were all shows you could enjoy as largely independent one hour increments without having to know a lot of back story. Classic serial formats. Those shows that tried to be space operas, with the greatest emphasis on a sweeping story lines, with a few notable exceptions, failed.

  10. #10 Tony P
    September 15, 2009

    I recall the cancellation of The Dresden Files. It was entertaining for the fantasy element but other than that I understand why it didn’t fly.

    Hopefully they’ll reconsider. I like Defying Gravity. It makes me want to tell NASA that this is what they should be focusing on. Something grand!

  11. #11 Ward E.
    September 16, 2009

    I will be Immensely dissappointed if this show ceases to be made and even more so if it the 8th episode was the last to air. This has been the only show I even watch on t.v. and i stumbled across it on Hulu when 4 episodes or so had already aired. It has gotten no advertisement whatsoever. setup for failure. Very dissappointing great show in my opinion.

  12. #12 docwho2100
    September 16, 2009

    help support the show –

    also – does anyone know for sure if 13 episodes were filmed – there is conflict all over the place.

  13. #13 David
    September 16, 2009

    All thirteen episodes has been filmed an ready to go.
    Canada CTV an the BBC will be airing all 13 episodes.

  14. #14 dalani
    September 16, 2009

    I loved the fist few episodes….and the sexual angle was new and original for SciFi on TV. With the realism and immediate future aspect the series seemed very mainstream but the mysterious alien virus angle to the plot line seems off the wall. I was expecting the storyline to unfold slowly over time with shifting sexual tensions between the characters
    capable of bridging the cultural differences between soccer moms who watch Desperate Housewives and Trekkies. That was my impression about one of the very few TV shows I watch.

    Overall I find there is COMPLETE LACK OF CHOICE ON TV for tech-savvy modern viewers like me. Either it’s nonsensical Dr.Who fantasy in science fiction garb or endless Stargate space channel fare that’s not in relation to anything. The most promising and intriguing is Outer Limits (twighlight zonish show) that can be considered good short story writing at times that uses the Science fiction genre to explore some aspects of the human condition… and NUMBERS which shows how mathematics can solve problems in surprising ways…though I would like Mathematicians to weigh in on that one..

    I hope all 13 episoses of Defying Gravity get aired..though no matter what it looks like a one shot deal because once the mystery is solved what next?
    just my two cents..

    Now I think Ill look for an old copy of Larry Niven books

  15. #15 miked
    September 17, 2009

    Yes, your obamacare reference was a stretch. This odd inclusion indicates a subconscious yearning to be a political pundit. However, this was topped by your attempt at environmental punditry referencing climate change. I suggest you seek professional help to resolve such widely divergent impulses.

  16. #16 Max Entropy
    September 18, 2009

    I gave it a try, four episodes, three more than necessary but that was it. Two words: Chick Show. It was more like Gray’s Anatomy than Firefly which I dearly miss. From the incessant reliance on sex plots down to the cello-plucking Desperate-Housewives wannabe soundtrack and the pop-psychology narration at the end.
    Just another chick show… Bye, life’s too short.

  17. #17 webtasarım
    September 18, 2009

    I will be Immensely dissappointed if this show ceases to be made and even more so if it the 8th episode was the last to air. This has been the only show I even watch on t.v. and i stumbled across it on Hulu when 4 episodes or so had already aired. It has gotten no advertisement whatsoever. setup for failure. Very dissappointing great show in my opinion.

  18. #18 Netvitrinim
    November 25, 2009

    I do not watch much tv but I liked this series, I watched a few good series bolmünü

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