The word “transmedia” has been floating around for the past few years, even as the people who are using it are still trying to figure out what it means. On Monday, April 15, Syfy premieres a project that may help nail down that definition.
Launching simultaneously as both a scripted Syfy TV series — with a two-hour premiere episode — and a Trion Worlds online game, “Defiance” tells a story that takes place in one fictional universe but on two fronts and in two locations.
“From the original handshake deal,” executive producer Kevin Murphy tells Zap2it, “to do something between Trion Worlds and Syfy, it’s been five years in the borning.”
Developed by Murphy, Rockne S. O’Bannon and Michael Taylor, “Defiance” takes place on a near-future Earth, where aliens collectively called the Votans came after their own star system was destroyed.
Initially allowed to settle in a colony in Brazil, the Votans became desperate and impatient with negotiations among Earth nations about their future and forced the issue by starting a war with humanity.
As a consequence, terraforming technology was released that radically altered the ecology and geology of Earth, leaving large parts of it uninhabitable. After seven years, the war wound down, and a cease-fire was called.
In this now-anarchic world, humans and Votans – who are not one species but seven different ones who lived on planets in the Votanis star system – work to live together in a variety of settlements.
The TV series focuses on the town of Defiance, which sits above the ruins of St. Louis, and the video game focuses on events in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Grant Bowler stars as Nolan, a former Marine who fought in the war and has now become a wanderer, accompanied by his adopted daughter, Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas), a member of the warrior Irathient race.
He arrives in Defiance, where he meets town bigwigs Datak and Stahma Tarr (Tony Curran, Jaime Murray), members of the elite race called the Castithans; mine owner Rafe McCawley (Graham Greene); idealistic mayor Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz); and her sister, local madam Kenya (Mia Kirshner).
Before long, Nolan essentially becomes the sheriff and soon learns that nothing in Defiance is simple or easy — something Amanda already knows.
“The biggest challenge of Madame Mayor,” says Benz, “is allowing her strength to come through but also make her somewhat vulnerable as well, because she is in over her head. She’s a newly appointed mayor; she wasn’t really bred to be a politician.
“It’s finding that balance between strength and vulnerability. She’s not a weak woman at all. It’s hard, because you don’t want to come off bitchy or shrill. I had to really focus on the idea that there’s strength in stillness. There’s strength in quiet. She doesn’t have to be louder than everyone else in the room.”
A rough cut of the pilot has existed since April 2012, and the series finished filming altogether last November, which is unusual in the TV world. According to Murphy, that’s a function of coordinating with the game, which runs on a rather different schedule.
“Video games are all about a long, long lead time,” says Murphy. “We’ve had an enormously long time to really think about casting and not settle and get the best possible actors. We’ve had time to really make mistakes along the way, work with the scripts and storyline and correct them.”
But while the partnership with Trion Worlds allowed the TV show producers extra time — because characters and events in the TV world and the game world influence one another — extra coordination was required.
“As we move along,” says Murphy, “the mythology of the video game is reconciled with the mythology of the television show. So, when we make up a story in the writers room, the mythology coordinator, who serves as a liaison between the two partners — his entire job is to look for ways to enhance the connection between them and that nothing on the TV show contradicts what’s going on in the game and vice versa.
“When we hand one of our characters over to the game, he makes sure that the character is well taken care of, because they have their own writers writing dialogue. And when we take a character or a concept from the game, his job is to keep us honest.”
Sometimes surprises happen. One race of bad guys in the game looked a bit too robotic when paired with living actors on the TV show.
Says Murphy, “It looked like real people fighting ‘Voltron: Defender of the Universe.’ “
So the TV show effects team reworked the look of the aliens and sent it back to Trion.
“Trion actually went, ‘Oh, you bastards,’ ” Murphy says. “‘That’s so much cooler than what we had.’ So Trion went back and reconceived the look.”