In a 1972 speech, science fiction author Philip K. Dick expressed his concern over the increasing dehumanization that 20th century culture forced upon its inhabitants. He feared that, just as we were beginning to reach toward the stars, we were becoming emotional androids. “Our flight must be not only to the stars but into the nature of our own beings,” Dick wrote. “Because it is not merely where we go, to Alpha Centauri or Betelgeuse, but what we are as we make our pilgrimages there. Our natures will be going there, too. Ad astra— but per hominem.”
That, in a sense, is the fundamental concern of ABC’s hard-SF soap opera Defying Gravity. The show follows the crew of the spacecraft Antares on a mission to Venus, intercut with flashbacks to their training a few years earlier. Set in 2052, it’s a pretty daring form of hard science fiction that’s a far cry from the fun-but-implausible space opera that most television viewers think of when they hear “science fiction.” There are no phasers, warp drives, or stargates here— just chemical rockets, spacesuits, and lots of calls back to Houston. There’s even a (only slightly unsatisfying) explanation for why everybody sticks to the floor instead of floating around the ship. Any show that takes itself — and the “science” half of SF — so seriously is faced with an uphill battle.
The show is the brainchild of Grey’s Anatomy writer James Parriott, and its focus is precisely on how our very human natures play out against the backdrop of interplanetary space— but not necessarily the noble, compassionate elements that Dick had in mind. This is very much a primetime soap opera. The show’s Wikipedia page puts it best: “romantic entanglement will occur.” Come for the spacefaring science, stay for the melodrama. (Or is it the other way around?)
But Defying Gravity isn’t just concerned with the characters’ “entaglements.” As in the work of Philip K. Dick, our earthborn religion is a concern as well, particularly in the pilot episode (available on Hulu through September 7th). As the show begins, astronaut Maddux Donner (Ron Livingston, a.k.a. the guy from Office Space) laments the fact that he has not been chosen to serve on the Antares. Despite being one of the best astronauts there is, he’s chosen as an “alternate,” in no small part because of his involvement in a crisis during a previous mission on Mars that left two of his crewmates dead. He feels that space is where he’s meant to be, and it’s denied him. He discusses this in a conversation with another alternate, Ted Shaw (Malik Yoba), who was “raised Buddhist.” The two attempt to bolster their ambivalent existentialist arguments, concluding that the concept of fate as “total garbage,” but it’s clear they have a hard time believing it. There’s nothing they can do to get themselves onto the Antares; that decision is in the hands of a higher power (be it supernatural or administrative).
Contrasted with Donner is Ajay Sharma (Zahf Paroo), who’s been chosen to lead the Antares mission. A Hindu, he believes that space travel is his dharma. But when he’s stricken by a mysterious ailment, he’s switched out and Donner takes over, and two concepts of destiny— Donner’s secular instinct and Sharma’s spiritual vocation — are put at odds. Sharma’s response to being taken off the mission is a bit unbalanced, but rooted in his faith — he climbs into a spacesuit and sits on the hull of the ship with a statue of Ganesha in his lap. Donner talks him down by convincing him to reconsider his understanding of his dharma, but that doesn’t mean spiritual direction is abandoned. Sharma comes back inside and returns to Earth, but the Ganesha statue remains in place on the prow of the Antares, a provocative symbol of Defying Gravity‘s attitude to matters religious.
And it looks like those questions of destiny will be a recurring theme— in a later episode, a crisis is averted by a character we later learn was nearly booted out of the space program in the first week of training. The show points to these moments of synchronicity in a manner that suggests an underlying plan— one that probably has something to do with the Antares‘ mysterious cargo, known only as “Beta.” The guidance may not be explicitly divine, but there is certainly some sort of providence at work in Defying Gravity. The show’s been struggling in the ratings, but hopefully some kind of guiding hand will keep the show alive long enough to reveal some of those mysteries.